Community Trips & Challenging Behaviors Part 2

This is part 2 of a 4 part series during which I share some tips and suggestions for successful community outings in the face of challenging behaviors.  At the end of each post, there will be a FREE download to help you take this information and put it into action.

So, this post is all about the BEHAVIOR.  I know it can be an uncomfortable topic to focus on.  No one likes to talk about the times we, or our loved ones, are at their worst.  But, if we ask the right questions, it can truly help to diminish the likelihood we will have to deal with this potentially scary and dangerous situation in a crowded aisle in the middle of Wal-Mart.

I cover lots of questions in the handout, but in summary, we need to consider:

  1. Are there any triggers?
    • Crowds
    • Sounds
    • Smells
    • Temperature changes
    • Lighting
    • Key words or phrases
  2. What does the behavior look like?
    • Signs an annoying behavior may be escalating
    • Self injurious
    • Targeting others (staff or strangers)
    • Destruction of property
    • Targeting animals
  3. How long does it last?
    • From start to end
    • Follow-up outbursts
    • Recovery period

This video clip is about 10 minutes and addresses these issues in more detail and I share some personal experiences I have had with my own son, Jimmy, and some of my students.


I hope you now see the value in asking these often difficult and emotional questions.  Click on the image below to download the free list of questions to consider.


behavior download

Community Trips & Challenging Behaviors Part 1

There is a big push here in Pennsylvania to work more towards a true inclusive community.  If your loved one receives support services, there is a goal for these services being provided in the local community setting for 75% of that individual’s day.  It is a noble goal, and something that seems like common sense.  But, for those of us with individuals with challenging behaviors, it also sounds really scary.  We want to ensure that our loved ones are accepted as valued members of their community, but we also want them AND others to be safe.  So, what can we as teachers and service providers do to make this dream a reality?

This is part 1 of a 4 part series during which I share some tips and suggestions for successful community outings in the face of challenging behaviors.  At the end of each post, there will be a FREE download to help you take this information and put it into action.

Venn Diagram person

Part 1 of this series focuses on getting to know the person.  I am talking about REALLY getting to know the person.  This will take some time, but that is okay.  Especially if there is a history of struggles in the community, families will appreciate the fact you are willing to take a step back and really try to understand the situation.  This also means talking to lots of people:

  • the individual
  • parents
  • siblings
  • extended family
  • friends
  • community members who know the individual

Of course, all this is done with permission of the individual and the parents.  However, if we really want to understand why this behavior occurs and how we can be most successful, we need to gather information from as many sources as possible.


So, take a look at the list of questions I have provided by clicking here or on the image below.  You can never know too much about the person you are working with.

Getting to Know the Person download

Halloween Roundup

It is a holiday many of us fear as teachers.  There are so many differing opinions on this holiday.  What is and is not appropriate to teach?  And then there is all that candy!!  I’ve put together this group of resources, tips, blog posts and more to help you get through this spooky day.  So grab your pillowcase and Wonder Woman mask, and come along with me!  Just click on the pictures to go to that activity.

Math Resources

From Susan Jones Teaching, I found this group of 3 math counting games ready to download and print for free.  You will need to pick up a few things from the dollar store to make the most of these games, but would be totally worth it for something you could use year after year.

Who doesn’t love free printables. This pumpkin seed math activity is perfect for practicing counting with your kids. I love the idea of using real pumpkin seeds with it too!

From Grade School Giggles, here is a free pumpkin seed counting activity.  You will likely want to do some laminating to make these more durable, but then you will have them year after year.  Great activity for Thanksgiving as well!

FREE Boo Bump Halloween Math Game (Addition)

From SunnyDays, there is this super cute bump Bingo game.  Basically, the kids roll three dice, add the sum and cover the answer with their marker.  Just print and go!

ELA Resources

Pumpkin Book Report Ideas - Adorable pumpkin book report ideas for teachers, students, and parents.

From Keeping Up with Mrs. Harris, comes some great ideas for decorating your little pumpkins to look like your favorite story character.  Some really clever ideas here!


From Special Needs for Special Kids (me ;)), I have a free cut and paste or tracing spelling free download to snag.  There are 2 differentiated versions.

Free Halloween Wordsearch Activity & Writing Prompts

For your older students, grab these awesome word searches from Tracee Orman.

Science Resources


From Literacy Lattes,  is a super fun and easy experiment you can do with all that left over candy corn.  The directions are well explained and there is a free lab guide to download.

Free Spider Activities

A Classroom for All Seasons, has this amazing free download that has some great spider activities!!  A nice resource for Halloween without actually teaching about the holiday.

Haunted Hallowe'en Hand Melt - happy hooligans

From Happy Hooligans, come this super cool (pun intended) experiment that combines fine motor and sensory experiences all in one activity.  There is a lot to learn with this seemingly simple set up.  Perfect for the upcoming spooky day!!

Art, Fine Motor, & Sensory

Easy No-Mess Pumpkin Art

From Teaching 2 and 3 year olds, I included this activity to address that sensory component so many of our special kiddos have.  I also like that is is fairly  mess free and allows for a lot of independence.  Finally, it in not dependent on strong motor skills.  Accessible for every ability level.


Slime, goo, GAK, silly-putty….Whatever you call it, goo is fun! These “Franken-Slime” cups are a great project to do with the kids. There’s a writing freebie and ideas for cross-curricular integration too!

From Grade School Giggles, comes this easy recipe for that all-favorite slime.  Again, the directions give great tips to make this mess-free and really plays into those sensory needs.  In addition, there are some free downloads to make the most of this activity by pulling in science, writing and more.

Here are 7 fun and exciting fine motor activities for fall. Perfect Halloween, pumpkin, and Autumn fine motor activities for kids in preschool, pre-k, tot school and kindergarten.

From Early Learning Ideas comes 7 fine motor bins you can easily set up for your classroom this month.  There are also 2 tracing templates to download for free at the end of the post.

Halloween Spelling Freebie

This spelling booklet is a simple cut and paste activity. Two version are included depending on the learning level of your students. 



Teaching About Halloween in Special Ed

Do You Teach Halloween??

So for years I was in an elementary public school setting that seriously frowned upon teaching anything relating directly to Halloween.  Kids were not allowed to dress up, and we did not have the parades around the track or parking lot I remembered as a kid.  I always respected this policy, but it also bugged me.  Why? There are a couple of reasons I think we should be allowed to teach about Halloween in a public school setting.

At the end of this post is a link to a FREEBIE to inspire you to teach about this holiday!!

  1.  There is a lot of history tied to this holiday.  Customs and traditions began long ago as a way people believed they were protecting their crops and families. history of halloween1

By the 1950’s the tradition of going house to house asking for candy began.

history of halloween2

Today, this is still a very important economic holiday for the United States.

history of halloween3

2.  The other reason I feel it is important to be given the option to teach about this holiday is that if you have a special ed class, especially that contains students with autism, this time can be confusing and scary.  trick or treating1

Putting a costume comes with all kinds of sensory issues for these special kids, and interacting with strangers in order to get a bag full of candy can lead to frustration and anxiety.  trick or treating2

If we could talk about these traditions in a safe and structured way in the classroom, perhaps more of our students with special needs would be able to enjoy trick or treating or simply dressing up as their favorite super hero.trick or treating3

So, I know there a lot of people out there who do not celebrate or believe this is truly a holiday.  However, I think there is a respectful and appropriate way we can teach about Halloween.  So, if you are allowed, would you teach Halloween?

If you are interested in a unit on this holiday, designed specifically for students with special needs, especially autism, click on the image below.

Halloween Unit 2

And now for the FREEBIE!!  Click below to download my Halloween Spelling booklet for FREE.

Halloween FREEBIE


Hygiene : YUCK!!

Teaching Hygiene Skills blog title

Ok, so I admit it.  As a teacher I hated teaching hygiene skills.  I am somewhat of a germaphobe.  I like things to be neat and clean.  Keeping track of 5-10 hygiene kits meant LOTS of mess and potential for germs to spread.  I felt I had to:

  • Make sure the bathroom was clean enough to practice tooth brushing
  • Make sure the kits dried out so mold and mildew did not grow
  • Keep students from painting with toothpaste and licking deodorant sticks

It was all more than I felt I could keep up with.

point to shirt

Oh, and track all that data.  Yep, these were IEP goals.


  • How much prompting was used? Was it faded?
  • Were the top AND bottom teeth brushed?
  • Did deodorant end up in the right place?  Under BOTH arms?


As a mom of a son with significant needs, I hate having hygiene taught to Jimmy in school.  I feel, as his mom, I am best suited to teach him these skills.  I can ensure things are clean and can follow up with more care if needed. (I always brush his teeth myself after he is done.)  We also put deodorant on when it is appropriate, like getting dressed in the morning.

Ok, so I know what some of you are thinking:  “But, these things are often NOT done at home.”  This often occurs because the student has behaviors that impede the parents from being able to do this with their own children.  This happens more often than most people think.  For this reason, I do still advocate teaching hygiene skills in school.  Sometimes, we as teachers have more adult support and more strategies at our disposal to help deal with these difficult behaviors.  The goal should always be teaching the skills in a systematized way so that the student is then able to reach independence and  complete the task at home.  Sometimes this can take years.

So, I do still hate having hygiene taught in school, but I get it.  And, I am thankful for all the teachers out there, who may be germaphobes like me, who push through and teach our (my) kids to “stop licking the deodorant” and “don’t put that on your shirt.”

Here is a FREE social story to download and make this task a little less yucky :).  It is a social story about picking your nose.  Yup, we all have those students.

pick nose

Click the image below to download your FREE social story.  I also have an entire unit on teaching students about Good Hygiene in my TPT store.  It has almost 100 pages of material to help you teach this, oh so important, topic.

Better Get a Tissue booklet                                  Slide1


Not Your Average Novel Study

Do you do read-alouds in your classroom?  I taught in a class for students with autism for 10 years.  I had students in grades kindergarten through 5th grade.  Some students were early readers, some students could not even identify their name.  Some of my students could hold an hour long conversation with me on the fine features of Thomas the Tank Engine and some students were unable to utter a single word.  I was tasked with helping every single student grow and thrive while learning what their typical peers were learning a few classrooms away.  One of the ways I did this was by reading novels to the class as a whole group activity.  Sounds a little crazy, but it was great.

My “not your average novel units” were born from this amazing experience.  I was not reading these novels to my students for a comprehension purpose.  I was reading to them in hopes of connecting on a personal level.  I was reading to them in hopes of teaching them to sit and listen (or at least be quiet) while an adult was speaking.  I was reading to them in hopes of sharing my love of books and stories.  So, with each chapter, I found myself trying to come up with an activity that would help them make a deeper connection to the content without relying on their ability to decipher and comprehend what I was actually reading.

