Angela Rodriguez, M.A. BCBA, is the Associate Executive Director of EPIC School in Paramus, New Jersey. Jaqueline (Jackie) Saraf is a senior staff member—a special education teacher with over 10 years of experience. The EPIC School relies on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to provide autistic students and their families with the most effective educational intervention possible, and its teachers help students develop applied skills to better integrate into society as adults. The EPIC School is part of Proof Positive’s Autism Wellbeing Alliance, a community dedicated to enhancing wellbeing outcomes for autistic people, providers, families, and caregivers.

Angela and Jackie also attended Proof Positive’s Learning Institute, a professional development workshop for a select group of leaders in autism services. At the Learning Institute, they enhanced their skills in the science and skills of wellbeing and how these skills can be adapted for autism intervention, but you’ll want to hear it from them:

Jackie: Once I learned about Proof Positive’s free positive psychology resources, I tried them out in my lessons. As I learn and try a new happiness skill myself, I integrate it into my daily classroom routines. Now, each skill has become part of the classroom environment; it’s part of of our classroom’s routine to practice the skills of happiness. Many of them are my personalized take on the skills, and I’ve adapted them for my special education students. 

For example, I created a shout-out board in my classroom to Strength Spot (a skill that helps you name and notice strengths in others) each other. When a student or teacher has exhibited a strength like Leadership, I write their name and the strength on the shout-out board. Adapting the happiness skill Jolts of Joy, I support my nonverbal students by identifying positive emotions they’re experiencing in the moment. I’ll say, “You look so prideful when you correctly matched the images,” or “You seemed amused when we saw a rabbit hop across the playground.” This is a great way to build vocabulary and language around wellbeing and happiness.

Teaching the skills of happiness is all about finding out what students’ interests are and playing off of those. You have to offer the time and space to feel joy, whether it’s an intentional movement break, a walk during the day, or taking a few minutes to clap for the names on our shout-out board. Happiness is comprised of small intentional moments like these that can have a huge impact on wellbeing; our classroom community is definitely stronger since creating these happy moments together. 

We also have a Jolts of Joy bulletin board where students and staff can display a sticky note of something that brought them joy that day or week. Then, others can learn what brings that person joy and make those moments happen more often. Once a week, I bring in coffee for staff because I know it brings everyone a Jolt of Joy—literally! 

Angela: Implementing the skills of happiness has also positively impacted our staff at EPIC. When I led a staff training, I presented on Showcase the Good (a skill about practicing Active Constructive Responding) and ended with small group meetings where we discussed “How do you respond to someone when they share good news?” and how to support students in practicing Active Constructive Responding. Since providing my staff with tools on Showcasing the Good, we’ve been able to open ourselves up more in sharing with each other.  I’ve noticed that staff are much more inclined to reach out and highlight something someone else did well, or even share their own accomplishments. 

We’ve taught students they should comment when someone says something to them, but the responses were lacking. For example, after asking how a student’s weekend response was, we received a lot of “Wow” responses. We had to teach into that and describe what active listening looked like and felt like—and that you should ask follow-up questions and show interest in the person sharing good news. We started fostering Showcase-the-Good moments. When a student is finished with a project or piece of work they’re proud of, we encourage them to show someone in the classroom. The classmate receiving the news now knows to capitalize on it by asking authentically engaging questions, helping the person relive the positive event, and showcasing the good. 

In one classroom, the back of the door is full of pictures of things that make its passersby happy. It is open for staff and students, acting as a living Positivity Portfolio (a collection of items that remind its creators of joyful moments and things that make them happy). We also use Positivity Portfolios with students in a journal-like format. One of our students, Christian, tends to verbalize situations that make him anxious or confused throughout the day. He, however, was not spontaneously verbalizing or identifying what was going well for him. So one of our teachers, Erika, developed a Positivity Portfolio in a journal format with him. When he’s feeling especially stressed, she encourages him to identify positivity by giving him prompts in the journal to follow.  Some examples of these prompts are “Places that make me happy….”, “Things I’m grateful for…..”These prompts allow Christian to collect happy moments—pasting photos, small items, and sayings that bring him joy–and pull out his journal when he feels blue or needs a happiness boost. 

We ask a lot of students in a special education setting. Every day, we present them with tasks that challenge them and require them to be brave with skills such as being open to trying new foods, interacting in community settings, and being in new and scary situations. They can usually rise to the occasion. The skills of happiness give special educators and clinicians a framework for teaching into those learning situations and practical ways to teach difficult concepts like bravery.

Jackie: We may teach the skills of happiness in the classroom, but they’re also universally applicable. I am proof that you can turn things around and intentionally create more positivity for yourself and others. And when I tell others about the science and skills of happiness, they’re often surprised to hear happiness can be learned. It makes them feel empowered to practice the skills for themselves and spread them to others. 

Incorporating wellbeing-focused activities into my classroom routines and our special education environment has helped me and my students lean into positivity, strengths, and capitalizing on the good. It’s important to start now. Think about how the skills of happiness could positively enhance your daily routine and environment!  

Angela: The practices of  ABA have been under a lot of scrutiny for some of the teaching procedures. Spreading the science-based skills of happiness is essential as we move toward person-centered teaching. It encourages us to look at a student as a whole person and not just what we think our goals and agendas for them are. It’s not what WE think is good for someone; it’s backed by science. We have to flip the perspective to understand how our students and others are experiencing happiness and implement academics and life skills that center their wellbeing and happiness. Because happiness is what matters most and is the gateway for all other learning.

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