Friday, November 24, 2017

Why you should teach your students to use a structured work system

The ability to work independently is an incredibly important life skill. Not only will this skill help students be successful at school, but it will also help them at home! Just think about it- if a student can work independently at school, it can give the classroom staff time to work 1:1 with other students... if a child can work independently at home, then the parents will be able to have time to cook dinner, take a shower or get some chores done. Most kids need structures and routines in place to be able to work independently, and this is especially true for kids with disabilities. 

A wonderful way to teach kids to work independently is by using a structured work system. Structured work systems are a huge component of the Structured Teaching Framework that was developed by TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children) at the University of North Carolina. According to TEACCH, a structured work system is a systematic means of presenting information in a way that is received and understood by the individual and the goal of the system is to promote independence. I truly believe in structured independent work, so the moment my students enter my classroom (sometimes as young as 5 years old), I start to teach them a structured work system. If you want to learn more about structured work systems, this is a great handout

Why we do it: 

If you're still not sold on spending the time to teach kiddos an independent/ structured work system, here are my main "selling points" when I tell teachers why independent work is so important:
  • It's a GREAT skill for students to have when your classroom is understaffed! Being understaffed is going to happen in any classroom... people get sick, people go out of town, people quit, it's just going to happen! Having students with the ability to work independently is awesome for when you're understaffed because you can easily have a few students work independently when you and/or your paraprofessionals work with small groups or work 1:1  with students. I recently had a paraprofessional resign, so now during math centers I have a student using a structured work system to complete centers independently since I don't have enough staff to supervise each center. 
  • Having students work independently can also give you time to train, debrief and meet with paraprofessionals! Special ed paraprofessionals often have the same reporting times as students, which leaves little to no time for paras and teachers to meet together during the day. I've used time when students are working independently as time to train my paras on behavior plans, running literacy groups, to touch base about how time in general ed is going, etc. It might not give you an hour to sit down to  do an intensive training with paras, but every 15-20 minute chunk of time that you can spend collaborating with paras is going to be helpful!
  • You're going to look like a champ when administration or other staff come into your classroom and students are engaged and working independently! 
How we do it: 
I don't strictly use the TEACCH independent work system, I've taken parts and pieces of this system and created individualized systems that work for my students. I've basically incorporated pieces from a variety structured work systems to create systems that work for each individual kiddo in my classroom. 
  • We spend time teaching only 1-2 students the system at a time. I started focusing on teaching the system to a few students at a time and once they started to get the independent work system down, then we started teaching the system to another 1-2 students. 
  • We provide structure to students however they need it! Students should have a work space where they aren't going to be distracted by other students, staff or materials. I like to have independent work areas a little blocked off with furniture, walls and/or room dividers. Most students will need the structure of a schedule during independent work, but it's not necessary for every student. 

  • Since my students have a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities, we have to differentiate independent work systems for each kiddo's individual needs. For example, I have students who aren't able to independently maneuver their wheelchairs yet, so I don't expect the students to retrieve their work boxes/ carry the boxes across the classroom. I also have students who are unable to match simple picture/ number/ shape/ color cards between the schedule and the work boxes, so these students don't have specific schedules to follow yet. In these situations, students have their work boxes on their desks/ table and simply use a "left to right" work system format instead of using the matching work system. If you want to read about the different ways I differentiate work systems, check out this post
    • Here are the rules/ expectations we have for independent work:
      • Students always work from left to right.
      • All work is at students independent level (this is IMPERATIVE!)
      • Students have a bucket/ shelf to put completed work in/on. 
      • Staff stick to using gestural prompts, modeling and physical prompts (because they're easier to fade than verbal prompts).
      • Students do NOT take their work apart.
      • Staff don't take the work apart in front of students.
      • Students get a reward/ reinforcer when they are done completing the work.
  • Here are a few examples of the different work spaces we have in our classroom

Happy independence!  :)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Tips for Smooth Transitions in the Classroom

Everyone in education knows that transitions can be tough for kids, especially kiddos with disabilities. As special ed teachers, it's our job to find ways to help kiddos transition between activities in the classroom, places in the school, staff in the school, etc. I want to share a few of my favorite tips for smooth transitions.

-Use transition objects/ photos:
The use of objects and/or photos to aid in transitions is a research based strategy and is often a game-changer for students with Autism and other developmental disabilities. Transition objects/pictures are meant to provide comfort and predictability for kiddos during transitions.

