Calendar Time and Experiential Language

Calendar activities and morning circle time can often be a difficult period for many young children with autism with language and communication delays. For these children, the language, the large group format, the abstract concepts or many other factors can create a difficult learning activity for students, as well as a difficult to manage instructional activity for teachers. If this situation sounds familiar, then this teacher’s experience may prove helpful.

Tracy Smith, who taught a preschool class for students with autism at Tampa Palms Elementary School in Tampa, took a different approach to morning calendar activities. She recognized that in order to make calendar activities relevant for all her students, abstract concepts such as “yesterday”, “today”, “tomorrow” and “last week” need to be taught as they relate to students’ day-to day activities and experiences. She also noticed they learned better if they were engaged through multiple modalities.

Tracy changed her calendar activities by infusing experiential language techniques, along with opportunities for movement and visual and auditory stimulation. This approach proved to be a great way to promote language and communication skills, especially for her students with varying language abilities. Tracy could easily adapt her lessons to address all ability levels and expand each student’s expressive communication. She found that using multiple learning modalities along with real student experiences greatly improved the level of engagement and participation for all her students.

How does it work?

Each morning, Tracy formats her calendar activity by talking, drawing, and role playing highlighted student activities. She uses a large sheet of drawing paper and markers to illustrate the highlighted activities of “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow.”

Tracy begins with the usual greetings and then introduces the experiential calendar activity by asking “What day is it today?” to orient the students. She then asks what day was yesterday and proceeds to discuss the fun activity the children did the day before. She picks students to help with various aspects of the activity. Some help her name the day of the week or describe the activity, while others draw and color their involvement in it. Tracy sets the story up, and helps the students draw simple illustrations to accompany her description of the previous day’s activities, incorporating their experience in the activity. She uses this same format to address the activities of “Today” and “Tomorrow.”

What is the benefit for the children?

This multimodal approach to calendar activities builds anticipation as each student waits for a turn to add to the student-created visual representation. The visual referent of what they did “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” is a static reminder for students who have varying processing and language abilities. Students’ are also empowered through ownership of the activity as they discuss, draw and imitate words and actions. The activity also creates predictability, something that is very important to students with autism.
Tracy said her students “…look forward to things or ask me ‘What are we doing today?’. They will bring up something they normally wouldn’t ask about. It gives them a chance to ask about things going on today and to understand better what will happen tomorrow. A lot of times you don’t realize exactly what the students are getting from an activity and maybe you think they aren’t getting anything. But every day, they take something away from it, whether you realize it at the time or not.”

Tips for individualizing the language experience to the varying abilities of students:

Tracy provided the following tips to keep in mind for those interested in developing a language experience calendar activity time:

  • Plan cues and prompts in advance.
  • Personalize the questions, prompts or cues to bring each child into the activity.
  • Include forms of responding that don’t always require the use of language – for instance, manual signs, gestures or illustrations.
  • Provide additional sensory (three dimensional) supports for those students that need them within the activity. This helps children to wait an participate within the group easily.
  • Remember that children learn through experience so use a variety of modalities such as movement, auditory input, and visual stimulation as well as language.
  • Keep the activity moving with short turns; pacing maintains attention.
  • Let student interests drive the activity.
  • Come observe! Watch another teacher conduct a language experience activity.
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