The one activity you should add to your small group lessons

If you teach in a special education setting, especially if you teach in a self-contained classroom, then you may find most of your teaching is done 1:1. That was me for the first two years. But, then I got tired of trying to block out the chaos (on the worst days), or the boredom (on the best days), that was happening around me as I focused doing discrete trials with one student after another.

The reality is that although a 1:1 teaching model using discrete trials may be one of the most effective research-based methods for instruction when working with students who have significant challenges, it just is not always practical in a classroom setting.

So, after 2 years, I made the conscious decision to switch to a whole group teaching style with lots and lots of differentiation layered in so all my kiddos could participate in the same task, at the same table, at the same time.

It wasn’t easy, and it took time to simply teach the structure and expectations of working in a group, but it was 100% worth every bit of the effort.

After a few months, I had tweaked and persevered and came up with a set of activities that flowed well and allowed for the level of engagement I was looking for. But, there was ONE golden nugget. There was ONE activity that I added which made all the difference. And, if I could only keep 1-2 activities in my group lesson, this would absolutely be the one that I would keep every time.

So what was it?

Spending time at the end of every lesson for students to share their finished work with the group.

Sounds simple and seems obvious? Perhaps, but it took me a while to realize the value of it, and looking back now, I realize it likely made the biggest impact on my students.

The process is fairly simple, but there are some key components:

  1. Allow students to share their work using the communication mode of their choice.
  2. Allow students to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable.
  3. Allow students to ask for help from a peer (not an adult.)
  4. Repeat/reflect back what they are saying.
  5. Reward, reinforce and praise their efforts.

1. Using the communication mode of their choice

This is THE MOST important component of all. Many of our students have communication devices given to them. We encourage our students to use those devices as often as possible, across settings, and with many different people. However, with this one activity, I wanted to give students the freedom to share their finished work however they wanted to do.

For some, it meant they absolutely used their devices. But, for others it meant they only wanted to hold up their worksheet with a smile on their face. The key was, it was their choice, and they knew that.

2. Allowing student to share a lot or a little

This goes right along with point 1 above. Allow students to freedom to share a little or a lot. You can certainly chime in with some probing questions or share your own observations if you have a student who is only willing to hold up their paper. The key is respecting their choice of how and what they choose to share.

3. Asking for help

I had one student who was just not able to hold up a piece of paper, collage, or art project to show the group. When I first started this activity, her aid would hold it up for her. But, I quickly realized how much better it would be if a peer was the helper rather than her aid. This student would choose who to help her (often using eye gaze), and her partner for the day was always willing to lend a helping hand. A win-win on both sides.

4. Reflecting back what they are saying

Showing a student you “hear” them is very powerful. Many of my students were non-verbal. Many did not really want to use their communication device. Honestly, many of my students simply held up or pointed to their finished project.

But, I quickly realized the impact if I could just “ooh” and “ah” over their color choices, their comprehension of the content, or even simply their scissor skills. Regardless, by reflecting back what they were sharing with the group was one more opportunity for me to reinforce and repeat what we had been learning that day.

5. Rewarding any effort

This is the easiest component of all. As special education teachers, we are trained better than most to watch for when our students are doing the right thing. We are constantly rewarding and praising good behavior, and often ignoring less desirable actions. So, this is likely a natural extension to what you are doing everyday, all day. But, it is still worth mentioning because we know how powerful a positive word or tangible reward can be for increasing the likelihood a behavior will continue.

I hope this inspires you to consider adding this one activity, to your group lessons: students share their finished work with the group.

It is absolutely the best thing I ever added to my lesson plan.

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