Learn how to start a Lego-based therapy group for students with autism

ORLANDO, Fla. — On video, three young students work together assembling Lego bricks into what they hope to eventually turn into Batman. Each student has an important job: the “architect” reads the directions, the “supplier” picks out the correct pieces, and the “builder” — well, you can guess what he does.

“We get along with each other much better since Lego club,” one student said on the video.

The club is a therapy group at Lakehurst (NJ) School District that helps students with autism practice turn-taking, communicating with others, and sustaining social interactions, said Clifford Barneman, the district’s assistant superintendent for special services and a licensed clinical psychologist.

Barneman shared videos and stories of his Lego club meetings at the 37th National Future of Education Technology Conference.

“These kids have come such a long way,” he said.

Students work in pairs or groups of three assembling 200-piece-or-fewer sets. Since starting the therapy group, Barneman said he’s seen improvements in students’ attention to task, sharing, and social awareness.

Lego club, which includes typically developing students and students with autism, has also helped with the district’s efforts toward greater inclusion, Barneman said.

“It doesn’t look like therapy, so the stigma goes away, especially when you involve typically developing kids,” he said.

Plus, Legos are engaging and fun, so students don’t usually think of the sessions as work, he said.

“Kids think [Legos] are cool,” he said. “They like the sound they make when they click together.”

Getting started

Think about different funding sources such as grants or other programs to help purchase materials, Barneman said. Some teachers have used crowdsourced-funding such as Donors Choose, he said. Identify staff who can facilitate the small group sessions. The facilitator could be a school psychologist, social worker, counselor, or speech therapist, he said.

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Barneman said.

The most important thing is that the facilitator or leader stays patient with the students, he said. To find club members, Barneman recommended conducting interviews with potential students and their parents and considering students who have small-group counseling listed as a service on their individualized education programs.

Tips

1. Know leader’s role. The facilitator should model appropriate behaviors and prompt the students to communicate with one another, Barneman said.

“The leader shouldn’t specifically identify problems during the session,” he said. “Instead, bring attention to the problem or difficulty and support students as they figure out their own solutions.”

Redirect students who become off task and encourage students to talk to and work with each other, he said.

2. Establish club rules. Club norms and rules should be posted so that students can review them. Barneman offered these as examples:

  • If you break it, you have to fix it or ask for help to fix it.
  • If someone else is using it, don’t take it: Ask first.
  • Use indoor voices.
  • No climbing or jumping on furniture.
  • No teasing, name-calling, or bullying.
  • Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
  • Use polite words.
  • Clean up and put things back where they came from.
  • Don’t put Lego bricks in your mouth.

3. Prepare students for transitions. Because each student will take a turn doing one of the three jobs, help them anticipate transitions with visual reminders.

“I’ll have an iPad visible with a timer for a visual reminder of an upcoming transition,” Barneman said.

If there’s a dispute over who gets to do a job first, have the students draw straws, he said.

4. Consider fine motor skills, access. Be considerate of students’ fine motor skills, bilateral integration, and visual impairments, Barneman said.

“You may have some kids who have trouble grasping blocks,” he said. “You need to be considerate of that.”

Students who use augmentative or alternative communication can participate, too, he said.

“It’s going to take a while for them to build those skills, but it certainly can be done,” Barneman said.

5. Include typically developing students. Students build relationships around shared interests, Barneman said. Using different character Lego sets can help provide that foundation for future relationships, he said.

“It’s not uncommon that I have a typically developing kid who’s interest is in Minecraft and we have a student with autism who is interested in that, too, and they form a relationship around that,” Barneman said.

6. Remind staff to encourage transfer of skills into other settings. “You constantly have to remind your staff what you’re doing in these small groups,” Barneman said.

The student’s teachers and support staff need to be reinforcing positive behaviors to encourage that transfer of skills into the classroom, he said.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504, education technology, and Common Core issues related to special education for LRP Publications.

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