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Fall 2004 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Where Is There Joy in This IEP? or, What Did I Bring Away from The Deafblind International Conference?

by David Wiley, Transition Specialist, with help from Kate Moss, Education Specialist
Texas Deafblind Outreach

Abstract: This article discusses the importance of building highly motivating instructional elements into daily programming in order to improve the students openness to instruction.

Key Words: programming, blind, deafblind, appetite/aversion, motivation, assessment

Several years ago I received a call from a teacher wanting some help in addressing a behavior problem for one of her students. I receive such calls from time to time in my role at Texas Deafblind Outreach, and always explain that it would be very difficult to offer advice without observing and knowing all the facts in the situation. She wanted to give it a try over the phone, however. I don't remember all the details, but the conversation included an unusual problem.

She explained that the problem was that most days the student was refusing to even come to school. When at school, there was seldom a problem, but often she would refuse to get on the school bus, or cooperate with her parents in getting her to school. The student would only willingly come to school on days when she was going to do something fun.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, she understands her schedule well, and only comes to school on days when something fun is planned, like a party, pep rally, or special event. Otherwise, she will tantrum and refuse to leave her house."

I must admit, that I hadn't encountered this specific issue before. Though it is hard to fully understand a situation without being there, one solution seemed obvious. My suggestion: why not plan to do something fun every day?

She reacted as if I was crazy. To paraphrase, the teacher's response was something like, "We can't do something fun every day. This is school. There is work to be done." This ended the conversation. I suppose she considered me thoroughly unhelpful, and I never heard how the situation turned out.

This story was brought back to my mind last summer as I was attending my first Deafblind International (DBI) conference in Toronto. DBI is a worldwide organization of people concerned with deafblindness, and participants from the conference last year came from 48 countries. I had a number of "aha" moments during the event, but my first came during the first plenary panel on the first morning of the conference. One of the panelists talked about the need for joy in communication instruction. She showed video clips of students learning language at her school. The students had differing abilities and communication styles, but they were all engaged in exchanges about subjects they found highly motivating, things they were passionate about, things that brought them joy. The speaker was from India, and I reflected that I seldom hear communication presentations around here in which the key theme is joy.

The next morning Dr. Jude Nicholas of Norway provided some neuropsychological background in a talk about his paper, "Communicating Research to Practice and Practice to Research: From Theoretical Contributions to Therapeutic Interventions." In describing new research and views of how the brain works, he writes, "emotions are the mechanisms that set the brain's highest-level goals. Perhaps, then, in the field of deafblind education, communicative exchanges in interpersonal processes should pay more attention to the emotional aspects of the communication process." (Nicholas, 2003) So maybe we should pay more attention to the child's emotions when planning instructional goals.

What if the child described in the phone call above experienced joy every day in her learning activities? Would she be more willing to go to school? Would she look forward to learning? Unfortunately, I think too often we fail to consider the student's preferences, passions, and joys when developing classroom activities and routines.

So how do we create joy in the classroom. These simple solutions will make the students look forward to coming to class, create positive emotions, and maybe improve their learning.

Find out what is motivating to students

In order to find out what is motivating to a student it is important to be a good observer. Take some time to simply watch the child during a variety of activities and settings. When does the child smile or laugh? When does the child become fussy or go to sleep? If there are four objects nearby, which, if any, will the child try to get?

It is important to consider the child's self-stimulations as well. Does the child use his hand to flick in front of his face? Does he make interesting noises? Does he find things in his environment that vibrate? Does she constantly bounce or spin? Chances are, whatever the child does as self-stimulation is somehow pleasing or interesting to him or her.

Talking to the child's parents is also an important step to take in finding out what is motivating or just as importantly not motivating. Ask them how they calm their child when the child becomes upset. What are the child's favorite play things? What are the child's favorite activities with mom, dad, and siblings?

Once you begin to collect this information it is a good idea to organize it. A simple form that we have used for a number of years is the Appetite/Aversion Form shown below.

