July 7, 2014

The VCU ACE CoLA Summer Institute: Fulfilling and Refreshing!

Some of Virginia’s brightest and most dedicated special education leaders convened in Richmond on June 25-26 to learn, collaborate, discuss, celebrate and plan to improve educational services and practices for their students with ASD at the Third Annual Communities of Learning in ASD (CoLA). These busy days started with welcomes from the two collaborators in the development of the CoLA Summer Institute, VDOE Training and Technical Assistance Center at VCU’s Linda Oggel encouraged participants to engage to get the most from the experience, while VCU ACE’s Carol Schall reminded participants that this event was designed for the advanced learner to engage with the content at the level they wanted. After that welcome, the participants attended sessions in 3 different tracks. Track one was designed to assist educational leaders to consider the needs of children and youth with ASD related to the development of curriculum and instruction. This track included seminars on Self Determination, Reading and Math Literacy, and Career Education and Employment. Track two, focused on the social communication needs of children and youth with ASD and featured sessions on enhancing communication development for young children with ASD, social skills instruction in two different school divisions, and bridging the gap between home and school to increase generalization. Finally, track three provided three sessions related to training and teaming for school divisions looking for creative ways to increase the skills of their educators. In this track, participants explored a “hybrid” approach to professional development including training, professional learning communities, and coaching, classroom consulting models that lead to deeper learning, and heard the story of how a small school division in Virginia instituted change to improve services for their children and youth with ASD.

In addition to these engaging and enlightening sessions, participants also attended a poster session that was full of buzz and excitement over the excellent programs that were on display. These posters displayed excellent ideas for individual students, classrooms and school divisions to address the needs of students with ASD. School divisions from across the Commonwealth showed that they are meeting the challenge of educating children and youth with posters on social skills instruction through drama, the Spotsylvania Gateway Model of education, training paraprofessional educators to support students with ASD and staff training and coaching to improve preschool services for children and youth with ASD to name a few. For the first time, The CoLA team employed a panel of independent judges to award certificates to two of the many deserving posters on display. Clarke County Public School’s Poster entitled “Competent Learner Model” presented by Chrissy Welgan and Amanda Lambert were awarded the School Divisionwide Systems Change Poster Certificate while Tracey Scott’s poster displaying “Using the Expanding Expressions Tool (EET) to Develop Social Language Skills in Students with ASD” poster was awarded the Individual Classroom Excellence Poster Certificate.

The CoLA Summer Institute was topped off by an engaging and fun presentation from Erin Smydra, Specialist for Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, and Assistive Technology from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) on updates on policy and special education from the VDOE. Finally, each of the regional CoLA teams had the opportunity to meet and plan topics for the coming year’s regional CoLA meetings. Comments from the CoLA Summer Institute proclaimed it the best summer institute yet!

Determining an Effective Communication System for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Learning to communicate and enhancing skills is considered to be a profound and indisputable individual right. Every student with autism spectrum disorder is to have an effective communication system that will allow him/her to interact in a meaningful way across settings and across people. The use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a way to enhance communication for a variety of students with ASD. It can be effective for those with no or limited verbal abilities, but can also be beneficial for those who are able to speak but cannot communicate to his or her full potential.

As part of our statewide goal, the VCU Autism Center for Excellence, in collaboration with professionals from across the state, has developed tools and resources to assist teams in identifying and implementing appropriate AAC systems for students with ASD. This webcast is designed to provide an overview of the following tools: AAC Consideration Flow Chart, AAC Inventory, and the AAC Feature Analysis. The presenter will describe each tool, identify its purpose, and provide directions on its use. This webcast will air on Tuesday, July 8 at 3:30 pm. For more information and to register, click here.

Website Training Updates!

In an effort to make our website easier to navigate, we have added a new and improved training and education section. This section allows users to quickly navigate the vast array of resources that are available through VCU ACE. A drop down menu provides a number of categories of trainings. These are:

Adolescents and Adults
Behavior and Sensory
Comprehensive Autism Planning System
Evidence-Based Practices
Feeding Challenges
Overview of ASD
Paraprofessionals and ASD
School Topics
Screening and Diagnosis
Social Communication
Technology and ASD

Let VCU ACE be your stepping stone to wonderful autism training!

Creative Solutions for Significant Challenges: Integrating Social Skills Instruction into the School Day

Integrating social skills instruction into the school day is an important task that can pose some significant challenges. Quite often the need to provide social-communication support for students is overshadowed by the demand to spend more time on academic tasks. Elements such as scheduling a time for students to meet together or finding appropriate social peer partners can end up being difficult obstacles for teachers to overcome in their efforts to teach social skills to their students. Several divisions within the VCU-ACE initiative have realized these challenges and worked to find creative solutions for successful integration of social skills instruction.