These novel units do just that.  With each chapter, I develop one or two activities that tie to a concept introduced on those pages.  This isn’t as easy for me as it seems.  With each novel unit I start, I worry, “Will I be able to think of what to do with the next chapter?”  Sometimes the idea comes right away as I am reading.  It is easy to see a thread to pull on and use to build a great activity.  Sometimes, it is not so easy.  Sometimes it is REALLY difficult.  Some chapters, I just want to skip.

When I was doing the novel unit for Where the Red Fern Grows (a favorite story of mine from childhood), I totally forgot that one of the characters in the story falls on an ax and dies.  It took me 3 days and LOTS of conversations with my daughter (who was home from college) before I could come up with an acceptable activity.  I really just wanted to skip that chapter, but in the end, I decided it related to when you really need to call 911 and when it is not really necessary.


I currently have competed 12 novel units.  They take me a long time, usually about a month.  There is a lot of love, time, and thought that goes into creating these.  If you are looking for a different approach to teaching your novel units, check these out.  I hope you love them as much as I have loved creating them.  Click on the image below, to download some free activities to go with the novel, Matilda by Roald Dahl.


Here are the other novel units I have in my store:  Special Needs for Special Kids.


Don’t see the novel you are looking for?  Leave me a comment below, and I will add it to my working list.  Many of the ones I  have completed were the requests of other teachers, so don’t be shy!!


Quilted Books: A great sensory choice

So this is Jimmy.

Aviary Photo_131376020582743173

Jimmy has had a book in his hands since before he could walk.  He LOVES his books, especially Sandra Boyton, Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle.  I have even made him a quilt of one of his favorites, Brown Bear Brown Bear.

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But, Jimmy has a problem.  A problem that many of our students have as well.  He loves books too much.  He has developed a compulsion that is truly out of his control.  He rips books apart.  It is so sad.  Even his board books end up in pieces in the trash can.

Aviary Photo_131376020778579423

Sure, we got him a Kindle so he can still enjoy his books without destroying them.  But, it is not the same.  Like me, he wants to hold the book, feel the pages, and get his eyes off a screen for a while.  So I have tried laminating books (he ripped the plastic off), tried sitting right next to him (he is too fast and still tears the book in half), and even tried giving him tons of old magazines to tear to satiate this need (he is too smart for that, didn’t work).  So, knowing I have had students who are terribly hard on books, and trying to find something Jimmy could “read” I turned to my second passion, quilting, and my ridiculous fabric stash (this is only a small part of it).

Aviary Photo_131376030143157761

I took some of my most popular social stories from my TPT store and turned them into a simplified version made from fabric.  They are colorful, tactile, durable, and MACHINE WASHABLE.  I had many, many students who would mouth objects.  It was a sensory need; putting random objects in their mouths.  These books would be perfect for a preschool classroom or an elementary classroom with students who love books a little too much like Jimmy.

And, I am happy to report that Jimmy loves them and (so far) has been unable to destroy them.  Because it is the tearing and ripping sensation he craves, he has no interest in trying to rips these quilted versions, and he seems to really enjoy the feel and colors they contain.

Aviary Photo_131376021102860395

So, if you are looking for a new way for your students to enjoy and interact with books, take a look at these quilted versions.  You can also get them as part of  bundle that includes digital (paper) resources as well so all your students can benefit from the material regardless of their learning style.  All the links are at the bottom of this page.

To download a free digital version of my Emotions preschool social story, click here or on the image below.  Available in color and black and white, it gives students a chance to personalize their books through the use of crayons, markers, or paints.  Be sure to visit my store to get the quilted version of this story as well as more quilted stories.  I have also created some custom books if you would like something specific.  Just send me and email!!

Aviary Photo_131376037711063591


Here is a list of the quilted books I currently have available in my store.  Just click on the title to be directed to the site.  Remember to check out the bundles as well to save money and get even more activities and resources.

Teaching Topics that are Uncomfortable

As February begins, and I finish my monthly book club selection: Glory Over Everything, I realize that Black History Month is upon us.  It has been in the back of my mind for a while that I need to put a unit together on slavery.  But, it makes me uncomfortable.  I don’t want to research the facts, I don’t want to tease out what is really critical for my students with special learning needs to know, I just want to pretend this horrible even in our history did not exist.  But, I know that is the wrong sentiment.  Intellectually I know that through studying history, the good and bad, we are less likely to repeat our mistakes, but deep down I know through learning and TEACHING about these tough topics we show respect to those who lived through these horrible times.  And I know some may disagree, but I feel this is also true for our students with autism and other challenges.

There is no denying it, slavery is part of our American history.  We still struggle today with true equality across all races.  Thousands of slaves were shipped over from Africa in terrible conditions, to only be separated from their family members and sold at auction.

The colonists saw the slaves as property.  They often treated their pets better than the individuals who toiled long hot days in the fields.  It was horrible, it was wrong, and and it happened.  We want to ignore it and forget it, but we cannot.

As I wrote this unit, my son who turns 20 on Saturday, was laying on the couch in my office.  He has pretty significant autism and an intellectual disability.  His school journey is ending soon, and I know he has never been taught this topic.  So, as I read through pages and pages of historical material, I thought of him, and what I wanted him to know, and why.  Jimmy has had many important and influential people in his life with an African American background.  I imagine many of these individuals have a history of slavery in their family trees.  So, it is with profound respect and dignity I put this unit together.  To honor all those who have survived this terrible time in our history and have produced amazing individuals who have profoundly and positively affected the life of my family through their love and support of our son.


For those of you struggling to teach this and other difficult topics, I put together a social story to help you and your students understand why we need to learn about topics that are tough and may make us uncomfortable.  You can use it for a broad range of topics, and it is a free download in my store.  Just click on the image below to download a copy.


For those of you looking for materials for Black History Month that are appropriate and respectful for students with Autism and special learning needs, click on the images below.

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Teachers that Give


Be sure to hop to all the blogs and sign up for ALL the giveaways!! Just click on the image below to see all the amazing teacher-authors who are participating.

I am such a sucker for books.  I love to read, and I love to see kids reading.  While teaching, I would use a favorite story to teach a math concept, clarify a science experiment, and even gets kids excited about exploring new lands and space.  So, when it came time for our social skills group, I of course, found myself reaching for a book.  What I found, is that it became one of the most effective ways for my students to connect with the social skill we were targeting that week.  This may seem counter-intuitive for some special education teachers, especially if you teach students with autism.  Most of us were taught that students with communication and social deficits often have a hard time making inferences and confections with make-believe material.  Would they really make the connection that it is important to be prepared and work hard after reading the Three Little Pigs or would they need a more direct translation in the form of a social story?  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE social stories as a tool to teach students appropriate behaviors.  But, I found that the addition of a favorite book had a strong positive effect that I could not ignore.

Why Do I Think They Work so Well?

  1. Increases student engagement
  2. Is predictable and less threatening
  3. Gives teachers a place to build from

I have not done any blind studies, or extensive research to answer this question.  I only have my 20 years of working with kids and students with autism to use as my evidence.  There are a few reasons why I think this method has been so effective.  First, it greatly increases student engagement.  Most students love books, particularly those with good pictures and simple text.  My kiddos especially loved when I used a familiar favorite; one they often could recite by heart.

Perhaps unlike typical students who would grow bored hearing the same story over and over, I found my students with autism LOVED listening to the same book read time and time again.   I knew once I had them hooked, I could more easily slip in the social skills lesson I was targeting for the week.    Second, the predictability of a well-known story makes the topic less-threatening.  Once of the most anxious things for students with autism in not knowing what comes next.  This is not only true when it comes to their daily schedule, but it can also be true of a story you are reading.  If the book you choose is familiar, there is less anxiety about what will happen and how long they will need to listen.  I believe, this allows the students to be more open to making personal connections to the story’s content.   Third, it is more interesting to the teacher and parent, so he or she is more likely to reinforce and follow through with the lesson.  Teaching a social skills lesson can not only be intimidating, but it can also be a little boring.  Using a story, not only provides predictable structure for the student, but it also gives the teacher a starting point and a source of material to expand upon.  For me a good book is like going down the isle at the farmer’s market.  There is so much inspiration to choose from right in front of you.  Just grab whatever looks or sounds good and go from there.  A good book will never leave you empty of ideas.

How to Use a Book Effectively

Again, I can only share my personal experience that I have come to tweak and modify over the years.  I usually focus on the same social skill for about a week.  We usually do 20-30 minute sessions, depending on the maturity level of the students at the time.  I have even done as short as 10 minute sessions during those more challenging years.  I always start my lesson by reading the story.  Because most of my students do not like anything changed or altered, I just read it as is every time.  It gets them settled and thinking about the characters or content.  Then, we do a structured activity that helps relate the social skill and the story.  (At this point, I have not directly talked about the social skill yet.)  We often do cut and paste sorts, circle maps, or a group activity that will get them up and moving.  We end the session with a social story that I have written that pulls in the skill we will focus on that week.  With each passing day of the week, I try to pull in more and more commonalities between the book we chose  and social story I have written.  By the end of the week, it becomes more seamless, and some of the students will actually start to interject parts of the social story into the book as we are reading.  It is quite amazing to see, but takes a slow, methodical, and consistent daily approach to get there.

Lasting Benefits

Finally, what I found most interesting is that during later weeks when a social situation would arise that we had previously addressed using the method above, I could refer back to the book we had read.  Because the student often had a long history with that book, they could recall the message more quickly.  Also, it was less threatening, as I could address it in a more indirect way, rather than saying “Remember how we talked about using a calm voice?” I could say, “remember how grouchy that ladybug sounded?”

So, maybe I am just a sucker for a good book, and that makes this approach work for me.  But, isn’t that half the battle?  Find the tool that works best for you and reap the benefits with your students.

So, if you would like to try this technique out, click on the image below to get download a free social story using the favorite book Elmer by David McKee.  I have many other literacy units with social stories included available as well in my store at  I hope this work as well for you as it did for me!

Being a Good Friend student booklet

Through the Eyes of Autism

I love to quilt, and I love a challenge.  So, this year I decided to join a Quilting Challenge group.  Every two weeks, they give you a topic, and you have to come up with an original idea and turn it into a quilt in less than a week.  This week’s challenge was Through the Eyes’s of a Child.  (click on the link to see lots of amazing quilts made by others all around the world) As most of you know who read this blog, or know me, you know one of my children has autism.  This affects everything we do every day, and it definitely affects how we see things.  But, it got me wondering, how HE sees things.  Do kids with autism see things the same way we do?