Transition objects/ pictures will look different for every kid and should be based on what works for the specific student. A student might hold a picture of a general ed teacher or therapist while transitioning to the specific therapist or class. Another student might hold a ball while transitioning to recess or PE. Other students might just carry a preferred item/ picture (like a stuffed animal, picture of a parent, a Minion book, etc.) during transitions. The point of the transition object is to provide the student with the ability to transition quickly and effectively.

We use transition objects/ pictures in a variety of ways in our classroom. One student transitions with specific therapists in the school with a "go" picture symbol card. Another student holds a preferred item (normally a small Barbie or little toy) when she transitions from recess to the lunch room because this is a transition that she often struggles with. I've had a student carry a picture of the PE, music, or art teacher while he transitions to the specials class. When it comes to transition objects/ pictures, just remember that it will likely look different for every student and need to be individualized for each student... so focus on figuring out works for each kiddo.

I love this quick 3 minute podcast/ explanation of transition objects/pictures.

-Use auditory and visual cues
Using visual and auditory cues to let students know about upcoming transitions is something that most teachers already do. These cues can be SO effective in making transitions go smoothly. However, I often see teachers either using every single auditory/ visual cue possible  (basically over prompting) or using nothing at all. I suggest trying different auditory and visual cues for transitions and paying attention to what works and what doesn't work for your specific students. I have some students who simply need to be verbally reminded, "two more minutes and then it's time for math." while some of my students need the verbal reminder, a timer to go off and a visual. Don't kill yourself giving students every single auditory and visual cue out there for transitions if they don't need it!

One of my favorite auditory cues I use is a doorbell! I have a doorbell on the wall near where my kiddos line up. Whenever my students hear the doorbell ring, they know it's time to quickly and quietly go to the line by the classroom door.

Other examples of auditory and visual cues include:

We use first/then boards to get students ready for upcoming transitions.

-Have structured routines in place for transitions
It's really important to teach your students structured routines for specific transitions like lining up, going to the carpet, cleaning up, ending free choice time, etc. I want to explain a few of the routines/ structures I have in place in our classroom for transitions that have been really helpful.

One of the best tips I have ever heard (from one of my grad school professors) is to avoid having the entire class transitioning at the same time and instead having small groups of students transitioning. Here's how this tip might look in a special ed classroom: You have three groups of students at tables doing free play, it's time to clean up, wash hands and start breakfast. Instead of having all of the students clean up, wash hands and start breakfast at the the same time, you would have table 1 start cleaning up and washing hands. Then when table 1 is done with hands they could start breakfast and then table 2 could clean up and washing hands and the staggered process would continue. This tip basically eliminates the mad dash of 20 kids all trying to do the same thing at the same time which often causes chaos.

Another tool I love to use to make transitions more structured is videos. For example, I use an educational math video as a transition between gross motor and our math lesson. When our gross motor/ exercise activity is over, I turn on a 2-3 minute math music video on the Smartboard to help aid the kiddos with transitioning to math group. The 2-3 minute video also gives me and my paras a few minutes to quickly prepare any last minute things for math like pulling out materials.

My last suggestion is to really think through the routines built into your transitions... Think about what students will do if they transition quicker than other students. Will students be expected to wait for the other students to transition for an extended period of time? Is there something you can put in place so you can avoid this long wait period? If students are struggling to wait for their peers after they transition, I suggest giving the students something to do (like some yoga breaths, quick brain breaks/ exercises, etc.) while they wait for the rest of the students to transition. Here's how this tip might look in a special ed classroom: Students are working independently or doing free play. The teacher wants the students to clean up and go to the carpet to get ready for circle time. When the students clean up and go to the carpet, they are given brain break sticks/cards or yoga cards so they can do a few exercises while they wait for the rest of the class to transition. This will keep the kiddos on the carpet busy and maybe even motivate some students to transition to the carpet quicker!

-Practice, practice, practice and then modify (as need)
It might seem silly to say, but kids and staff need to continuously practice transitions. At the beginning of the school year, we do so much repetition of our most frequent transitions (like lining up). We will practice over and over again and make it fun by adding in lots of positive reinforcement and praise. If you continue to practice a routine/ transition and it still isn't working, tweak it! Think about why it isn't working and modify it!

What strategies do you use to make transitions go smoothly in your classroom?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Gross Motor/ Exercise Ideas for Special Needs Classrooms

Movement and exercise is SO important for all kids! The CDC recommends that kids get 60 minutes of aerobic activity every day. Sadly, the US Department of Health states that only 1 out of 3 children are physically active each day. Since kids spend so much time at home and school sitting, I decided to do something to increase the movement of the kiddos in my classroom. This year we started implementing a 20 minute gross motor group  every single day. It's a great time for students to get energy out, to create healthy habits and to give students with wheelchairs more opportunities for position changes and opportunities to use PT equipment.

