Innovation Likes Collaboration

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By Dan Coulter

Have you ever had a great idea that turned out not so great? Or one that worked out, but only after you substantially tweaked it? Innovation is important, but often it needs to be tempered by collaboration to make sure it accomplishes its goal –- without unwanted side effects.

Let me give you an example. A while back, someone got the idea to use a traffic light and alarm system in school cafeterias to help kids keep the noise level down. I learned about this product recently. I’m not sure when it was introduced, but I found a story about it in USA Today’s Life section on October 12, 2004, titled: “Noise travels fast, but cafeteria ladies put a stop to it.” A friend of our daughter who is in her 20’s said she remembers having such a system in her elementary school cafeteria. So this system has been around for a while.

I found sites selling different versions of the product online, but it basically works like this: You put a traffic light, sensor, and alarm in your cafeteria. The traffic light glows green when things are relatively quiet. When student-generated noise builds to a preset level, the light changes to yellow and an alarm sounds. When the noise reaches a higher preset level, the light changes to red and a louder alarm sounds. Depending on the system, this louder alarm might be a buzzer, tone or siren. School officials can institute rules such as a five minute “no talking” ban after a red-light alarm.

Now, reducing cafeteria noise is a great goal. Our son, Drew, who has Asperger Syndrome, had real difficulty dealing with the noise levels in the cafeteria and at pep rallies while he was in middle school and high school. Loud noise levels overwhelm him and sudden loud noises startle him dramatically. Imagine someone unexpectedly shooting off a pistol next to your ear and you’ll get an idea how loud noises (that wouldn’t phase a person with average hearing) sound to Drew.

Of course, enforcing silence with alarms and sirens is more than a bit ironic. Especially when you consider the effect on children who are hypersensitive to loud noises. Not only can the alarm be painful, but anticipating the system going off can send these kids’ anxiety levels through the roof. While school staff might install this system with the best of intentions, they may wind up with some children holding their ears in fear waiting for the audible assault –- or trying to escape when a siren goes off and hurts their ears. It’s happened.

This is just one “innovation” example. There are lots of ideas that may work well for most of a school population that can cause challenges for children with special needs; especially children with hypersensitivities or those who find changes in their routines threatening.

How can we help ensure that well-intended innovations work?

First, parents need to keep in close touch with school staff, make them aware of a child’s sensitivities, and ask to be alerted to any changes in policies or practices that will affect students. It helps to recruit an advocate for your child who’s on the staff. This could be a counselor, social worker or favorite teacher who knows your child’s sensitivities. An advocate who is in a position to see potential problems can help find ways to avoid them, and, of course, keep parents in the loop so they can offer input. It helps if parents have frequent contact with this person or other school staff. Who knows what well-intentioned innovator in the school right now is planning something that could affect your son or daughter?

Second, schools need to carefully assess the impact of new policies and practices on individual students. Leaders need to share planned changes with staff and parents and ask for input on pros and cons. Networking can be invaluable for teachers planning significant changes in their classrooms that involve areas outside their experience. It’s a rare policy, practice or system that covers all students’ needs without some modifications or exceptions. Some children with special needs require extra preparation to deal with change. Some may need to be accommodated with an alternative activity. And, if an innovation that seemed like a great idea doesn’t work, we all respect staff who are confident and flexible enough to either modify it or rescind it and move on to something else. Some of the best innovations involve an element of trial and error.

For Drew, the solution to his cafeteria sound sensitivities had some added benefits. Drew’s middle school set up a social skills class for Drew and some other children over lunch once a week in a counselor’s office. Then one of Drew’s teachers volunteered to eat lunch with him on her break in her classroom on the other four days. So, Drew was able to eat his lunch in relative quiet, and he gained some weekly experience interacting with classmates. This alternative solved a significant problem caused by cafeteria noise. Eating away from the lunchroom would have been even more important if Drew’s cafeteria had been equipped with a siren.

In high school, the staff allowed Drew to go to the library during pep rallies to avoid the loud noise.

Some of the best solutions are those you find by anticipating problems and avoiding them. If you’re a parent, only you can determine how often you need to be in touch with school staff to accomplish this. However, if you have a child with special needs, I’d recommend having at least weekly contact. Daily contact is not too often in some cases. And beware of depending on your child to keep you up to speed. He or she may not know about planned changes, and some kids don’t tell parents about difficulties even long after they’ve started.

Collaboration has historically been a friend to innovation.

A while back, former BCC science reporter James Burke produced a series on innovation called, “Connections.” He made the point that the idea of the lone inventor toiling away and having a solitary “Eureka!” moment was often a myth. Many of the people we consider mankind’s greatest inventors built on the work of others or collaborated with others or consulted with others to refine their ideas.

Collaboration helps us identify both the possibilities and pitfalls of our brainstorms and adjust accordingly to boost benefits and avoid mistakes we’d regret. Collaboration also helps parents and school staff develop consistent approaches so guidance and discipline at home and school reinforce each other.

We need innovation in our schools. Frequent parent-staff contact and lots of input on new ideas can help ensure we find and institute changes that work for students, staff and parents. And isn’t that what we’re all looking for?


About the Author: Dan Coulter is the producer of the Intricate Minds series of videos that help students understand and accept classmates with Asperger Syndrome, autism and related conditions. You can find more articles on his website at:

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