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Monday, December 31, 2018

Tips for Smooth & Positive IEP Meetings

IEP meetings can be stressful for teachers and parents, but a little pre-planning can make IEP meetings go smoother and more positive!

1) Start each IEP meeting by sharing POSITIVE things about the student. 
IEP meetings naturally include a lot of conversation about a student's needs or what the student still needs to learn/ work on that might sound negative. So start every IEP meeting with something positive about the student! Share a sweet or funny story about the student from the last few weeks, share about on a new skill the student has learned, just make sure that you really focus on starting the meeting with a positive and continuing to share positives throughout the meeting.

I like to fill out this little "What we love about ___." before IEP meetings and I even have therapists and/or paraprofessionals fill it out too! It's a fun way to ensure that the entire team is included and the parent can even take the paper home!

You can download this free shout out page here.

2) Schedule time to talk to general ed teacher prior to meeting.
Most general education teachers have been apart of dozens of IEP meetings. However, many of them will likely tell you that they don't know their role during IEP meetings. I've encountered this numerous times, so I always make sure I take time prior to IEP meetings to talk with general education teachers about their roles during IEP meetings. Make sure general ed teachers know exactly what you need/ expect from them. Explain to general ed teachers what type of questions parents might ask them at the meeting, what kind of data/ student work would be helpful to bring, what they should be ready to share at the meeting, etc. so they can feel as prepared as possible.

I typically ask my general education teachers to bring and share the following at IEP meetings:

  • 1-3 pieces of student work from from the general ed setting
  • A short narrative (verbal or written, whichever is preferred) of how the student is doing when he/she is in gen ed (academically, socially, emotionally, functioning) including one thing that is going well and one thing that the student can work on when in the gen ed classroom
  • Any ideas/ concerns 
3) Get parent input before the meeting. 
Some districts require schools to send a copy of the draft IEP home prior to the meeting, some districts make schools write the entire IEP as a team at the meeting, every district has different expectations. You obviously need to follow your district/ state protocol, but if you aren't required to send a draft home prior to the meeting and you come the meeting with a draft IEP, then I highly suggest talking to the parents before the meeting about their wants, hopes and input. 

Here are some of the questions I suggest talking to parents about prior to meetings/ drafting IEPs:

  • What skills/ tasks do you want your child to work on/ improve on? Any specific academic tasks, functional/ daily living tasks, communication skills, etc.?
  • What are your child's strength and areas for growth?
  • What are your child's favorite things (foods, activities, etc.)?
  • Has anything at home changed that the school team needs to know about (medications, in-home therapy frequency, etc.?)
I hope these tips help you to start 2019 with a smooth and positive IEP meeting!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Tips for Partnering with General Education Teachers

As special education teachers, it's important that we work closely with general education teachers to ensure that our students are successful when they are in the general education classroom. However, this can sometimes be difficult due to a variety of reasons like. I truly believe that the most important aspects of partnering with general education teachers are: building relationships, having open communication and sharing information about students with the teachers. If you can do these things well, then you are most likely going to be able to work together well to meet all students' needs.

Before the school year starts:
-Schedule time to meet with general education teachers to discuss caseloads and groups of students that they will have.

-Put yourself in the general education shoes and think, "What would I want to know about this student ahead of time?"

-You'll want to share and explain students' IEP and important information with gen ed teachers. Make sure that you focus on the parts of the IEP that are most important to gen ed teachers, like: accommodations, modifications, behavioral supports and what they're working on academically, socially, etc. It might be helpful to give teachers a one page print out/ explanation of these things in addition to a copy of the IEP.

-You can use this free and editable "All About Me" template to create a simple one pager for general education teachers.

If the school year has already started and you haven't been able to do some of these, you can obviously catch up and do these at any time in the year! But I suggest doing them as early on in the year or before school starts, if possible!

