January 20

Let’s Talk Social Emotional Learning

Coming up on January 26th this year is Bell’s Let’s Talk day. As this day approaches each year I wonder how I can personally make a difference in being an advocate for this very serious issue. I’ve always felt a bit frustrated that we rally around this one day and then little is spoken about the topic for the rest of the year. Last year in May, we recognized Mental Health Awareness Week and we started collecting these resources that we can use in school all year. I don’t want us to have to wait for Bell Let’s Talk Day or Mental Health Awareness week to be paying attention to our students’ mental health.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “Healthy emotional and social development in our early years lay the foundation for mental health and resilience throughout the lifespan. Yet, 70 percent of persons living with a mental illness see their symptoms begin before age 18. Mental illness affects some 1.2 million of our children and youth. By age 25, that number rises to 7.5 million (about one in five Canadians).” I don’t know about you but these statistics worry me.

At the OJCS we are looking into different programs and ideas to support Social Emotional Learning for our students in order to proactively pay attention to mental health wellness. We are acutely aware that more and more students are coming to school with presenting anxiety and emotional distress. We are shifting the way we view the Special Education department at the school. In the elementary school (JK-4), we now have the Learning Loft where students can come when/if they are feeling overwhelmed or if they need a body break or mental health break from their classroom. In grade 5 and middle school, we have the Learning Centre for students to access if they need a quiet place to regroup or a trusted adult to speak with. We also created a “safe place” in our office called the “chill zone” where a student at any grade can come and settle their worried brain. All of these spaces are designed so that students know they have a place to go to use strategies to help ease anxiety.

This year we also introduced an Advisory class for our Middle School students. This class is focusing on mental health and student well-being in ensuring that our students have an adult advisor they can connect with. In addition, we are looking into a more formalized SEL (Social and Emotional Learning program) and we are doing our research in exploring what is available and what we would like to use going forward. This is such an important topic that the Ontario Math Curriculum has included Social and Emotional Learning as a new important strand in the learning. Chelsea Cleveland, our OJCS Math Specialist, wrote a 3 part blog post about this topic last year.

All this to say, we are paying close attention to our students’ emotional well-being. We continue to have these important conversations regularly and not just on Bell Let’s Talk day or Mental Health Awareness week. Please take a moment to share how you take care of your own mental health or how you support others. We are each responsible for one another and we will continue to pay close attention to the mental health of all of our staff and students. Please let us know if you need support. We are happy to help.

 

 

December 12

Collaborative Problem Solving

In the last post (yes way back in September – it’s been a busy fall!) we talked about setting boundaries. In this post, we will talk about what happens when students /children struggle even when structure and boundaries are in place. The premise of our  OJCS Behaviour Expectations model at school is based on Dr. Ross Greene’s notion that “Kids do well if they can”. At the OJCS, we have a cohort of teachers meeting monthly to dive deeper into this model. We have been studying together using the Lives in the Balance webpage to further our discussions. One thing we have learned is that, if students aren’t doing well then a lagging skill is present. It’s our job as adults, to help figure out and identify which lagging skills are present. We do this by filling out an Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP)

Once we have identified the lagging skills, we move through the next step of collaboration using proactive plan B. This step involves having a conversation with the student/child and teacher/parent. The first step is to invite the child in for a conversation with the intention of working together to solve a problem.

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Listen and empathize with the child
  3. State the adult concern
  4. Invite the child to come up with a solution that is mutually agreeable and realistic to achieve
  5. Choose a solution with actionable steps
  6. Reevaluate and repeat these steps as needed

When a student/child is invited to participate in problem-solving they feel ownership over solving their own problems (North Star Alert: We own our own learning). During this past session, we also saw how we can do a CPS (collaborative problem solving) discussion with an entire class. It is very exciting to see this model in action and I’m very proud of and thankful to the dedicated teachers volunteering their time after school to move this initiative forward.

September 26

Setting Boundaries

Welcome back to a new school year. Chag Sameach! As much as we love all of the Jewish holidays and celebrations, we are also eager to be in school 5 days a week to start establishing and reinforcing a more consistent routine. This is the perfect segway into today’s blog post topic – Setting Boundaries. This will be part one of a two-part blog post. This first blog will focus on what we mean by setting boundaries and the second blog post will focus on the OJCS behaviour expectations policy using the Collaborative Problem Solving approach. Our reintegration theme this year during pre-planning week with teachers, during the Middle School retreat and in individual classrooms this year is (re)building community. In order to build community classrooms and a community school, we must have clear and consistent boundaries. Luckily we have shared language at the OJCS through our North Stars and Sean Covey’s 7 Habits of Happy Kids from The Leader in Me, but it also goes beyond that. 