One of these divisions is Newport News Public Schools. When they started on their journey with ACE, their discussion around social skills began within Professional Learning Communities. The teachers started looking at social skills from the perspective of autism and broke into groups to focus on planning for social skills groups throughout the day. One creative high school team noticed that a particular group of students was great in knowing lines of movies, so they decided to address social skills in a theater production. During an activity like this, the students would have opportunities to learn to match facial expressions with lines in the production, modulate their volume while speaking loudly, and cooperate together.

To pull this type of activity together, the team scheduled the theater group to meet every other day during one of the blocks during the school day. They set a goal of putting on a production for the teachers and parents. Through collaboration both within and outside of the school, they were able to get volunteers for set design, donations for food for the audience, and security and clean-up for the after school function.

As the initiative has continued, the students in the class have benefitted in quite a few ways. More positive and spontaneous interaction between the students has been noticed, both within the specific block for theater and outside of it. Additionally, the students have had the opportunity to get to know and make more friends throughout the student population.

Another division that has worked creatively to integrate social skills into the school day is Richmond City Public Schools. They created an extracurricular group for middle school students that met after school two times a week. One day was used to focus on target social skills, and the other to join peer models nominated by the staff in a general social activity. The group was volunteer-only and the division arranged for after-school transportation for the students. Their group adapted and followed the model outlined the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS). So far the program has been so successful that the division has expanded it to one more middle school and is looking for more!

Finally, in the Northern Neck Regional Program, a resourceful team found another way to bring together an after school social skills group at the primary level. The team started with volunteers in the first year and built a group that served students with autism and on grade level that met one time per week 12 times a year.

To begin, the team used a combination of a student self-assessment and the Autism Social Skills Profile developed by Scott Bellini to get a baseline of where their students were. Then they decided upon 8 skills to target within their program. As they worked to increase support for their program, they began to integrate math word problems that included social scenarios to discuss. As a result of pulling in the academics, they both increased the learning that the students could achieve and received increased buy-in from their administration. Due to this success, in the years that followed the team has moved from all volunteer to receiving stipends and a grant to fund their work. They have been able to expand the program to the middle school and increase the number of meetings per year for the students!

As was stated before, integrating social skills instruction into the school day can be quite a challenge. However, with a little creativity, collaboration, and dedication teams can overcome these challenges to find successful solutions. We applaud the difference that these divisions have made and look forward to hearing of many other, similar successful solutions throughout the Commonwealth!

ImPACT Online Communication Training

VCU ACE is pleased offer the ImPACT Online Communication Training through Michigan State University. This distance learning program is designed to help parents promote their child’s social communication during daily routines and activities. This parent-mediated intervention is a very effective strategy to improve communication challenges. Parents work closely with their child to help their child achieve these skills. The goal of the online program is to teach parents to promote their child’s social communication development during play and daily routines.

The ImPACT Online program is free to parents as part of a research study being conducted at Michigan State University that is examining the ability to provide evidence-based parent training online. The program is geared for parents of children with or at-risk for ASD up to 72 months of age who have a spoken language ability of about 6 months to 3 ½ years of age. The program consists of 12 lessons which are to be applied over approximately three to four months.

For more information on how ImPACT Online Communication Training can make a different for your child click here.

Live Paraprofessional Training

VCU-ACE is busy providing training again this summer! In addition to our online training, we have two live training initiatives coming up. We will be providing Live Paraprofessional Training as well as our Train the Trainer Model training.

The Live Paraprofessional Training is intended for paraprofessionals to meet the requirements of H.B. 325. This training is a three day training that covers the content in the Training Standards from VDOE. Participants learn the content and apply what they are learning through interactive case studies, guided practice, role playing, small group work, and facilitated discussions. Live Paraprofessional Training will be occurring in the Northern Neck region in July and in Alexandria City Schools in August.

Our Train the Trainer Model training prepares school division leaders such as Autism Specialists, Behavior Specialists, Special Education Directors, and other leaders who have knowledge in Autism Spectrum Disorder to provide the Live Paraprofessional Training developed by VCU-ACE. This training covers the content of the Live Paraprofessional Training as well as adult learning principles, supporting paraprofessionals and supervising teachers, and follow-up with paraprofessionals to apply the knowledge and skills they learned in the live training to their own classrooms. Division leaders leave with a plan of action to implement professional development for paraprofessionals in a meaningful way in their division.

As always, we continue to offer our online course. We had over 550 people registered for June and are excited to start with our July section! There is still room in the August and September sections if you are interested in registering. To register for the online course, visit our website.