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!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

3 Tips for Increasing Parent Involvement in Parent Teacher Conferences

I recently did a poll on Instagram and found out that many of the teachers who follow me on Instagram struggle to get their students' parents to attend parent teacher conferences! I was surprised to see that 65% of the teachers who completed the poll (nearly 400 teachers answered the poll) have less than 50% of their students' parents show up for conferences.

Parent involvement in parent teacher conferences is something I've struggled with in past years, but I've been able to increase parent involvement with a few simple tricks that I want to share with you all.

1) Give parents a variety of time options.
This might sound super basic and like common sense, but let parents sign up for conferences at a time that works for them! I like to send out a sign up sheet that looks like this and have parents indicate ALL of the times that work for them, then I sit down and figure out a schedule that will accommodate all of the parents and my schedule. If a parent doesn't return the sheet, I'll call and see they need to schedule at another time (like before or during school hours). I also use little labels to remind parents when their conference is scheduled.

Example of the parent teacher conference sign up sheet I send out. 

Completed sign up sheet and label reminder for parent. 

2) Be flexible with conference format! 
Child care and transportation can be hard for families, so it's a good idea to provide conferences in an alternative format if parents struggle to get school. I've started doing my conferences over the phone, Skype or Facetime and it's really helped with turn out! This is literally the only way that I've been able to get some of my families to participate in conferences. My principal was really open to letting me have conferences in a different format in order to increase parent involvement, so it might be worth it to ask your administrator!

3) Send home work samples.
If you are going to do conferences over the phone, Skype or Facetime, make sure you send home work samples prior to the conference. I like to send home a few different work samples (normally a work sample from reading, writing, math, etc.) and sometimes I'll also text or email parents a short video clip of the student completing a task prior to conferences that are being held over the phone. This will help remind parents that conferences are meant to talk about progress, growth, next-steps and what the student is working on at school! It will likely also be helpful so that the parent can reference the work samples as you explain the work during the conference.

Do you have any tips for improving parent involvement in parent teacher conferences?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Paraprofessional Series: Training Paraprofessionals

There are SO many things that special education paraprofessionals need to be trained on... behaviors, data collection, AAC and communication, confidentiality, mobility equipment, academic instruction, and SO much more! There literally isn't enough time in the day to train paras on everything that they need to know. It seems that there are two major barriers to training paraprofessionals: time and resources.

When it comes to finding the time to train paraprofessionals, teachers have to be super creative. The toughest part of scheduling time for training paras is often para reporting/ contracted time. It's typical for paraprofessionals and students to have the same hours, so you're left having to find a way to train paras while students are present. Although it's tough to do, making the time to train paras will show paras that you value them, will make them more confident, and will improve student outcomes!

Ideas for making the time for training paraprofessionals:
Although it's hard to do, it's crucial that you find a way to make time to train your paraprofessionals. If it's particularly hard and stressful, just start small! You can start by doing 10-15 minute mini-training sessions or by just training one para at a time, but start somewhere! It's what's best for your students and it will make your life easier too!

Here are a few ideas for making the time to train paraprofessionals:

-Turn a movie or video on once a week or month. If you're going to do a training session while kids are watching a movie or video, you obviously need to make sure you're still keeping any eye on the kiddos or  you can ask someone like your principal, school psychologist or assistant principal to come in and watch the movie with the kiddos so you can completely focus on training your paras.

-Jenn from Teach Love Autism uses iPad time to make time for meeting with paras. This is a great idea because students are often so reinforced by iPad time! If you have the luxury of having a lot of iPads in your classroom, giving students extra iPad time so you can have time to train paras is an excellent option!

-If your students have a rest time, use that as a time to train paras. We have an incredibly long school day, so my students rest for about an hour a day. My paras are normally in and out of the classroom at that time for a variety of things (their lunches, the sensory room with students and general ed with students) however, it's a time that I'm able to train paras 1:1, if needed. If you want to read more about our rest time, check out this post.