I want to share some of my favorite ideas for implementing a gross motor/ exercise group in my special education classroom.

Make it academic & fun by using dice, spinners, and number sticks:
My kiddos love when there's an element of surprise during gross motor! We love to use spinners, dice and number sticks to determine how many of reps of each exercise we will do. We also use them to tell us the page or activity number to go to. For example, we might set a spinner with the numbers 1-30 and then use the spinner to tell us what page in an exercise book to go to.

I also love to tie counting, number identification, color identification, and communication into gross motor activities.
There are SO many possibilities for doing this, here are just a few ideas:
-Have students rote count out loud when they're doing exercises
-Have students identify numbers on pages of exercise books
-Incorporate social skills like taking turns

This student was touching the "turn" picture card to request a turn.
-Have students with AAC devices or who use PECs complete sentences to communicate what they want to do or request for gross motor supplies.
-Here's a video example of how I encourage kiddos to communicate and identify colors during gross motor.

Here are a few of my favorite free websites for spinners, dice, and more:

Use it as a time to teach self-regulation skills:
We normally start every gross motor group by doing a few yoga breaths and moves together. If the gross motor group got students really energized/ riled up, we will also end the gross motor group with a calming breath. We use a variety of resources when we do yoga, including Youtube videos (I normally just search "yoga for kids"), the below Breathe With Me book, and free yoga cards from TpT. Our favorites are these free yoga cards from The Teacher's Passport and these arctic animal yoga pose cards from Megan's Creative Classroom.

This is my all time FAVORITE yoga book for kids. My dear friend and colleague wrote this book. It has a ton of different breaths with picture explanations. It's also translated in Spanish! You can buy it from Amazon here

Play games:
Games aren't just for working on gross motor skills, they're also great for working on communication and social skills like turn taking, waiting patiently, etc. I like to use cheap games like ring toss and bowling that you can buy from the Dollar Tree and Target. It's great to have a few of these games on hand in your classroom because they don't require much prep!

My student teacher made this super cute skee ball game!

This bowling game was only $5 from Target!
Work on imitation skills:
The ability to imitate skills is super important for our kiddos because it allows them to start learning from others around them. Gross motor/ exercise is a great opportunity to teach our kiddos to imitate motor actions like jumping, touching body parts, clapping, etc.

You can snag these gross motor cards for free here.

Do you have any favorite gross motor/ exercise activities you do in your classroom? Leave your ideas in the comments!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Simple Fine Motor/ Sensory Activities

If you follow my blog, you know our kiddos do fine motor/ sensory tubs every single day during our writing/ fine motor time. Since we complete fine motor/ sensory activities everyday, we have to make new activities every few weeks to keep the kiddos from getting bored.

If you want to know more about our fine motor/ writing time,  you can read this post.  Here are our latest sensory/ fine motor activities!
Simple put in task with pom poms, balls and a plastic container. 

Color sorting with bears and noodles.

Put-in task with tongs, checkers and a can.

Open the egg, take out the chick and put the chick in the can. (My super awesome student teacher made this one!)

Ring toss with plastic bracelets, a plastic container and a plastic tube. 
Put in task with unifix cubes, popcorn and plastic container. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

4 Ways to Build Positive Relationships with Paraprofessionals

The relationships between a teacher and paraprofessionals can make or break a classroom. Many teachers literally spend more time with their classroom staff than they do with their family and those relationships directly impact the kiddos, so having positive relationships within the classroom is so important!

Don't get me wrong, I haven't always had it perfect with my paraprofessionals... I've had paras quit mid-year, I've had paras cuss and yell at me because they didn't agree with me, I've handled situations in ways I probably shouldn't have, I've dreading going to work because of a negative relationship with a para... Trust me, I've been there... but the only thing we can do is learn from our mistakes and continue to work on building POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS with our paraprofessionals! Here are a few of my favorite ways to build positive relationships with my classroom team:

1) Weekly/ monthly treats
I know that we aren't rolling in money as teachers, but spending a few bucks on your paras once a week or once a month will go a long way!  At the beginning of every year, I have my paras fill out little surveys about their interests and likes. Then I stock up on some of their favorite things and keep them stashed in our classroom for anytime someone might need a pick-me-up! I try to get little treats for my paras once a week or every other week. You don't have to spend a ton of money, treats can be as simple/ cheap as a pack of gum, chapstick, a muffin, etc. You can grab a free likes/interests survey from my TpT to learn more about your paras. If you want free cute gift tags, you can download a few here