During the school year:
-If you have students who go to general education classes without support or with a paraprofessional, then ask  your administration to hire a sub or cover your classroom for an hour so that you can go to the to do observations once a month or every other month. This is really helpful if you have a student who is struggling with something in the general ed classroom because then you can see first hand what is going on and then support the teacher and give the teacher and/or paraprofessional tips and ideas on how to work through it. You can also jump in and model how to manage the specific situation.

-Schedule weekly/ monthly check-ins with teachers to see how things are going and problem solve. Check-ins don't have to be in person or time consuming, but they are important! You can go as far as scheduling sit-down meetings once a month with general ed teachers to talk about how things are going or you can just send out monthly emails to check in and see if teachers need anything. These check-ins will go a long way in building relationships and problem solving before problems get out of control. If you are going to send out monthly check-in emails, I suggest putting in your calendar for the entire year to remind yourself and to keep yourself accountable!

-Invite and include general education teachers in your parent-teacher conferences, home visits, parties, and after school events with parents! They won't be able to come all the time but it will be amazing when they are able to!

-Give general ed teachers treats for their birthday and holidays! You don't have to go spend a ton of money on them, but having your students make or sign a card for them on holidays will make gen ed teachers feel more connected to the student (and you!). Again, that relationship piece is SO important!

Prior to IEP meetings:
-Make sure that you reach out to general ed teachers before IEP meetings about how students are doing in gen ed. It's best for general ed teachers to know what to expect before walking into the meeting and we should obviously be including the general education teacher's input in the IEP.
Here are some questions I normally ask general ed teachers prior to IEP meetings:

  • How is ___ doing in your class?
  • What's going well? Is there anything that isn't going well?
  • Is there anything you'd like ___ to work on in your class?
  • Do you think the amount of time ___ is spending in your class seems appropriate? Do you think there are other times in the school day that __ could be included in your classroom that he/she isn't already? (I'm NOT pre-determining before the IEP meeting here, just trying to get an idea of how the current time is working). 
At the end of the day, it's important that general education teachers feel supported by US so that they are confident in supporting and working with ALL students. If you have any tips for working with general education teachers, leave them in the comments!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Tips for when you're understaffed in the classroom

If you work in a self-contained or center-based classroom, then you probably work with paraprofessionals, and when a para isn't at work, it can make it really hard on the students and other staff. Being strategic and having a plan in place for days when your classroom is understaffed will make the days a lot easier on everyone! Below are a few of my favorite tips for making it through days when you're short-staffed.

-Make a "one-man/ person down" plan before you're understaffed.

I got this idea from Chris at Autism Classroom Resources and it seriously changed my classroom! Before I found this tip, my classroom was in chaos... It was the spring time a few years ago, my classroom was technically fully-staffed, but I had a paraprofessional who was out of the building at least one day a week. This left our classroom completely dysfunctional until we made a one-person down plan! Once I made a set schedule/ routine for when we had a paraprofessional out of the classroom, it made things run so much better because we knew exactly what to do and we weren't scrambling last minute to rework the schedule.

A one-man/ person down schedule is basically a plan for how your classroom will run when you are one staff member short. It's inevitable that your schedule/ routine will have to change to some extent when you are understaffed, but making the plan ahead of time and making sure all staff members know the plan well will help tremendously when the day comes that you're understaffed.

-Practice running your under-staffed plan (when you're not understaffed).

I suggest testing out your one-person down plan one or two days a month (when you're not actually under-staffed). This will ensure that all team members have an understanding of how the plan/ routine works and will let you problem solve and make adjustments to the plan, if needed. When running the one-person down plan without being understaffed, one paraprofessional might be in the classroom but not directly working with students (they might be prepping materials or doing classroom work, but not follow their regular routine).

-Use your students' independence to your advantage! 

Most students can do a few different tasks/ activities independently, use this to your advantage when you're understaffed! I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the school year teaching my students to work independently (using a structured work system) and play independently. Not only is this a wonderful functional skill, but it's also great when you're short-staffed because the staff can continue to pull groups or work with students while other groups of students are working or playing independently. When we are understaffed, we typically add a lot of extra independent work and play time so that we still do reading, writing and math groups.