This really got me pondering what Jimmy, my son, really sees when he looks at something.  He is not able to communicate this to me, so I just have to use clues to take a guess.  My best guess is that there is NO WAY he can see the world as most of us do.  For example, think of your favorite movie of all time.  How many times have you seen it?  I would have to say my favorite movie is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  I have seen it more times than I can count over the years, but over the holiday season I probably only watch it about 3 times.  The first time is the best, and the other times are usually just space fillers and comfort seeking times.  Jimmy has a favorite movie, too.  It is Tennessee Ten.  It is a short 1 minute clip from Sesame Street that talks about how the number 10 gets some weird rash after kissing 10 fruit animals.  I know, only on Sesame Street.  In case you haven’t seen it, here it is 🙂

tennessee ten

Now Jimmy LOVES this movie.  So much that he watches it probably 100 times a day, every day.  He never gets tired of it.  He loves it as much on time 78 as he did the first time.  He laughs, he rocks, he is blissfully happy.  I’ve seen it more times than I can count too, but I just don’t get it.  He MUST see something I don’t.  There is some input he is experiencing that the rest of us mere mortals do not.  It keeps him coming back day after day.  It makes me wish I could see what he was seeing…

So, back to the quilting challenge.  I decided that since Jimmy does not really draw or make much art of any kind, I wanted to try and “see” a quilt the way he “sees” Tennessee Ten.  It had to be crazy and interesting, but needed some predictability and structure.  After all, it is not like Tennessee Ten is different every time.  Ten always gets better at the end after the doctor pays him a visit.  So, I started with making some very different, but very classic quilt blocks.  9 blocks in all with a bold sashing in between to add that visual structure kids with autism crave.  Here is where I started:

Autism Before

I loved the construction of the blocks, the straight edges, the crisp (almost) points.  I loved this quilt.  But, it is not what I knew Jimmy would likely see.  So, I did the sacred sin of quilters, and cut all the block apart.  I used some gentle curves and rearranged all the pieces and tried to put it back together.  I left the sashing in place and uncut, because I do believe kids with autism usually find some general point of focus.  It helps anchor all the chaos perhaps.  Here is the finished product:

Thru the Eyes of Autism

Can you see it?  Can you see the original blocks?  Here they are side by side:

I will never really know what Jimmy “sees” when he looks out into the world.  I know it can sometimes cause him anxiety and confusion, but for the most part it seems to excite him and bring him joy.  So, this is my little piece of awareness I am sharing in hopes others realize that there is more than one way to see the world.

Being a Good Sport

cam newton

As I watched the Superbowl on Sunday, I couldn’t help but notice the behavior of these “idols” to many and hoping they would live up to their image.  For the most part, it was a great game filled with excitement and some disappointment.  But, there were some times that emotions ran high and our idols were less than idealistic.

Monday morning found me struggling with this idea of being a good sport, and how important it is to teach our students this quality in a structured, focused and purposeful way.  Many typical kids learn these skills from coaches and other adults who influence them while honing their athletic skills on the court, field or pool.  However, what about those students who simply do not have the skill or desire to play a competitive sport?  These skills are equally important, and we need to teach them at an early age.

Of course it takes LOTS of practice but we need a place to start.  A social story is the perfect way to introduce this topic and start some good conversations.  You can download this FREE copy of my social story : Being a Good Sport by clicking HERE or on the picture below.

Being a Good Sport Social Story


I have created some activities that go along with this story and you can grab the entire unit in my store on TPT.  There are sorting activities for several different learning levels as well as a booklet for students to make.  Grab all 30+ pages by clicking on the image below.


Being a good sport is not always easy, but it is very important.  Learning how to win and how to lose graciously is something every student deserves to be taught as well as witness from their heroes.

Subitizing and Why It’s Important

Subitizing is the ability to quickly identify the number of items or dots in a small set without counting. Researchers have demonstrated the ability to subitize is a necessary early math skill.  In addition, toddlers as young as 12 months have shown the ability to subitize.  Sadly, this is a skill many of our students are not being exposed to.  Why?  Think about how we likely learned this skill 20, 30, or 40 years ago.  We played lots of games that often involved a board and a pair of dice.  Remember when you were a kid when you would roll the dice and could tell within a microsecond, without even thinking about it, how many places to move your game piece around the game board.  Today, our kids play totally different games.  Most games are in a digital format on some kind of screen.  They almost never involve a pair of dice and rarely force the player to utilize any math skills at all.  This is why, it is even more important we address this skill with direct and focused instruction in our math lessons.  Here are some important things to keep in mind when teaching this important skill.

  1.  Use dots

As teachers, we just love to dress things up and make them “cuter” and “prettier” in an attempt to make our boring material more engaging to our students.  But, when it comes to subitizing it is critical to keep it simple and use only dots.  Look at the two cards below:

dots and butterflies

I know I would have used the card with the butterflies when teaching my students to learn early counting skills.  But, after taking some classes in math foundations, I learned it is better (and necessary) to use the the card with the dots.  When learning this early skill of determining the number of images WITHOUT counting, you need to use the dots so the brain is minimally distracted.  Once the skill is mastered, it is fine to introduce other images, but initially, the use of dots is critical.

2.  Use standard placement

The dots on each side of a die is placed in a pattern that is consistent and strategic.  The placement of the dots in this standard manner is another critical step to learning how to subitize.  Take a look at the cards below:

dots and butterflies2

Your brain can very quickly identify that there are 6 dots on the first card.  However, it takes an extra second to determine the number of butterflies on the second card.  Keeping the dot pattern consistent is critical when learning this early skill.

3.  No counting allowed

What?  Isn’t subitizing counting small sets of dots?  Actually it is NOT.  Subitizing is recognizing the number of dots without actually counting them.  I found this to be the most difficult task of all to teach my students with special learning needs.  When you ask “How many?” to a student with autism, he or she is automatically cued to begin counting.  It is a strong learned response that has likely been drilled into them over and over again since kindergarten.  That is why, if you are given the luxury, start teaching students students how to subitize BEFORE you teach them how to count.  The way I found I could do this with the best results, was to play a subitizing game each morning.  I would use either large flashcards or used my Smartboard to project images of dot patterns.  The key was to only show the image for a couple of seconds.  Do not leave the image visible long enough for the students to count.  You simply want them to see the pattern.  Of course, this required a lot of prompting to begin with; lots of prompting and lots and lots of trials.

4.  Vary the presentation

So, we know you have to use standard dot patterns when teaching students to subitize, but we also know that students with special learning needs, especially autism, have a lot of difficulty with generalization.  So, find different ways to practice this skill.  This is part of the reason I used flash cards and projected images.  Another great way is to play simple games that use dice.  This has the added benefit of working on those important social skills as well that all of our students have on their IEPs.  Again, when using dice do not give your students time to count the dots.  I know it seems really mean to take the dice away before they have the chance to count the dots, but it is critical, even when playing a game, that you continue to train their brain to see the dots as an image that represents a quantity not individual objects that need to be counted.

5.  So, now what….

Once your students are able to subitize, the next step is to connect that image to a quantity.  Being able to match the dot patterns to sets of objects or numerals are also a critical skill.  In addition, being able to order a set of dot cards from least to greatest, is another critical skill in building number sense.  In older students, being able to add together sets of dots images will greatly help with skills such as doubles in addition.  There are so many ways to utilize this mastered skill in your more advanced math lessons.

I learned about the importance of subitizing in my 8th year of teaching.  It saddens me to think of all those students I had who missed out on learning this crucial early skill.  In addition, there is NO doubt in my mind that those students (including my own son) who never learned how to subitize struggled in math for the rest of their school career. Consider adding this skill to your IEP goal bank.  I promise you it is worth the effort!!

If you are looking for a resource that will truly help you become an amazing math teacher and successful at building really strong number sense in your students, I recommend the book below.  It became my bible while teaching math during my last 2 years in the classroom, and then helping other teachers become better math teachers. (click on image below to go to the link on

learning trajectory book

Click on the image below for a FREE download of subitizing flashcards to use today!


To get my complete Subitizing Unit from my store on TPT click the image below to get a book, worksheets, and flashcards to practice this critical skill.

subitizing unit

Do You Hug Your Students?

Do You Hug

As a previous elementary teacher in an autism classroom, I often got asked why I was not more affectionate with my students.  Don’t get me wrong, I did the occasional hugs, but in general I was not a big one for physical affection with my students.  This was sometimes mistaken as aloofness or coldness, but that was certainly not the case.  I simply had first hand experience of what showing a lot affection to young students in an autism classroom setting could lead to… lots of problems and behavior to un-learn.

My son is now almost 19 years old and has severe autism.  I am lucky because he has never shied away from giving me physical affection.  He loves his hugs.  However, somewhere along the line, he also started displaying very inappropriate ways of showing others (even strangers) physical affection. He used to want to kiss and smell everyone’s knees.  It is still by far his favorite body part.  I think it was partly due to the huge amount of time we spent at swimming pools when he was younger.  Everyone thought it was kind of cute when this 4-5 year old, who was just over knee high to many adults, would come up and kiss their knee.  Most knew he had autism, so they would just ruffle his hair and say “How sweet.”  Not the same response however when he was in high school.  With a lot of hard work from teachers and therapists, we were able to shape that behavior to kissing and smelling the top of a person’s arm.  Still kind of weird, I know, but it seemed the best we could do.  I look back now, and wish I had simply stopped that behavior at the pool all those years ago.  If I had just told people, that is going to be a big problem down the road, so let’s not encourage him.  Ah, hind sight…

So as I entered the classroom, I was already armed with this knowledge.  I knew how I interacted with my young students and how I allowed them to interact with each other would create a strong impression upon them that could last for years.  So, I emphasized to the other adults and peers who worked with my students, that hugging was probably not the best idea.  We did a lot of high fives and fist bumps.  I know it may have seemed cold to some of the people and parents I worked with, but I hope the middle and high school teachers who later had my students would appreciate the expectation we had set.

Showing affection can be a very difficult topic to address in special education settings, but setting clear expectations and models for appropriate behavior can be quite powerful tools.  In my store on teacherspayteachers, I have several resources you may find helpful.  I have a social story on showing affection that you can purchase alone or as part of my Valentine’s Day unit.

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Finally, as a thank you to all of you who take the time out of your busy day to read my blog, here is a FREEBIE for you!!


Circle Maps in Special Ed

Circle maps are a type of graphic organizer or thinking map.  It is a wonderful tool for helping students visualize what they know about a particular topic.  Below is a short video of how these can be used in a typical classroom setting.

video clip

So, how and why should you use circle maps in your special education setting?  I found circle maps to be an invaluable tool with my students, even for those who were more severely affected.  Circle maps provide a visual representation of the subject matter which the student can easily refer back to.  Here are some tips if you decide to use circle maps as part of your lesson plan:

  1.  Match the student’s learning level.

We all know that in a special education class, there are many different learning levels.  For my students on the symbol level, I would often use symbols from Boardmaker.  Some of my students were readers,  and I would use either words alone or words paired with symbols.  If my students where on the picture level, I would look for realistic pictures from either magazines or google searches for realistic images related to the content.  Finally, I always had at least one student on an object learning level.  So, I would try to find some actual objects that the student could manipulate and place inside a real circle map most often using a hula hoop.

2.  Keep it consistent.

Once you identify the learning level of your student, use the same symbols, pictures, words or objects in the circle map that you will also use for the assessment.  This will help reinforce the content during this early learning phase and make evaluating the results of the assessment more valid.