As I have popped in and out of classrooms observing students over the past few weeks, what I’ve been thinking a lot about is structure. What is apparent is that when students know, understand, collaborate on, buy into, and respect the expectations, the classroom environment is calm, engaging, and ready to foster healthy and life-long learning. Setting boundaries is critical in helping students know what they can and can’t, should, and shouldn’t do. Can we blame a student for standing on a desk, pushing a friend out of the way, refusing to do work, walking out of a class, interrupting a teacher or peer, colouring on a desk, or speaking disrespectfully to someone in the room if we have never set a boundary to indicate what the community classroom expectations are? One could argue that yes, students should know innately that these behaviours are not acceptable in a classroom but why leave it to chance. And more so, without the conversation about setting boundaries, it is ambiguous and unclear what should and what will happen if these limits are not being followed. 

Educators (and parents) for that matter, are often fearful of setting boundaries. There is an unsubstantiated worry that setting boundaries means our students/children will not “like” us. In fact, it’s the opposite. They may grumble, give us attitude or genuinely not love a rule or expectation, but trust me when I say, they like it a lot less when there are none. Rules, expectations, guidelines, limits, and boundaries give us a sense of predictability, control, and can even relieve anxiety, even if we may not be conscious of it. Recently, I was collaborating with a parent as we were dealing with a safety concern. She positions her job as a parent to her children in a way that really resonated with me. She said that she has always taught her children that she has four main jobs as their mother. To love them fiercely and unconditionally, to keep them healthy, to keep them safe and to prepare them for the world. I love this language so much and it’s such a beautiful framework in setting boundaries. It means that any rule, expectation, guideline that this mother implements can be justified in one of these main buckets. Setting a bedtime, limiting screen time and insisting eating dinner before dessert are boundaries designed to keep the child healthy. Saying no to an unsupervised party where you don’t feel comfortable having your child attend can be viewed as keeping the child safe. Signing a child up for tutoring or piano lessons despite pushback, asking them to empty the dishwasher or make their bed is about preparing them for the real world. The same holds true for teachers and setting the boundaries in the classroom. The teachers’ role is to listen intently, keep all students healthy, and safe and to prepare them for the next grade. All boundaries set can fit into these categories. The more explicit, fair, consistent and predictable we can be, the happier and more secure our students/children feel. 

Here are a few simple guidelines to remember when setting boundaries.

  1. Make sure the expectations are discussed collaboratively and always explain WHY this boundary is important.
  2. Listen to feedback, be open minded and adjust accordingly (flexibility is key).
  3. Be clear with the rules and expectations and make sure there is a visual pairing (post the expectations).
  4. Review the expectations often.
  5. Setting boundaries should be presented in a positive manner (expectations are not designed to be punitive).
  6. Be consistent and always follow through (this is in bold because it is probably the most important).
  7. Celebrate successes when students are following the expectations (positive reinforcement goes a long way).
  8. Change and adapt the expectations as needed.

In the next post, we will discuss what happens when a student or child is having difficulty being successful within the boundaries. We will look at how to identify lagging skills and then use a collaborative problem solving approach to help teach and accommodate the presenting lagging skill. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s your strategy on setting boundaries? Do you agree or disagree that boundaries are important?

 

April 5

Why are we so Afraid to Make Mistakes?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of perfectionism lately. I’m seeing younger and younger students afraid to make mistakes and shy away from a challenge for fear of failure. It makes me sad that we live in a society where we put so much pressure on ourselves to be “perfect”. Why are we seeing grade one students completely fall apart when they encounter a challenging task or perceive the task to be difficult, and more importantly what can we do about it?

It’s good and healthy for students to hold high expectations of themselves. But if they expect everything to be perfect, they’ll never be satisfied with their performance. We need to find the right balance between having high standards and feeling completely dejected when things don’t go as planned. Perfectionists tend to establish unrealistic goals for themselves and then they place enormous pressure on themselves to try and reach their goals. They engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Whether it’s a 99 on a math test or 9 out of 10 foul shots made, perfectionists declare their performance a dismal failure when they fall short of their goals. Conversely, when they do succeed, they struggle to enjoy their accomplishments and they often assume the success was a result of good luck and worry they won’t be able to replicate the results or maintain their level of success. So what can we do as educators to try and ease this tension?

