End-of-Year Testing in Special Ed 3 BIG tips

No one likes end-of-year testing. But, I think if you teach students with significant challenges, you probably dread it more than most. Testing our students is not only stressful for all involved, but it can sometimes lead to negative feelings of inadequacy. Even though we KNOW our students struggle to demonstrated what they truly know, especially on a standardized tests, we somehow take it personally when they don’t do as well as expected.

I am not saying these tips will solve all your problems. I am not naive enough to think a simple list will make your students pass a sometimes un-passable test. But, at least it will help you feel like you are as prepared as you can be. And your students will feel confident and supported regardless of the final score.

Of course, I will have some free downloads throughout, so make sure to grab them to help your end-of-year testing journey go a little more smoothly.

1. Background

So, tip #1 is to gather as much background information as you can. I am including a checklist you can download HERE that I used and tweaked over the years. I love checklists, and hope this one will help you out too!

What do I mean by background? I mean learn as much as you can about:

  1. The test
  2. How the student has done in the past
  3. Where, who and what will be involved

I can remember sitting through so many teacher test-prep sessions. Someone would get up and drone on and on about the mechanics of the tests. How to read the directions. How to provide assistance. When and if you could take breaks. I am not saying that it was not helpful or important, it was. But, I wanted to talk to other TEACHERS who had given the test last year. Preferably teachers who had taught my students in past years.

Given the fact there is some limitation to what we are ethically allowed to discuss, I came up with this CHECKLIST that I would start carrying around with me in March. I would take it to trainings, to school visits, any where I thought I might run into a teacher who had administered the test last year. I just kept bugging people until I could get as much checked off as I could.

You can download that checklist HERE.

I also hunted for any sample tests that were made available beyond what was given during the training. The more samples I could attain, the better I could prepare my students. The better my practice problems would be. From the samples I could create my own problems that looked like those the students would likely see.

Getting myself as prepared as possible was the first step.

2. IEP’s

Tip #2 is really getting to know those IEPs. From the very beginning of the year, I would make sure I was aware of any testing accommodations or modifications that were on each student’s IEP. I knew that for my students, especially, they would need to practice testing with these accommodations in place as much as possible. This often included using adaptive aids, communication devices, scribes, or even translators. By the time end-of-year testing came around, these accommodations were just a normal part of the process.

Sometimes, I got new students who had no or very few accommodations. This is another good reason to review the IEP’s for testing support right at the beginning of the year. Take some time to get to know the students, but don’t let too much time go by before you have a meeting to add some appropriate accommodations to the IEP.

I know, UGH!, not another IEP?!!? But, it will be so worth it come end-of-year testing time. DO NOT wait for the annual review to add these in. Students deserve to have the support they need to perform their best on EVERY test. So, add these in as soon as possible if they are missing or inadequate.


Again, if you teach in special education, you KNOW how important and challenging generalization of a skill can be. Tip #3 is all about generalizing those testing skills. Once you have a good feel of the format and approximate content of the end-of-year test, then set a plan in place to start generalizing.

I have a sample plan you can download HERE.

It is very likely that you will need to do the actual testing in a separate, monitored space like a conference room. I think EVERY year I tested (except one) my students and I had to venture to a far end of the building we rarely frequented to take the test. One year, we had to use the principal’s private conference room. Luckily, my students did not have any negative past experiences “going to the principal’s office,” but surely you can imagine typical students having a panic attack just having to walk through that door. Forget the fact they have to actually “perform” on an exam that could determine if they are promoted to the next grade or not.