3.  Don’t forget to generalize.

We know students with disabilities, especially autism often have a hard time generalizing content.  Once they see a penguin, it will forever be that black and white bird they saw in the movie, March of the Penguins.  But, penguins can look very different and are still considered penguins.  That is why, it is important to introduce variations on the pictures or symbols you are using in various additional activities.  This can also be done with a separate circle map that contains all different kinds of penguins.

This concept also works very well when building number sense in your math lessons.  Creating a circle map for each number and displaying all the different ways you can represent that number can be quite powerful.

  • Tally marks
  • Sets of objects
  • Number word
  • Number of fingers
  • Various fonts and colors
  • Dots

Click on the image below to download this FREE circle map of the number two.

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4.  Use as a study guide

Circle maps make great study guides. Students can take them home to review the content with parents and even use them while taking the assessment.  Many of our students with autism are visual learners, and being able to organize the content in this format makes it easier for them to organize the information in their minds and recall at a later date.  The circle map below is part of my Penguin Science unit that you can download from my store on teacherspayteachers by clicking on the image below.

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5.  Consider adding distractors.

If your students are at the appropriate learning level, you can also add incorrect answers or distractors into your picture selection as well.  Most of my products do not include these distractors, as my students were often not at that level.  I was mainly focused on errorless teaching for the majority of my lesson, so it was easier for me not to include them.  However, they would be a nice addition to your higher level learners.

I hope this has encouraged you to consider adding circle maps to your teaching tool box especially if you teach students with special learning needs.  They are an engaging activity that can bring a lot of value to the content you are presenting.


Learning a New Year

Even for most of us it is always a challenge to remember to write the correct year after January 1.  Our brain and finger muscles have had 365 days to practice writing 2017.  Now, all of a sudden, we need to remember to write 2018.  That may take us a while…

Now imagine if you have a significant learning disability.  It may have taken you 300 of those 365 days to finally be able to “write” or “say” 2017 on your own.  Now, for no reason you can comprehend, you must forget that, and learn a new number to designate the year.  Very frustrating.

Admittedly, for many of the students I taught, knowing what year it was currently, probably was not high on the list of important facts to learn or be able to recite.  After all, many of my kids did not write or even speak.  But, there were always 1 or 2 that were at the high end of that curve who would go out for some time in the regular education setting and would be expected to write the CORRECT date on their papers.  In addition, there was always that one parent who felt their child should be able to parrot back the year when asked, just like their current age.  (Full disclaimer, I was one of those parents eons ago.  I so wanted my son to appear “normal” and be able to know what other kids his age knew.  It took a long time for me to be okay with the fact that at almost 21 years old now, he still does not know the current year or even how old he is.  But who really cares anyway?  Not him that’s for sure.)

So, how to go about teaching our students with disabilities that 2017 is over and now it is 2018?  Here are (what I think) some important things to consider.

  1.  Use ERRORLESS teaching

If they already know what year it is, we KNOW they will answer “2017” when asked “What year is it?”  So, you need to provide full prompting right away.  Stop letting them practice saying or writing the wrong year.  If you are asking your student verbally, then immediately follow your question with the correct answer and then allow your student to repeat you.  For some students you may need to give the full verbal prompt several times before fading.  For example:

Step 1= Teacher:  “What year is it?”

Step 2= Teacher: “2018”

Step 3= Teacher: “What year is it?”

Step 4= Student: “2018”

If your student is still saying 2017 after step 3, then repeat steps 1-2 several times before fading the full verbal prompt.  **Remember, there is a lot of research that shows that fading to partial verbal prompt is  NOT effective.  Just go from full verbal prompt to no verbal prompt.  If this is still not working and your student can read numbers, try using a cue card with the year written on it.  Pair that card with your full verbal prompt at first, then as you fade the verbal prompt keep the card.  Eventually fade the card.

If your students are writing the year on their papers, have then trace the correct year on their work for a while.  This will take some extra prepping on your part.  Beforehand, write the correct date in pencil and have them trace it.  Also put the correct date on the board or on an index card on their desk.  That way, you can fade the tracing to a visual prompt.  The index card is nice because it can go with them to various classroom settings if needed.

2.  Practice, Practice Practice

Set up lots of time and ways to practice writing or saying the new year. The more frequently it is practiced the quicker the muscle memory will build for either saying or writing the correct year.  Take every authentic opportunity to have students tell you or write 2018.

3.  Vary the stimuli

Remember, students with disabilities, especially Autism, have difficulty generalizing what they learn.  So, they may be able to put the date on their paper in your classroom, but not in Ms. Smith’s inclusion setting.  Taking visual prompts to new locations will help, as will practicing the skill in different environments with different people.  One way to practice is to try a cut and paste activity which you can download for FREE by clicking on the pictures below.  This is a great way for students to visualize the new year and manipulate the numbers.  I would try printing it on different colored paper each day for a while (repetition with variation).  In addition, don’t forget you can add color coding for your students who need more visual structure.


So if you are teaching your students it is now 2018, I wish you the best of luck!!  I am hoping to simply remember that myself this year.

***If you are looking for a unit to go with this activity, grab this New Year Unit in my store, over 40 pages for only $3.00.  Includes a story, circle maps, and cut and paste activities all designed for students with special needs, especially autism.  


Buying the Perfect “Autism” Gift

I love Christmas.  I love coming up with the perfect gift for my teenage daughter.  There are so many great things I can find for her.  My son, however, is another story.  He is almost 19 but has interests similar to a 2 year old.  He loves sesame street, veggie tales, and yes, even Barney.  Ugh, how I hate buying these toys for my adult son.  But what to do?  As a person with autism, he has very narrow interests, none of which are age appropriate.  In addition, most of the things I buy for him he really could care less about it.  So, a few years ago, I just decided I would not buy him anything for Christmas.  The problem was I had done way too good a job teaching him how to open presents.  He said, “open present” that Christmas morning, and the scramble was on.  We all scoured the house for anything we could wrap up, that he may like.  It was not easy.  Ever since that disastrous holiday, I  find myself searching for anything he may like.  Usually, my “finds” fall flat.  He opens what I think is the perfect gift, only to never play or look at it again.  UGH!!  I am sure there are so many other parents out there in my shoes.  It is so difficult to find gifts for our kids who are significantly affected by autism.  So, I thought I would share my “finds” for this year in case there are other parents out there looking for that elusive gift their child MAY POSSIBLY be interested in.

Because he seems to like things that light up, I got:

night buddy

Night Buddy $12.90 Amazon

He also likes things that make music (plus I can use it as a decoration!) I got:


Hallmark Singing Snowman $17.95

Oddly, he has a weird affinity for yo-yo’s (oh, and it HAS to be green)….


Yo-Yo $6.49 Amazon

For the sensory side of him, I got these (accidentally bought a dozen of the spiky balls; that should last us a while!)

spikey ball

Light up spiky ball $4.69 Amazon

stretchy ball

Stretchy ball $4.64 Amazon







Over the past 2 years he has really started to love to draw.  Of course it is hand over hand, which makes me wonder if it is the drawing or just the undivided attention from Mom.  Either way, I got these which I think he may enjoy (while probably giving me a headache):

scented markers

Scented Markers $6.48 Amazon

Finally, a 5 pound bag of treats from Sams.  That may last a few day.

gummi bears

I am not sure if this will help anyone else out there or not.  While shopping online, I am always searching under the keywords “autism toys” but rarely come up with something that really fits the interests of my son.  Please comment below if you have any great finds you would like to share.  I may just steal them for myself 🙂


Why I Teach Social Studies

There seems to be barely enough time in the day to fit in all the required material that the school district throws our way.  On top of that, imagine being in a class with students who have the most significant disabilities in the school, and it can be a recipe for pure survival mode.  But, even during my most challenging years, I still made time to teach social studies.  Although the subject matter was not on any state wide assessment, I still found it a valuable use of instructional time.  Here is why I did it.

1.  Content

Many of my students with autism, even those most severely affected, often had pervasive or narrow interests.  Sometimes, these interests fell in the area of history, politics, or other social study fields.  For these students, it was easy to come up with lessons and activities to keep them engaged.  In addition, on more than one occasion, I discovered a hidden interest in this content area that a student had which I had not realized before.  This gave me more opportunities to grow and use prior knowledge and interests in other subject matters.  Finally, the content I was teaching is what their peers in the regular education setting were being exposed to.  I strongly feel that ALL students deserve to be taught and exposed to grade level material.  It may not look the same, or even take as long, but the core of the content should be very similar.

2.  IEP Goals

As with all subject areas, there were plenty of opportunities for me to target and work on individual IEP goals while teaching social studies.  While working on my presidents unit, I made a few file folder activities where students simply matched identical pictures of presidents.  They may not have known who the picture depicted, but we would review them daily as they worked on the IEP goal of matching identical pictures.  I also created many sorting tasks so students could manipulate the content in that manner as well.  It could be as simple as sorting pictures that were different types of homes to a more complex task of sorting the duties of each branch of government.  Lots of differentiation took place to target the multiple learning levels in my class.

3.  General Classroom Skills

As with any content, there are opportunities to practice basic classroom skills such as sitting and listening to the teacher, using a communication device, asking and answering questions, participating in classroom discussions and activities, collaborating in small groups, and more.  For students with significant disabilities, especially autism, these skills need to be practiced often across many different people, settings, and content.  In elementary school, I felt an obligation to strengthen these skills prior to the kids going to middle and high school where there would be an expectation of more independence and collaboration.

Of course, I tried to find the most relevant social studies material I felt was worthy of their classroom time.  Some topics I liked to cover were:

  • Maps and Globes
  • Geography and Landforms
  • Government
  • Citizenship
  • Colonial America
  • Native Americans
  • Community
  • Presidents
  • Careers/occupations
  • Transportation

I always tried to incorporate as many hands on activities as possible as well as a book or power point I would write to accompany the content.  Overall I felt it was a very successful addition to the day.  Most of my students could only handle a 15-20 minute block of instruction so there were lots of blocks of time to fill during the day.  Social studies was often one of those blocks.  Structured time and consistency were critical for the success of my students.

I have several social studies units available in my store that I used in my classroom every year.  Grab them by clicking HERE.  Each unit includes a book covering the content in a simple manner, activities, communication aids, and assessments.

Best of luck in your social study adventures!!

Teaching Students to Open Presents plus a FREEBIE for You

Remember how excited you would be Christmas morning as a child?  All those presents under the tree just waiting to be unwrapped.  Just as excited were the family members who had carefully picked out the perfect present for you.  They waited anxiously to see your excited response when you would reveal the treasure under all that Christmas paper and ribbon.  Sadly, that often is not what happens in families who have a child with significant autism.  These kids often do not want to open their presents, and when they do, they either have no reaction or have a negative reaction to what is inside.  Extended families, especially, can be confused or disappointed.  The more they pressure the child to open the gift and explore what is inside, often makes the situation only worse.  So, what can you, a special education teacher, do to help this situation at home?  After talking it over with your students’ parents, read below to find out how to incorporate a present unwrapping routine in your classroom.

