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Changing it Up Without the Whine: Skill Building Buddies

SkillBuildingBuddies.gifNearly two years ago, the Cat was asked to leave a private kindergarten. Among the unacceptable behaviors they cited, the most problematic was that he was pinching his classmates. When his teacher asked why, he couldn't answer. She asked me, but I didn't know either. The Cat hadn't pinched anyone before attending this school. I tried to get information about what was happing just prior to the pinch. Finally, we determined that the pinches occurred during times of transition.

One particularly problematic afternoon started because the other K-1 class came over to visit. When they left, the Cat pinched a classmate instead of saying "goodbye." This snowballed into a situation where the Cat couldn't explain his actions, so became more distraught when the teacher continually asked him "why." He didn't know why, and he was upset. The more upset he became, the more he acted-out, and the greater he was punished.

That day involved both a change in routine (that the other K-1 was invading "his" classroom) and then an unwanted transition (that his friend left the class to go back to his own.)

Although the Cat has matured a great deal since then, I was intrigued when the Parent Bloggers Network asked me to review Skill Building Buddies: Handling Transitions and Change.

This DVD is not just a “drop ‘em in front of the tube and let them learn,” although I imagine kids would get a benefit just from that. But as I’ve often mentioned over on the Karianna Spectrum, environment is vital. The way things are presented to the child can determine whether a potential trigger becomes cause for meltdown or if the child can successfully navigate the challenging situation.

To that end, the DVD comes with a small parent guide and some prompt-cards. The guide has some parent suggestions, such as the use of timers and/or providing a warning several minutes before the transition is to occur. These are pretty well known within the autism community, so won't be novel to most parents, but for those just starting out, these tips will be useful. Teachers would benefit from these suggestions; much of what happened at the Cat’s private school could have been avoided if the teachers had been mindful of transitions as a trigger.

The DVD is considered for parents as well as for children. The adult actors model the “proper” way to address change to the child. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that “real world” activities will involve a soft-spoken adult who carefully explains why the change needs to occur. This means the burden is on the child.

The child actors are also articulate, calm, and earnest. Of course, this modeling is very useful because it provides a script for the child. All kids benefit from positive examples, not just those on the autistic spectrum.

Both my kids enjoyed Skill Building Buddies, but I wouldn’t have realized this based on the silence from the backseat. Unlike during most DVDs, the boys didn’t provide much commentary: they watched and absorbed without feeling a need to place themselves in the story, as they frequently do during other programming. The DVD is definitely an educational, modeling experience. But they asked to play it several times, whereas for DVDs that they don’t enjoy, they’ll automatically tell me to get a different DVD or they will start talking, singing, or otherwise ignoring the DVD. Sitting in silence was therefore a sign of approval and attention.

The DVD mixes friendly cartoon characters with live-action. The cartoon characters recap the live-action, indicating what the child did correctly to navigate the change. The play-by-play uses the same icons that are on cards included with the DVD: look (eye contact), listen (to instructions/explanations), and stay calm (to remember what to do next.) The characters say after each scenario: “[The model] handled the change in a good way… You can too!” This positive reinforcement and upbeat encouragement is key. Sure, the model may have been afraid, sad, or disappointed, but they hear the label “good” because they handled the change in a good way, and so can the child watching this DVD!

The example changes include changing from pajamas to play clothes in order to go to the park, stopping a preferred activity to do a new activity in school, having to change one’s snack choice when the preferred choice is no longer available, an unexpected routine change, and learning a new, unfamiliar game.

Each scenario was quick, so there wasn’t much detail in the plot to remember. The recaps were vital. I felt they were clear and reinforced the same steps for each skit, providing the same icons to “cement it in.” This clarity and repetition is definitely helpful.

I was glad the scenarios enabled real emotion. “It is okay to be sad,” the cartoon character Mikey explains, but then he explains how the change still had to occur. It acknowledges that it is okay to be worried about a new activity or disappointed when an activity must change, as long as those feelings are effectively communicated and the change still navigated.

To break up the different scenarios, the cartoon characters perform a little song about how there are changes “from morning, noon, ‘til night!” singing “talking ‘bout cha-ange!” as if to encourage and motivate the viewers to embrace change. “Things don’t always go our way, but when we change we’ll be okay!” It is an important message, certainly, and I know my kids love songs. During the song, different disappointments play out such as the surf washing away a sand castle, or an ice-cream cone falling on the ground. But the kids recover, building an even bigger castle and obtaining a new (bigger!) ice-cream sundae.

Psuedo-major changes were not covered in this DVD. Rather, the skits were about day-to-day activities. Certainly there are DVDs and books out there regarding major changes like moving, getting a sibling, and switching schools. Neurotypical kids are thrown by those changes, so there is already a market out there. But there are medium-lasting but not permanent changes that can happen, too, such as Grandpa shaving his mustache or Neighbor Timmy having his arm in a cast so he cannot play baseball for awhile. Aunt Bonnie is still the same person she was before she bleached her hair blonde and Cousin Matt isn’t going to have braces forever. But for a kid on the spectrum, these changes in appearance can be traumatic.

Nonetheless, the day to day changes are important. At this stage of the game, the Cat isn’t as thrown by these minor changes as he was when he was younger, yet at age 7 he is technically in the younger portion of the DVD’s targeted age group of 5-12. I see this DVD as being useful for younger kids. I would have shown it to the Cat at age 3 rather than waiting until 5. Since the child models in the DVD are in what looks like a kindergarten classroom, I would expect that kids above grade 2 would think of it for younger kids. I think this DVD is “too young” for 12 year olds unless they have more significant delays. I realize chronological age does not necessarily mean much when dealing with a “spectrum,” so parents will be the best judge of their child’s interest in watching characters who are in an elementary school setting.

There is a bit of conflicting information in that kids on the spectrum thrive on routine, and yet the parent guide warns not to encourage routine. Creating a set schedule helps the kids dramatically because they know what to expect. The real world is unpredictable, so it is important to be able to navigate the unexpected change in a routine. I understand that a little of both is necessary, but specifically saying “try to avoid routines,” seems odd given that predictability is comforting and can encourage better behavior provided that those routines are “appropriate” (ie, a before-school routine, bedtime routine, and so forth are considered beneficial in neurotypical kids and reinforce the various steps required to accomplish various tasks throughout the day.)

The other bit in the parent guide that made me a bit uneasy was the advice to only allow kids limited time to do a preferred activity. Just as I debated celebrating strengths versus working on weaknesses on the Karianna Spectrum (and later for a review on this site,) I am concerned that always pushing the child to do non-preferred activities simply to “train” them can become tiring. Certainly it is important to switch to non-preferred activities when it is necessary, but doing so just for the sake fearing “hyper-attentiveness” to an activity they enjoy seems cruel.

While I am lukewarm on the parental instruction, I am enthusiastic about the actual programming content on the DVD. The casing says that the program runs approximately 30 minutes; however, in reality it only took 15 minutes. It is indeed a packed 15 minutes, covering many scenarios while reinforcing the “look,” “listen,” and “stay calm” steps of navigating the change, while adding additional steps like “ask for help” as necessary. The modeling is straightforward and the recaps are upbeat rather than condescending. Bravo!

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To order Skill Building Buddies, please call 800-583-1988, Option #1. The DVD costs $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

You can win a free copy! Just leave a comment on the launch post or round-up (4/28) on the Parent Bloggers site to enter.

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