Below are a few things that I have my students do independently so that I can still work with students and pull groups when we are understaffed:
  • Free time with blocks, cars, trains, magna-tiles, etc.
  • Technology time with iPads or computers (my students are limited to 30 minutes a day of technology time) 
  • Coloring or tracing
  • Structured work systems
  • Playdough 
  • Fine motor tasks (lacing and beading, put in activities)

At the end of the day, none of these tips will solve all of your problems when you're short-staffed, but I hope they can help to take some relieve some of the stress!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Structuring Reading Groups in a Classroom Mix-Needs Classroom

I get a lot of questions about how I run academic groups in my classroom, so I'm finally writing a post specifically explaining how we manage to run literacy groups in my classroom students with with moderate to severe disabilities. 

It seems like in many classrooms, the biggest barriers to running groups are: understaffed and students' negative/ undesired behaviors, and although my classroom is still far from perfect, I've found a solution to these issues that is working for our classroom for now!

What we do in our literacy groups:
All groups do each of the following activities every day. Every activity is differentiated based on the groups' and individual student's needs.

  • Guided reading- (either guided reading or shared reading, depending on groups' needs/ level). During the reading lesson, we typically read a book and then do a comprehension check, a book review or a writing prompt after the story. 
    • If you're new to guided reading, check out this post from The Measured Mom for a short but great explanation. 
    • If you're new to shared reading, check out this post from The Measured Mom for a short but great explanation. 
Example of how I plan out books for the week for groups. I pick books based on weekly themes. 

  • Word work- Word work activities are VERY differentiated in my class because of the varied needs in our room. During this time, I make all activities very hands on and use a lot of manipulatives and games.  Students are on working on a variety of tasks including:
    • Identifying letters and letter sounds
    • Identifying vowel and consonant phonemes 
    • Identifying and building sight words
    • Pictures and word sorts
    • Reading, blending and building CVC, CCVC, and CVCC words
    • Working on our weekly vocabulary words and vocabulary words related to the guided reading/ shared reading
Free CVC cards from The Teaching Texan here.

  • Writing- We do a variety of activities during writing time. Many students work on activities related to the letter of the week, some are tracing or writing letters/ their names, some are writing/ copying sentences or paragraphs, etc. Below is the sequence I follow for the week for many of my students. I keep the tasks/ activities the same for each day of the week, but the worksheet is changing based on the letter of the week. I do this so that students can get used to the set up of specific worksheets but learn new information. 
I make copies of the writing worksheets, comprehension checks and book reviews for the entire week and keep them in this tub.  

Alphabet check from Proud to be Primary here.
Alphabet work from my TpT shop here.

  • Independent reading/ listening center-  Our independent reading time isn't during our actual reading block. It's a part of our center time because that worked better for our schedule, but I still wanted to ensure that our students were participating in it. Students are able to choose if they want to read/ look at books independently at their tables or go to the listening center during this time. 
Time frame/ set up of groups:
Setting up the timing of reading groups seems to be the biggest barrier in many classrooms for students with disabilities due to coverage and students' behavioral and academic needs. To have literacy groups run efficiently, my three suggestions are:
1) Start by teaching students to do breaks/ play quietly and independently. If your students can quietly play independently at a table, then you and your paras can focus on running literacy groups and managing behaviors during those literacy groups. Teaching students to do this often takes many weeks and a lot of effort, but it's SO WORTH IT! During this independent play time, my students will do activities like: play checkers, play with blocks/ magnatiles, play with trains/ cars, etc. My expectations during this time are: students are sitting at a table and whispering if they're playing with a friend. I typically give them 3 toy/play options each week and I rotate/ change the choices every week.
2) Train paraprofessionals how to run literacy groups effectively. I was taught that paras should be running academic groups and taking data, as long as the teacher trains them how to do it and continues to give them coaching around it. Paras aren't just in the classroom to manage behaviors and do clerical tasks, so train your paras how to run academic groups!
3) Stagger your reading groups. Don't run all your groups at the same time, because then when on students starts to struggle behaviorally or leaves the classroom, then an entire group is left without a teacher. If you stagger groups, then you'll always have a "floater" staff member to assist with those behaviors.

