Putting the Home in Homeroom: Children with Autism Thrive in Room 5

  • An enthusiastic young special education teacher walked her students to a school assembly only to be denied entry, both a closed attitude and a physical barrier forcing her and her different-looking students to remain separate from their typical peers. Her students were banned from the playground at recess with the rest of the school. Their bus had a special stop in the back, out of sight from everyone else. This was special education in the seventies and eighties, and veteran teachers like Menlo Park City School District’s Kathy Russell have been pushing their whole careers to improve the experience for their students of all different abilities.


    Workstation in classroom. Fast forward to 2017, Room 5 at Encinal School. Ms. Russell and her team have made particular strides with her students with autism using the Structured Teaching Model based on TEACCH, and the use of the Unique Learning System online curriculum. In Ms. Russell’s classroom there are a couple of things that stand out immediately: first, there are no “autistic students” only “students” and they all have different challenges; second, it’s amazing. Individual learning stations filled with hands-on tasks specifically created for each student line the outer space and a warm group area fills the middle, with even the furniture being created by and for the students and their needs. A big cardboard café table anchors the space. Velcro is everywhere – to hold the individual schedules made for each child each day; to hold picture signs on doors, windows, walls, desks; to hold the beautifully creative manipulatives that fill the shelves; to allow children to create conversation with picture vocabulary on sentence lines or in books. Dried up markers become a sorting and matching activity. Plastic Easter eggs, metal marbles, and a coffee can become a three-step sequence that teaches color, size, dexterity, and following directions. Socks in a mini-basket become a sorting activity that easily translates to helping at home. Old CDs are repurposed as giant coins teaching matching and monetary value. “We don’t throw anything away. We are the best scavengers,” explains Kathy and one of her aids Kevin, who is busy one week before school starts creating special tables, chairs, easels, and anything else the team can dream up to make learning concrete. "It's important to me to acknowledge the wonderful team I work with on a daily basis because there would be nothing worthwhile without all of them togeteher. We each fit together like the puzzle pieces that represent autism," says Kathy of her team: Kevin Staresnick, Fred Adams, Christina Holmes, Yolon Bortolazzo, Erik Alonso, Art Elola, Eveline Kernen, Karin Sargis, Kelly Hardy, Huckleberry Hunt, and Jessica Lee.


    Concrete learning is key to the success of the Structured Teaching Model. People with autism think in pictures and and learn skills better by doing tasks instead of just listening to words. Books are modified to include Velcro-in pictSentence boards shown with book. ures that allow students to create their own sentence or answer questions or identify feelings. A picture of a man goes on the space for noun, picture of washing with water and soap goes with verb. Students learn vocabulary and parts of speech. “If you gave a child with autism a worksheet and said circle all the nouns, they would probably scribble on it even though they might know what a noun is. But with the concrete picture to hold and place on the correct space, they easily complete the instructions,” explains Ms. Russell. As educators moved towards full inclusion for students with autism, students were placed full time in general education classrooms with a 1:1 aid. This may have kept them from disrupting the class, but did not allow them to access the curriculum in ways that they understand. The barriers to the curriculum may not be intellectual, but a child who thinks in pictures, or is overwhelmed by too many instructions at once, or has trouble identifying the transitions between activities, needs to access the curriculum in a specialized way. Ms. Russell’s classroom, which she calls their Homeroom, creates the space for students to learn grade level appropriate curriculum at their pace in a style that makes sense to them. “Maybe the bus was late or the child couldn’t find their favorite shirt to wear, so they show up to school already flustered and finding it hard to settle down and follow directions. Starting the day in Homeroom helps them calm down and make some accomplishments to begin the day with confidence,” says Ms. Russell.


    A kindergartner entered Room 5 two years ago. He had constant tantrums because he didn’t know how to communicate. Redirecting him to a task like putting round blocks through a hole into a coffee can, or sorting colored blocks into bins, teach coordination, color, and dexterity while also calming and soothing a child who is feeling overwhelmed. The tantrums began to subside as he felt safe and knew there were concrete jobs he could do. Using his love of a particular topic – playing with a toy or watching a video – as a reward for completing a job or paying attention at the right time helped him focus. With his behavior more deliberate and increased comfort in the Room 5 environment, it was time to work on communication skills, which are the weakest area for children with autism. Starting with the snack table, where he pointed to a picture of what he wanted, then responded to “How many” by pointing to the number, he gained confidence asking for things and having his needs met. He could soon create a sentence on a sentence board with picture vocabulary and take that to a teacher to communicate. The next step is verbal communication face to face with other people. This student now helps in group time with the classroom calendar and is beginning to verbalize the sentences he writes. To see a child make that kind of progress is motivating for the whole team.


    Anyone who loves, cares for, and educates a child wants one overarching thing for that child: independence. Asked about her hopes for the children leaving her classroom for middle school, Ms. Russell wants her kids to “function positively in any new environment, and be able to learn new skills. The real goal is independence.” To help this along, parent education and open houses for the general education teachers are part of Ms. Russell’s teaching. Household chores like sorting laundry, setting the table, or shelving books are great crossovers that build children’s confidence and comfort in social settings. Teaching parents not to hang up their child’s backpack, or show them exactly where to sit, fosters maturity and helps parents gain trust and confidence in their child’s abilities. Because so many of the manipulatives used in Room 5 are based on all children’s natural instinct for hands on learning, general education teachers who visit come away with countless ideas for teaching reading, math, colors, and time management in their own rooms.


    Having seen the pendulum of special education practices swing from downright exclusion to full inclusion, both with drawbacks, the hybrid model of structured teaching is showing real results and benefits for the whole school population. Ms. Russell’s Homeroom is modeled in a similar schedule to general ed classrooms, with group time, solo work, partnering, etc. The students in Room 5 spend varying parts of their days in their grade level general classroom, and the skills they develop in Room 5 – listening and being quiet at group time, helping with the calendar, asking questions, cooperating with peers, accomplishing individual work productively, transitioning from one activity to the next – are all translatable to their time in the general classroom. And since every task they perform in Room 5 is pulled from the general curriculum but tailored to each child’s IEP, they are learning their ABCs and 123s along with communication and social skills so important to life outside Room 5. The real proof that the structured teaching and homeroom model is making a positive difference is in seeing the children with autism out at recess playing and socializing with their typical peers, a common sight at Encinal School made possible by the confidence-building teaching techniques practiced by Kathy Russell and her dedicated team.