Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Philadelphia Teacher on Research in the Classroom

Eileen Cahill
Teacher, Autism Support Classroom
Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary

Growing up with an older brother with Schizophrenia, I have always known that I wanted to help children with special needs and their families. For the past three years, I have worked as an autism support classroom teacher at Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary in Philadelphia. 

During my first year at Kirkbride, the Philadelphia Autism Instructional Methods Study (Philly AIMS) began its partnership with the School District of Philadelphia. Philly AIMS is the largest autism intervention study in the U.S. The study tries to determine the best ways to move evidence-based autism interventions into practice.   I signed up for the study, and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made for my students. 

As part of the study, I was trained in the Strategies for Teaching Based on Autism Research (STAR) Program. This program has three main parts:
1.     The creation of routines for all daily activities
2.     One-on-one teaching of new skills to master
3.     Development of language through play

The Philly AIMS team worked with me and my classroom assistant on a weekly basis to implement these new systems in my room.  We started using individual picture schedules for each student.  This visual guide provided comfort and stability for my students because they knew exactly what their day would look like.  I noticed an immediate decrease in tantrums and outbursts that had been caused by difficulties with transitions.  Picture boards also helped my students to follow directions.

Through the STAR program, I also learned a progression of lessons to teach basic to advanced academic concepts, as well as strategies to motivate my students to learn.  One example of a motivational strategy is a penny board.  As students work through a difficult task they are given pennies for correct answers.  When they get a total of five or ten pennies they are given a reward.  You wouldn’t believe how excited my students were to earn pennies so they could have a few minutes with a slinky, Barbie, or Play-doh. 

The aspect of the STAR program that has helped my students the most is the Pivotal Response Training (PRT). PRT has been shown to (for many kids) increase language and social skills through play.  I feel strongly that students with autism need to know how to play and talk with their regular education peers.   I am fortunate to have a stage in my classroom, and this entire area has been devoted to talk through play. On our visual schedule, play time on the stage is called “talk”.  It has become an absolute favorite for all my students. 

These simple changes made a huge impact on my classroom.  Not only did my students start to transition easier and follow instructions, but I found that learning increased. As a teacher, this is the most positive result you can ask for.
The progress in language and social skills of my students has been amazing.  According to the yearly assessments administered by the speech-language therapist in our school, my students are also making significant progress in their listening comprehension and oral expression. 

We have recently purchased a set of costumes for dramatic and imaginative play.  My students are so excited to pretend to be chefs, mailmen, astronauts, and doctors, and they are doing an excellent job playing their parts.  The social and play skills they are learning during “talk” have started to creep into other areas. 

Students are talking more to each other at breakfast and lunch times.  They are playing more with each other during gym and playground times.  These social and play skills are especially helpful as my students are beginning to be included into regular education classrooms.  Currently, all of my students are being included into regular education for one to two hours each day, in addition to eating lunch and going to preparation periods with their regular education peers.

Implementing the STAR program in my classroom took a lot of work and dedication. While there is no one-size-fits-all program for every child, STAR gave me the tools I needed to create a curriculum that really proved to be effective for many of my students.

My classroom has truly come a long way.  Recently, Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary was selected as the “Best Practices for Students with Autism” school in our academic division.  Our success story is due to a fantastic group of students that works so hard every day, a dedicated school staff, and the Philly AIMS Study that gave us the tools and structure we needed to succeed. 

To learn more about Philly AIMS, please visit the Center for Autism Research Website, call 267-246-7590, or email autism@mail.med.upenn.edu.

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