How can we help students (and teachers) become more resilient and be less afraid to make a mistake? When I taught in a classroom I always had a giant eraser at the front of my room that said FOR BIG MISTAKES. It was a visual reminder that it was okay to make mistakes. It became our class motto, so to speak, where we started to celebrate the mistakes we made. I remember stopping my class, pointing out and celebrating “big juicy mistakes”, whether they were mine or someone else’s. Students love to point out the mistakes of their teacher and so I would often make mistakes on purpose so that my students would find them and then I would use that as an opportunity to model how to respond when someone points out an error. The first thing I did was thank the student who found the error.

Even with these systems in place, it is evident that some students crumble the second they encounter something difficult. We’ve talked about resiliency before and it seems to be a buzzword, especially this year, as we all try and stay resilient in the face of a global pandemic. But it’s true, how come some students are resilient and some find it so challenging to rise above a difficult situation.

I love this article from CNBC.com published on March 17, 2021, entitled “A psychotherapist says the most mentally strong kids always do these 7 things—and how parents can teach them.” I would argue that it’s not only parents but also teachers who can play a role in implementing these into the classroom. Read more here.

To recap, here are the 7 things people do to remain resilient:

  1. They empower themselves
  2. They adapt to change
  3. They know when to say no
  4. They own their mistakes
  5. They celebrate other people’s successes
  6. They fail…and try again
  7. They persist

I personally love the suggestion to have students write a letter to themselves. It’s a concrete tool they can reference when they are having a difficult time believing in themselves or feel stuck in a hard situation.

One of the things we can do as parents and educators is to focus on the positives, the learning journey and the lessons learned along the way rather than on the end result. When giving feedback, it’s just as important to highlight all the things the person did well as it is to highlight the ways to improve. We need to praise effort over results. As my own children were growing up, I remember telling them that I will always be more impressed if they work hard and try their best and receive a mediocre grade, over a high grade that came from very little effort on their part. It was always far more important for me to look at their mistakes, try and understand them and learn from them. It’s why it makes me feel upset when teachers do not return tests and assignments. How can we learn from where we went wrong if we don’t ever get to see the mistakes? I love the book called My Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg. Find that book here. This book can be a signal that an “oops” can be something wonderful and those mess-ups can present opportunities. The use of the word “beautiful” connected with “mistake” shifts our mindset and helps us overcome perfectionism: seeing mistakes as opportunities. As we shift our own mindset, choose our words carefully, and look for opportunities in our students’ mistakes and our own, we will create cultures in our classrooms that remove the pressures of perfectionism and lead to genuine individual growth. Let’s be the parent and teacher who models that we aren’t afraid to make mistakes!

Feel free to share your ideas and suggestions on how you help your children or students overcome the need to be perfect.

February 21

Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and this blog post will highlight how the OJCS has honoured this important initiative. Although I understand why Special Days and Special Months exist, I do want to point out that disability awareness and inclusion are topics that are paramount all year at the OJCS and not just siloed to the month of February. I do not want to give the false impression that we only care about this topic once a month in February. But, our students have engaged in some pretty incredible learning journeys this month that I would love to be your tour guide and walk you through so that you can see for yourself. For starters, Deanna Bertrand (our OJCS student life coordinator) and I, helped promote and educate our faculty on some of the resources that are available for educational purposes. We created a Padlet for our teachers and students to access while they planned their month of learning. One new opportunity that came our way this year, is we were invited by Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) to listen to a speakers series they lined up for the month. Our students in Grades 5-8 and some of our staff have had the opportunity to join zoom calls to listen to inspirational speakers this month and we thank Friends of Access Israel for extending us that invitation – talk about being inspired!

Let’s start the tour to see what our superstar students and teachers have been up to. Gan (Kindergarten) students have spent a great deal of time learning how to “sing” the national anthem using American Sign Language. Read about their journey here and enjoy their beautiful and heartwarming video. Kitah Alef (Grade 1) is learning about diversity through an activity called “Growing in the Right Direction”. They are learning about accepting other people’s differences and seeing those differences in a positive light. This is an example of a fabulous developmentally appropriate discussion to have at this grade level.

