Observer Effect

I think every parent gets that their child is a different person when they’re not around.

To be fair – we’re all different based on context.  I know that, despite everything, I’m different at work than I am at home, and still another way on the ice.  But, especially, our children are very different people when they’re dealing with the different authority figures in their lives.

Part of the Monster’s IEP specifies that we get daily communication from his teachers.  In years past, this has often been a checklist or a couple of lines in a notebook that passes back and forth between us and the school.  This year, our communication log is email between ourselves and his teacher.

The downside to this is that it’s not all in one place, if we ever need to refer to it during an IEP review.  The upside is that we get instant feedback at the end of every day as to how things went, and admittedly, it’s much more of a conversation than in past years – we frequently write back very soon after we get a message, and his teacher is good about responding with filling in details.

This is a very good thing when we were suddenly getting an image of the Monster in class that varied wildly from what we were seeing at home.  The messages coming home were very enthusiastic about how well he was doing, how he was participating in things in class, how he was very quickly getting a grasp of his Talker device… and on the other side, it’s like pulling teeth some days to get him to say more than “I want to eat cheese” through the Talker at home.  So I availed myself of something at Gateway that I’ve never availed myself of before – the dreaded “Parental Observation” card.

One of the things that struck us, when we first toured Gateway, was the existence of observation rooms with one-way windows attached to every classroom.  (The Schaffer Center, the other school we’d toured, had closed-circuit TV for every room to fill the same purpose.)  It’s hard to observe a class without causing a disruption, and harder still when the students are all special-needs in one variety or another.  (Let’s be honest here – the observer effect holds for classroom observation too, and not just quantum physics.) This presented a fabulous opportunity to see how things really are, and get some answers as to why things in the emails seemed so much rosier than we were seeing at home. I asked the teacher if she minded horribly if I came – arranging to visit on a day when I knew the basics of the early morning schedule and before the July mini-mester ended – and she was very happy to have me come see the lay of the land.


To give you a brief idea of what it his school is like…

The classroom is a little smaller than the average classroom I’ve seen in a public school setting (which makes sense – these are school rooms for five to seven students a piece, really).  It’s certainly brighter and colorful, with a few distinct seating areas, mostly around larger tables with appropriately-sized chairs for the students and teachers to work in.  No lines of desks, no messy chalkboards.  It reminded me a lot of some of the nursery school classrooms at the JCC, to be honest.  On the other hand, there were those aspects that are very elementary-school-like – such as the pledge of allegiance to start the day – that never go away and definitely were refreshing to see, in that the school’s not wholly “different” from the education most of us grew up with.

My visit coincided with the Morning Meeting and their first subject area (they were studying US symbols, like the White House, the flag, and the Statue of Liberty).  The first part was the kind of thing you’d expect, with the students talking about the day, the date, the weather, things like that – all good conversational topics that concentrate on developing communication skills and general awareness of their environment.  There was a pattern-matching exercise, and then they moved into the topic for the day before breaking up to do individual work on the subject.  Much of the lesson was accompanied by prompted speech and ASL (the latter surprising me, though I don’t know why) and, in the Monster’s case, his AT device.

What struck me most in the environment was the very low teacher-student ratio for the summer – my wife assures me that there were, in fact, five students in his class for July, but on this day, one student was missing.  With a teacher and 3 aides, this was a fabulous 1:1 ratio for the kids, and the teacher was working directly with the Monster during individual work.  Frankly, given everything that’s been written in each and every evaluation of him, this is exactly the environment he needs in order to thrive academically.


So… the downside.  Given how the seating arrangement was in the classroom – the whiteboards are actually on the far side of the classroom from where the booth is situated, and the Monster was obviously facing the board – I couldn’t see his mouth to see if he was talking.  Complicating this further was the fact that there’s no way to clearly hear what’s going on in the classroom, no microphones or the like to pick up ambient audio.  I had to go off body-language and what diminished sound came through the windows to really divine what was going on in terms of him speaking.

I saw a lot of the behaviors we’ve seen in the past with him, in terms of his communication – the Monster likes to guess, because he wants to pick the answer that will make the questioner happy.  In various activities, he’d go sequentially through the options, rather than picking one based on thinking it right, in hopes of finding the right answer.  It feels, in those moments, like a trained pet going through the motions of things rather than someone who’s absorbing the subject matter.

But… the upsides.  The teacher did, certainly, encourage him to use his Talker device, often modeling for him if he seemed to not know what he was looking for.  He did, on some occasions, initiate use of it himself to answer questions, and it seemed from the body language in the room that he gave the correct answer at least as often as he was simply guessing at appropriate answers.  That he wants to use the device was apparent, since he was actually going to it without prompting, and that itself is a fantastic thing.  He clearly still needs to learn where some things are, but he was definitely utilizing it without someone having to remind him every five seconds.

And then there were the non-academic things – he stayed in his chair appropriately during the hour I was there.  (Meaning at times when it was appropriate for him to get up, he did.)  When the class started to watch a movie, he got up directly from his seat to go to turn out the lights, and returned directly to his seat.  He demonstrated good fine-motor skills working on a project, and worked independently with minimal direction.  I even saw him use a Viewmaster toy in an appropriate fashion during a five minute break between segments, which is shocking to me.

So, conclusions.  We’re getting the rosiest take on things from his teachers when get the emails home every day… but it’s not like they’re entirely off-base.  They are, perhaps, the most optimistic impressions of how he’s doing in class.  But, more importantly, it is an improvement over where he was a year ago and I can’t emphasize that enough, and hopefully, with more practice (and with applying some of what I saw at his class), maybe we can make greater gains.

And I’ll be going back in the fall for another observation, to see how things have progressed.

2 thoughts on “Observer Effect

  1. First time reader of your blog and I enjoyed it. There are lots of blogs by moms with kids on the spectrum, but not too many dads. My oldest son uses an AAC(Dynavox) to help with communication at home and at the classroom. He goes to a public school and I did a lot of visiting, showing the teachers how to use his communication device, and asking how I could program it for any lessons that they taught him. They’ve been receptive. My son loves school for the structure. Being at home with his other two autistic brothers can be frustrating for him. Thanks for sharing.

    • *grins* Our school sent us home a note about using it with an explicit instruction *NOT* to edit the device, but rather to send them a list of words we want added/removed. (I’m so, so tempted right now to remove the word ‘cheese’ from the device, after the thirtieth repetition of ‘I want to eat cheese’.)

      Thank you for reading, and welcome!

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