College Classroom Management Strategies with a Student with Asperger’s
January 14, 2013 2:50 PM   Subscribe

How do I best manage a discussion-based course where one student speaks out too frequently because of Asperger’s? I teach university courses at a school with small class sizes of approximately 10 students. One of my students this semester has Asperger’s and speaks out too frequently—usually on topic but usually to share a personal experience with the topic rather than to move the discussion forward.

I’ve taught other students with Asperger’s before and had success with small group activities for most discussions, but with a class this small, I can do that only so much because they should benefit from larger group discussions. I plan to meet with this student later this week to talk about learning strategies that are effective for him/her, but how else should I approach this issue? The university's disability officer has been helpful about standard accommodations but less helpful with teaching and classroom management strategies. The student has self-disclosed the disability to the class.

If you are a professor or teacher, how have you handled similar situations? What do you wish you’d done differently? If you were the student, how would you wish your professors handled it? If you were in a class where this was happening, what do you wish the professor had done to make sure everyone had a positive learning experience while treating everyone with dignity? I’m afraid some of the student’s classmates are intolerant of this student’s differences. I want this student (and all students) to have a positive experience in my class. Thank you for your help.
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give the whole class a detailed guide of what good participation looks like, and frame it as "This is how you can participate and succeed?" So, for example, you have a specific idea of what "moving the discussion forward" looks like. Write down all the parts of what makes that a good contribution, vs. a less good contribution, vs. a poor contribution. Essentially, make students a detailed rubric so that they *all* have a model for what you want from classroom participation.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:55 PM on January 14, 2013 [8 favorites]

Wouldn't explaining the situation and seeking collaboration from the student be the best tack to take?

From what I understand (and maybe I don't understand much, since Asperger's is a spectrum "disorder" or condition with characteristics unique to each individual), a solution may be as simple as helping the student "decode" the seminar scenario, and teaching appropriate ways to interact.

Detailed documentation is helpful - ideally you would be able to note the time of when the student participated, how long the participation was (comparing it to the overall length of the seminar) and what the student said.

In my experience with classroom management, such documentation is really useful for helping adjust problematic behaviour (although it would have to be handled right, in a non-confrontational way).

Since you may not have done such specific documentation, maybe it's something to do with the student's consent going forward.

I'm not sure how patronizing this would be for the student - they are adults after all - but if you can somehow get the student to recognize and accept there is a bit of a challenge in terms of how he interacts with the class, followed by a pledge to change the behaviour, that would be great.

But introducing the concept that there may be things the student needs to work on will be the greatest hurdle.

You can do this is the traditional ways, such as "I" statements:

- I need to cover a certain amount of material in class
- I need to make sure everyone, including you, has a chance to participate
- I need to make sure we stay on topic, and sometimes I'm hearing from you things that are not relevant

posted by KokuRyu at 3:00 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

My wife is frequently assigned kids on the spectrum to her classroom. The technique she uses to guide behaviors is the development of "social stories", unique to each kid/situation. You would need to adapt these for older students, but working with them to develop some stories/sentences that they review prior to class might be useful. This is going to depend, of course, on their own investment in making a change.

Is there a counseling program within your school that might also be able to work with the student?
posted by HuronBob at 3:06 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since this is such a small class, I would consider having a checklist in hand to help keep track of when students are talking. The next time you have a discussion I would preface it by saying you expect everyone to talk equally and that you are going to call on everyone multiple times. Then you say things like,

I want to hear from the quiet people in the class.

Thank you _____ for your contribution/offering to speak, now let's hear from some other students.

_______ I see you have had your hand raised for awhile, what do you think about what __________ said?

I guess maybe just lead the discussion more, but tell students before that you are going to do it.

This pdf for a Great Books discussion has a checklist that might be useful for students to self-assess themselves after a discussion.

Finally, I would discuss with this student one-on-one to make sure that they understand the requirements. With an Asberger's student I would even go to far as to say, I would like to hear you x number of times today, but not more than x. If they talk extremely long or offtopic you could also have a special signal with them that means wrap it up, so that they don't have to be embarrassed by you cutting them off, but the discussion stays more on topic.
posted by aetg at 3:09 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree that maybe a discussion like the ones outlined above might be helpful. You might also consider coming up with personal signal between the two of you, some sort of non-verbal hand signal or something, that gives feedback to the student when they are engaged in the undesirable behavior and it gives him the chance to modify his behavior without calling him out in front of the entire class. Often, students with Asperger's can engage in this kind of meta-cognitive analysis with success.

You might also ask the student if you could record a session, and then offer to meet with him to review the tape with the express purpose of looking at how often he raises his hand and engages in the targeted behavior, and then work together to find ways to decrease the number of interjections over time. Make sure to frame the improvements as they relate to your feelings. For example, "When you make the kinds of comments that move the conversation along, I feel..."