Kitah Bet (Grade 2) dissected the acronym JDAIM to find out what each letter stands for, what the words mean and why it is important. Last year’s Kitah Bet students filmed a class read-aloud called Just Ask using our new green screen technology and this year’s class watched it and engaged in a meaningful conversation about exceptionalities and disabilities. Students talked about how these disabilities can be invisible or visible. One of the more powerful moments of the discussion was when some students shared with the class about their own learning disabilities proudly.  Kitah Bet also decorated a puzzle piece with colours or pictures that represent who each one is individually and then they put it together with the following poem “We are Kitah Bet, each one of us unique, but when we come together, the puzzle is complete” You can find that picture by following @2Bojcs on twitter.

Of course one of the main themes to ensuring Disability Awareness and Inclusion can happen is by highlighting kindness. Kindness is an integral yearlong theme for Kitah Gimmel (Grade 3). Although so evidently linked to JDAIM, what we love about this theme is that it is not isolated to the month of February. Check out their incredible blog post explaining their journey to date.

Kitah Dalet (Grade 4) engaged in an incredible class activity about what makes an inclusive classroom. Read about their experience here. Both Kitah Hay (Grade 5) classes spend a great deal of time and energy every single day talking about being inclusive and they have really come to understand themselves and each other as individual learners. To highlight JDAIM month, some of the grade 5 students are embarking on entries for the JOIN Youth Leadership Award challenge. One of our Grade 5 classes also read the picture book based on the novel study Wonder called “We are all Wonders” by R. J. Palacio.  They did a reflection/silent meditation type activity where everyone thought about times when they were inclusive/included and times when they were exclusive/excluded. They then made lists of emotions they associated with each and brainstormed ways they could be more inclusive all the time.  They also discussed disabilities that are “visible” and disabilities that are “invisible” and why they always need to have compassion for others.

Kitah Zayin (Grade 7) is currently working on the most incredible community project. They have partnered with Tamir and are working in collaboration with some Tamir participants and discussing inclusion, respect, communal responsibility, and brainstorming ways for improving our community. Students and the participants were asked to create a visualization of their ideal community. In their last session together, they talked about two important concepts within Judaism.
1. Kavod – Respect
  • Judaism teaches us to treat ourselves and others (even strangers) with respect.
  • Kavod is a feeling of regard for the rights, dignity, feelings, wishes, and abilities of others
2. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh-Communal responsibility
  • “All Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a)
  • It is our job to take action and inspire others to create a community in which we can all take pride

Please enjoy their two projects in progress and continue to follow their journey by reading our middle school blog.

Their Ideal Community Slideshow

TAMIR Partnership Slideshow

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Our Knesset (Student Council) members are planning to do a virtual read-aloud & discussion for classes about JDAIM.  They are currently working with Ms. Brigitte (our librarian extraordinaire) to select books about inclusion to use, and now Knesset members need to choose a book, plan discussion questions, and will book a time for them to join other classes virtually to lead a discussion.

WOW!! I already knew most of what was going on around the school and I am beyond impressed – I hope you are too! Please know that our hard work on this topic does not stop on February 28th. We are committed to a lifelong journey of improving our practices and becoming more and more inclusive.
January 25

We Hear You and See You

I’ve tried to write this post so many times this week as we continue to feel all the things we are feeling about this crazy virus and the havoc it continues to wreak on our lives. The emotional roller coaster is enormous as so many of us struggle with trying to stay optimistic and yet being terrified, lonely, and sad all at the same time.  I constantly have this pull between desperately wanting to return to in-person school because I know and understand the complexity and challenges of having children at home, and at the same time, I feel relief in being at home during a crisis where we can all do our part to try and reduce the spread and help get this virus under control so that fewer people will die!

Given that it’s not our decision (and I do not envy those who make these no-win tough decisions), we continue to engage in distance learning… so now what?

Just like in the spring, when we were forced to do this long term, we want you to know that we HEAR you and we SEE you. We know that this is challenging, we know that many are struggling and we are here for you. I have spent the last few weeks meeting with families to collaborate and brainstorm solutions that feel right for their family. We understand that each family circumstance is different and we are committed to trying to help make things more manageable and sustainable.