Here's an example of how it looks in my classroom:

  • Basic information about our classroom and literacy groups: 
    • I have a total of 3 literacy groups (let's call them group 1, group 2 and group 3). Our classroom staff includes: myself and 2 paraprofessionals (let's call them Teacher, Para 1 and Para 2). Each group has 3-4 students in it. 
    • Literacy groups run from 9:00-10:15 am
    • We have numerous students who frequently elope/ leave the classroom to avoid work so we need a "floater" staff member available at all times to ensure safety and to avoid leaving a group without a staff member. 
    • At first, we were running literacy groups for group 1, group 2, and group 3 at the same time, but then when a student would leave the classroom, a group would be left without a teacher or a teacher would be trying to cover 2 groups, which was really unfair to the students left in the group in the classroom... so we started staggering groups and it was magical! 
  • Here's how we stagger and run literacy groups now and it's been working wonderfully for weeks now! Now no group is missing out on instruction if a student elopes during work time! 
    • 9:00-9:45: 
      • Group 1 is doing reading with Para 1
    • 9:00-9:30:
      • Group 2 and group 3 are playing independently and quietly at tables. Para 2 and teacher are supervising break and supporting with eloping behaviors for group 1 literacy group. 
    • 9:30-10:15:
      • Group 2 is doing literacy group with teacher. Para 2 supervises break for group 3 and supports with eloping behaviors of group 1 and group 2. 
    • 9:45-10:15:
      • Group 3 is doing literacy group with Para 2. Group 1 goes into break time and Para 1 supervises break time and supports with eloping behavior for literacy groups 2 and 3.
    • We switch what groups we work every day. So I work with each group every 3rd day.
    • I tried to explain this as best as possible, but I know it might seem a little confusing, please leave me any questions you have about it in the comments! 
  • Why it works for us:
    • We spent the first few weeks of school teaching students how to stay at their work space and play quietly. Staggering groups like this would be really tough is students are still learning to play/ engage in break independently. 
    • It allows us to always have 1 or 2 "floater" staff members supervising break time with students who can support with eloping behaviors due to task avoidance. 

Leave any questions you have in the comments and I'll get back to you! Do you stagger your groups or have any tips to share with me/ others to help make groups run smoothly in mixed-needs classrooms?

Saturday, September 8, 2018

3 Easy-to-Implement Behavior Interventions

Managing behaviors in the classroom can be tough... I want to share with you 3 easy-to-implement (and research based!) behavior interventions that have continuously helped to decrease negative behaviors and increase positive behaviors in my classroom!

Transitional activities:
Scheduling transitional activities can be a game changer and they're not hard to implement! Here's how it works: all you have to do is schedule a moderately preferred activity between a highly preferred and a highly non-preferred activity. Think about your schedule- Do you have a highly preferred activity (possibly recess, iPad time, etc.) scheduled right before a highly non-preferred activity (possibly fine motor time, math, etc.)? If so, do your students struggle to transition to this highly non-preferred activity? If they do, then you can try scheduling a moderately preferred activity (possibly time with blocks, trains, etc.) between those two activities to help students transition easier.

Putting transitional activities in our schedule has drastically changed how well transitions go in my classroom. One transition that we were continuously struggling with was getting students to transition inside from recess, so we had to find a way to motivate and reinforce students for lining up and coming back into the classroom appropriately. We ended up being able to do that by scheduling a transitional activity (in this case either a GoNoodle or a few minutes of technology time) for students between recess and work time. With the transitional activity, our students are much more motivated to come inside from recess because they don't have to go straight to working after something so fun like recess!

