When it came to light awhile back that one of her students was intensely afraid of roosters, Becky Ottinger did what she typically does in these instances.
By DUGAN ARNETT
The Kansas City Star
She built a classroom lesson around it.
Something crazy would happen in class, says Ottinger, the founder and executive director of the Kansas City nonprofit Joshua Center for Neurological Disorders. And Id go home and create a new lesson to address those specific situations.
Eventually, those ideas became the backbone of Ottingers Me and My World, a social skills curriculum aimed primarily at children diagnosed with disorders ranging from Tourette syndrome to obsessive-compulsive disorder to high-functioning autism.
The curriculum, in use by roughly 50 schools across the metro area, is built on the idea that special-needs children require specific, personalized teaching.
The project was born, at least in part, out of necessity.
Seven years ago, when Ottinger decided to launch a class aimed at teaching children with neurological disorders some social skills, she was struck by the lack of suitable classroom materials.
Many of the teaching tools were designed only for one-time use. Some just werent applicable to her students. One featured cards depicting different facial expressions, a way to help the children understand body language, but left her and the other instructors particularly perplexed.
We bought all these pictures of facial expressions, she says. And we sat down with them and thought, I cant even figure out what these facial expressions mean.
So Ottinger made a rather bold decision: Instead of toiling through what she considered to be a lackluster collection of what was available, shed create her own teaching materials.
As the mother of a son who was diagnosed with Tourettes, Ottinger is no stranger to the demands of such special-needs children.
In 1994, after roughly a decade as an elementary school teacher, she decided to devote all of her time to helping kids with neurological disorders. Two years later, she founded the Joshua Center.
The center now features classes at five metro locations, and its social skills class works with more than 220 children, some from as far as Wichita and Jefferson City.
Around 2007, meanwhile, Ottinger realized that those with neurological disorders needed help navigating various social issues that regularly arise, like how to behave on the playground or handle situations arising at home.
Things that, to the typical child, come relatively naturally but to children with Tourettes or autism can be more difficult to grasp.
Everybody assumes that these children are born with these abilities, and theyre not, says Lana Partridge, program director for the Joshua Center. They have to be taught, like anything else.
And thats the thinking behind Me and My World, which Ottinger pieced together with the help of Joshua Center webmaster Jack Kammert.
Though the curriculum is technically designed as a set of board games as participants answer questions from cards, they move a game piece space-by-space toward the finish the goal isnt to win; Partridge, in fact, cant remember ever finishing a game since she began using it.
Instead, by bringing up situations that theyre likely to encounter in everyday life, it forces kids to think about relevant topics in a critical way.
As she was devising the game, Ottinger made sure to pay attention to the various issues that arose in class on a day-to-day basis. Following the rooster incident, for instance, Ottinger created the lesson Facing Fears. When another student worried about finishing last, Last is a Blast was born.
Every single time wed have a class and wed see something going on with a kid, wed say, OK, I gotta address this topic, she says. And pretty soon we had more and more.
Today, there are more than 40 categories designed to help children navigate various social situations.
Home Sweet Homes, for instance, addresses responsibilities and appropriate behavior around the house. Bullying Bob delves into the best ways to deal with bullies. Recess Success deals with playground etiquette.
The feedback from teachers and counselors, Ottinger says, has been universally positive.
Brad Cohen, an assistant elementary school principal in Atlanta, recently began using the games. Hes also the author of Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, and so far, hes been pleased with what hes seen.
In addition to putting kids into situations where theyre able to interact and grow comfortable with each other, he said the personalized aspect of the game differentiates it from other, similar curricula.
This game will be very effective in the classroom because its engaging and it hits the specific needs of the students, Cohen says. So if a student needs to focus on a certain topic, you can do it. Its not generalized, it gets very specific.
The complete set, which features six game boards, 35 game card decks and access to an online curriculum, runs $799 a sum that, Ottinger admits, is too much for many schools.
Already, though, a handful of businesses and foundations have provided grants that went toward supplying local schools with their own versions of the game.
Joshua Center received $20,000 from the Hall Family Foundation, and another $12,000 from the John W. Speas & Effie E. Speas Memorial Trust, among others. This has enabled Ottinger to put the games into 17 schools so far.
Her long-term goal, however, is to get them into every school in America.
If I could do nothing else in the world, (it would be to) help teachers help these kids, Ottinger said. Thats all I want; its my life-long dream.
Adds Ottinger, I just know that we have something that works.