THINGS I'VE LEARNED FROM PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE AS SMART AS I AM
by Doug Doty firstname.lastname@example.org
Just How Cognitively Delayed Is Cognitively Delayed?
"What is important is not a child's IQ on
a test, but his or her ability to function independently in society".
(BJ Freeman) IQ scores don't really tell you what the person can
DO. Focus on skills and needs rather than the label. "Cognitively
delayed /mentally retarded/developmentally disabled" is as much
of a label as "Republican".
Is It Really A Problem Behavior?
Bad behavior is good behavior
- Is the problem behavior a problem for YOU, but functional to
the STUDENT? "Hey, I got out of this situation/got attention/got
what I wanted!" Try to find the function of the behavior and a more
acceptable alternative to teach the student.
- "It's okay to be angry, it's not OK to hit people." We can't
just shut people down when they display anger (without physical
violence or property destruction). We need to teach people appropriate
ways to show anger.
- it shows you care. A student
who resists a task shows more potential than one who doesn't even care.
- Self-stimulatory behavior: We all do it (how many of us
have pens with teeth marks by them?). Trying to eliminate self-stimulatory
behaviors can be very frustrating, as we can't watch the person
24 hours a day and 7
- days a week. Often, discrimination training can be used to teach
the person when it is acceptable/not acceptable to stim. Stimming
is NOT OK when doing functional tasks, but can be an acceptable
behavior during downtime. Don't forget to look at teaching more
socially acceptable forms of stimulation (pencil vs. string).
- If the student is in constant motion, is the environment that
YOU provide not stimulating enough? Making the person slow down/sit
down will result in a high level of pent-up energy and frustration
for them (and probably you). What can you do to make activities
more physical? Can you build in time during the day for the student
to be physical?
ATTENTION! ATTENTION!! ATTENTION!!! If someone
with a communication deficit
is "doing something for attention",
don't ignore them. Use this as an opportunity to teach her more appropriate
ways of gaining attention and build on the student's current communication
- Before labeling a behavior as non-compliant, ask yourself,
"Does the student understand what I am asking her? Are they capable
of doing it? Am I requesting or commanding?
- If you find yourself saying, "Stop" or "Don't", make sure you
offer an alternative behavior to the student.
- Analyze your incident reports or other descriptions of
problem behaviors. Do the behaviors occur because the student needs
a better way to communicate? A better way to cope with waiting or
disappointment? A better way of expressing their emotions?
- Be wary of forcing a student to apologize to someone after a
bad behavior. If they don't feel remorse for their actions, are
you teaching them to lie?
- How many times in a day does the person truly have a choice of
what they are going to do?
What Do I Teach?
In teaching any skill, ask yourself if the student finds the
activity MEANINGFUL, FUNCTIONAL, USEABLE.
- If you don't know where you're going, how can you know when you
get there. Stop every now and then ask yourself, "Where is Johnny
going to be in 3-5 years? What will he be doing? Who will he be
doing it with?" This can help you identify skills to be taught.
- Go to the environment Johnny will be in five years from now.
Look at what tasks people with disabilities are expected to do.
Ask the staff/teacher what skills they want people have when they
enter that environment. Ask what problems or lack of skills cause
people to fail in that environment.
- "Now that you've identified the pre/vocational skills the student
will learn, tell me exactly where he can get a paycheck with those
skills." How many people do you know who get a livable wage for
assembling pens, sorting by color or putting small objects into
- If the activity is useable and functional but doesn't have meaning
to the student, try to show/tell them how it will be meaningful,
'Do you get more candy from Grandma if you say "Please" or if you
say, "Give me that!" If you can't establish meaningfulness, increase
- To determine if a skill is functional and useable, ask, "How
will the student use this skill after they've learned it? How
often will they be able to use the skill?"
How Do I Teach?
- Does the student REALLY know what is expected of them in a particular
activity? It may be hopeful to show them how to do it several
times before teaching them.
- One question to ask when you are not making progress in teaching
a skill is, "What relevance does the activity have from the STUDENTS
point of view?" Make it relevant or accept that it is non-relevant
to the student and reward them into doing it.
- For any activity ask, "What is the student supposed to learn
in this activity?" Make sure that is what you teach.
- Teach the skill, don't teach TO the skill.
- Talking out loud (or quietly) can be a good way for the student
to cue herself when learning a new task. "Put a big coin in, put
a big coin in, press the red button, take the pop, check for change."
