Adaptive curriculum at Central Valley allows pupil with autism to bloom
Beaver County Times - 4/3/2019
April 03-- Apr. 3--CENTER TWP. -- Jack Cassida had trouble engaging in teacher Matthew Reese's technology classes.
Jack, a fifth-grader at Todd Lane Elementary School in Center Township, has autism. He doesn't learn the same as his classmates. Instead of letting Jack sit in his class doing busy work, Reese went to Jack's special-education teachers, Cathy Scuilli and Cher Balestrieri, to see what could be done.
"I never had a teacher come to me and say, 'Your child can't participate meaningfully in my class. What can we do?'" Scuilli said.
Together the teachers worked to adapt the technology curriculum using a specialized program from Jack's special-education class.
The work that began as a way to get Jack caught up in technology class grew into a friendship that has impacted the student and his teachers and helped Jack blossom in many areas of his life.
"He's really started to come into his own," said his mother, Stacey Cassida.
How it began
Jack was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old, Cassida said. He went to an adaptive prekindergarten program in Beaver for a couple of years before joining his neurotypical peers in the Central Valley School District in kindergarten class at Center Grange Primary School.
Neurotypical people are those who do not have a diagnosis of autism.
Cassida said Jack did well at the primary school and enjoyed his teachers, especially Monica Sturm, but he also struggled with aggressive behavior. Because he had trouble expressing himself through words, he sometimes acted out or pinched his teachers or aides.
Physically, Jack is now nearly 12 years old, but neurologically he's not a young child, Cassida said.
When Jack began attending Todd Lane Elementary in third grade, Scuilli said, he was verbal but not functionally so. Balestrieri said he still had aggression issues as well, which made it difficult for him to socialize with classmates.
The Autism Initiative's Verbal Behavior program is a model of instruction for students with autism. Teachers identify gaps in development using the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program. Developmental skills include labeling objects, following instructions, asking for something or answering questions.
A child could have gaps in different parts of each skill because "autism is not sequential," Scuilli said.
Once gaps are identified, the teachers use intensive teaching to fill them in. For example, picture cards and other prompts are used to teach new skills and reinforce known ones. The cards might show food, animals, household objects, numbers or words.
An assessment of Jack found he was at the typical developmental level of a 3-year-old in terms of labeling and other developmental skills. Throughout third grade, he made steady progress using the Verbal Behavior program, his special-education teachers said.
Third grade is also when Jack first met Reese, his technology teacher. It was Reese's first year at Central Valley and his first year teaching the technology class, formerly a computer skills class.
Reese made the class more about technology and engineering, rather than just computer skills, which many pupils already had at that point. With the help of a paraprofessional, Jack was able to skate by in third-grade technology education without intervention, Scuilli said.
When Reese first met Jack, he was taken aback by a boy who greeted him with a hug, he said. Cassida said Jack gravitates toward certain people, and Reese happened to be one of those people.
"He fell in love with Matt," she said. "They really developed this bond quickly."
Reese got to know Jack even more that first year when Reese began having some special-education pupils help out in his class in their spare time to build functional life skills. Reese recalls Jack using one word or short phrases to answer questions and being somewhat reserved.
In fourth grade, when the technology class got more complex, Reese noticed Jack was not able to keep up with his peers any longer. That's when he went to Scuilli for help.
Scuilli had an idea that if Jack was to participate in tech ed, he needed a good base. He needed to know the words involved in the class.
Reese and Scuilli figured out the things Jack needed to know and added them into his Verbal Behavior intensive teaching program. He learned incline plane, lever, pulley and the names of the different building blocks being used in class to create the simple and compound machines.
Through trial and error, they also figured out the best way to teach Jack these things. They tried using the picture cards used other times in intensive teaching, but then found using the actual building block parts worked better.
To further adapt the class, Reese got different building blocks than his neurotypical students were using.
First, waffle blocks were used to learn about simple machines. The waffle blocks were easier for Jack to use and helped him improve fine motor skills, Reese said.
Once Jack mastered simple machines, Reese found a more complex set of building blocks -- a Melissa and Doug building kit -- to teach compound machines.
"Seeing the fine motor skills develop from waffle block kit to Melissa and Doug build kit, then we decided to move to Vex kits, which is what his typical peers were using," Reese said.
And that's how Jack finally caught up, taking a different road to get to the same destination as his classmates.
Scuilli and Reese said that in some ways, Jack was exceeding what his classmates were doing in some lessons. From his intensive teaching lessons, Jack knew all the specific names for the parts in the Vex kit, the building blocks that were used in Reese's classroom for many projects. He also showed a great aptitude for building things by memory, whereas his typical peers usually needed to look at a schematic drawing to build an incline plane or a lever, Reese said.
Opening things up
Working directly with his peers on the same projects seems to be what opened things up for Jack. Because they were doing the same work on the same level, he could relate and communicate better with his classmates. His aggressive behaviors went away. His classmates responded in kind.
Reese said some pupils used to avoid working with Jack, but now they fight to be the one to help him out when he needs it. Sometimes they even go to him with questions, as he's the resident expert on all the Vex kit parts.
Jack's personality shines through now, Reese said. He used to give one-word answers, but now he responds in full sentences. He likes to sing and dance when music is played in class.
"He wouldn't have expressed himself like that before," Scuilli said. "The confidence is there now, because he can do things with his peers and do the same things as them."
After the breakthrough with tech ed, Jack's progress bled into other subjects, including reading, spelling and math, Scuilli said.
When he started at Todd Lane, Jack had poor reading skills and needed one-on-one help to read anything, Balestrieri said. Now he can read at a first-grade level and participate in small-group reading sessions in class.
"This has really opened the door for him to participate in those things," she said. "He listens better, engages more with people, answers questions meaningfully."
Reese and Scuilli also began taking Jack out for trips on the weekends to provide real-life experiences with adults outside of his parents. They often go out to eat, although they've also gone bowling, to a water park and to school dances.
Cassida, Jack's mother, credits some of Jack's progress to maturing with age, but she credits Reese and Scuilli for the extra attention they've given her son. Jack's not yet at the point where he can hang out with a classmate one on one, so she's thankful for his "adult friends."
"I know they put in extra work for Jack because they love him. They've gone above and beyond to help him excel," his mother said. "We can't give Matt and Cathy enough credit for everything they've done for him. So many things have opened up for him at Todd Lane."
While his parents have always made sure Jack stayed busy in activities outside school, including Miracle League baseball, Buddy Bowling and Boy Scouts, Jack can now participate more in school, his mother said. Cassida said that in addition to all the work he's done in tech ed, he also plays percussion in the school band.
"The best learning experience for him is being with neurotypical peers and modeling their behaviors," Cassida said. "The kids are so welcoming and genuinely seem to love him."
The adaptive tech-ed experience has also changed his teachers, especially Reese, who did not have much experience with special-education programs or students prior to his work with Jack.
Reese was named the Beaver County Educational Trust's Innovative and Inspiring Educator of the Year last year for his work with Jack. Last summer, Reese and Scuilli also attended the National Autism Conference together.
They are writing a curriculum based on their work with Jack in adaptive technology education to show others how they can better teach students with autism. Scuilli wrote her master's thesis about her work and progress with Jack.
"We love him," Scuilli said. "We're not sure what we'll do next year when he's in the middle school."
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