1.  Set a consistent time

What ever type of class scheduling system you use, make sure there is a clear and consistent time set aside to work on this skill.  I liked to start in the beginning of December, and even my most affected students made significant progress by Christmas.  However, you may choose to start earlier if you feel your students will need more time.  This consistency is critical for minimizing anxiety for your students around a routine that may have some historically negative feelings attached.  In addition to this set time, make sure there will also be time after the present is opened for the student to engage with the item that was wrapped.  That may mean playing with a toy, watching a video, or eating a small snack.  The immediate reinforcement will be very important to learning this skill.

2.  Use high interest

When I did this program with my own child, I began by wrapping up his favorite things.  I found things like books and toys around the house and would wrap them up.  There is no need to go out and purchase new items, just use things you know your student REALLY loves.  I also used food, but this may be more difficult at school.  It is critical in the beginning to only use things you KNOW your student will want to engage with immediately once he or she unwraps the package.

3.  Use hand over hand prompts and fade

Find the least intrusive level of prompting necessary for your student at the beginning.  You need a prompt invasive enough to ensure there is no anxiety, yet still allows as much independence as possible.  Do not unwrap the present for the child, however.  When working with my son, I had to start with hand over hand prompting.  He hated unwrapping presents.  Years of too much commotion, noise, people, and expectations had led him to have a very strong negative reaction to opening presents.  So, I would help him open the present by taking my hands in his and ripping the paper off as quickly as possible.  After a few days, I could tell he was building up confidence that there may be something good under that paper, and I could quickly fade to simply pointing and gesturing.

4.  Keep it realistic

My personal preference is to keep the wrapping minimal, but realistic.  You want your students to be able to open a present that most people will give them.  That means using tape and some sort of bow.  If you start this at the beginning, it is one less step you need to teach later.  I also sometimes used boxes, and sometimes I did not.  If something comes in a box, that is just one more “task” the child has to complete before the “job” is done.  It is good to practice with and without boxes, so the child does not simply stop once the box is revealed.

5.  Making it intermittent

Once you find your students are easily opening their presents with little to no prompting, you need to start varying the level of desirability of the item.  There are two main reasons for this.  One, not every present they unwrap will be of high interest to them of course.  This is especially true when gifts are coming from people who may not know the child very well.  The second, and more crucial reason, is that intermittent reinforcement is the strongest form of reinforcement there is.  Proven again and again through research, we know a person is more likely to persist in a task for a longer time when they occasionally get reinforced rather than every single time.  Every gambling institution depends on it!!  So, slowly introduce items that the student is not averse to, but may not be of peak interest to them.  This will ensure they will not  get tired of opening presents before Christmas morning is over.

Finally, I would provide the following tips to  your parents, who should then share them with extended family members and friends:

  • Limit the number of presents.  Go for 1-2 fun things; don’t worry about all the kids getting the exact same number of items.  That is not fair to anyone involved.
  • Give the child time to open the presents on their own schedule.  My son loves opening presents, but I still find I need to space them out, and give him time to play with the items in between.
  • Remove all unnecessary wrapping.  If they toy is shrink-wrapped, then remove all the packaging before wrapping the item.  This was hard for some of my family.  They loved how it looked in the box, and did not want to remove it before wrapping.  However, more often than not, my son lost all interest before someone found scissors strong enough to cut through all the security wrapping.
  • Put batteries in ahead of time if needed.  For the same reason above, you want the child to enjoy the toy immediately when unwrapping it.
  • Keep it simple.  Encourage parents and family to buy favorite snack or drink items and wrap them up.  It may seem silly wrapping up a snickers bar, but the reaction is likely to be 100 times better than wrapping up a pair of jeans.

So, that is my helpful hint for this week as we enter a crazy holiday season that is so challenging for our special learners.  At least this can be one fun part of your day.  Now, my son will open anyone’s present when I am not looking!!  I think I did too good a job 🙂

Here is the FREEBIES I promised.  Click on the images below to grab them from my TPT store.

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I have other December units available as well to enhance your special education classroom.

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Assessment in the Special Education Setting

Why I Assess Even My Most Affected Students

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I spent almost 10 years in a classroom serving the most severely affected students in the elementary school where I worked.  The challenges were real and daily, but my ultimate challenge was trying to determine if what I was doing was working.  One of the ways I answered this question for myself was to give weekly assessment on the material I was teaching.  It was a great way to determine if my students were grasping the content.  The difficulty came in trying to find a way to assess them that was meaningful and accurate.  Here are tips I found to be critical when assessing my most affected students.


When I was getting ready to start a new unit, I would develop the assessment first.  It helped me focus on what was truly important to cover in the upcoming week or two.  I would then administer the assessment before starting to teach the material.  This had multiple benefits:

  • Gave me a baseline I can use to measure growth when I gave the post-assessment
  • Revealed what the student my already know and gave me time to enrich those areas
  • Gave the student more practice with assessment


I found there was a LOT of diversity in my classroom.  I had some students who were completely non-verbal, some students had extreme physical limitation, and some were actually working close to grade-level but had such extreme behaviors, they could not be in a setting with their typical peers.  That meant, I often had 3 different assessment formats.

  • I would use a simple multiple choice test for my grade-level kiddos.  Quick and easy to make and interpret.
  • For students who were not yet on grade level, and early or emergent readers, I would add pictures to my multiple choices assessments.  For the most part, the students would still complete these independently, although for some I would read the question.Aviary Photo_130921583018948528
  • For my most severely affected students, I would enlarge and print out the answer choices and mount to index cards.  I would then state the question and, using their own response mode, the student would indicate their choice.  This may have been pointing or eye gaze.  Often, it was a non-response.  BUT, I still had by baseline.
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Once I was done teaching the material, I would give the same assessment I used for the pre-assessment.  I would then have some data to analyze to see if the students had made any growth.  So here is the reality:  some of my students made little to no growth but many did.  I then had to decide if I needed to reteach the content or not.  The answer to that vital question was: it depended.  If the content was critical or the student made some growth, and I felt he or she could make even more either I or my assistant would reteach the material the following week.   Again, the reality was that I could teach the same material every week for a year, and some of my students would still show little to no growth on the assessment.  But, I still assessed, because there were enough times over the years that I was truly amazed how some of them would perform on the post-assessment as compared to the pre-assessment.  I just never knew, so I had to assess to find out.


Another great thing about doing these assessments was that I had actual data to share with parents and administrators.  As a parent of a severely affected child myself, I know how important it is to know what my child is learning.  One way a parent can feel confident you are doing your job as a teacher is to see an assessment.  In addition, in IEP meetings I had some work samples to share that were data rich and meaningful.  This helped us develop new and better goals for the upcoming year.  Finally, my students received report cards every quarter.  The EXACT same report cards that their typical peers received.  By having valid assessments, I had something to use when filling out report cards.  Of course, my students had a differentiated grading system (to be addressed in a later post) that I established at the very start of the year, but the students’ grades were always based on true data.


The best thing I learned about giving assessments to even my non-responsive students were there turned out to be all these positive effects I had not planned on. Many of my older students were going to have to take an end-of-year assessment given by the state.  By giving my assessments throughout the year, my students became more comfortable with the format and would perform better on these end of the year tests.  In addition, there were a lot of skills I could observe and work on while giving these assessments.  I was able to really focus in on the student’s best method of responding to my questions.  Was it eye gaze or pointing?  Should I put the cards on the table or on a vertical surface?  Was there a difference if I used color versus black and white?  All these little pieces of information fit into a bigger picture that would help not only me but teachers in the future who would work with my students.  Finally, all my students had IEP goals that pertained to attention and engagement.  This was a great time to gather that data as well since we were often in a one on one setting with minimal distractions.

Giving these pre and post-assessments took me less than 5 minutes per student, and it was definitely worth the time and preparation.  I would encourage every teacher, regardless of the severity of your population, to try giving formal assessments.  I know in this day and time most of us complain about over-testing, but I have found many forget about testing this population at all.  How else can we know if we are making a difference?

Click on the image below to download a FREE copy of an assessment that is provided with my unit on Colonial America in my TPT store.  assessment Slide1

Adding Literacy to your Math Lesson and a FREEBIE

If you know me or have visited my store on teacherspayteachers, you know I write a book for EVERYTHING even math.  When I was teaching in an autism classroom, I loved starting my lessons with a book, and so did my students.  Of course, I had a hard time always finding a book that was at an appropriate level for my students, but it got to the point I could write one up in about 20 minutes.  So, I wanted to share some reasons why this is such an effective strategy for starting your math lesson as well as some FREEBIES at the end so you can give it a try yourself.

Predictable, Calming, and Repetition

We know students with disabilities struggle with unstructured time as well as an inconsistent flow to the day.  Starting your math lesson with a story is a great way to cue your students that there is a change in subject matter, and it gives them time to settle in.  Reading can be a calming routine especially when it is paired with engaging pictures and simple language.Aviary Photo_130912213848278144

If you had kids yourself who liked to watch Nickelodeon, you may have noticed that the same episode of Blue’s Clues would run every day for 5 days.  That was not a way for the network to save money.  It was actually based on research!  There was a study done by the creators of Blue’s Clues (click here for the link) that demonstrated typical children need to see and hear subject matter about 5 times before they begin to internalize the material and make those personal connections. I had heard that in a training early in my teaching career, and it totally made sense.  So, I decided I would use the same book to start my math lesson for 5 days.  On day 1, many of the kids were fiddling with toys, falling out of their chairs, and seeming to not even hear me reading.  But, by the end of the week, many were chiming in and following along.  It took that much consistency to get their attention.  Of course, by mid-year, they were following along much more quickly, but I always kept the same book for 5 days.

IEP Data

When you read a story, it is a perfect time to work in some of those IEP goals and gather data.  My assistant and myself always had our clipboards with the IEP goals  for each student with us.  That way as I was reading I could work in lots of “wh” questions as well as measure and track level of engagement.  Of course, as these stories were dealing with math content I had lots of opportunities to work on counting, identifying numerals, size, and other topics that were addressed on individual IEPs.

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Students with disabilities, especially autism, have a lot of difficulty generalizing information they have learned to new situations.  This is very true of math.  I often had a student that could count an array of objects as long as they were in a straight line.  But show them a picture with a group of puppies, and they were totally unable to count them.  Very, very typical and very challenging as a teacher.  You think your student has mastered a skill, but when you attempt it in a more real-life situation, and they seem to have no clue what to do.  Pulling literacy into your math lessons is the PERFECT way to work on some of these generalization skills.  It forces you as a teacher to present math in a less traditional format.  While keeping IEP data, I would have different codes if a student was successful at a skill in a traditional format or was successful in a new, more generalized format.  It was a great way to ensure I continued working on skills I thought the student has mastered until I could prove they could do it across environments, people, and material or stimuli.

