What is the learner objective?

September 30, 2013
Chelsea Budde

When we started developing our student curriculum nearly seven years ago, Denise and I knew what we, as parents, wanted typically-developing peers to know about their classmates with autism, including our own sons.  Not long after we had done some field tests, we assembled a committee to review our newly-hatched programs and services.  One of the members encouraged us to identify learner objectives for our programs to clarify the content.

Boiling lessons down to learner objectives crystalizes your message, and should drive both the message and the medium for delivery.

2009, Alcon Entertainment
Warner Bros. Pictures

One of my favorite film-based examples of a teacher having a clear understanding of her learning objectives for a lesson is in The Blind Side.  As the true story goes, eventual pro football player Michael Oher struggled greatly in school.  At the private school he ended up graduating from, his Biology teacher opted to give his assessment orally versus requiring him to read the questions and write his answers.  The academic ability she found in her student by taking that alternate approach made a radical difference in both his educators' perception of his potential and in the way his education was crafted.

Students with autism spectrum disorder are notoriously difficult to assess by traditional means.  Standardized tests are often verbally-loaded, which poses a number of problems for most children with ASD.  For example ...

  • verbal processing delay: Many individuals with autism experience a measurable, many-second time delay in hearing words and being able to make sense of them.  In timed tests, this is especially debilitating when trying to assess understanding.
  • need for rephrasing of questions: Abstract language and concepts are difficult for people with autism, who are often black-and-white, concrete thinkers.  While rephrasing questions often helps students understand the intent, this is prohibited or carefully restricted on many standardized tests.
  • fine motor impairment: Whether it's a difficulty with writing in small spaces or an executive planning problem with getting thoughts from head to paper, writing words is often hard for people with autism.

And these don't even take into account communication and sensory perception differences.

In light of these, educators and families need to be clear about what their learner objectives are.  If the learner objective is to take a high-scoring standardized test, that's one thing.  But if the objective is to understand the factions of the Civil War, or the order of operations for algebra equations, or to identify and successfully manage one's emotions, then be sure the teaching and assessment methods are individualized to the learner.

The need for clarity around learner objectives, which is not restricted to academic pursuits, was recently driven home when the meltdown of a student with ASD was perceived and treated as if it were a behavior problem.  The student presented in the morning with a number of underlying stressors, which were not evident to educators because of his limited spoken language.  What sent him over the edge was a substitute teacher, who ended up receiving a communicative swipe.  Perceived by administrators as an aggressive act, the incident prompted a phone call to the parent, who was asked to take her son home as a disciplinary measure.

Thankfully for all parties, the parent had the tools to de-escalate her son* and debrief the many people who tried to respond, reminding them of her son's existing IEP and BIP, which were full of techniques that were used successfully in the past to prevent meltdowns and/or bring them to resolution.  (*Note: While the de-escalation techniques described in the article may work for some individuals, this is by no means a universal, exhaustive, and/or exclusively recommended list.) With the proper interventions, he was able to return to class successfully and complete his school day without further incident.

Here are the lessons the student could have learned from the initial mis-handling of the meltdown:

  • I must self-regulate emotionally, even in the absence of otherwise available assistance.
  • My non-verbal means of communication will be ignored, even punished when misperceived by adults around me.
  • I will be freed from school when I use out-of-control behavior as my last resort.

Here are recommended learner objectives:

  • To recognize feelings of upset and communicate those, whether verbally or otherwise, to people who can help in the ways established through my IEP/BIP.
  • To expect that feelings of upset will be handled by trained adults without escalating those unwanted feelings.
  • To return to class following times of emotional and/or physical dysregulation, confident that systems exist to encourage inclusive practices.

So take a good, honest look at what you're trying to teach your student with autism.  Are your learner objectives and teaching methods consistent with the lessons?  If not, how can you adapt them?  If so, please share your successes with others who require inspiration!

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