-Request funding from your principal or district to pay for your paraprofessionals to stay 30-60 minutes late (or coming in 30-60 min. early) 1-2 times a month for training. If you work in a classroom with students who have severe behaviors or medical needs, you should be able to convince your principal to agree to this if you frame it in a way that your paraprofessionals need this training in order to keep your students safe. Of course, your paras would need to agree to staying late or coming early for the training, but they would be getting paid for it! I've never had a paraprofessional refuse to come early or stay late if they were going to get paid for it.

-If your administration or district is unable to come up with funding to pay your paras extra for coming in late/early for training, you still have another FREE option!! Another thing I've done is I've had para training sessions before or after school and then I let paras pick a day to come in late or leave early to make up that time that they did for the training session. Of course, I got this cleared with my administration and we scheduled it ahead of time so I never had two paras coming in late or leaving early on the same day, but it was a creative and free way that let me have some training sessions with my paras!

Here's an example of how it could look:
Monday afternoon: All 3 paras stayed 30 minutes after school
Tuesday afternoon: Para 1 leaves 30 minutes early
Wednesday afternoon: Para 2 leaves 30 minutes early
Thursday afternoon: Para 3 leaves 30 minutes early

Now that you have some ideas for scheduling and making time for training paras, let's jump to the next barrier to training paraprofessionals... resources!

Resources for training paraprofessionals:
Use Powerpoints
Powerpoints or other computer based presentations are great because you display them and also print them for staff. When making these presentations, make sure you make them interactive by including real-life examples from your classroom! We love to act things out, role play with specific behaviors and practice using data sheets during para training sessions.

You can find some good presentations for paras on good-ole google, but I find that a lot of the time, those presentations are more geared towards teachers and aren't great for paras who are new to the classroom. I've ended up making a lot of my own Powerpoints that are tailored to the specific needs of my paras and classroom. If you want a few free editable PPTs for training paras, click here, where I have a basic behavior PD and a prompting PD.

Behavior Management PD (on my TpT for free)

Prompting PD (on my TpT for free)

Use Videos of Yourself: 
If you just want to teach your paras a little technique or trick, record a short video of yourself explaining it or modeling the technique and have paras watch it. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, just grab your cellphone or iPad and record a 1-3 minute video. This will give paras the opportunity to watch (and re-watch) you do the tasks/ technique and ask questions if needed!

Below are a few of the activities I've record myself doing for my paras:
-modeling how to use core vocab during independent play
-using communication during communication during recess and gross motor
-using a PECs system with a student
-reviewing a behavior chart with a student
-prompting during a writing activity for specific student
-prompting for transitioning student off of a task
-prompting during a fine motor activity for specific student

Use Modules and Websites:
There are a ton of great modules and websites out there for training paras, and the best ones are FREE! I have two free go-to websites that I love using with my paraprofessionals.

-The Pennsylvania Department of Ed has a ton of free modules for paras here. You have to make an account, but topics include reading comprehension and fluency, autism, IDEA, social skills, data collection, working with students who are deaf-blind and so much more!

-Autism Internet Modules is another awesome and free website that has a ton of great short modules for paras (and you, if you want!) to complete. These modules are great because some are short (15-30 minutes) and they include videos and questions that check for understanding. Just a few of the topics on the website include functional communication training, naturalistic intervention, discrete trial training, cognitive differences, pivotal response training, picture exchange communication system, and self-management.

Use YouTube or other videos:
I have no shame in my game, on numerous occasions, I've pulled up one of Chris's videos from Autism Classroom Resources and had my paras watch it. Using videos from other awesome special education professionals can be a great way for your paras to hear the information from someone else's mouth! At least once in your career you'll probably have a paraprofessional who doesn't agree with what you're saying/ what you want to do. In my experience, having paras hear the information from someone other than you can help in those situations.

Do you have any awesome tips or tricks for training paraprofessionals?