Ideas often come when you least expect them. Such was the case when veteran 3rd grade teacher, Karen Caruso, went to a professional development seminar in the summer of 2012. Structuring the Learning Environment was a course designed to show methods for helping Special Needs students manage everyday tasks. Karen was the only non-special education teacher in the room.
Over the course of two days, Karen learned about executive function, what it is and why children with a deficit in EF have a hard time following routines or completing tasks independently. She learned how to create a “work system"; a way of breaking down routines and instructions into one-step-at-a-time chunks. Her take away? Simplifying larger tasks into smaller, manageable chunks greatly reduces the anxiety and embarrassment felt by a student who wants to participate, but has trouble following even the most straightforward directions.
When school began that fall Karen met Lola, the student who was inspiration for the “app” that is her namesake. A bright, kind-hearted, eager 3rd grader, Lola was the student a teacher never forgets. But as Karen observed she saw that, despite a positive attitude and obvious persistence, Lola struggled when it came to following multi-step directions and daily routines. No matter how hard she tried, Lola couldn’t recall directions or retrieve the fundamental information needed to stay on task; something a lot of us take for granted. 3rd graders take pride in being autonomous. Too many reminders or prompts from the teacher potentially causes embarrassment, can incite disruptive behavior and could damage self-esteem. Karen wanted Lola to succeed and knew she could—-if there was a way to support her while empowering her sense of independence.
Armed with strategies learned at the seminar, Karen created work systems for Lola. Everything from simple classroom routines to academic situations was broken into small, manageable steps. Lola’s mom, Carrie, implemented similar work systems at home. Lola was put in charge of her own schedule, checking things off as she moved through routines, making sure she completed each task. No longer self-conscious and uncertain, Lola became increasingly independent, participating in class in a way she never had before. What’s more, her confidence level and sense of pride soared.
Karen knew from experience: lots of students have similar stories to Lola’s. Knowing how much these kids, their teachers and their families would benefit from using similar work systems, Karen and Carrie realized they had the beginnings of an idea. An idea that ultimately became: the Lola app.