Video self modeling produces benefits for special education students

The cherubic preschooler in special education teacher Paula O'Rourke's class hadn't always been so adorable. 

Up until a few months ago, Charlotte would shriek every time O'Rourke gave her a simple direction, such as jump or sit down.

"She would scream after any direction given," said the teacher at Emma Hart Willard School, a public school in Berlin.

But all that changed after O'Rourke showed Charlotte, also known as Charlie, a video of herself successfully responding to directions. The video, shown on a classroom iPad, is titled Charlie Follows Directions.

"How long did she watch the video before it changed?" asked special education consultant Melissa Root of New London, who has spent the past year training Berlin teachers in the art of video self modeling.

"We started to see changes within three times," O'Rouke said.

Another preschooler, Eesa, had a problem with giving intelligible verbal responses to questions. He was quiet or would mumble. Now, he's much more clear, responding clearly 80 to 90 percent of the time, O'Rourke told Root.

"He took a turn around the corner like you wouldn't believe," O'Rourke said.

Both Eesa and Charlie are part of the Berlin School System's preschool BLAST program, which stands for Berlin Learning and Succeeding Together. About two years ago, Berlin hired Root to show teachers how video self modeling works, and both teachers and administrators there report quick and lasting results.

"We're still amazed at how it works, and it works fast," said Michelle Zeuschner, special ed supervisor for pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. "Once you know how to do it, it's super easy."

Root, whose business is called Root Success Solutions LLC, said the Berlin school system is further along in the implementation of video self modeling than any other for which she consults. But locally the Ledyard school system, as well as the regional special education service provider LEARN and even Connecticut College are in various stages of trying out the method, which involves editing videos of students to show them successfully completing tasks without any problem.

Amazingly, when kids see themselves doing a task effortlessly thanks to the magic of video editing, they are able to replicate the appropriate behavior or ability much more readily, teachers and administrators said.

"It seems like it works really quick," said Shannon Olexy, a speech and language pathologist at Ledyard Center School. "It's been really powerful."

Olexy, along with fellow speech pathologists Jessica Jarrett and Marisa Zou and several other specialists in Ledyard, received hours of training this school year after being introduced to the idea during a professional development day.

Among the behaviors targeted are verbal aggression, hyperactivity, impulsivity and transitions, problems often associated with autism but also seen in other students as well. Root learned the technique three decades ago as a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, but video self modeling couldn't be introduced as a mainstream therapy until technology — today's iPad and iMovie editing platform, principally — made it quick and easy for just about anyone to use.

"The hardest part is editing out the bad stuff," said Zou.

Teachers say children master skills faster when they see themselves succeeding, and everyone likes the fact that video self modeling is a positive form of behavior modification. Addressing disruptive behavior benefits the child himself, since he is more available for learning, as well as the rest of the class, which can attend to routines without losing focus, they said.

Jarrett said she likes the idea that it is a science-based program, and that Root insists that teaching professionals compile data to check on whether individual videos are working. Sometimes, she said, a video will target too many behaviors; the key is to focus on one at a time.

"It's a nice addition to the therapy tool basket," Jarrett said.

Parent Collette Masterson of Ledyard, mother of 6-year-old Callum, who is on the autism spectrum and experienced speech delays, said video self modeling has made a big difference in his ability to be engaged at school. He now is able to talk about where he lives, what his name is and his age, and respond to other key questions.

"It's been fantastic for him," Masterson said. "Anything they want him to learn, they put him on video. He's just fascinated with watching himself on video."

Teachers said they used a variety of methods to try to improve behavior in the past, including peer modeling, role playing and even various incentives. People trained in video self modeling still sometimes employ such methods, but more and more they are drawn by the effectiveness of the new method, they said.

Bridgette Gordon-Hickey, director of student support services at LEARN, said her team is just starting to implement video self modeling in the schools it runs and supports, but her teachers see it as a powerful way to address such issues as selective mutism (children who will talk to parents but not others, for instance), compulsiveness and repetitive behavior.

"They were really taken aback by the level of effectiveness," she said.

Videos can be shared via online storage systems such as Dropbox or even on private YouTube channels. Videos can be re-edited if they are not proving effective or if a student is getting bored. 

Special education teachers such as Ali Curran and Meagan Syta in Berlin say the hardest part of the program is finding the time to take the videos. The easy part is editing them into 30-second to one-minute pieces that teachers or aides regularly show to students to help them through some of their most difficult behaviors. 

One of those students, 8-year-old Destiny, was having trouble telling teachers when she needed to go to the bathroom, resulting in infrequent but distressing accidents. So on a school day in March, Root took a video of her asking to go to the bathroom and then followed Destiny and teacher Curran to the nearby bathroom, intending to edit the video to show how easy the whole process can be.

Other videos taken by the school have addressed such issues as eating too quickly, not transitioning into a transport van easily and taking turns playing.

"It takes the adult out of it; they're being less reliant," Syta said. "That's physically them. ... They're more willing to try if they see they're capable."

Curran said the data show video self modeling's positive effect. One of her students had 32 incidents of being aggressive last year; this year, the same behavior has occurred fewer than five times.

"They love it," she said. "We always tell them they're movie stars. It's been a very effective technique to have in my tool box."

At first, the videos are shown daily to students as especially problematic behaviors are targeted. After a while, the frequency of exposure to the videos is reduced until, with luck, they aren't needed at all.

Curran said parents have been accepting of the behavioral modification efforts, which are useful only for those who can attend to a video for at least 20 to 30 seconds. Parents need to sign off on each proposed video, and teachers said mothers and fathers see the positive effects and are usually more than willing.

Sometimes videos are sent home to parents in hopes that behaviors can be reinforced there as well, but teachers said this doesn't always work. Students have been known to require videos in different environments because they cannot always generalize their behavior to all situations and locations.

"This is so rooted in science and research, and it works and it makes such sense," said Ledyard speech pathologist Olexy. "Sometimes the best things are so simple."





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