You might want to consider taking at look at Michelle Garcia Winner's website for some short blog entries and articles on working with people with social-cognitive deficits.

I have to say, I'm impressed that you're really trying to make this situation the best it can be for everyone. You deserve some kudos for that.
posted by absquatulate at 3:37 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Assuming the student has been aware of their Aspergers for some time and potentially received social tutoring in the past, perhaps ask the student how best to communicate with them. They probably already know what works and what doesn't. You could try working something out with the student in private like:
-Super secret signal, perhaps a phrase easily worked in, or whenever you touch your ear, etc. to indicate it's time for the student to give someone else a turn
-tell the student the ideal number of responses each student should provide, but make it REALLY clear that student is not to publicly audit other classmates' number of responses. Request that the student try to keep near that number.
-ask the student to PRIVATELY record the number of responses each student gives, length of response, whether response is anecdotal in nature, etc. for a couple of class sessions so the student can see for him/herself exactly what typical classroom interaction is.
-quick immediately-after-class assessment of student's interactions.
-if the student is open to in-class direction, from the subtle to the blatant.
-tell them what you told us - much of what they are relaying is personal experience. Ask them to try to frame their responses to be conceptual and universal, rather than personal. Explain clearly why that approach is more effective when engaging in a group environment. I think this would be especially helpful for the student because it is a life skill they will need a lot, and no one is going to explain this to them once they're out of school.

The student probably knows at this point how easily they get embarrassed or their feelings hurt. They probably have a fair sense of how explicit and specific they need instructions to be for social interactions. It would be fantastic if you could make sure they know that you are not judging them, or scolding them. That their input is valuable, but the valuable stuff is getting lost in the amount of class-time they are taking for themselves, and that they are welcome to ask you after class if they have questions about whether any particular response was appropriate, so long as they are open to hearing the truth as you perceive it.

I'm coming from the pov of an adult who wasn't diagnosed with Aspergers until very recently, so please take my suggestions with a grain of salt. They may be just as socially tone-deaf as the stuff you're trying to avoid. After years of observation and mimicking and social dissection, I pass pretty well these days. Those are the sorts of things that either have helped me or that I think would likely have worked, now that I have hindsight. Social rules that I'm still blind to may make some or all of my suggestions great in theory but not-so-great in practice.

Most important, I think: ask them what kind of direction/guidance has worked well for them. And thank you, thank you for trying to fairly integrate this student rather than shutting them down for the greater good. You have no idea how valuable (and valued) any little social lessons you can pass on without prejudice will be.
posted by tllaya at 3:49 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a colleague who had good luck with giving each student 3 post-it notes at the beginning of class, stuck in front of them on the table, and having each student write his or her name on the sticky note. When the student participates, he hands the professor one of the notes. It keeps the talky students from dominating the conversation, encourages the quiet ones to participate more, and makes it easy for him to track participation (which is how he passes the method off when introducing it). He counts a back-and-forth exchange on one idea between a couple students as just one post-it and quick interjections don't count. In smaller classes he might give students 5 post-its and tell them to participate 2-5 times, or whatever.

I haven't tried it myself but apparently students like it because it gives them a visual cue to help gauge their participation while reigning in some of the annoying-to-other-students extreme talky behavior. That only addresses the quantity, not quality, of comments, but it's something to have in the mental arsenal.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:59 PM on January 14, 2013 [14 favorites]

Seconding all the recommendations to talk to the student privately and outline your concerns. My students have been very receptive to this, and in fact kind of relieved that someone was willing to lay it all out for them so they didn't have to guess what was going wrong. You can then ask the student what kinds of strategies their teachers or professors have used before to help keep them on track or not dominate the discussion. Maybe get Disability Support Services involved in the discussion too, if you think they'd be a good resource (ours are great, but it varies from institution to institution how helpful they can be).

I've had success with the previously-agreed-upon hand signal that means "You need to wrap it up." Depending on the student's comfort with it, I have also been able to just say flat out: "That's interesting, but not relevant to what we're discussing right now; do you have anything to say about [Topic X]?" or, if necessary, cutting the student off and saying "Thanks Joe; now I'd like to hear what someone else has to say" and calling on another student.

I feel your pain on the other students being impatient with this guy, but I think the best thing you can do is model patience for them, and call out blatantly disrespectful behaviour. It's also very good to have a frank, whole-class discussion about your expectations for respectful behaviour (no eye-rolling, no nasty comments, listening without interrupting, critiquing ideas rather than people). That will be helpful to your student with Asperger's, too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:59 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I sometimes wonder (and hopefully someone with this trait will show up) if living with Aspergers is sort of like living in a foreign country where there are different social rules.

