This year, we started the school year with several students who struggled to sit at their desks, let along do desk work and participate in classroom activities. As my colleagues and I began to brainstorm how we can help these students, we began reading about the Flexible Classroom.
In taking this concept a step further, I began to think about students with Autism. Many students with Autism have overwhelming sensitivities and preferences within their environment. For example, one of my little gals hates hard surfaces, every morning when we start group she resists joining us. For several reasons, number one their are too many people, number two it can be too loud and unpredictable, and number three she hates being confined to a desk with a hard cold chair. By the way I didn't come up with this conclusion just by watching her behavior, I also had a little help from Naoki Higashida after reading his book, The Reason I Jump.
In the book Naoki shares many examples of why children with Autism have certain preferences and unusual behaviors. After reading it, I had an overwhelming sense that our students with Autism do the best they can in each moment but sometimes the environment is just too much!
By offering alternative seating, we can take some of the discomfort and hardship away so they can perform even better in each moment. For example for the little girl I described above, we introduced several different chair options. In doing so we learned that she prefers to sit in soft chairs that have some give and allow her body to sink in. We started allowing her to use a Saucer Chair pulled up to her desk. The chair itself was super comforting for her but when pushed up to the desk, she wanted nothing to do with it so instead we offered her a Big Joe Chair from Wal-Mart.
It worked like a charm but was not conducive to being pushed up to a desk so I bit the bullet and removed her desk completely. I say bit the bullet because this was a big step for me. I am very type A and I want everything to be in perfect harmony. By having one student sitting on the floor in a different seat than her peers what would others think, how would that look. But after getting over my own personal feelings the chair turned out to be the best thing ever!
The student is now able to participate in group comfortably and share what she knows in a whole group setting. Her verbal skills have started to blossom in front of her peers and she is able to manipulate the Smart Board and use her morning lap book more consistently. Prior to adding the chair, she would either hum loudly, chew on her chewy and stim or be so overwhelmed by the whole experience that she would request a break.
Now she is participating at a level equal to her peers, especially since we added this velcro white board to use as a table top for her to write. (To make it my husband purchased a White Panel Board from Home Depot and cut it to size, then I added heavy duty soft velcro on the chair and hard on the back of the board.)
We still work on in seat desk behavior other times throughout the day as we know at some point she will be in a general education classroom and other environments where flexible seating is not available for one reason or another. But we no longer expect in seat desk behavior from her during large and small group activities because at this time these activities are hard enough without adding the element of a desk. Instead we expect in seat desk behavior during preferred activities such as looking at alphabet books and using the iPad. Over time the success of sitting at a desk for preferred activities will hopefully generalize to other activities throughout her day.
Until Next Time, Happy Flexible Classroom Making!