NEWBERRY — When a child comes up to a teacher’s desk and repeatedly asks for attention while waving a worksheet in her face, nine times out of 10 a teacher will ask the child to have a seat and then raise his or her hand.
For educator Dorothy Chocklett, the response might be to ignore the behavior entirely rather than correct it.
Why is that in her teaching playbook? Doing so is a professional technique called extinction.
She uses Applied Behavioral Analysis, including techniques like extinction, to work with autistic students in Newberry County schools.
The broad goals of the approach are for students to attend, behave and be a part of the school day.
“One of the challenges is the child can’t tell you (what is going on). For example, if you are thirsty, you pick up a glass. Then you sip the drink and are rewarded with soda. On the other end of the example, if you are thirsty but you sip from a cup that is empty, the behavior is not reinforced, so you don’t do it again,” she said.
The autistic child might throw that empty cup, not knowing that it’s not accepted behavior.
That lack of social awareness is one symptom of autism, and Chocklett said research shows positive reinforcement with structured environments is most effective at helping students learn how to best function within a non-autistic world.
Children with autism have a developmental disorder that affects communication, socialization and can contain repetitive stereotype behaviors.
Stereotypical behaviors could include an autistic child spinning but not becoming dizzy because that autistic child has no sense of space to lose track of where he or she is. Rocking and hand flapping are two other stereotypical behaviors.
Chocklett said onset can occur by age 3 but sometimes diagnoses are made as early as 18 months. She said the diagnosis is observation-based and behavior-based.
Purposeful, research-based instruction
“We use behaviors to explain something or we work to get a student to attribute the behaviors needed for learning to take place,” she said.
In the case of the student who was overly excited, she said experience and observation revealed he was not yet able to make a connection between a social cue to stop the behavior, nor would a reprimand teach him a lesson.
In that example, the student was stuck “in a cognitive loop” and the best way to break the cycle was to ignore him and condition a response that overeagerness would elicit no response.
Chocklett and her assistants teach them over a number of years, so they can spot when an environmental or social occurrence will trigger inappropriate behavior.
If a child can associate receiving a sticker for completing a task properly, she uses a system called a token economy. Achievements that are rewarded with tokens, such as stickers, are arranged on a sliding scale.
“Our goal is to teach independent life skills needed so the students can become independent and/or positive contributors to the community around them,” said Chocklett.
Some students have better verbal abilities than others. Some are still learning potty training and toiletry skills while others have issues with impulsive behavior such as swearing. Some students require immediate reinforcement. Others respond to extinction as they realize no matter what behavior they exhibit, they still must complete a task.
Timeout or traditional punishments based on consequences from actions are ineffective, she said, because developmentally the students can’t add up the logic behind the punishment to learn a lesson from it.
Her calling — and those of teachers like her — is to help an exceptional student population learn, but Chocklett’s impact extends beyond the self-contained classroom.
Chocklett also is the district’s autism instruction coordinator for students with high-functioning autism, which is sometimes called Asperger Syndrome.
There is a spectrum of behavior, a set of characteristics that are the same but vary in the way they appear from student to student. Trying to solve that puzzle is part of what fuels her passion for teaching children with autism.
“You don’t necessarily see vast growth like in regular education, but there are rewards when a child becomes toilet trained or moves from a nonverbal communication system to a picture-based system or to a verbal system,” she said. “It’s a challenging behavioral puzzle about what causes a behavior to occur and how to fix it.”
The self-contained classroom is labeled and categorized by needs. For instance there is a sensory cool down area divided off by cubbyholes that contain no stimulation, no pictures on walls, no noise — just a space for a student to get a break from having to interpret an environment.
Modifications are made to minimize the impact developmental delays have on new life skills being learned, such as the class bathroom having no lights but containing cards on the wall with step-by-step instructions for hand washing and using the bathroom.
Each child has a daily work plan and the assessment methods vary depending upon how well a child communicates. Some might have yes/no checklists, while others might have more complex evaluation rubrics that correspond with more complex thought processes and behaviors.
Chocklett works with occupational therapists, teacher’s aides and as needed to consult in other classrooms in the district where students who are higher functioning with fewer social/behavioral issues related to autism are mainstreamed into regular classes.
“Some students have such mild cases of autism,” she said, “that the district does not need to provide them with services related to autism. That said, we also have great classroom assistance from an administrative support. It helps when you have people working with you who support your vision.”
Unlocking that puzzle takes a team including a district occupational therapist, speech therapy in some cases, perhaps physical therapy and parental support as well as being followed by primary care physicians.
Chocklett loves the puzzle but loves the children and the impact she can have on their families most of all.
She said she could not imagine doing any other line of work and thanks her assistants for the yeoman’s job they do to help with the self-contained children as well.