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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Using Google Forms to Communicate with Parents

Communicating with families regularly is one of the easiest ways to build positive relationships with families. In the past, I used paper back and forth books. I thought I was being SO time efficient because I made books that had checklists, I individualized the books based on what each parent wanted to know about the students day and I could write in 10 books in about 15 minutes.

However, I was still struggling to write in all the books on a daily basis. I was struggling to find the time at the end of the day (when students were still there) to complete the books. Pages were getting ripped out of books on the bus. Families would forget to check the books. Books were getting lost. Families weren't getting important information they needed, so it just wasn't working anymore...

I needed to find another way to get the same information to parents that would be easier on ME and would work for parents. So I experimented with using google forms as a way to communicate with a few of my families and we have all LOVED it!

It's saved me so much time- I can complete one form in 15-20 seconds. I also love that I can complete the forms after students go home since I don't have to worry about getting the books into their backpacks before they leave. I've already received positive feedback from the parents I implemented it with too! They said it was so easy to use and they loved the daily email updates when I completed the form.

It does take a little time to set up, but it's so worth it! So here's how to do it!

You need a google drive account for this. I suggest using the google account that your school provides and checking with your school/ district to make sure that your school allows you to use google forms/ drive with students in regards to student data/ privacy.

-You are going to start by creating the form. Log in to your Google Drive account. 
  • Click "new" on the left and select "form." 
  • Next you're going to edit the title of the form. This is important because it will also be the title when you are on your Google Drive landing page.  
  • Now you can click the little + sign to add the questions you want for the log. I think it's helpful to use as many multiple choice, check boxes, and drop down questions as possible. The more you can limit the use of "short answer" the quicker filling out the form will be! 
  • Tip: I suggest making the last question a short answer question and that just says "Parent comments/ notes back to teacher." or something similar. You will leave this blank when you are filling out the form daily, but it will give parents a place to leave comments/ notes back to you. 

-Now it's time to get the forms ready to share with parents. I'm going to show you how to set it up so that it emails parents when you complete the form. 
  • Click the three little dots on the right. Then click "add-ons" in the drop down.
  • Next you will download the free add-on called "form notifications." 

-Sharing with parents, continued 
  • Click back to the form page and click on "responses" at the top. 
  • Now click on the puzzle piece on the right side. Then you'll click "configure notifications."
  • When the box pops up, you'll click "notify me" and enter the parent's email address (you can add more than one email address). Now change the number in the box to "1" if you want the parent to be emailed every time you complete a form. If you want the parent to get an email on a weekly basis, then you'd change the number to "5."
  • Once you edited the above information, click save and then close the window. 
  • Tip: If it gives you a configuration error, make sure you aren't signed into multiple Google accounts at once. 

-Now you'll need to make sure that the response spreadsheet is also shared with parents.
  • Click the little green grid on the right side. Then a window with the spreadsheet will open. 
  • Then click "share," enter the parent's email address(es) and click done. When adding the parent's email address.
  • Tip: I suggest selecting the drop down "can comment" so parents can write notes/ comments back to you in the response spreadsheet. Using this function won't allow parents to delete/ edit anything you've entered, but it will let them add comments to the parent comments/ notes section that you made in the first section. 

-Now the form is all set up for parents to get automatic emails and for you to start using it!

  • Now go back to the form and click "send."
  • Copy and paste the link to your browser. 
  • Next you'll want to bookmark that link somewhere that will be easy to access so you get to them easily to complete the forms. 
  • Tip: I made one tab/ folder at the top of my Chrome browser, labeled it "communication logs" and saved all of the links for my students' logs there. 

-Now I'll show you what parents will see on their end. 

  • Below is an example email that parents will get when you complete a form. They are given the option to either open the form response or the response sheet (the spreadsheet).

Let me know what questions you have! I'd love to hear how this goes for you and your families!

Please note: I'm not a tech guru! If something isn't working for you in the process, feel free to leave me a question in the comments, but I might not be able to answer all of your questions.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Paraprofessional Series: So you're a new teacher working with experienced paraprofessionals...

Working with paraprofessionals can be one of the best and hardest things about being a special education teacher. It can be particularly hard when you're a newer teacher and working in a classroom with experienced paraprofessionals. It can feel weird to give a para instructions, directions and guidance if the para has more classroom experience than you or if the para is significantly older than you.

My first couple of years of teaching, I ended up working with a paraprofessional who had been in the classroom longer than I had even been alive! It did feel strange at first, but I knew I needed to get over that. I had to find ways to build relationships with the paras and to show them that I cared about them and the students!

