Visual Cues, Following Directions & Attention Span

Several of you have sent messages asking about following directions, attention span and related issues in Rachel’s earlier years. So I tried to access my waning memory bank and I emailed some of the teachers and paraprofessionals who have worked with Rachel. She has had so many good people in her life and I knew they would have good input. So I’ve put together some thoughts to share with you guys. I think one of the most interesting things is that all of these folks had something different to share but they all had commonalities. They also pointed out that these are strategies for any kids and not just kids with DS. Full disclosure here, this was not a major issue for us. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to pull in more answers and thoughts from teachers.

Rachel is teaching Baby Sally.
Rachel is teaching Baby Sally.

As for following directions and attention span, the first thing that popped into my head was visual cues and visual organizers. Almost every professional educator who responded mentioned this too. When Rachel was younger (kindergarten, 1st, 2nd grades) we used a lot of visual cues and social stories. These were effective for all the children. We didn’t have as many technological things then and you may be able to find these on an iPad now. I don’t know because I haven’t researched it.  They used little pen and ink visual cue cards. For example if the students were to color a picture, cut it out and paste it, there were three cards placed on the desk or table.  You could point at step two and so forth. Over time there was no longer a need for these. This was a great tool in the lunch room. It’s loud and crowded so they put visual cue cards on the tables with the steps for the lunch room.  Seems simple because it is. You can use it for almost anything.

As Rachel has gotten older we use more visual lists. Rachel is her mother’s child. I love lists. So whether it is a written list on a pad or on a smart phone or other technology, the student can mark it off and move on to the next task.  Several teachers said as the student works through the list or completes a task, they reward them. Figure out what reward works. We once did a smiley face chart with Rachel. She loves smiley faces so that’s all she needed. Another one of her rewards was to get to go and help in the kindergarten classroom. This was in 3, 4 and 5th grade and was a great motivator for her.  Other teachers said that sometimes students just need to walk around the room, color a pictures, sit by themselves or even walk down the hall.  You have to figure out the motivator for that particular child. I do encourage you to avoid food as a reward system.

I think the visual cues and organizers also help with following directions. A big key is to not give too many directions. This is still true with Rachel at 14. Whether it is verbal or written, break it down into appropriate size chunks.

Emmanuel Methodist Preschool Student of the Week
Emmanuel Methodist Preschool Student of the Week

Many of us with kids with intellectual disabilities loathe worksheets. There are many reasons for this. We understand that teachers need a way to measure knowledge and sometimes there is a better way to do that. For now, let’s say we have to do some worksheets. For me – I’m not opposed to worksheets if the teacher follows the IEP and employs common sense. Example, Rachel’s IEP says she will have less problems/ questions on her worksheets, tests and other work and they will be enlarged. She has visual perception issues. So don’t send home a worksheet with 10 problems on it and five of them marked through. Marking through them may reduce the requirement but does nothing for her visual perception issues. There are too many problems on the sheet and she is overwhelmed.  One of her former para’s said even when it is the appropriate number of problems, you might sill want to use paper to cover up the ones she is not to be working on so she can focus on the one. Can the number of problems or questions be reduced?  If the worksheet or test is to have a reduced number of answers, then print the piece with the reduced answers or cut the sheet in half.  One of Rachel’s resource teachers told me that sometimes when teachers try to do the “mark through one answer” as the reduced method, the students will still pick the answer that is marked through!

If you are a teacher reading this, please don’t write in the margins and draw arrows here and there and everywhere on the worksheet you send home. I am overwhelmed by that so I know Rachel will be.  If I have a good thing going overall, I will usually just make the changes myself like enlarging the worksheets or whatever. Sometimes they forget and I get that. I did get irritated with one teacher though and sent an email and a note that said, “this lesson is not modified per Rachel’s IEP (enlarged, less problems on page.) If you will do that and send it back, we will be happy to do the work.” The next thing that came home was even worse because it cut off the instructions when it was enlarged. We lived through this and were eventually able to make it into a good experience for all of us I think. Remember my nothing is perfect mantra. Decide if it is worth getting tough about or if you just need to move on along the road. Sometimes you do have to be tough and direct.

Varied teaching techniques is also important. Most kids cannot sit for 50 minutes. Forget kids. Have you been to a workshop with adults lately? They can’t sit that long either and behave worse than children! Varied teaching – lecture, videos, small groups, using manipulatives and more. I am not a teacher so I do not have training in this but several who gave me info says it is good to think about how a teacher matches with the child who needs differentiated learning styles. We talk about this every year as we try to figure out who is going to be a good match for Rachel (and her mom!)

As I said Rachel has had so many good teachers through the years. They have wanted Rachel to be successful and we have all grown together. This year alone, I have seen how her core academic teachers have adapted curriculum to best serve her needs. I’m moving back toward modifications and accommodations a little but it kind of all goes together. Two quick examples. Currently, the assignment is to make a travel brochure for a trip to outer space. It was a really involved project and had to include a lot of things. We adjusted the scoring rubric but the teacher agreed to let Rachel do hers as a video instead of hard copy. She often does a PowerPoint instead of a paper but even a PowerPoint would have been difficult in this case. She and her daddy worked on this and I’ll look forward to seeing how the teacher likes it.

Rachel’s Language Arts teacher has her answer many of her questions for homework and test orally. Often she can tell you about something but even with a scribe, it is difficult to capture what she knows. In December they read “A Christmas Carol.” Rachel has seen the play several times so this helped.  The teacher had observed and said she knew Rachel knew about “A Christmas Carol.” She decided to give her the same test as the other students but she did it with Rachel and let Rachel answer the questions orally.  She said Rachel had to use self-talk to reason through some of it but she made a 14/15 on the same test as the other kids. She would not have found that success.

Just fun! Preschool singing.
Just fun! Preschool singing.

Finally, I will end with this. I mentioned technology and that is like opening a whole new world. Rachel still has her schedule and her planner in her gigantic notebook so she gets visuals from there. She has an iPad that goes to and from school too. The iPad is a visual organizer in itself.  Here are two pictures of screens. One is Notability. We use this for communication to and from. Rachel can just look at it and see the schedule for the day, check her homework assignments and most importantly, see the lunch menu! The other picture is of one of her sub-folders that has been named “School Apps.” This is outdated because it is her old iPad but you can see that it has her most used school apps. Again, it is a visual thing and all she has to do is touch it.

notability school apps. jpg

Last little visual.  A few years ago we put Rachel’s calendar for the week on a dry erase board. Now, she keeps her actual calendar on her iPad so she can look at specifics there. In fact, it is one of her IEP goals. She likes to be able to look at the overview of the week and see the major things for her week day by day. So we just change it every week and use many different colored pens. She loves this!  I think it helps her to stay organized.

weekly dry erase calendar

That’s it for today. Hope this helps. Give me ideas and feedback and if there are more questions, we’ll find more answers!

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