How do we navigate going forward when some families need and want their child online, engaged all day, every day, and some families can barely cope and can’t get their child to log on for one class let alone a whole day. We navigate it by trying our best the OJCS way. We try to provide a healthy balance of rigour, and high expectations, coupled with paying attention to the mental health and wellbeing of our students and families. We provide more and extra for those who have the ability and bandwidth to do so and we provide less and different work for those who don’t  – all without judgment and one is not better or worse than the other. It is the true definition of FAIR – fair means everyone gets what they need to be successful and so we want to be responsive and fair to all.

This week I read an incredible blog post by Renew Supervision called How to Survive Parenting in a Pandemic which I think many of us can relate to.

I also want to share again some of the blog posts we wrote last year that may be used as reminders as we navigate these unchartered waters again….(deep sigh)

The first blog I wrote last year was entitled, “Help! My kid won’t listen – I’m not a teacher” which you can read here.

Getting Comfortable with the New Reality is not something I was hoping we would have to revisit, but here we are and here you go.

Across ALL grades, K-8, our primary goal continues to be in Promoting Independence and Self-Directed Learners. If that’s intriguing to you and you are interested in finding out what we mean and how we intend to do that, click here.

The bottom line is we HEAR you and we SEE you. We don’t pretend this is easy and we don’t pretend like this is good. But given the circumstances we are in, I’d say the OJCS is doing an incredible job at supporting students and families through this horrible pandemic. My new favourite quote, which I used to launch a PD session with our middle school faculty with the other week is, CHANGE THE WAY YOU LOOK AT THINGS AND THE THINGS YOU LOOK AT CHANGE by Wayne Dyer. We can focus on all of the stress, and trauma, and negativity this pandemic is causing, or we can focus on the COVID silver linings that hopefully exist for all. Personally, I’ve discovered the stunning outdoors in our own city in a way I never would have done without this pandemic. We’ve hiked, biked and now cross country skied to so many breathtaking sites right here in our own backyard – who knew? We are grateful to be healthy, to have a home and food and jobs and lots and lots and lots and lots of quality family time together which I know we will miss when the kids are out of the house. Fill the comments below with your family COVID silver linings 🙂

If you or your child/ren are struggling, please reach out to us and let us help you. We learn better together and we are each responsible for one another.

 

November 30

Shifting the Spec Ed Narrative

The mere word ‘Special Education’ comes with a whole series of preconceived notions and ideas, often different for each person who hears it. For me, Special Education is a gift, a passion, and a commitment to ensuring every child gets what they need in order to succeed. I’ve spent my entire career building on this concept. For others, Special Education is viewed as something negative, something to hide, to be embarrassed about, or even ashamed of, and I hate that! For others,  Special Education is something placed in a box over to the side, an ‘other’, a silo, something that is about them and shouldn’t have anything to do with me. But what if we shifted that narrative so that everyone – administrators, teachers, parents, and most importantly, students – felt pride, empowerment, and understanding when they heard the term Special Education. I love to imagine a world and a school where Special Education becomes so ingrained in the normal, that no one sees it as “extra work” on the part of the teacher, something to “be ashamed” of on the part of the student, or something to “be worried” about on the part of the parent. 

So we all have work to do in helping to shift the narrative. When I do this work with students, teachers, and parents I like to start with the glasses analogy. I’ve gone into classrooms where I look around and I ask each student wearing glasses to take off their glasses and I explain that from that moment on I don’t want to ever see their glasses on their face again. As looks of horror and upset, not only from the glasses-wearing students but also from their classmates, appear on their faces, I explain that it would not be fair for them to keep wearing their glasses since there are other students in the class who don’t wear glasses. The objections are shouted loud and clear as students fight for their right to wear glasses and explain that they can’t see properly without them. It sets the stage perfectly for the conversation about what fair means. FAIR means everyone gets what they need in order to be successful, not that everyone gets the same thing.

Thank you to https://www.teachjunkie.com/filing-cabinet/whats-fair-free-classroom-poster/ for this poster which I always had hanging in my classroom and is now hanging in my office!

Fair isn't... Free Printable Classroom Poster

 

From https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Teaching-With-Compassion we get this great visual!