Once the student has the skill sequence she can fade volume or length
of the cues (don't forget to let the student to the talking.)
- Teach colors by objects, not pieces of paper. (Do you
want the white pop or the green pop? Can you get your red coat?")
In real life we often use several descriptors (coat/red) for an
- Peer tutors may model appropriate behavior more consistently
than you can. They don't know that they're teaching.
- Modify tasks and activities. How can you break down or
change a task so that the student can do it?
- Teach social skills. Most jobs are lost due to a lack
of SOCIAL skills, not work skills.
- Always say, "Please" and "Thank You".
- It's easy to inadvertently teach people to become cue dependent
(e.g., the student who won't do ANYTHING until you tell her to).
Lessening the cues/prompts you give to people can help to avoid
- Develop the habit of cueing the person to initiate the ACTIVITY
rather than preparatory steps (e.g., "Bob, it's time to do math."
Rather than "Bob, sit down in the chair. Bob, take out your pencil.
Bob, take out a piece of paper.") Make sure the student has the
requisite skills and knows the skill sequence before fading to an
- If you talk too much people stop listening.
- "Good job" has as much meaning as praise as "How are you?" has
for a question.
- We can teach through play, but it's easier to just play. Make
sure you (and the student) distinguish between play activities or
play time and work time. Be cautious of using a computer for both
or save play time on the computer for a time when there will be
a natural break (recess, lunch) before requiring the student to
work on the computer.
- For computer programs, watch to see if a wrong answer more exciting
than a correct answer. If a wrong answer gives me a buzzer and some
great graphics while a correct answer just gives me another problem,
I might pick the wrong answer just for the excitement.
- It's easy to give students too many unintended verbal or physical
prompts. Spend some time with your hands in your pockets. Don't
talk for 1/2 hour, just use gestures and modeling cues.
- In most instances, wait 5 seconds before you prompt the student
to do the next step or activity.
Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really
care? Knowing how to tell time can be important, but for a student
who has no control over their schedule or who will always live/work
in a controlled environment time may have no relevance. The same
can be true of teaching days of the week. How is Tuesday different
- for the student?
- Instead of saying, "We'll do that later.", Give sequence information
- "We'll do (activity) after lunch." Or "After we clean up we can
. . . "
- Remember that not everyone is motivated by the same reinforcers.
Look at what the person enjoys doing and what they don't enjoy.
- Are most of your comments in the classroom cues or directives
("It's time to . . .; Stop doing . . .) or praise and interaction
("Thanks for your help!, Did you watch the news last night?) Have
someone else count your comments and give you feedback.
- Keep track of your comments to students for ten minutes. How
many of your statements are corrective or directive? ("Please don't
. . ."; "You need to stand up and go to . . .") How many of your
comments are praise or encouragement? Do you ever have an actual
conversation with the student, one without an ulterior motive?
- Why write when you can type? Will handwriting the primary means
of communication for the student? If you are having difficulty teaching
writing, try typing. Which do YOU do more of- handwriting or typing?
- Does the student not talk because he doesn't need to? What opportunities
does the student have to talk? Do YOU always respond to a gestural
response from the student, rather than requiring a vocal response?
- A useful activity for any student is to "be the student" for
an hour or longer. Follow the student, do the same activities, do
the same self-stim behaviors, etc. This can give you insight as
to her feelings. It can also help you in identifying skills the
student needs to learn.
- Any communication system to be used by the student must;
- 1. be portable
- 2. be available in all environments
- 3. work better than the students current method of communication
- 4. be necessary
- Teaching reading means teaching comprehension (MEN = where
to go to toilet, not just what to point at when I give you cards
with MEN and WOMEN)
- Teaching numbers means teaching functional usage. Orally
counting to five is less important than taking five cans of pop
to fill the machine.
- Teaching eye contact for the sake of eye contact is a waste of
time and offensive to both parties. I don't have to see you to hear
- When someone is leaving your classroom/other setting, a half
hour videotape of the person can be more valuable than a foot of
If a student uses sign language or specific gestures to
communicate, make up a sign language vocabulary book that they
can take to their next classroom or setting. Students may slightly
change signs from the strict ASL or SEE description, so that someone
else familiar with sign languages misinterprets the sign.
- Sign language can be useful, but only with other people who understand
sign. Using sign language at Taco Generica to order a burrito, a
coke and an ice cream cone might pose difficulties. Be aware of
situations where the student might need to use other means of communication
(iconic menus, communication wallet)