CHAPEL HILL — Jennifer Walsh cried when she learned her 7 and 1/2-year-old daughter Koi had taken turns playing dinosaurs for the first time ever this summer.
“You just cannot even express in words the kind of feeling that gives you, when usually your child is by them self, lining up toys and not wanting to engage or interact with people,” Walsh said.
“It’s amazing,” she continued. “It seems so simple; other parents would just take it for granted. But it’s so remarkable to see her interacting and enjoying herself.”
Koi, a chubby-cheeked girl with a bubbly personality, was diagnosed with autism at 2 and 1/2 years old. She’s enrolled in public school in Wake County, in a self-contained classroom with seven other autistic children.
In July, Koi participated in TEACCH Chapel Hill’s summer training program, where teachers and mental health professionals across the state and from all over the world come to work with autistic preschool and elementary school-level children, using TEACCH’s structured learning methods.
Each day, trainees focus on a different curriculum area, such as communication, social skills, academics or behavior management. They listen to a lecture in the morning, observe experienced teachers in a model classroom and then work in a team to design their own activities to try out in the classroom with the children.
“Usually activities don’t work out the first time,” said Laura Klinger, a TEACCH psychologist and the director of TEACCH at UNC. “And then they come and fix it and go try again. It’s a very busy five days for our participants.”
Koi has thrived at TEACCH in ways she doesn’t in public school, or even in traditional therapeutic programs like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Walsh says.
“TEACCH knows how to motivate students by learning about them and learning what they like and what makes them tick,” Walsh said. “That’s what’s fueled Koi’s rapid progress through structured learning. She has no desire to please, and she’s not motivated by M&Ms like a lot of kids are. When you get structured learning, what they do is figure out what the child really likes.”
For Koi, at the end of her lessons at TEACCH, she would get to water flowers.
“The child thinks they’re being rewarded, but secretly they’re receiving therapy and learning at the same time,” Walsh said. “It’s win-win.”
In Chapel Hill, TEACCH conducts teacher trainings for seven weeks each summer; this year, TEACCH also held trainings in Asheville, Charlotte and Greensboro. It costs North Carolina residents around $700 to attend the training, which school systems usually pay for.
Each week’s training is open to 25 to 30 teachers who work with experienced lead teachers and a TEACCH psychologist, as well as with children with diagnoses all over the autism spectrum, as would be seen in a real-world classroom.
Klinger says the children in the program have limited language and an unclear understanding of how to interact with others.
“They might just wander away without rules,” Klinger said. “Or they might run around the classroom screaming. We see a lot of challenging behaviors, mostly because they don’t understand what’s expected of them and that’s their way of communicating that they’re confused. Our approach is to change the environment so they know what they’re supposed to be doing and what the expectations are.”
Setting the table
A team of teachers works with a different child each day. On the day focused on ‘independence,” Koi’s team designed an activity to get her to set the table by herself, a skill Walsh wanted her daughter to work on at TEACCH this summer.
Koi carried a basket around a table, laying out napkins and utensils as they appeared in pictures on a stencil.
“All done!,” she announced, waving her arms triumphantly after she successfully set the table.
One of the biggest challenges for teachers is taking what they learned during training in a model classroom and applying it when they get back to their real-world classrooms.
But a study released this summer – co-authored by researcher Brian Boyd, a fellow at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute – showed that TEACCH methods and other treatment methods do work in real-life, high-quality classrooms for preschool aged children.
Klinger said she is “very pleased” with the results of the study, as most teachers will take their training at TEACCH back to their school systems “and incorporate it with other models of preschool or elementary school intervention.”
“This isn’t the first research study to show that TEACCH methods work,” Klinger said. “What is truly unique about it is that it was conducted across a larger number of schools across the country, in preschool classrooms in urban and suburban school districts. This type of comprehensive research study completed in “real world” schools across a variety of communities is very difficult to conduct, so the evidence that TEACCH methods are effective across all of these different real world settings is exciting.”
Klinger said the study also showed that teachers who understood how to use TEACCH approaches at the beginning of the school year kept that knowledge consistent in their classrooms.
The hardest thing, Malinda Pennington, a lead teacher at the Chapel Hill training from Wilson, N.C., said the hardest thing for her is helping other people understand what structured learning is about.
“When a child is having a difficult day, he’s having a tantrum on the floor,” Pennington said. “You walk in and say, OK, let’s make a schedule, let’s make a picture.”
“People look at you like you’ve lost your mind,” she continued, “the child is obviously misbehaving. We try to turn it around and say it’s because of communication failure. We have to help the world understand; that’s the way we’re approaching it.”
Lauren Bynum, another teacher also from Wilson, said TEACCH methods work not only with autistic children, but with children in her regular education classroom as well.
“It just brings order to everything you do,” she said. “And it works.”
Cindy Bruton, a speech pathologist from Mt. Airy, said she wishes school systems would send more teachers to these kinds of trainings.
“I’m based at one elementray school,” she says. “Autistic kids in Mt. Airy are everywhere, not just in one site. So it’s up to you to train the other teachers and give them constant support.”
Walsh said she wishes public schools could do more for autistic children as well.
“Koi’s school is good, but they don’t have the resources to spend that kind of time in the classroom on each child,” Walsh said. “There’s just not enough funding out there for special education. I wish the entire world was like TEACCH, because it would be a wonderful place for Koi.”