Your relationship with your paras can make or break your school year (for your students and you!), so it's worth the time and effort to build a positive relationship with them. At the end of the day, the classroom is YOUR responsibility and it's your job to make sure that you are doing everything in your power to work in a positive way with the adults in your classroom.

I've had so many people ask me for advice about working with paraprofessionals who don't want to follow the teacher's plan and seem to specifically challenge the teacher due to the teacher's age or experience... If this is you, just know that you're NOT alone. This has happened to me numerous times and it has happened to many other teachers too. I don't have a magic wand or special secrets that will make it all better overnight, but I have some suggestions that have helped me tremendously over the years.

Appreciate what information you can learn about students from experienced paraprofessionals.  
Use it to your advantage if you're coming into a classroom with experienced paras who already know and have a relationship with your students! Make time to sit down with the paras to ask them questions about what games, toys, activities, etc. students do and don't like, what foods students do and do not like, what daily routines/ activities students are already able to do independently, what special interests students have, etc. Often times, these simple little things are left out of IEPs and other paperwork, but they are very important and helpful to know before you start the school year, so if you can get this information from paras, then you're lucky! This is a small way that you can include paras and show them that you value their input and what they bring to the table.

Ask paraprofessionals questions about what has and hasn't worked in the past. 
I love to ask paras what they think has and hasn't worked for the students/ classroom in the past. I ask them about things like: scheduling, grouping, inclusion time, behavior interventions, etc.

This will help you to get an idea of what paras did and didn't like about how past years were set up. You don't need to base all of your decisions on this information, but it can be helpful in making some key decisions. Don't forget that at the end of the day, it is your decision and responsibility to decide what is best for the classroom, but it isn't a bad idea to get some outside ideas and to try to keep the other adults working in the classroom happy, when possible!

For example, when I first started at my last school, I had a conversation similar to this with one of the experienced paras who had been in the classroom previously and she told me that each para was grouped/ paired with 2-3 students and those were the only students that those staff members worked with for the entire school year. She expressed her concerns about that and this was something that I was open to changing.

Give paras specific explanations and rationales for why you want to make change.
Change can be hard for some people! If a paraprofessional is struggling with how a new teacher is changing the classroom, then it's the teacher's job to help the para understand the reasons WHY the teacher needs to make those changes. Instead of saying something like, "I'm the teacher, you're the para, just do it my way," take the time to give explanations and rationals as to why you're making specific changes. I have found that when paras truly understand why I want to implement a plan, that they are more willing to buy in. Don't use fancy teacher terms or acronyms, use plain terms and just explain the basic why for the changes!

If you have a para who still is particularly resistant to change, here are a few ways to phrase conversations and problem-solve:
-"Let's try this for intervention/ plan, etc. for  __ months/ weeks, then we can revisit and discuss if it's working or not. If the team doesn't think it's working, we can tweak our plan."
-Use the data and be concrete, "The data shows Billy is still kicking 18 times a week with the current intervention that we've been doing for 4 weeks, so it's time to try something new. We will keep tracking the data to see if the new plan works and we will revisit it."
-"I might be a new teacher and haven't tried it yet, but there is research supporting ___ intervention. I'd like to try it for a few weeks and see if we see progress."

If you have any tips for working with experiences paras, please share them in the comments! Or ask any specific questions below too! Just please remember to be respectful of your colleagues and protect confidentiality.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Tips for Teaching Students to Play Independently

I've shared a lot about how I love to teach my students to play independently and with peers without adult support. First, this is an amazing functional and social skill. Second, this allows classroom staff to run groups with other students while some students are playing appropriately and safely. 

⁣I want to start by saying that this process takes TIME, patience and a lot of reinforcement! Many of our students have spent much of their academic lives with a teacher or para glued to their side prompting them, so we have to work on fading these prompts during play time (and really the entire school day!). 

Here's how we structure independent play time:

•During free choice/ play time, we encourage students to play independently or with peers. We are open to either, but our big goal for this time is for students to learn to play safely and appropriately without staff support. ⁣

•We set up play activities at 1-3 tables, depending on the time of day. We include activities like cars/ trains, variety of building materials, make believe cooking, etc. I focus on picking activities that students are interested in and will be motivated to sit and attend to. I store the play materials in labeled drawers and I switch the activities weekly. 

•Each table is marked with four colored squares. We started the year with laminated squares that were glued to the table, but those obviously didn't last 😂 So now our squares are drawn onto the table with colored permanent markers. Students must be sitting at a square at a table at all times to have the toy/ activity. If all 4 spots are taken at a table, then students must pick another table with an open square/ spot. This year, students are allowed to move from table to table freely whenever they want. However, in years past, I have had to set a timer for students to prompt them to stay at a table for longer periods of time and to keep them from going from table to table every few minutes. 

