Why consistency is key in a special education classroom


When you are just starting out and have your very own classroom for the first time, consistency can be the key to your success and sanity. There is so much to learn, and so much to implement. But, if you can choose that one thing you know you want to be part of your routine every single day, you are more than half-way there to achieving the results you are hoping for.

Choose wisely

The first step is to choose that one activity or one part of the day you really feel consistency is key to making the rest of the day run more smoothly. If you don’t narrow it down to a specific goal, it will be very unlikely you will be successful. However, finding success in one area will likely lead to you finding consistency in other areas

Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding on that one activity regardless if it is your first day or day 130.

  1. Is there a time of day that problem behaviors seem more evident?
  2. Do you have enough staff to support you during that activity?
  3. Do you feel that activity is important enough to devote focused time and effort on?
  4. Are you SURE it is something you want to do every single day?
  5. Is there a positive activity that occurs immediately afterward? (We will talk about this more below)

My plan for consistency at home

Let me give you an example from my personal life right now since I am not in the classroom. I care for my adult son who has autism and has fairly significant behavioral issues. He is very rigid in his routine and has gotten very sedentary and more than a little overweight. He vehemently opposes anything that looks like exercise. But, I knew something had to change for his overall health. I also knew that his strong desire for routine could work in my favor. If I could find just one activity that could get him moving more, AND that I could commit to doing every day then I felt it might lead to more healthy choices in the future.

Jimmy laying down

Here were the answers my those questions above:

  1. Jimmy has behaviors all throughout the day, but they are worse when he gets bored. This is most often in the afternoons.
  2. I work very closely with a behavior therapist and my husband is currently working from home (yea Covid), so I felt I would have the support to make a good plan and extra help to implement it if needed.
  3. I 100% feel that increasing Jimmy’s activity level is worth the time and effort.
  4. Committing to doing this every day was a tough thing. But, trying to implement some form of exercise on a less than regular basis in the past had not been successful. I knew consistency was the key.
  5. After making a plan with the behavior therapist, we agreed that Jimmy’s main meal of the day would be after his walk. Don’t worry, he still got breakfast and snacks, but his favorite meal would be after the walk.

Creating a clear plan for consistency is key

Make sure once you choose the activity, you and your staff fully understand what the expectations are. How long will the activity last? What extra support may be needed? What concessions (if any) are you willing to make? We are great at making plans in special education, so make sure you don’t skip this step. And, make sure everyone is in agreement and on the same page. Have you convinced them that consistency is the key?

My plan for consistency

For my situation with Jimmy, we agreed (after past failed attempts), that a short walk would be best. The goal was to get him moving, not run/walk a marathon. Again, consistency was the key. So, we plotted out a half-mile loop that felt reasonable and safe.

We also agreed that since Jimmy is an adult, we wanted him to have control over his choices and daily schedule. This meant I needed to be flexible, and since I also work from home, I knew that was possible. The plan was every time Jimmy would ask for dinner, I would tell him, “Sure, as soon as we go for a quick walk.” If he said “no,” that was fine, but dinner was then delayed.

(Side note: Jimmy starts asking for dinner about 11:00 am every day, and will ask every 20-30 minutes until he eats. Often, he is not even hungry, just bored. So, I had lots of chances to remind him of the walk, and a lot of time for him to process and eventually accept the idea.)

The first few times either Dad or the behavior therapist was there to provide extra encouragement for Jimmy and support for me. I knew those first few walks could evoke some tough behaviors and wanted to be ready.

Pair the activity with reinforcement

It is very likely that the activity you have chosen to focus on is not a favorite, but it can be. In fact, it would not be a bad idea to start this consistency training with something students already enjoy.

However, if you are not choosing a preferred activity, then you need to find some way to make it less aversive. One way is to pair that activity, at least in the beginning, with positive reinforcement. Maybe it is a favorite song or game your students enjoy. Whatever you choose, it is best if it fits in naturally with the activity so it is not too distracting. Also, you want to decide if it is something you want to eventually fade out. If it is a song or game, it may feel natural to simply keep it as part of the activity. But, if you are using something that is not going to be an on-going part of the activity, make sure you think of a way you can slowly fade it out without losing the consistency.

If you are looking for some good ideas for Age Appropriate Reinforcers, then visit my blog post and download a free list of reinforcers you can use for any age.

My use of reinforcers

I am not a big fan of using food as a reinforcer. But, in this instance with getting Jimmy to exercise more, it seemed like the only thing that was powerful enough. Plus, in the past, I had tried other ideas like music, toys, and even bubbles. Nothing could overcome the negativity associated with walking. I also did not want to undo any good I was doing by having Jimmy consume even more calories than he may be burning.

(Jimmy walks very, very slowly. I know he burns very few calories on this short walk. But, right now we are only focused on making a new habit and the consistency of going for a walk every day.)

So I chose a treat that he only gets when he walks. 3 gummy frogs.

gummy frogs used a a positive reinforcer

For right now, he gets one frog at the beginning of the walk, one in the middle, and one at the end. We plan to shortly eliminate that first one, and eventually all 3. For now, Jimmy is super excited to get those frogs.

Contingency increases consistency

This is the last piece of the puzzle to help you achieve consistency. I realize the rules and expectations in school are very different than at home. There is no way we can withhold or delay lunch, snack, or recess. But, I know when I was in the classroom, there was always that one part of the day students really loved. Perhaps it was going to specials or time in the computer center. The key is not to use this in a punitive or threatening way. Our goal is not to take away a preferred time of the day, but it is simply the light at the end of the tunnel.

Students will learn quickly that as soon as the activity you have chosen is done, there is something great waiting afterward. This makes kids more likely to comply, as well as keep the adults consistent as well. If everyone knows that a low-stress activity is coming up, then it makes consistency much easier to achieve.

As of now, Jimmy and I are on day 10 of our new routine. Not every day is perfect.

Jimmy laying in the road and refusing to walk

But we have not missed a single day. Rain or shine, hot or cold.

I feel so empowered by this new routine. It makes me feel like a better mom knowing I can make a big difference in his life. I want that for you as teachers too. When you look back on the year and realize it was not 180 days of random chaos, but slow steady progress towards a productive and engaging routine. If you want to continue to watch my journey with Jimmy make sure to follow me on Instagram. I document our progress daily in our stories. You will also be the first to know about any new additions or freebies I am offering. You can find me on Instagram at Special_Needs_for_Special_Kids.

I could not believe more that consistency is the key to reducing behavior problems, increasing student engaging and lowering teacher (and student) anxiety.





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