2) Include paras in important classroom decisions and ask for their input
I try to include my paras in a variety of classroom decisions. When it comes to scheduling, I try to give my paras input where I can- for example, my paras have the opportunity to decide at the beginning of the year if they want a 45 minute lunch or a 30 minute lunch and a 15 minute break. I also work with my paras to make a schedule that's fair for scheduling general ed specials. We also sit down as a classroom team and look at all the general ed field trips for the year and work together to plan out what staff are going on what trip based on their interests. I also pay attention to what lessons/ activities my paras enjoy in the classroom and try to build off of that. One year I had a para who LOVED art, so I let her take the lead and plan an art activity once a week. She really liked having the opportunity to be creative and plan a fun part of the week and it helped me to not have to plan the activity. Since classroom paras often don't have the opportunity to attend IEP meetings, I get their input before hand by having them write a little note about what they love about the kiddo. Parents always love when I share the positive note from paras in IEP meetings.

3) Give paras praise and coach them!
Training and coaching paras can be hard, especially for new teachers who are often young! During my first few years of teaching, I had paras who had been in the classroom longer than I had been alive and that was intimating! When it comes to training and coaching paras, make sure you give them PRAISE as you coach them. Just like with our students, give them positive praise every time you're giving them some kind of feedback/ thing to work on. Something I recently started doing was writing praise on stickies and putting it in my para's personal space to remind them that they are AWESOME!

4) Make it a point to share the load
I'm a firm believer that I shouldn't expect my paras to do anything I wouldn't do... So, I change multiple diapers on a daily basis, I do g-tubes daily, I lift and transfer students in and out of equipment, I wipe down tables, etc... I literally do everything I expect my paras to do. For me, this has gone a long way in showing my paras that we are a team and I'm in this with them! Another good idea is to make a rotating schedule for any classroom tasks that staff dislike (like working with a specific student, cleaning toys, going to a weekly therapy group, etc.). This helps to make sure everyone is sharing the responsibility and also getting a break.

How do you build positive relationships with your paras? I always love to hear new and fun ideas!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

DIY Cheap & Easy Classroom Divider

I don't know a teacher who doesn't have at least one student who gets super distracted by things around the classroom. Room dividers are a popular way to block off areas in classrooms. I use room dividers to create spaces for rest time/ sensory breaks and to create spaces for independent work stations. I had a large metal room divider that was super heavy and bulky and honestly not very safe, so I made this super easy PVC pipe room divider!

  • 25 feet PVC pipe, I used 1 inch (the amount of pipe you will need depends on how high and how wide you want your divider)
  • 2 PVC pipe 90 degree elbows (in the same size as PVC pipe)
  • 4 PVC pipe tees (in same size)
  • 4 PVC pipe caps (in same size, if desired. Just attached to end of feet)
  • PVC pipe cutters
  • PVC pipe cement (if desired)
  • Measuring tape
  • Curtain with a rod pocket and sewing supplies
    • Note: Make sure you get a curtain that is tall enough and wide enough for the size of the stand you want. I found a single panel at Target that is 54 inches wide and 84 inches long. 
  • Spray paint (if desired)
  • Velcro (if desired)
  • Note: I purchased all of the supplies at Home Depot but you could find the stuff at Lowe's or another home supply store. All of the PVC pipe cost $19, you can get a cutter for about $10 and the cement is about $5.
  • Start by cutting your PVC pipe. Here are the dimensions I cut (my stand is 4.5 feet tall and 5 feet wide) 
    • (2) 4 feet pieces (these pieces are for the sides)
    • (2) 5 inch pieces (these pieces are for the sides)
    • (2) 5 feet pieces  (these pieces are for middle bars)
    • (4) 10 inch pieces (these pieces are for the legs)
  • Start connecting your stand (reference the picture)

  • Spray paint, if desired.
  • Hang the curtain on the top middle piece of the stand (just put the middle piece through the curtain pocket).  Then measure where you need the pocket on the bottom part of the curtain. Mark where you need the second pocket, remove the curtain from the stand, iron the crease and then sew a straight line to create the pocket. You can use a sewing machine, sew by hand or use hemming tape and an iron. I just hand sewed it because it was quick and easy. 

  • Put the curtain on both of the middle pieces of the stand and you're done! 
  • If you want, you can use PVC pipe cement to attach pieces of your stand together to make it sturdier... but make sure you do this in your classroom if you don't have a car big enough for the stand! I cemented all of the pieces of my stand except the middle bars/ pieces so I can easily move the stand if I ever need to. 
  • I also attached rough Velcro to the bottom of the room divider to make it stick to the carpet. 

Let me know if any of this tutorial doesn't make sense and I can clarify! Good luck!