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make your day dance

Learning about dance & autism, or what to do when you don’t know what to do

October 29th, 2009 · 3 Comments · Tags: ··

With an expanded student population this year, my schedule is pretty crazy — 40 classes per week with 5 different plans per day. Also new is that I serve two self-contained classes of autistic students. Given no previous experience with autism, I’m reading up on it, but I’m also doing a fair amount of learning-on-the-run, as our 30-minute classes together come around every afternoon.

I have 2 groups which are distinctly different, and as I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve learned a lot. The older group (labeled as 1st-3rd graders, which indicates both age and a certain amount of time in school) has 9 students. They have a very experienced teacher, with 2 instructional assistants who have been working together as a team (with these children) for awhile. There are moments of chaos anytime something new is introduced, but using experimentation, intuition & some helpful hints from their teachers, I’ve introduced a number of activities with this group. Individual students come & go with their focus, but all of them are following along at least a percentage of the time. Here are some activities with which we’ve made some progress:

~~Clapping conversations: These are one-on-one, your turn/my turn sound conversations, between myself & one child. I’m pretty explicit, saying & pointing “my turn” & “your turn.” Sometimes one of the aids helps a student pause & “listen,” but they’re all glad to give me a high-five at the end. We’ve done a few variations — no more than one per day: hand clapping; hand clapping & knee slapping; I start, they answer; they start, I echo; clapping with 1′ lengths of swim noodles…

~~BrainDance: I go through the various body organizations of the BrainDance, over a period of 8-10 minutes. For each section, I repeat the same moves for quite awhile, with slight variations, cause they don’t all respond immediately. I tend to use a prop (a scarf or a stretchy band). The scarf is particularly good for breathing (it’s light enough to blow away), tactile (soft touches like brushing & tickling), & core-distal (their bodies do stretch & scrunch with the scarf) — and works fine for upper/lower, right/left, cross-lateral & vestibular. The stretchy band is especially good for tactile (using it to rub the back like a towel), core/distal & body half (R/L). The head/tail/spine connection is still evading us completely — heads move but torsos don’t.

~~Once we’ve got a prop for the BrainDance, we continue with a pause dance, progressing gradually from a basic start-stop format to responding to various musical qualities (e.g. slow & fast). I now have a playlist of musical selections that pause.

~~Shoemaker Dance: Alternating the gesture phrase (“wind the bobbin, wind the bobbin, wind the other way, pull, pull & tap, tap tap”) with locomotor sections gives them a steady dose of locomotor moves to try. Each of them has a different array of moves they can or can’t do. It provides a good structure for cycling through a “bear walk” (a body half, right/left crawl on hands & feet), the alligator (a crawl on the belly), and other developmental moves.

~~A pathway of plastic spots for traveling on started as a short circle, but has grown pretty long now, extending across the room, with hula hoops in stands at beginning and end. The hula hoops were a real challenge… for several of the children, I had to bring it down gently over their head the first time & having them step out, in order for them to understand “going through.” Now they’re all able to bend & slip through. I also alternate the colors of spots, because one boy has longer legs & can aim for every other spot. They each have their own way of traveling the path: hopping, crawling, jumping, walking… but they all follow it. I had to create a written, rotation system for who goes first, second, third… after the issue of “first” caused a noisy tantrum one day.

~~Parachute activities still have a long way to go, but the kids seem to like the parachute. Again, it was total chaos the first few days, but we’re working on 3 structures so far… 1. Everyone holds, and we raise & lower on cue; 2. Everyone raises & lowers, while one person at a time goes underneath (under on the first lift, out on the second); 3. Everyone holds, and we try to keep a large nerf ball on the parachute.

I’m so grateful for the instructional assistants who come with this group — they know the kids and help a different one each day. So far, we’re working on whole body organization & locomotor moves, following cues in the music, taking turns & working together. The students seem to like being in my space with me, while I change & add things slowly.

My other group is quite a different story. As “kindergarteners” (again a label referring to a combination of age & (lack of) school experience), the children are completely non-verbal and don’t respond to pictures yet either. Their teacher is working very hard, but the two instructional assistant positions for her group have been filled by an erratic sequence of substitutes with no experience. I’ve given up having them come to my space because it has 4 doors, too many light switches, curtains for hiding in, and too much equipment that can’t be secured. I think the classroom is being considered for a different classification, with a higher adult/student ratio, but in the meantime, I visit them in the classroom and am still struggling to find activities that work….

This week the same instructional assistants were with us all week, and I did the same lesson every day:

  • using a video of the BrainDance, I joined the aids in assisting students — each student does at least one little part;
  • Animal Action by Greg & Steve — again, everyone does at least a portion;
  • a “Pause” dance — they seem not be be moving when the music stops — did they really stop?!
  • Yoga shapes, with big colored pictures — they all at least watch
  • Songs: Head & Shoulders, Brush Your Teeth… whatever silly song I can think of, while they watch
  • Repetition & routine seem to be key!  For now, I’m satisfied that they’re with me at all.  Eventually, I hope progress will be apparent….

    3 Comments so far ↓

    • Katie

      Your description of the Kindergarten class reminds me of my student teaching in an blended classroom this summer – I was finishing my master’s in early childhood special education, and thought I would bring my experience as a music teacher to the special education classroom. It was an incredible surprise, even after two years of grad school and classes about teaching kids with special needs, that so many of these children couldn’t follow my physical, verbal, and visual cues. Keep in mind, this was in a classroom with 4-6 classroom aides, and 18 kids! I can imagine that it’s quite a struggle to adapt your usual lessons to a new space and ability level.
      I am loving your stories about the challenges you are facing this year – you are encouraging me to find unique ways to include my own students with special needs even in activities that are not appealing to them.

    • megrm

      Thanks, Katie! I’ve really appreciated the support, encouragement, and ideas I’ve gotten from people via electronic communications — here and in a circle of email colleagues. It’s made a world of difference!

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