Typical Math Lesson

So, what would a typical math lesson look like in my classroom which consisted of students kindergarten through 5th grade with significant autism?  The lesson would be about 30 minutes.

  • 5 min : Counting or other math song
  • 5 min : Read a math story
  • 10 min : Group activity using manipulativesAviary Photo_130911388756621850
  • 5 min : Individual work (This usually meant that my assistant and myself would have to help students one on one to complete a product for the parent to see what we are working on and for me to keep as a data point.  While helping one student, the other students were given access to the book for the week, previous math stories or other math manipulatives.  This would keep them engaged with appropriate materials while we were focused on other students.  They actually loved “reading” these books on their own.)
  • 5 min : Math game

Aviary Photo_130911388376440614 Aviary Photo_130911389472127100

Reading a story to start your math lesson has many benefits.  Students find it calming and predictable, you can gather IEP data and generalize skills to make more personal connections, and the repetition reinforces the math concepts you are currently trying to teach.

Below are some free stories I have used in the past.  Click on the picture and it will take you to my store where you can download it for free.  If you find this strategy works for you, try writing your own stories.  It is quick and easy to do!

Slide1               Slide1               Slide1

If Keywords Don’t Work, Then What?

Full disclosure: I used keywords when teaching my students how to solve word problems.

I had a K-5 classroom for students with autism.  There were so many different learning styles and needs just within my small class.  In addition, these students, for the most part, were severely affected.  Many did not speak, most did not read,  and some were working at a preschool or lower academic level.  The issue was: some of these students were in 4th and 5th grades.  I felt compelled to somehow teach grade level content.  It seemed hard for me to imagine some of them ever having to solve a problem like:

The train left the station at 7:45 pm going 65 mph.  If Smallville is 75 miles away, what time will the train get there?

But, some might have to solve:

You want to make brownies.  You need to add 1/2 cup of flour in the beginning and 1/2 cup of flour at the end.  How much flour will you need to make the brownies?

So, after some preliminary research, I grabbed onto the idea of using keywords.  I made every student a Keyword index card.    It looked like this:

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We would take the word problem, and not even read it.  We would just look for a KEYWORD.  Then the students would highlight it.  Boy did they LOVE to highlight things.  Then we would circle any numbers we found and put them together using the operation from the correct column where they had found the keyword.  It seemed like such a great strategy, until I came across this problem on the end of year test:

I had 5 apples in my basket on Monday. On Tuesday I increased the amount of apples so now I have 7 altogether. How many apples did I add on Tuesday?

Using my strategy, my students happily highlighted the word altogether, found it on their card and completed the problem:

5 + 7 = 12  I had 12 apples on Tuesday!!

They were so sure, so proud of themselves, and of course so wrong.

I so wish this strategy would have worked.  For students with autism and other significant disabilities, they really need a way to make things that are abstract more concrete or black and white.  I still believe that, but now I know a better way to make that happen.

  • First, you have to truly embrace and believe this is a worthwhile skill to teach to as many of your students as possible.
  • Second, you have to realize that because this is truly a difficult skill even for our typical students, it will take lots and lots of practice.  Really, LOTS and LOTS of practice.
  • Third, you need to bring in manipulatives to help the students turn this abstract problem into something more tactile that they can set up and understand.
  • Fourth, the problems need to be real.  You should use problems that are practical and make sense to the students you are teaching.  This will allow them to activate prior knowledge and make new connections that will help them solve word problems for years to come.

So, let’s look at how to work through a word problem with your students in a more appropriate and successful (not necessarily quick and easy) way.

Joe is allowed to watch 4 hours of TV at night.  He has already watched 2 hours of TV.  How many more house of TV can Joe watch?

This problem addresses a very real situation that your students may find themselves in.  There are two ways to approach this problem:  as a subtraction problem AND as an addition problem.  It is important to use both methods if possible to expand your students’ true understanding of what is happening.  Let’s work through it as an addition problem.

  1. READ through the problem.
  2. Talk through what is happening in general terms.
  3. Come up with some general estimates of an answer.  For example, would it be reasonable to say Joe can watch 5 more hours of TV?  Why or why not.  This step really helps you assess if the students are grasping what the problem is really about.
  4. Using a work mat, set up the problem using manipulatives.  I like to use a sticky note for the operation.  That way the work mat is always the same, and the student can choose the operation he/she wants to use to solve the problem.Aviary Photo_130903520626126502

5. Have students talk about and share with each other how they decided to set up their manipulatives.  The more they can explain what they are doing, the better they truly understand it.         Aviary Photo_1309035208021172476.  After talking through the solution, have students write the number sentence that represents the answer to the problem.                                                                       7.  Finally, have students check their work by solving the problem and seeing if it makes sense.

I am sure to many of you who teach severely affected students, this may sound way too complicated or even absurd.  But I challenge you to try it.  Students will only rise to the expectations that we set, and wouldn’t it be tragic if we set the bar too low.

If you would like more resources on solving word problems, including:

  • Even more suggestions, like how to incorporate your really low learners
  • Small group practice problems
  • Worksheets that follow the same format as the work mat

Click on the pictures below:

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5 Things About Me

So here are 5 things about me…

5 facts about me filled out

  1.  I am a veterinarian.  I graduated in 1995 from the College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, NC.  I practiced small animal medicine until my son was born in 1997.  I LOVED it.  But, due to his needs and diagnosis of autism,  I gave up my career to try and “cure” him.  Nope, didn’t work.  Thus fact 2…                                                       NCSU-CVM
  2. I have an 18 year old son with severe autism.  I love him to death, despite the fact it certainly is not the life I though I would lead.  I went back to school and learned all I could about autism and other disabilities, which led me to getting a master’s in sped ed.  (For those of you who are counting, yes, I have a bachelor degree, a doctorate degree, and a master’s degree.  Luckily, I LOVE school.)                                 Jimmy PB2
  3. Reading is my absolute favorite leisure activity.  I find time to read every day, usually when I am done with my TPT work.  A glass of wine and a comfy chair and I am in heaven.  I will read anything.  My favorite reads are books with complex family sagas.  I also love a good
  4. So I would say I love to quilt, but I find it cuts into my obsession listed in number 3.  I usually put time aside on the weekends to quilt, forcing myself to take a step back from the computer and constant work on my TPT store.  Thus, it maintains my sanity.  I used to make a different quilt to hang outside my classroom door every month of the year while I was teaching.  The kids loved it; now my friends and family are the benefactors of this hobby.                                  Aviary Photo_130887084357723518
  5. My family spends as many days as we can at my in-law’s small house on High Rock Lake in NC.  It is tiny with only one bathroom, but I could move out there and live happily today.  It sits on the water with a long dock that faces the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen.  My son loves it there, and I know that eventually he, I and my husband will end up living on the water.  I just have to be patient, but I cannot wait!!sunset

Teaching the Letter of the Week

Do you use a letter of the week strategy in your classroom?  I found it a helpful way to teach letters and sounds in a self-contained setting.  After years of tweaking, I came up with a lesson plan that not only was engaging and helped students make real world connections but greatly decreased my stress level.  First, I knew repetition was going to an important part to my teaching.  It was necessary for my students but had to have variation to keep their attention.

Note:  if you are a more visual person, watch the YouTube video at the end of this post.  It pretty much covers the same material. 

So, I started each lesson the same way:  with a song.  Each student had an alphabet chart so they could follow along.

alphabet board color

My favorite song to use was Dr. Jean’s I’ve Got the Whole Alphabet in my Mouth.

Next, we would read the letter of the week book.  By the end of the week, the students could read it along with me.

letter of week books

After the story, we would start to fill a large circle map.  I drew a large circle on poster board, added Velcro, and using a post-it note, placed the letter of the week in the middle.  Students would then take turns bringing up pictures that started with that letter.

circle map pics

Next, I would choose a group activity based on the day of the week:

  • Monday:  Scavenger Hunt
  • Tuesday:  Pick up the Plates Game
  • Wednesday:  Art Activity
  • Thursday: Cooking Activity
  • Friday:  Social Skills Activity

After the group activity, students would do an individual activity, again, depending on the day of the week.

  • Monday:  Circle map
  • Tuesday:  Letter collage
  • Wednesday:  Sorting activity
  • Thursday: Sorting Activity
  • Friday:  Assessment

Finally, I would end the lesson with some technology.  We loved using Youtube and  There are so many cute songs and videos you can quickly find about the letter of the week.

If you would like to see if this method works for you, click the picture below to download a FREE letter of the week unit to try from my store on teacherspayteachers.  It includes all the above activities and lesson plans.


You can also watch this FREE 4 minute how to video on utilizing these materials:

youtube cover

Living Between Two Worlds

This has been an interesting couple of weeks with my family, so I thought I would take a break from school posts and write something more personal that I know so many of my friends with special kids can relate to.

So, as most of you know I have an 18 year old son, Jimmy, with autism and a 17 year old daughter, Gina who is a typical and wonderful teenager.  Gina has been busy applying to colleges which has led me to helping her proof read some essays.  Many of which she has chosen to write about Jimmy, and it has been very enlightening to me.

Trying to raise a child with such demanding needs as Jimmy, has meant that all of us have had to make some sacrifices.  As much as we tried to protect Gina and give her a “normal” childhood, I have come to realize that it was impossible to shield her from the stress of raising a child with special needs.  When Gina was about 4 years old, she asked us, in a very worried voice, if she was going to have to take of Jimmy when we got old and died someday?  Even at that point, she knew what a tremendous burden (I know some of you want to say blessing….) it can be having a kid like Jimmy.  I tried so hard over the years to keep things as normal for her as possible.  She had sleepovers, danced and swam competitively for years.  I am not sure we really denied her anything.  I figured we had done pretty well.

Then, I read her essay to Duquesne University.  She talked about having to grow up so fast at such a young age.  How she had to learn how to take of herself as well as her brother long before she was ready.  She talked about missed opportunities and lost family vacations.  All true.  But I don’t know how we could have done it any differently.  I know so many of my friends will recognize this struggle and realize there is no magic answer.

Yesterday, we went to hear a speaker talk about getting into the college of your choice.  She and her Dad had just spent the weekend at an open house at Duquesne, her first choice.  It as an emotional weekend for her dad who is not ready to see his baby girl move away.  The talk was full of doom and gloom, and Gina left feeling like there was no way she was going to get into any good colleges, let alone Duquesne.  When we got home, she grabbed onto her Dad and cried and cried.  He did his best to reassure her.  But, it was what she told me later that really spurred me to write this post.  She said that Dad was just overly emotional about things, and I really seemed to have no emotion at all most of the time.

That was a crushing blow to hear.  But, I think she is right.  I think when Jimmy was diagnosed, and I realized the dream I had of my life was gone, I had to make a choice.  I could get swallowed up by resentment and grief, or I could play the cards I was dealt the best I could.  So, I soldiered on and didn’t let myself think about what could have been.  I think over the last 16 years, that has led to a dramatic change in my personality.  It has made me put up walls that I just cannot afford to take down.  I can deal with just about anything now.  I am the rock of the family, but I am not sure that is such a good thing.