So what are some things to things to think about when focusing on generalization? Here are a few:

  1. Location: classroom (familiar or new), conference room (windows, paintings on the walls, plants or other high interest items), familiar location that is used for another purpose (like the library can be confusing if now they have to sit and take a test and not listen to story time)
  2. Seating: desk (familiar or new), table, type of chair (stationary or rolling, padded or hard), height or chair (can their feet touch the floor? This was a HUGE issue for me one year when a student had a melt down simply because their feet were dangling above the floor. The whole test was delayed by a day until we could locate an appropriate chair.)
  3. Lighting: Oh yes, our kids are soooooo sensitive to different types of lighting. Also, check out where the sun is during that time of the day, and will it be a distraction if unable to be blocked with blinds.
  4. Sound level
  5. Traffic outside the door
  6. Smells

You can download a checklist of things to think about when generalizing across environments, people and stimuli by clicking HERE.

So those are some things to think about the environment. But, there is a lot more to generalization. Think about who else might be in the room. Will there be a monitor? Will you be administering the test? Luckily, since our students can be so complex, I was always the one testing my own students. But, I know if you have students with less significant needs, they may end up being tested by another special ed teacher or even an unknown proctor.

Finally, be sure to practice lots of problems using different types of layouts, manipulatives, and wording. By the time the test comes, you will likely feel like you could write these questions for a testing company because you will have ended up creating so many sample problems of your own.

So there you have it, my 3 BIG ways to prep for end-of-year testing:

  2. IEP

One last word, be gracious and forgiving to yourself. Try to not internalize and blame yourself if your students do no perform well. Of course, I know in some states your salary may be tied to student performance (which is crazy), but if you take some time to purposefully prepare your students they will do the best they can. What more can we ask?

I have a few resources you may find helpful preparing for this time:

  • Blog post: Assessment in special education (click HERE). This will give you some great tips on how to set up your own assessments and allows your students to demonstrate growth.
  • Social story and activities: Taking a Test (click HERE)
  • Social story and activities: Perseverance (click HERE)

One final comment, many of my units (especially math and science) in my store were developed knowing what I know about end-of-year testing (in NC and OH). I tried to cover the topics and use questions that would look familiar to students.

Butterfly Life Cycle in Special Ed

Spring is here and many teachers are ordering their butterfly habitat kits and teaching about the life cycle of the butterfly. It is such a popular activity, especially in elementary school. But, have you wondered how to make this life cycle more accessible to your students who have significant challenges? Many of the materials that come with the butterfly kit assume a certain skill set, like reading, writing, drawing, or even just communicating your observations. All of these may be either lacking or totally missing in your classroom. (At least, they very often were in mine.) So, I came up with ways for my students to be able to track the course of the butterfly life cycle, communicate what their observations were in as independent a way as possible, and make some authentic connections to their own life and experiences. Here are some things you can do yourself, or let me help you (see video at the end of this post). Either way, your students will never look at a caterpillar or butterfly the same way again!

Be sure to read all the way to the bottom of this post for some free downloads and resources to add to the lesson plans you may already be using.

1. Use a calendar to track changes during the life cycle

My class worked on calendar skills EVERY morning during our morning meeting. So, adding a calendar to this unit seemed very natural and had the great added benefit of generalizing the material to a new subject, stimuli, and location. In the unit I created, I made a generic counting board, because I was not sure when people would be using it. However, if you have the chance, I would simply substitute it with the appropriate blank monthly calendar.

Life cycle counting board
Tally total days

2. Report and record observations on the life cycle

Most of my students were not able to draw. So that meant getting creative in finding a way they could report what they were seeing each day. Many of my students were really good with technology, so we assigned a photographer each day to take a picture on the class iPad as a record of the changes occurring in our caterpillars. This gave the students some independence and a tool they loved to use.

In addition to taking photos, we also practiced using a digital scale I had in the classroom. Students would take turns weighing several of the caterpillars. As they would read the numbers off the scale, I would write them down. There is a lot of math you can do with this data depending on the learning level of your students:

  • Get an average weight
  • Calculate rate of change or growth
  • Graph the weights
  • Record greatest and least weight

3. Look for more evidence of life cycles on nature walks

I wanted the students to realize that what was happening in our classroom butterfly habitat, also was occurring outside during this spring season. We would go on nature walks, looking for (and recording) evidence of more the butterfly life cycle. The more we learned, the better they got at looking for those hidden eggs under a leaf or the cocoons tucked behind a branch. If you are looking for a FREE scavenger hunt for Spring to use, check out my blog post, 5 New Ways to use a Scavenger Hunt (click here).