Contingency charts:
Contingency charts are great for students because they show what students will earn if they do the expected behaviors as well as the consequences if they do the undesired/ unexpected behaviors. They're are also helpful to staff because they offer consistency and ensure that all staff are following through with rewards and consequences in the same way. Contingency charts can be made with visuals or pictures (like seen below) or you can write them out, but it's essential to have them printed out so that students and staff all have access to them.

Interdependent Group Contingencies:
There are three types of group contingencies, but I'm going to focus on interdependent group contingencies now. Interdependent group contingencies are reward systems in which ALL students in the class must work together to meet behavioral goals/ expectations to earn a reward. With this type of group contingency, ALL students must meet the behavioral targets and then ALL of the students earn the reward. If one student doesn't meet the behavioral target, then the whole class doesn't earn the reward/ reinforcer.
100 Squares
Mystery Motivator
Teacher vs. Students
Good Behavior Game
If you want to learn more about the different types of group contingencies, click here for a link from the University of Kanas.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Setting up a Special Needs Classroom

Setting up a classroom can be overwhelming! However, taking time and being meaningful about certain aspects of the classroom setup can really help you to start your school year off well.

Spend time upfront organizing.
This might not be the most exciting part of setting up a classroom and it might seem obvious, but getting organized will definitely set you up for success in the fall. I suggest getting all of your materials out of cabinets, off of shelves and out of bins and separating materials into piles based on categories and functions (i.g. put all the math materials, literacy materials, cooking supplies, sensory toys, etc. together). Then look at what organization materials and space you already have (like bins, buckets, shelving units, etc.) and determine what materials will fit where. Grouping all of the materials that belong together ahead of time will avoid finding another 2 boxes of math manipulatives three days later and not having shelf space for them with the rest of the math materials. 

Create a classroom layout/ template. 
I don't like to move heavy furniture multiple times, so I'll make a classroom template/ layout before I move a single piece of furniture. I obviously normally end up moving a few pieces of furniture again at some point either in August or September, but making a template avoids moving heavy bookshelves 20 times just in July.

You don't have to have your entire schedule planned out to create the template/ layout, but before you plan your layout and start setting up your room, you'll want to have an idea of what activities you're going to do on a daily basis.

Here are a few things to think about when planning your classroom layout:
-Think through each daily lesson/ activity that you plan to do. Where will you store materials? Where will students and staff sit for each activity? Will students be distracted (visually or physically) by anything when they're in that space?
-Make spaces that have dual functions (i.g. use a table for small group and snack, or a small area for independent play and an independent reading center.)
-How many small groups are you going to be running at a time?
-Are you going to be running any whole group activities? How many students and staff will be included in this?
-Put any toys or super reinforcing/ distracting materials away (I suggest putting all toys in cabinets that students can't get into. You can read more that here.)
-Use furniture and rugs to section off the classroom and create little sections/ spaces, but leave room to maneuver students with wheelchairs, if needed.
-Do you have paraprofessionals or nurses in your classroom? If so, think about where they will store their personal belongings and if they need a work space.

Don't over do it with the decor. 
Don't get me wrong, I love a beautiful classroom, but we don't want to overstimulate our kiddos with too much decoration or empty our pockets spending a ton of money on pompoms and borders. I love to turn my visuals and work materials into my decor by adding pretty backgrounds and printing on colored paper. It's a simple (and cheap) way to add color into your classroom without adding visual clutter or breaking the bank.

A pretty watercolor addition to schedule cards.

Objectives on colored paper and a pretty colored core board poster. 

My next suggestion is to create a few bulletin boards that are pretty but that are meaningful. A few examples could include a pretty colored goal board, schedule board, word wall, etc. I just suggest making bulletin boards that can stay for more than a month long and add value to your classroom.

Happy classroom set up!