I wonder how Gina will look back on her childhood and our relationship.  Every parent wishes they could have done something better, so I know that I am not unique in that situation.  I know there are so many of my friends who have similar situations and read this and wonder if their kids feel the same way.  I think every kid is different, and every family is different.  We did the best we could.  I am not sure how we could have done it any differently.

Reading Novels to a Low Incidence Class

At one point in my teaching career, my class schedule worked out so I had this 15  minute block of time when the kids came back from specials and before they had to go to lunch.  It was not enough time to really teach anything, but it was definitely enough time for them to get in trouble if there was not a structured activity.  I had a K-5 class of students with a HUGE range of abilities.  I had a few who were verbal, one with a genius IQ, and several who were non-verbal and required a personal assistant to navigate the day.  So, what to do that would engage this wide range of kids?  I decided to be CRAZY and read a novel.

I started with Charlotte’s Web.  We talked about the rules:  you had to sit at the table, you had to be quiet, and you could not touch others around you.  (It took about 3 months to get these rules consistently followed.)  I really did not know what to expect, but it turned out amazing.

Most of the students (all but 2) didn’t really seem to listen.  But, they were learning to sit quietly for a good block of time.  This turned out to be such a wonderful skill.  Parents and later teachers, alike, were very thankful for it.  It also turned out that two of my students really enjoyed listening to me read.  I wish you could have seen this group of students.  No one would believe they would sit and listen to a story, but with consistent expectations, they all got there by the end of the year.

Interestingly, my highest level student was the most problematic.  He just could not stand the thought of being quiet.  He wanted to talk ALL THE TIME.  So, I used this quick strategy:  I place the number of post-it notes in front of him that I planned to read that day.

Aviary Photo_130868842024691694As I would finish a page, he would remove the post-it note.  It worked like a charm the very first time.  I also used some visual cue cards, like “quiet” and “listen” for my lower level students.  These did not work quite as quickly, but it was an important part of shaping their behavior.

At the end of the novel (which took about 1 1/2 months), we all spent an afternoon watching the movie with popcorn.  It was a great reward, and they all loved it.  By the end of the year, we had read:

  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Because of Winn Dixie

After that year, I worked this time into my schedule purposefully.  It was always a learning process in the beginning, but the end results were always worth all the time and effort.

If you would like to try it, consider trying one of my  novel units from my store on teacherspayteachers.  I have created an activity to go along with each chapter to increase the level of engagement and participation.  Click on the first two pictures below to download a free sample from each unit.  Directions to access the complete unit are included in the free download.  To check out my other novel units go to my store, Special Needs for Special Kids at TPT by clicking here.



Using Color Coding for Differentiation

Our special education classes tend to have such a HUGE variety of learning levels and needs.  It can drive a teacher to insanity trying to come up with separate lessons for each child that is differentiated to their specific learning style.  Here is a quick way I found to take one task and make it accessible to more of my students.

We did a lot of cut and paste activities in my class.  Most of my students had difficulty writing, so I needed a way to produce a product for parents to see as well as a concrete way to gather data and perform assessments.  Pictured above is such an activity.  The students were sorting pictures with words into different word families.  This was perfect for my 3rd-5th grade learners, but not so much for my K-2 students.  So, I would outline the various pictures/words with a certain color that matched the color of the construction paper for that particular word family.  That way, it turned into more of a color matching task (with a high degree of distraction) which even my younger students could do.  For even more support, I would color in the entire square rather than just outline it.  In the end, I had one sorting activity that almost all my students could do with very little prep time on my part.

Consider trying this technique to easily make more rigorous tasks engaging and more independent for your lower level learners while still utilized grade level content.

A New Transition Strategy

The time we dread as special education teachers:  transitioning from one activity to another, or moving from one location to another.  You have all your students, or small groups, where they are supposed to be, relatively engaged, and then time is up and everyone needs to move.  Ugh!!  Although I destested transition times, I also knew it was probably the most important time of the day.  It was the time I focused on A LOT because as a teacher of little bodies (K-5) who would eventually grow into big bodies, I knew it was my job to teach them how to physically get from point A to point B with as little insanity as possible.  (I hope those secondary teachers who later got my kids, appreciated how well they could transition without a major uproar occurring).  So, what was my secret?  Well, there was no secret or magic bullet, but I did find one thing that helped tremendously…. music.

From the very first day, I would let the students know it was time to transition, usually with a “check schedule” card.  In the beginning, there was A LOT of hand holding and guiding students to their schedule and then to the new location.  About half way through the year, however, many of them could do this on their own, allowing me time to set up.  But, once the kids were at the  new table or center, I would have a song ready to go with some visuals or manipulatives for them to use.  I always used the same song for each lesson.  I always used Number Rock to start math, and I always used I’ve got the Whole Alphabet in my Mouth for reading/writing time.  It may seem like that would get boring for you and me, but for my students, it was the predictability of the music that helped them settle their bodies and get them ready to learn.  I would provide each of them with a number or letter board, and start the song.  In the beginning of the year, when we were still physically helping the students transition, this gave me 2 minutes to set up while my assistant led them through the song.  Later, I could take over that role, freeing up my assistant to get the next lesson or center prepared.

For most of the time I was teaching, I did not have much technology available to me in my classroom, so I simply used a CD player and some CD’s I borrowed from the kindergarten teachers.  That is part of the reason why I made sure to add some visual or manipulative component for all my visual learners. My last year, however, I was lucky enough to get a Smartboard, which enabled us to “watch” the song on youtube rather than just listen and sing along.  Either way, those 2 minutes were long enough to get the wiggles out, but short enough the students would not get bored.

Below, I listed some of my favorite songs we used and the links on youtube.  It really is a great way to start your lesson and easy to do.  Even if you have a severe diversity of learners in your class, and you think there is no way this will work with your crew, try it.  My class was extremely diverse, and I did have one student who took almost 3 years, to get the idea she was supposed to sit still and listen to the song, rather than dance, but it was still time so well spent.  We all learn at our own pace, so why not make it fun?

Great math transition songs:

Great ELA transition songs:

Great science transition songs:

Great social studies transition songs (yes, I taught social studies!):

Circle Time transition songs:

You get the idea.  As most of you know, you can find ANYTHING on youtube 🙂

Back to School Tip

It is the first week of school, and all the teachers are going through the school rules with their students.  You see them in the hallway, in the library, and in the cafeteria.  They are all standing at attention (even the kindergartners) listening attentively and being quiet.  BUT then there is your class.  Your class used to be my class.  The class with the kids that NEVER stand still or are quiet.  The class that takes more adults than kids to get from one place to another on the school property.  Yep, it is the special ed class.

I always hated those first few days of learning the school rules.  I knew I could not try to teach proper hallway behavior while staying in the classroom, it just would not generalize to the real situation.  I also knew that once we were out in the hallway, my kids would be so distracted and/or anxious that there was no way they could listen to me about proper hallway etiquette.  Then I found out about structured walks!

The  main issue with my students was they did not know what they were supposed to be doing in the hallway, and they had no idea how long it would be before they could get back to the safety of the classroom.  A perfect recipe for disruptive behaviors and anxious kids.  I started doing structured walks my second year.  It basically is set up like a scavenger hunt.  I would have someone place some pictures around the school in obvious locations, and the kids would have a blank template to show them how many pictures we were looking for.  We did talk about hallway behavior, but I found once they had a clear goal of what they needed to accomplish, and how long it would take (ie fill the 10 blank spots) most of the problem behaviors disappeared or lessened greatly.

I have included this link so you can download complete directions and a set of symbols to use on your own structured walk.  Try it, you might be surprised how a little structure can go a long way in eliminating problems and anxiety.

Read more

Re-purposing Old Calendars

So, I cannot take credit for the invention of this idea, but once I saw it, I ran with it.  My students loved matching tasks, and so did I.  It allowed me to gather some IEP data as well as allow them to do some work independently.  But, printing out those file folder games takes a lot of ink and access to a color printer which I did not always have.  So, I started using old calendars.

I would ask people to save me their calendars at the end of the year.  You need the ones that have the small pictures of each month on the back.  Take the calendar apart and laminate each page.  The cut out and laminate the smaller photos.  Put Velcro on the back of the small photos and on the large pages.  I was lucky enough to be able to have access to a binding machine at school, so I would bind them together, but you could use metal rings as well.  I also liked to make a quick holder for the smaller photos using an old piece of cardboard with, yes, more Velcro.

I made HUNDREDS of these over the years.  The kids absolutely loved the photos, especially if I could get some cool calendars like Thomas the Train or other favorite character.  I also had some calendars that the months were in color and the small photos were in black and white.  That just bumped up the difficulty level a notch for my more advanced learners.  In addition, some people gave me some really challenging ones like different types of grapes or stained glass patterns.  They were not always easy to differentiate what each month was.  Every single student I taught did these calendars for morning work or part of their independent working time, and every single student I had loved them.

I hope you will try this quick and easy way to make your own vibrant matching tasks without having to print a single thing!!

Social Media Overload

So I have been on teacherspayteachers for a few years now.  Up until this year, I really did not devote much time or attention to my store.  I realized what a great venue it could be, but I was more a user of the website than active participant or author.  When we moved to PA last year, that changed, and I dove into recreating products that I had tested successfully for years in my classroom.  Honestly, there is almost no ready-made, published materials available for teachers who work in severe and profound settings.  It is truly sad.  So, I knew this would be a worthwhile venture for all involved.  I literally spent the next year crafting over 150 products.  My sales went up, but nothing extraordinary.  So, as year 2 of my “sabbatical” begins, I feel I need to refocus my energies, and find a way to connect with more teachers in the same situation I was in.

First, let me say I am NOT a social media fanatic.  Up until we moved, I did not have a Facebook page, nor a Pinterest account.  Now I have both.  But I want to talk a little about pinterest in this blog entry.  I am such a horrible pinner.  I admit it, and beg forgiveness for whomever has stumbled previously upon my page (  I just did not get it, nor did I put the time and effort into understanding this platform.  Well, I have spent the last 2 weeks getting educated!!  It is truly an amazing resource full of some of the best ideas I have ever seen.  I have watched some tutorials, read other blog posts, and listened to some webinars all in an effort to become someone you would want to follow.

It will be a process.  I have a lot to clean up on my site, and that will take some time.  But, with the few changes I have made, I have already had some people reach out to me and ask me to collaborate with them on their boards.  I am honored.  I am humbled.

I promise from this point forward to be a good steward to this powerful social media presence which is the biggest driver of buyers to teacherspayteachers.  And, without buyers, I might as well just close my store down and read a good book.