Go to my blog post to download this free scavenger hunt HERE

In addition to looking for signs of more caterpillars and butterflies, make sure students are looking for that “perfect” spot where you will release your butterflies once they are ready. Weigh the pros and cons of various locations. Think about protection from predators as well as food sources for the young butterflies.

4. Create a Butterfly Life Cycle Book

It is funny, but I found my students loved making books that were shaped like something. For this unit, I created a butterfly template, cut out 8 pages from construction paper and had the students create their own story about the butterfly life cycle. They LOVED it!!

My Butterfly Book

If you would like a FREE copy of My Butterfly Book, click the button below.

5. Make it personal

Since I was in a classroom with various social and emotional needs, I was always looking for ways to address these issues in EVERY subject. Science was no exception. The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly was a great way for me to talk about the idea of change. It was also getting close to the end of the year, and many of my students would be facing a lot of changes with the next school year. So, I created a social story to go with this unit on dealing with change. It may seem odd, or feel like an awkward transition, but I promise it is not. I have a detailed lesson plan included in this unit that will help you navigate the change from science to social story. My students loved it, and we talked a lot about how everything, even insects, have to deal with change.

Social Story

I hope this gave you some new ideas to add to the lesson plans you likely already have on this topic. As special education teachers and parents, we are always having to tweak and modify materials. We get really good at it after a while!

If you would like to download some FREE vocabulary cards to go with my Butterfly Life Cycle unit, the be sure to sign up for my Free Resource Library right here at my blog. There is a free set in there with color and BW cards as well as a cut and paste activity to go with them. Just click HERE to get access.

If you want to check out my unit on the Butterfly Life Cycle click HERE or watch the video below. This unit includes lots of activities, including:

  • 12 days of lesson plans
  • 36 page book
  • vocabulary board
  • circle maps
  • sorting activities
  • Venn diagram
  • life cycle cut & paste worksheets
  • close worksheets
  • assessment
  • PLUS a social story and activity on Dealing with Change
Butterfly Life Cycle Unit

Safety in the community for the individual, you, and the public

Besides writing curriculum for students with significant challenges, I also work with families, here in Pennsylvania. I am part of an amazing group of other parents who are passionate about helping others create a vision for the future, find supports and services, and connect parents to accurate and important information. Recently, I have been really focused on safety in the community. Every individual has a right to be a valued and integrated part of their local community. We also know that does not always come easily.

There are a lot of challenges we as teachers and parents face when we go on community outings. I wrote 2 other blog posts on this topic a while ago full of thoughts, suggestions, and a free download. Visit them by clicking below:

  • Community Trips and Challenging Behaviors: Getting to know the person (click here)
  • Community Trips and Challenging Behaviors: Getting to know the behavior (click here)

Today, I wanted to come at this from a different angle. An angle that I think is missing in a lot of talks about safety in the community (including the one I currently deliver to the families I work with). This comes from a very personal experience that was scary, upsetting, frustrating, and embarrassing. I share it because, as always, I think there is a lot to learn from our failures, and I KNOW there are so many parents and teachers out there who deal with this issue and no one wants to talk about it.

Keeping the general public safe while we are in the community.

The sad reality is that many of us deal with students and children or adults who have such extreme behaviors that they can actually be a danger to people they may come in contact with while in the community. I deal with this personally with my son, Jimmy, who is 22 and is a very big strong guy. I have also had a similar situation with one other student in the past, who, although not as big, was more explosive and impulsive than Jimmy is. So here is what happened with Jimmy in a nutshell. What I learned, and what tools I can share with you if you are in a similar situation.