Fair Versus Equal Poster by Teaching with Compassion | TpT

And thanks to the wise Albert Einstein who said the following:

Albert Einstein Quotes On Education School ~ Inspiration Quotes 99

Students quickly understand this concept and then we can shift the conversation to different tools we have in the classroom for different types of learners. We have ball chairs and wiggle cushions, wobble stools, and standing stations. We have fidget tools and noise-canceling headphones and privacy carrels. We have assistive technology tools like voice to text and read and write software. We have audiobooks and graphic organizers and teachers breaking down tasks with more manageable due dates. We have resource teachers, small group instructions, and enrichment opportunities. We use visual schedules, organizational tools, and social stories. We use quiet rooms and we give extended time for tests and exams …. just to name a few. Just like the non-glasses wearing friends fought for justice for their glasses-wearing friends, so too do we want them to do that for all the tools that are used and provided in the classroom. We want students to feel proud, encouraged, and empowered to use whatever “glasses” (tools) they need to be able to be their best selves as learners, and we want the others in the class to be supportive and kind to the ones using them. 

For teachers, I frame it to help them understand that students with special needs are actually easier to understand than students without. Students with special needs come with an “instruction manual” so to speak – their IEP (individual education plan). This plan is like a blueprint to help teachers, students and parents understand how that child learns best. It highlights all the amazing strengths as well as the areas of weakness. It helps teachers to understand how to accommodate (what tools) that student needs to be their best learner. One pushback I’ve heard from teachers is, I definitely follow the IEP  because whatever it says on the IEP could be used for all students, so I just do that for everyone. Let’s look at another analogy. The school builds a ramp to the front doors. Every student could use the ramp to get through the doors and there is no harm for all students to use the ramp. But does everyone need the ramp? Wouldn’t it be better to encourage those students who can walk up the stairs to walk up the stairs? In fact, some tools would do certain students a disservice, the same way forcing all students to wear glasses would make no sense. 

 Who’s with me? Ready to help shift the narrative on Special Education? At the OJCS we are well on our way with this shift. We strive to personalize instruction and encourage students to own their own learning. Understanding how each student learns and using their strengths to improve weaknesses is what we aim to do.  We all continue to be on our own learning journey and what I know for sure is we learn better together!

Another great visual from brookespublishing.com/ which drives home the point and is also hanging in my office:

 

October 18

October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month – A Tribute to Every Student I Ever Taught!

October is learning disabilities awareness month and so it is only fitting that this blog post is a little tribute to every student I ever taught, and a trip down memeory lane of my personal journey in getting to where I am today.

As most of you know, I’ve dedicated my entire career (truth be told) most of my life actually, working with and advocating for people with disabilities. Throughout High School and University, I spent many hours volunteering at various organizations to try and find and develop my passions. Two very special placements that launched my career included volunteering at a preschool for children with developmental disabilities and also working at the Robart School for the Hearing Impaired. The cutest little 3-year-old boy with a heart conditioning, with the sunniest disposition, stole my heart. He is the reason that I took my level 1 and 2 in sign language and made me want to pursue a career working with children with special needs. Volunteering at the Robart School for the Hearing Impaired, the students there taught me more than I could have ever taught them (in fact, it’s where I was given a sign name from one of my students who was deaf – only a deaf person can assign someone a sign name). These placements opened my eyes to a deep-rooted and innate love of helping children be the best that they can be, despite any challenges they faced in their lives.

After receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Western Ontario, I transitioned to a College program, where I received a two-year diploma certificate as a Developmental Services Worker. Working at the Tamir Foundation here in Ottawa for several years while in school furthered my passion for working with people with special needs. So many of the residents who live there hold a special place in my heart and Tamir will always be a part of my extended family. Teachers college, with a focus in Special Education, was a natural next step for me where I then spent over twenty years working with students with learning disabilities. My students from my very first grade 6 class are now 33 years of age, many married with children and have careers of their own! (insert shocked face emoji – yes I’m aging myself – insert second shocked face emoji).

For most of my career, my passion has been teaching students with Dyslexia how to read. While working at MindWare Academy, a private school for students with learning disabilities, I focused my own professional growth and learning on teaching students with learning disabilities how to read and spell. In 2007, I met Peter Bowers from wordworkskingston who changed my life as an educator, as a mom and as an English speaker. He introduced me to  ‘Real Spelling’ as it was called at the time, but since changed its name to ‘Structured Word Inquiry’ or ‘SWI’. I was 35 years old at the time, a native English speaker, a self-proclaimed terrible speller, and no one had ever taught me that no English word ends in the letter <v>, one of the many reasons for the single silent <e> at the end of the word, explaining the spelling of <have>, <give>, <move> and <love> (to name a few). I was shocked, furious that no one had shared these simple facts,and was hooked forever! For the first time in my life, I started to realize that English is actually completely ordered and structured, with very few exceptions, once you learn and understand the true orthography of the written word. My mind was blown and I was committed to learning everything I could, and in turn teaching it to my students, who inherently because of their disabilities, struggled to read, write and spell. The first years of diving in were magical because I was able to learn alongside my students. These first few years diving deep into SWI with my students taught me so much about being a life long learner. My students and I were struggling, questioning, investigating, making mistakes and learning together. It was probably the most powerful and impactful years of my career.