Appetite/Aversion Form

Adapted from personal notes from a seminar by van Dijk, J. 1985

Fill one sheet out for each child. Over a period of time through listening to stories from others and through observation of the child, simply list things the child likes and things he doesn't like. We all enjoy things that we are good at and that we understand. The child's "Likes" will be his areas of strength and using sensory channels that are working. His "Dislikes" will be areas of weakness and sensory channels that may not be working efficiently. The information gathered on this form will give you underlying themes that you can use for modifications, teaching strategies, topics for communication, ideas, and activities.

Child's Name ___________________________ Date __________________


Summary Information:

What sensory channels is the child using the most?

What are possible topics for communication?

What are some new activities that the child might enjoy?

What other modifications or strategies are suggested by the above information?

Assess to see if student is enjoying the day at school

Take time to observe the student's day at school and identify the times when the child is experiencing some joy in the activity. How much of the day is fun for the student? When does the student become bored, fussy, or disruptive? Is most of the day unpleasant? Are there times when including a fun activity would help the student regain his or her composure and willingness to participate? Are there activities that need to be scraped or greatly modified to include more motivating components or materials?

Plan activities that incorporate motivating elements for the student

Once you know what the child finds motivating, think about how some of these elements can be incorporated in the routines you are currently doing daily with the child such as dressing, eating, bathing, and so forth. For example, if the student really likes the color red you can have red items of clothing, include red plates or cups, select foods that might incorporate red in each meal (ketchup, apple, strawberries), use a red wash cloth and towel or red bubble bath.

You can also brainstorm new activities that might include a particular element or several elements. For example, the student likes playing in water. Can we build an activity where the child waters plants, washes the dishes, bathes a doll, or paints the sidewalk with clear water? Think of as many potential activities as you can, then decide which one has the most potential for including opportunities to work on goals and objectives and allow for as many motivating factors to be included in it as possible. For example, the child might like vibration, food that is blended, and banging with a spoon. You could create a blender activity to make a smoothie or pudding that you have to rake out of the blender with a long wooden spoon.

Alternate less motivating activities with ones that create joy

Sometimes there are activities that cannot be made terribly motivating to the child, but that still need to be done. First of all, try to eliminate as many of the negatives as possible in the activity. If cold lotion makes her cry when you are changing diapers, place the lotion in a cup of hot water to warm it slightly BEFORE you start changing the diaper.

Once you have eliminated as many aversive aspects of the activity as possible, try to place a highly motivating activity immediately following the negative one. The child may not like to do the job of loading the washer, but will suffer through it in order to do the next activity, which is buying a coke from the vending machine or going for a walk outside.

Teach language using highly motivating topics

Think about the last great conversation you had with someone. Wasn't part of the pleasure related to having a topic to discuss that you found interesting? If we looking for highly motivating topics to focus language instruction around, the chances are much better that the student will be motivated to learn. If lights are motivating to the student, think of all the great activities that can include lights. You can talk about the color of lights, the number of lights, the size of lights, the temperature of lights, the purpose of lights, how lights can be turned off and on, who uses lights, where lights are typically found, and so forth.

Teach literacy using highly motivating topics

Literacy is a natural expansion of language instruction, and so making the topics you use to teach literacy highly motivating makes sense as well. When the student has a great experience, create memory books or experience stories about the experience. Have the student share information about the object or experience and write that information in the book. For some students this might be in Braille and for other students it might be in print. Always include objects that are motivating to the child as well when selecting objects or pictures to include in the book. For example, if the student is delighted with the ice cream at the Dairy Queen, but only lukewarm about the french fries, choose the ice cream cup as the object for the experience book or story. Pick the favorite activity of the day for the topic of your story rather than an activity that the child finds minimally interesting.

It really is a myth that school can't be fun. Learning should be fun. Learning should bring you great joy. It doesn't take much most times to turn a school day around for a student if we look for ways to bring the fun back into the classroom. The additional payoff is that the teacher will usually find more joy in the day as well.

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Last Revision: September 1, 2010