For the past 8 months, I have worked with some very skilled and trained individuals who have been helping me get Jimmy more acclimated to being in the community. Honestly, it has gone pretty well. The only aggressive behaviors have been directed at either me or one of the workers, and that has been really infrequent. In fact, Jimmy’s behaviors, in general, decreased the more times we went on trips into the community. It seemed like a big win, and we all had high hopes as we looked for possible employment opportunities in our local community. But then I got over confident.

Jimmy was doing so well, I decided to take him to the local thrift store on my own. We had gone so many times in the past months, that I felt like this was something I could handle. What I forgot was Jimmy has a past behavior trigger of becoming very aggressive toward children who are crying. In fact, we had been out in stores numerous times the past 8 months with upset children, and although he may have glanced their way, he never made any move towards them. But, that day I took him he seemed different. I will never know why. Maybe he had a stomach ache, maybe his head hurt, maybe he just didn’t sleep well and felt grumpy. For whatever reason, this was the day he decided to revisit that terrible behavior and try to attack a 3 year old sitting quietly in a shopping cart while his mother looked through a clothing rack. I can say no one was injured, as I was able to get in between Jimmy and the child, but it was really close. He did grab the boy’s sweatshirt which scared the little guy who started crying immediately. Thankfully, Mom got her son and the cart out of the area very quickly. It was a real struggle getting Jimmy out of that store for reasons I won’t go into, but needless to say I was pretty sore the next day from wrestling him out and back into the car. We got home safely, and Jimmy acted as though it had been just another normal outing into the community.

So what does this mean for his future? How will he ever successfully integrate into our community? First, I had to really think about what it was that he enjoyed so much about going to these places. Was it the actual store? No. Was it the interaction with the people there? No. It came down to three things:

  1. Going for a car ride
  2. Attaining a new toy or book
  3. Stopping for fast food on the way home

So, I started thinking about how I could provide these things without endangering another child EVER. I have now come up with a list of places where I am almost 100% certain children will not or cannot be present. I am creating my own thrift store in a neighbor’s garage where he can go and shop for a new toy or book. So far, this new plan has been going really well.

I found an arcade, empty during the school day.

I found the movie theater is empty in the afternoon in between movie times. And, he LOVES popcorn.

I found a church willing to open up an empty building during the day so he could play on their piano.

I am still working really hard at finding more places we can go where I know he will be safe, I will be safe, and the public will be safe. I feel it is my responsibility as a parent (and as a teacher) to ensure the safety of all involved. That may mean I have to think outside the box, but special education teachers and parents are awesome at doing that.

I wanted to share a list of questions I came up with when looking for potential places to visit in the community. You should definitely take the time to explore some places on your own first. In addition, use this checklist in combination with the other 2 lists of questions from the blog posts listed above to help you have the most successful community outing possible.

Download the checklist HERE (no email required)

This was not an easy story for me to share, but I know there will be at least one other person out there who is in the exact same (or worse) situation that I am in. We have to talk about the tough times as well as all the accomplishments. I hope this conversation helped at least one teacher or parent.

PS If you are a teacher and want some more helpful tips on having a successful field trip with your class, then visit my blog post on it by clicking HERE.

25 Excellent Earth Day Activities for a Special Ed Classroom

April 22 is Earth Day. This has always been a holiday I could get behind. Teaching students about why we need to keep the Earth healthy and how they can make a local impact was always something I found really important and fun to teach. Now, with the explosion of Pinterest, you can spend HOURS going down a rabbit hole looking for an activity your students can actually do and connect with. So, I spent that time for you!! I went down a lot of rabbit holes, before finding what I think are some great Earth Day activities (ALL FREE) that I think students in a special ed setting will truly be able to get excited about and learn from. So here we go…

First, I want to offer you a free resource of my very own. Like I said, I love teaching about Earth Day, and I recently just updated and expanded my Earth day Unit. You can check that out HERE. But, I wanted to put something together that you could use right now at no cost (not even an email address!!)