All students, and especially students with learning disabilities, have pushed me and empowered me to be the best educator I can be. They have taught me so much about perseverance, resilience, dedication and commitment to learning, even when and especially when things are hard. When students are properly supported and we shine a light on their abilities, we end up proving that they can do and be anything. While taking a break from teaching in the classroom I opened up an educational consultancy and advocacy business called PossAbilities highlighting this exact point – when we light up abilities there are endless possibilities. Advocating with parents and empowering students to embrace their incredible strengths and accept their challenges has been so intensely rewarding. Which leads us to here and now. Being able to use all of this background, knowledge, expertise and experience at the OJCS is such an honour. Now in my third year as the director of Special Education at the OJCS, I feel grateful to be working with such a committed and talented staff who work tirelessly day in and day out to support all of our students and especially our students with learning disabilities. Thank you to all of the incredible students at the OJCS who I have the pleasure of supporting. I am so thankful for this career path that I chose (or which chose me).

To all my students who have ever touched my life – thank you for being such amazing humans. I adore you.

 

September 30

Accommodating Students with ADHD During a Pandemic

Over the past number of years, our classrooms have made so much progress with what they physically look like. Long gone were the days of frontal teaching with students sitting at individual desks in rows. We had flexible seating, collaborative work areas, standing stations, bean bag chairs, wiggle stools and so much more. Students were moving about the classroom seeking feedback from peers and teachers while working closely with others in groups in order to think, problem-solve, question, and learn. This type of classroom environment benefited all types of learners, and especially students with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) who needed more movement and flexibility throughout their day. And yet, due to a global pandemic here we are; back to individual desks, safely spread out with the teacher primarily at the front. So how is this working for our students with ADHD? Surprisingly well! At the OJCS we continue to be forward-thinking with how we support our students. We knew that learning in this type of setting would pose increased challenges for our students who need to move their bodies. But this is true for all students, not just our students with ADHD, and so we carefully planned as a faculty, with how we could continue to make that happen. We used grant money to purchase individual resources and tools for each classroom for individual and personal use. We bought therapeutic ball chairs for students who benefit from movement, individual standing desks, bouncy bands for chairs, fidget tools to keep hands busy, wiggle cushions, noise-canceling headphones, desk dividers, and more. In addition to the added equipment, we also added daily outdoor movement time for each classroom, in addition to teachers being very creative in creating at the desk movement activities.

We know that many students with ADHD have a lot to deal with. Here is a nice visual from The Contented Child that helps to highlight some of the lagging skills associated with ADHD. Click here for the visual from TES resources. https://sharemylesson.com/partner/tes-resource-team

What about our distance learners and if more students need to pivot back to working from home in the weeks or months to come? What can parents do to set up a child with ADHD for success at home? In some ways, it may be easier as there is likely more opportunity for natural movement without the fear of safety. In other ways, it may be more difficult as your child may have difficulty paying attention while working on a computer versus paying attention while in a classroom setting. Here are some tips for setting up the home environment; whether that be for homework time, or distance learning time. These tips are great for all learners but may be especially helpful for learners with ADHD.