Summer School : 2015

Friday was the last day of summer school for Jimmy in 2015.  It is the first time he has ever had the opportunity to continue his educational experience during the summer months.  As many of you know, we moved to Pennsylvania from North Carolina one year ago.  I was terrified leaving all of Jimmy’s support network and sad leaving all of our family behind.  BUT….  it was the best thing that ever happened for the four of us.  We still miss family and friends, but we have been able to visit and family has even ventured up this way!

So, one of the absolute best changes for Jimmy was the school system here.  This is in no way meant to be negative towards all the wonderful teachers, adults, and therapists who helped Jimmy from grades PreK though 10th grade.  You all did the absolute best you could with what you had.  But here, it is just so different.  Jimmy is in a school surrounded by so  much support and experts in the field of autism.  Every activity, every minute of every day is meant to maximize his potential and build his independence.  And the best thing….  that support continued throughout the summer with the same 8-2 school hours, 5 days a week, with the same teachers and assistants there ready to go.  Sure, he still had some meltdowns.  I still had to sign restraint and IEP waiver forms, but that is all the nature of the beast.  I never got a call.  I never had to drive 30 minutes to the school to pick him up.  They were equipped to handle whatever Jimmy threw their way.  Most importantly he loved it.

Of course, for me, it meant a few more precious weeks of freedom.  My days of freedom are quickly coming to an end.  I have just 3 years left before Jimmy is done with the school system.  After that, I don’t know.  He is still pretty tough to handle if you don’t know what you are doing.  So, the future is very uncertain.

For now, I am beyond thankful for the summer of 2015 and all it afforded me to accomplish for myself.  Now it will be down to NC to visit with family and relax at the lake for a couple of weeks!!

Repetition Repetition Repetition

This 4 minute video talks about the importance of utilizing repetition in your daily lesson plans.  I walk through an example of how I used one of my favorite tools, a literacy unit.  I never felt like I was cheating my students by repeating the same lesson plan several days in a row.  I just was strategic in making sure there was some purposeful variation to keep them engaged.  By day 5, the kids would be so excited because they could predict what was coming and could read along.  Boy, do I miss those days!!  Happy teaching to all you still out in the trenches.  You are making more of a difference than you will ever know.

Don’t Feel Sorry For Me

So once again, I find myself holding down the fort this week.  This Memorial Day weekend, Jim had a Caterpillar meeting and event that led him to Indianapolis.  He actually got to participate in many of the Indy 500 pre-race festivities and then got to sit in turn 3 on race day.  He grew up watching this race faithfully with his entire family, so it is a dream come true for a guy who really should have been a race car driver.  It is a great tradition that I was indoctrinated into once we got married.

As he is off having the time of his life, I am home with the kids keeping things running here.  But, don’t feel sorry for me.  When you have a child with a disability, family life looks differently.  You have to figure out a way to experience things that most families take for granted in a unique and creative way.  So, if things were different, I am certain that all four of us would have been in Indianapolis this weekend, but that is okay.  I am so happy that Jim gets to experience this and I have absolutely no regrets nor one ounce of resentment.  My time will come.  I know, there will be times I will get to go off and do what I have dreamed of, and Jim will stay home.

Don’t feel bad for me.  I find happiness in his happiness.  I have found many things this weekend that make me happy.  I miss my husband, but I am so grateful he has had this time.  You may not understand it, but it works for us and works well.

Watering the Grass

Well we made it through the week with minimal issues.  Just one night of almost no sleep which is pretty good.  Jim had asked me to water the new grass we had seeded while he was gone.  It would take about an hour and needed to be done either early in the morning or later in the evening.  I chose the evening, and decided to ask Jimmy if he wanted to help.  Shocker, he said ok.  If you know Jimmy, he usually does not enjoy anything that 1) takes him away from his iPad and 2) requires him to be in a vertical position.  Well, we had a great time.  Every night he would help me for most of it.  He seemed to really enjoy himself, and it was good to see him out of the house and especially out of his bed.  We did have a few issues, however.  The first night, I took out a drink with me (a gin and tonic) in a blue cup with a lid and straw.  Silly me, that is normally Jimmy’s cup.  Well, he would not leave me alone, and was really mad I would not give him the cup even after I got him his own drink in a different cup.  Really, my fault.  I should have known better.  So, I just gulped down that drink and did not make that mistake again.  The next day, Jimmy somehow saw, across the dirt, this unhatched robin egg.  I have no idea how he even saw it, or why he would be drawn to it.  But, off he went and before I knew what was happening, he had squeezed it all over himself.  Ewww!!!!  But after a quick wash, we were back at it.

So, in all it was not such a bad week.  I learned that Jimmy really likes to water and play with the hose.  I also re-learned not to use his cup and to keep him as close as possible.  Thanks to everyone who send me warm wishes for success, it worked.

Juggling it All

As I approach this week on my own with my hubby in NC for the week, I feel the anxiety of trying to juggle it all.  I know there are so many parents out there with special needs children who feel the same.  It is especially hard now that we are in a new state (PA), with no support network.  I miss those few trust-worthy people I could call up when I needed some help (Peter, Fred, Greg, Lori, Sarah, Beth, Amanda…).   Last week, I missed my daughter’s induction into Honor Society because my husband was out of town and I just cannot handle Jimmy in crowds by myself anymore.  Now I am all on my own.  Some people tell me to just find some respite workers in the area, but that is just not an easy or welcome venture.  Jimmy is BIG and strong, and it takes someone who really knows him to read his moods and keep him safe.  In order for someone to know him that well, they need to spend time with him.  That takes money on my part and an invasion in my home.

For the last 16 years, we have had people in our home on a very regular basis.  Some people were amazing and some were not.  It was exhausting for all involved to get to a level of comfort that I felt I could leave Jimmy alone with them.  I just don’t have the energy anymore to weed through the people who sit on their phones watching Jimmy play on his ipad while I pay them $X/hour.  Don’t get me wrong, I have had some AMAZING people in the past who have made a huge difference in Jimmy’s life, and I think I would have lost my mind without them.  But, I also went through A LOT of individuals who were scary and questionable at best in my home for hours at a time.

So, now I face this week with some trepidation.  At least I am not juggling a job as well (a post for another time, as that is not a happy statement), so I just need to keep things as smooth as possible.  I will miss another major event for my daughter, her senior presentation which she has prepared and is giving a year early.  We, as parents of special needs children (and adults) miss a lot.  We are isolated in our homes, and despite everyone’s encouraging remarks to “just come on it will be fine” they just have no idea.  They do not understand how disruptive at best, and dangerous, at worst, it can be when we try to just “join in” without the proper support.  I am so lucky to still have a husband who has stuck in there and is an amazing support, he just cannot be here all the time.  So, everyone, wish me luck this week and say “amen” if you know EXACTLY what I am talking about.

PS  This is my second attempt at this post.  I deleted my first try as it seemed too negative.  Imagine how that one sounded!!

My thoughts on social stories & a freebie

So as I sit down to start writing more curriculum pieces this morning, my mind immediately goes to social stories.  They are by far my biggest seller on my teacherspayteachers store.  It is also ironic, as I almost always thought I had students that were functionally too low to really benefit from this sort of intervention.

What are social stories?  These are short stories that usually target a social, behavioral, or communication difficulty a person may have.  The stories address what the problem is, when it may occur, and how to deal with that problem all in a positive and affirming tone.  They are most often used with individuals who have autism, but their use has spread to many other situations as well.  They were first started by Carol Gray, and although I never took one of her seminars, it did not stop me from writing my own.  I found almost every story I wrote was unique to a particular student or situation, so it was always difficult to find a “ready-made” one that would fit.

How do you use social stories?  These stories are NOT meant to be used when the problematic situation is occurring.  They should be introduced in a place the student feels safest because it is likely that talking about a social situation may make them uncomfortable.  I would usually try to have set times in the student’s schedule to read the story.  Definitely first thing in the morning, and then shortly before I thought the situation may occur, like lunch time.  I would also review it again at the end of the day.  A copy always went home so the parents could read it with their child and also know how we were approaching a difficult situation they may also be experiencing.  After a few days, or when it seemed the language of the story was becoming part of the student’s internal dialogue, I would try role-playing.  It was a way I could assess their comprehension of the material without any formal test.  I would also be very aware of when that social situation would possibly occur and be ready to feed them cues we practiced from the story.

Here is a short video on how I use social stories:

Did they work?  Sometimes.  But here is the coolest thing I discovered about social stories:  I WAS THE ONE WHO LEARNED.  It helped me as a teacher and as a parent remember what cues to give the student when the situation occurred.  It became part of MY internal dialogue.  Once this “aha” moment occurred to me, I realized I should be using social stories for every single one of my students because they made me a better teacher and parent.  Yes, it did help some of my students, and most loved the cool pictures I would find to insert into the story, as well as the repetition and predictable text patterns.  It is so cool, how something specifically written for a kid helped me as an adult.

That is why I LOVE social stories.  

Here is a short video on how to write your own social story:

I have written a lot of them, and you can check them out in my store:  Special Needs for Special Kids.  But remember, anyone can write a social story so give it a try!!

Grab this freebie while you are there (click on the image below):


A Very Winding Road (not so less traveled)

I am so happy you have stumbled upon this blog.  I am so excited to start sharing some of the things I have learned on my special education journey.  But, before I start, I guess I should fill you in on where it began…

Ever since I was 5 years old, I was going to be a veterinarian.  I dreamed of it, and had all the support of my friends and family to see my through the journey.  I graduated from NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 1995.  I was so excited and could not wait to get started solving the mysteries those ailing puppies and kittens would bring my way.  Just two years into this new life as Dr. Joy, I had our first child, Jimmy.  All was well, I took some time off from work and loved being home.  The following year, Gina was born and boy were my hands full.  I still tried to get in to practice medicine on the weekends, but then things took a turn.

Something seemed not quite right with Jimmy.  It took me a while to hear, see, and accept what others were trying to tell me.  Long story short, he was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2 and my whole life changed.  It was like my child had died, but I was not allowed to grieve.  All I had dreamed of was gone in one afternoon at the doctor’s office.  All bets were off.

I won’t go into a long detailed list (and believe me it is LONG) of what my husband and I did to try and “save” our son.  It didn’t work, and it was bad.   Maybe that is a blog for another day.

Today, Jimmy is 18 and we are still struggling with all his condition entails.  But the silver lining through all of this is that I was forced to make a career change, and I believe it was in God’s plan all along.  I went back to school, got my teaching degree and master’s in special education and set out trying to figure out how to teach Jimmy and others like him.  Funny thing is, I have never regretted leaving medicine.  And though, I graduated from vet school with a bunch of awards and promise of an amazing career, I honestly don’t think that is what I was meant to do.  I still love solving mysteries, but now I love solving the mystery of how to teach kids that many think are unteachable.

Through this blog I hope to share some of my biggest “aha” moments I have had in teaching and living with a son with such a significant and profound disability.  Who knows, maybe there is a teacher or parent out there who will stumble across this and think, “Wow, that is a great idea.  I am going to try that.”  I can dream right?  For now my motto, “Just keep swimming” keeps me going and learning each day.