Earth Day sorting activity (CLICK HERE)

This sorting activity allows students to decide if something is good or bad for our Earth. There is a color-coded option already included for students who need more support. So click below the image to grab this awesome activity to use with any learning level you may have in your classroom.

So, now onto my other great finds (ALL FREE):

Math Resources for Earth Day

ELA Resources for Earth Day

Science Resources for Earth Day

Art Resources for Earth Day

Other activities for Earth Day

  • Earth Day Social Problem Solving. Good for older kids. (click HERE)
  • Earth Day Playlists:  songs, poems, videos and more (click HERE)
  • Community Service Projects (click HERE)

If you are looking for complete units for Earth Day, I have three in my store depending on the age of the students you teach. Check them out by clicking the link below each picture.

Earth Day for elementary
Click HERE)
Pollution & Conservation
Middle School

(click HERE)
Global Connections
High School

(click HERE)

Errorless Teaching: Is it worth it?

If you are not in the special education you may wonder what the deal is with errorless activities. What is the point? What are students learning? If you are a special education teacher, then you know they learn a lot from these simple activities. Here are some benefits from having your students do activities that are errorless plus a free download at the end.

1. Learning the mechanics

Before learning new content, we need to give our students a chance to learn how to do certain activities. For example, if you want students to use a circle map to illustrate the main points from a lesson, you want them to already be familiar with what a circle map is and how it works. Having students use a tool with only correct answer choices gives them the foundation they need when faced with unfamiliar or new content. Just think about it. You likely first learned to ride a bike on your driveway or in your neighborhood. It was probably a while before you ventured onto an unknown road or terrain. Riding your bike on a trail successfully only happens when all you have to do is focus on the trail, not how to ride a bike. So, give your students lots of practice using certain tools in a safe and errorless manner before combining them with new or unfamiliar content.

2. Increasing participation

When students feel more confident, they are more likely to participate. In addition, it adds to the discussion and interaction because all the answers they provide will be correct. That gives you so many more opportunities to validate their interaction and reinforce their attempts to participate. Imagine being observed when doing an errorless lesson. It is very likely, no one will pick up on the errorless part and instead, will see equal and active engagement by all the students in the group. A win all around!!

3. Addressing multiple learning levels with the same material

If you have used any of my units on TPT, you know I started about a year ago including errorless and non-errorless options for certain activities. This all came about from a suggestion from a teacher who was using my units. She told me she loved them for her lower level kids, but needed something more challenging for those who were a little more advanced. So, I started adding those options. Now the exact same worksheet can be used for more than one learning level. You can use errorless for those just starting out. You can use the non-errorless version with some color-coding added for more advanced. Finally, you can use the non-errorless version just how it is for those who can truly discriminate right from wrong answers. To see more on color-coding check out these two blog posts:

4. Building confidence

As I stated above, students who are consistently reinforced tend to repeat that target behavior more often. If you provide lots of options for participation and response with the knowledge that the answer will always be correct (at least in the beginning) you are likely to see a faster spike in engagement and learning. Students won’t know the activity is errorless. Most won’t recognize the subtle differences in the worksheets being used by other students in their group. It will feel totally natural to praise and reward students for their participation and you get the added bonus of reinforcing that the answer given was a correct one!

5. Creating review tools

Most of these activities can serve double duty as review tools for an upcoming assessment. Because they were errorless, you know the material they are reviewing is correct. In addition, you know that parents and perhaps other paraprofessionals who may be reviewing the material with the student has the correct information as well. I had one teacher tell me it is great note taking skill. The power of errorless teaching. It is truly worth the effort.

So wondering how to make activities you already have errorless? Click on the link below to download a quick cheat sheet on how to turn various activities into errorless ones quickly and efficiently!

Errorless teaching quick tips (download NO email needed) CLICK HERE