•Of course we have to start the school year (and honestly, most Mondays) by having staff regularly sitting with kids at the tables and modeling how to play appropriately. Our job is to teach our students how to deal with conflict, share, take turns, etc. with peers and then be able to remove ourselves!⁣

•We gave frequent reinforcement for appropriate play at the beginning! Kids were constantly get stamps/ stickers on their charts, verbal praise, skittles, you name it, the first few months while we taught them the desired behaviors. ⁣We continue to give reinforcement for positive independent play, but it is not as frequent as at the beginning of the year. 
What questions do you still have?! Is teaching your students to play without adult support something you’re interested in trying or are you already doing it?

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Implementing Mindfulness & Breathing Techniques

Teaching my students to meditate and breathing techniques is one of my greatest joys! Meditation and breathing can provide students with amazing regulation skills and the ability to calm their bodies and minds in a variety of tough situations. A friend and old colleague (who is PE teacher) first opened my eyes to teaching meditation and mindfulness practice to students. Many of these ideas are from her but were adapted for students with disabilities/ special needs.

How we do it & our process:
-How we started:
It's important to know that this was process and we had to build up to doing 7 minute meditations! When we first started, our students wouldn't just sit/ lay down to do even a one minute meditation. We started by teaching students a breath a day using the below Breath With Me Book. The book has super fun, simple and engaging breaths. We would teach students the breaths during circle time, during break time, or any time that it was appropriate/ natural. We made sure to teach students the breaths when they were regulated and then would reinforce using the breaths when they were dysregulated. We would encourage students to take a breath if they were mad, upset, frustrated, etc. We would say something like, "If you're feeling mad, you can try a bunny breath. Let's do one together!" and then we would model the bunny breath.

You can find the Breathe With Me book on Amazon here.

If you want to get some fun breath ideas without buying the book, check out the author's Facebook page, The Village Resources.

It was amazing to watch because after just a few short weeks, our students started to identify when they need to take a breath and they would start independently doing the breaths! Once students were engaged/ interested in the doing the breaths, we started doing them as whole group activities. We would sit in a little circle and pass the book around and each student would pick a breath in the book and "lead the group in a breath."

-Music & Guided Meditations:
After a month or two of just doing breathing techniques, we started doing short guided meditations. We started with the shortest meditations we could find, which were about 3 minutes, but now our students can do 5-7 minute long meditations! We would either have students sit or lay down on a specific spot on the carpet for the meditation or have students sit at their table/ desk spot.

Prior to starting the guided meditation, teachers walk around and will spray room spray in student's areas if they give the teacher a "thumbs up" to indicate that they want a spray (obviously make sure there aren't any allergies are parents are okay with this!). During the guided meditation, teachers walk around the classroom provide shoulder/ back squeezes or pressure (similar to in a yoga class). Teachers quietly whisper to students, "Yes or no?" so every student has the ability to tell the teacher if he/she wants the shoulder/ back squeezes or pressure.

If you have Apple music, below are my favorite Albums for short and kid-friendly guided meditations.

When we do it:
-We work on our mindfulness and breathing during a variety of times of the day:
We also do mindfulness and breathing activities for 3-7 minutes right before a few of the most stressful or chaotic transitions of the day for our students: before lunch and recess, before inclusion times, and before dismissal. We also do them before we have any schedule or routine changes.
-We have a 30 minute gross motor/ exercise time in our schedule and we typically do a mindfulness/ breathing activity for the last 5-10 minutes of the exercise group.
-If students seem anxious or upset, we will ask them if they want to do a meditation or take a breath with us.

How it's changed my students' lives:
-My students have gained the ability to regulate their emotions more effectively and independently!
-Many of my students have learned to use the breaths to ease their nerves during stressful situations and generalized the skill even at home and outside of the classroom!

I've had numerous people ask me what I do with students who refuse to participate and if I have alternative activities for students who don't want to participate. Here's what we do:
-For students who refuse to participate: We let them refuse to participate. We can't MAKE students do anything. However, we do our best to make participating rewarding to encourage students to want to participate. We do this by using the spray, a breathing ball and providing positive reinforcement to students who participate (stamps/ stickers on charts, edibles for certain students, etc.).
-Alternative activities for students who refuse to participate: A regular choice for our students if they refuse to participate in what is on the schedule is independent work. So if students refuse to do meditation, we will say, "Do you want to do meditation or independent work?"

If you haven't tried mindfulness or breathing in your classroom yet, I encourage you to try it! The impact it can have on your students and staff is magical!

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!