When I lived in Japan I had a hell of a time "fitting in" (if that were possible), even after I learned to function day to day in the language. There are some things that made no sense to me - I got offended when waitstaff never spoke to me, but focused on my wife, until my wife said that it's normal for the wife to do all the talking with service folks - the husband is the boss.

So, decoding things helped me out a lot, as did actually role-playing certain scenarios (returning an item at the store). It was very process-oriented, and helped me enjoy life more, with less friction with Japaese folks.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:45 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

im on the spectrum, in a new school, in a new city, as lonely and miserable as i have ever been, and flunking out of school because i don't know how to change my behaviour in ways that make my partcipation acceptable to the program i am in.

i hate my life right now. for the first time since high school, i hate being on the spectrum. nothing seems to work, and i can't seem to fix it. i was so excited to continue school. i want to leave and am being encouraged to leave. the faculty are confused or seem to hate me, the other student's don't seem to want me to be here.

i have been told i need to change my behaviour, that i need to stop talking as much, that what i say is not intelligent of valuable--but more than half my grade is particpation, and so i need to talk, but every time i talk it seems that i am being punished, i most likely talk to much, and talk in the wrong ways, talk in the ways that you have suggested here--in fact are you my GSA?

i have left for classes and had to vomit before hand, and i have broken down crying almost every week.

i have not been as pushed, or as pressured to conform, and as confused about how to succeed. i have a masters--the other university, there was directness and an explicitness, and that was good--but there was also the idea that autism was another way of looking at the world, and that i had something to offer.

please, please, please, please--do not put the whole force of change on this student, allow for her gifts to emerge, allow for her autonomy.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:15 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty sure it was in John Elder Robison's book Be Different where I read this. He has Asperger's and has managed to create a pretty successful life for himself. He said that he learned he needed to start a mental clock ticking as soon as he started talking, and slow down around 30 seconds and then stop by 45 seconds. It felt completely artificial to him because, hey, wouldn't anyone be fascinated by the car engine he was describing rebuilding?? But he was surprised to learn that his interactions actually went better when he didn't just firehose words at people, and now he does it because it works.

I guess what I am saying is that you shouldn't be afraid to be pretty prescriptive with this guy. Eyebrows McGee's postit note idea sounds brilliant.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:17 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

i am doing everything that tylla has suggested by the way, before anyone asks otherwise.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:18 PM on January 14, 2013

sorry, one more thing, i don't need to thread sit.

autism is disruptive, and there is an encouragement towards a hierarchy in academia. the tension there needs to be stated directly. often people feel uncomfortable being as blunt or as explicit as they would like. often the translation between baseline and the edges is really difficult in heavily modulated places.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:23 PM on January 14, 2013

as spectrum people would like.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:24 PM on January 14, 2013

Someone close to me taught a class with a student who sounds similar. In that case, the student would interject at inappropriate times, and would sometimes fixate on a subject tangential to the lecture and be unable to let it go. There were other behaviors that were disruptive in other settings too, but the way of handling them all was similar, namely:

Be very explicit with the student about exact behavioral expectations, in a way that might feel a bit rude to you because it's more explicit than you would be with a student who's more responsive to social cues. This begins with an office meeting to talk about which exact behaviors are a problem (eg, pursuing a subject after you've said, "we're going to move on to the next person" or whatever) and what the correct behavior is (to stop talking). Setting a limit of a certain number of times they can talk per class is a-okay. The idea of you controlling the discussion more by calling on people (or some other explicit rules of transition-between-speakers) is good, so the student doesn't have to figure out the unspoken rules governing who has the floor.

In one-on-one meetings, you can just give explicit guidance -- for example, about the social conventions of meetings: "okay, we are done. Now it's time for you to leave my office.", "I will not talk more to you now. I have other work I need to do.", etc. (Those are just some examples, of things that feel waaay too harsh to say, but are really just stating clearly what the student should do.) You'll just have to see what areas your student needs guidance on.

Another lesson that was relayed to me from that experience was, the prof was initially very concerned about not hurting the student's feelings, and was reading the student's facial expressions as showing disappointment, alienation, or other negative responses to explicit instructions. But it became clear that the student was not hurt by the explicitness, and the student's facial expressions didn't represent negative responses. (For example, after being told "now it's time for you to leave my office", the student would look down and walk away without saying anything else. Prof interpreted this as the student being very hurt. But later prof observed that this was just a neutral way for the student to end an interaction, they hadn't been expressing hurt feelings by doing that.)

They really just didn't get the message if the prof tried to "soften" the phrasing, and being clear in giving instructions actually helped save the student from doing some of the more socially-unacceptable behaviors that would cause peers to get frustrated with them. It's a difficult balance, not wanting to treat the student differently (so they can fit in socially and not stand out), but at the same time, treating the student differently can help them act more "normal."
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:25 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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