  1. Find a consistent work station for your child. This work station should mimic what works well for your child in the classroom. Does your child use a wiggle cushion, benefit from standing, work best with a fidget tool? These should be replicated and used at home.
  2. You should build in structured break times and encourage your child to do something active. When it says physical education or recess time on the schedule, make sure your child is running and playing outside or doing something active at home. Movement is so important to help all children focus. Before and/or after homework, your child should engage in something active.
  3. Ensure that all the materials are accessible and available and returned to their proper location after use. Having all the tools needed to accomplish tasks is an important part of setting your child up for success. Does your child have access to pencils, paper, scissors, glue, a laptop/computer or i-pad, charging cords, books, etc..? Does your child know where to find these items and where they should be returned when they are finished?
  4. Looking at the distance learning schedule or the homework expectations in advance is essential for time management and planning for a successful day. Goal setting and planning a schedule are so important in helping a child be successful when working at home. Creating a visual schedule,  to-do lists, and check off boxes often help a child follow the expectations for the day. Timers and structure are also really helpful in keeping a child on track. Teachers can help students and families set up these types of organizational tools if needed. Feel free to email me at s.reichstein@theojcs.ca for additional tips.
  5. Empowering your child to be more self-motivated and self-directed learners is an important life skill. Please read this blog post for a reminder on how to help promote these skills.
  6. Work with your child to discuss what is working and what is not. Your child will ‘buy-in’ to problem-solving when they are part of brainstorming the solution. If your child is not being successful with completing tasks at home, talk to your child about why and what they can do to improve that weakness. Eliminate power struggles, yelling, and meltdowns over schoolwork. Feel free to re-read this blog post for additional tips to eliminate the at-home battles.

As always, we are committed to working in collaboration with families to help support the needs of your child. Whether your child has ADHD or not, we are happy to connect and discuss ways to help your child be more successful with their learning journey both at home and at school. A pandemic will not stop us from being committed to accommodate individual learning needs.

August 4

Preparing for Going ‘Forward’ to School

Back to school or in our case (going ‘forward’ to school) on any given year can often feel overwhelming for some students. Butterflies flutter in stomachs, sometimes from nerves, often from the unknown, or perhaps due to sheer anticipation of what the year to come has in store. This will certainly be a year like no other. Teachers and administrators are working hard to understand, shape, and create a ‘go forward’ to the OJCS environment that will be exciting, rich, engaging, and most importantly safe. It will not be perfect but it will be perfectly imperfect because at the OJCS we learn better together and we promote a culture of critique. All of us – students, parents, teachers, admin staff – all of us feel some degree of nervousness and uncertainty this year. We would not be human if we pretended not to feel all the different emotions that come along with this particular going forward to school. It brings with it some important reminders. We will not all agree with everything but we all need to remember that we are all trying our best. When fuelled by anxiety, we sometimes forget to look at another’s perspective. Remember that all of us at the OJCS share common goals and common language guided by our North Stars. We must keep lines of communication open and transparent, and to voice our worries and concerns with respect, understanding, and appreciation.

Preparing your child at home now will be an important step in working together in ensuring a smooth forward to school.  My social media feeds have been peppered with great advice, suggestions, and ideas which I’d like to highlight and share here. One post that struck me as helpful comes from Kate Gryp from her friend Rich Johnston. See full post here.

The main message is to encourage parents to understand and think about how different school will look in the fall and practice these new social etiquettes now. Don’t attach negative feelings to the practice, simply address them as factual statements of what will be in September.

  1. Teach how to put on and take off a mask safely;
  2. Practice wearing a mask for incrementally longer periods of time;
  3. Label all masks and send labeled spares in a ziplock or closed bags;
  4. Teach and practice where to put the mask when it’s removed;
  5. Teach and practice public washroom protocols – in and out – no playing or lingering;
  6. Teach and practice how to properly wash hands with soap;
  7. Practice hand sanitizing before and after eating (and several times a day);
  8. Supply a tea towel to place on the table before eating;
  9. Cut up food into small pieces and practice eating with utensils, not fingers;
  10. Practice tieing shoes, zipping up zippers, buttoning tricky buttons – promoting independence is always a good thing;

Talking openly with children, answering questions, and addressing concerns honestly is the best way to reduce anxiety. Trying not to let your own fears and anxieties (if you have any) show through to your child(ren) is important. Here is another incredible resource that some of you may be interested in using. Social stories are a way to help children visually understand a new situation and a way to reduce anxiety and fears when faced with something unknown or new. These social stories were created by Tara Tuchel who is a Speech and Language Pathologist who primarily works with children with autism and she has generously posted these stories to share for free. Although social stories are specifically designed to help children with autism, any child experiencing anxiety or trepidations about what going forward to school will feel like during a pandemic will likely benefit from this gem of a resource. Click here for a full list of resources from Tara.

As always, if you have questions, comments, or concerns about going forward to school, please don’t hesitate to be in touch. For now, practice these new routines and safety measures at home in a comfortable, loving, and relaxed environment. We are all in this together!