The one activity you should add to your small group lessons

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

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

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

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

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

So what was it?

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

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

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

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

1. Using the communication mode of their choice

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

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

2. Allowing student to share a lot or a little

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

3. Asking for help

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

4. Reflecting back what they are saying

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

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

5. Rewarding any effort

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

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

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

STEM activities in a low incidence classroom

You see it everywhere, STEM activities and project based learning. But if you teach in a classroom with students who have significant intellectual, fine motor, gross motor, communication, and behavioral challenges, you may be thinking it isn’t for you. BUT, with the right support in place your students can participate in these activities in a meaningful way that will keep them engaged and excited about the material.

So, let’s think about the supports we can put in place:

  1. Visual structure
  2. Peer support
  3. Conducting the experiment
  4. Social/communication support
  5. Sharing the finished product

1. Visual support

As with most activities in classrooms that serve students with significant challenges, there is a heavy emphasis on adding visual structure as a main support. This can be challenging when it comes to using a main-streamed regular ed activity like a STEM activity. But, it can be done. And, after you do it once, it will be easier to repeat the process with similar tasks.

The first thing to do is to is add some structure when it comes to choosing supplies for the project. Take pictures or use symbols for the materials students will have to choose from.

2. Peer support

Forming teams of students is great opportunity to capitalize on certain strengths individual students have. Making sure there is a student with strong fine motor skills in each group is helpful. It is also good to balance communication skills and behavioral challenges.

In the end, it is always better to have another classmate or peer help a student with specific challenges than have an adult step in.

3. Conducting the experiment

So, here is the thing, doing STEM with these kiddos can get pretty interesting and messy. But, I really encourage you to let it flow and give students as much independence and control over the process as possible. Having an amazing looking product at the end that adults had a heavy hand in creating, means very little to the students or to the parents who are entrusting you to guide and support their kids.

If students are truly struggling, ask lots of questions. Give students many choices so they are able to control as much as possible the flow of the STEM activity. The end product may look NOTHING like you expected. But, really, it is so much more about the process then the end product.

Finally, the more you incorporate this type of activity into your lessons, the better your students will get at it. In the beginning, it may feel like they have not gotten much out of it at all. It may feel like it was lot of work for nothing. (I know. I was in that exact same spot for many months. But, by mid-year, I could look back and see definite growth.) By using the SAME format, students were able to master different parts every time. So, at first, I may have ended up with literally a pile of supplies with no obvious purpose. But with time, it started to slowly change into a more meaningful placement of materials in that pile, and eventually became something we could all recognize as a finished product.

4. Supporting social interactions

One of the best things about STEM activities is giving students a chance to collaborate and work together. This often does not happen naturally or unsupported in many of our classrooms. Luckily, with a few critical changes, you can support this interaction in a way that encourages independence and true social interactions.

I like to purposefully call them a team, and have students record their names as team members. This may seem overly simplistic or obvious, but in our classrooms, the team is often made up of, or led by, adults. This activity, as much as possible, is student led and student supported. So declaring them a “team” and having the students record that is surprisingly powerful.

The next thing is to give students some structure to recognize and evaluate any problems that come up in the process. By having a space to specifically record any problems, acknowledges that there are likely issues that will happen, and they will happen to almost every team.

5. Sharing their finished product

The last thing I feel is super important is giving students a chance to share with others their finished product and how the process went. Allowing students to use their communication mode of choice is powerful, and with the right support, you will see that twinkle in their eye that tells you it was all worth the extra effort.

Want to give it a try? Click on the button below to download a FREE STEM activity that comes from my Old Yeller Novel Unit. It pairs well with Chapter 10, as Travis tries to create a stretcher to pull Old Yeller behind his donkey, Jumper.

To download this free STEM activity click the button below.

To check out my novel unit on Old Yeller, click HERE.

Age Appropriate Activities and Reinforces

We have all been there.  We slip in that Barney video so we can catch our breath and give our students a much needed sensory break.  But have you wondered if there are other things you could try?  Is that Barney video really the best we can do?

So why is it important that we try to choose age appropriate materials for our students?

1. Save it for home

We should try to save those Barney videos for home.  I have a son who is 22 with significant disabilities, and he spends much of his time at home on his iPad watching Sesame Street videos.  When he was in school, he could not wait to get home and watch them, because he was not allowed to watch them while at school.  I was so thankful.  It made my life a lot easier at home. 

Plus, thanks to his teachers, I learned that he also liked some more age appropriate things like music videos and Scooby Doo.  (I know, still a bit of a stretch, but much better than Elmo and Big Bird.)  So, if we can leave the toys and young viewing material at home, it will make it easier on the parents, and we may uncover some new interests as well.

2. Be patient

Be patient. This does not happen over night.  Our students are often VERY attached to their reinforcers.  If you are lucky enough, you can start right from the beginning not having those as part of the school environment.  But, if this is a change you are looking to make after letting it slide for a few years, then realize it will take some planning and gradual fading away of those beloved favorites.  You can always start with an alternating system.  They choose, then you choose.  Or, you can set a timer for when it is time to switch.  However you plan to eliminate those reinforcers and activities that you feel are no longer appropriate, give yourself at least 4-6 weeks to see substantial progress. 

Don’t know where to start? I have put together a list of reinforcers categorized by age. It is a great tool to refer to when you have no idea what to try next.

Download it by clicking the button below.

3. Start early

Start early!!  If you teach in an elementary setting, think about starting to fade some of those preschool toys and activities by the time your students are entering third grade.  Many of us have classrooms with a large span of ages, so this is not always easy.  But, with careful planning and clear visual boundaries, you can start moving your older students away from those preschool favorites and start replacing them with more age appropriate choices.  Boy, will your middle and high school teachers thank you!!

So, what can you do right now?

Download the list below that has over 100 different ideas you can use for reinforcement in your classroom.   

Remember, why should we use age appropriate activities and reinforcers?

  1. It makes the less appropriate ones more powerful at home, which parents will thank you for.  Plus, you may find totally new things that excite your students.
  2. It will take some time and planning, so start early.
  3. If you teach in elementary school, start about grade 3.  That way when  your students get to middle and high school they will already have some more appropriate activities they enjoy during their down time.

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Figuring out HOW to teach in special education

Go back to that first day in your classroom with students.  Remember how excited you were?  You just knew you would make a difference.  You knew you could take your students who were often 3 or more grade levels behind and catch them up by the end of the school year.  After all, you spent 4 years in college learning all there was to know about how to teach students with special learning needs.  You had all the tools, and you could feel the excitement like electricity coursing through your veins.

Then the students started arriving.  Some walked in.  Some came in wheelchairs or walkers.  Some may have even come through the door like a ball of fire.  It felt like a lot, right off the bat.

You gave yourself some grace and time to get adjusted.  In your mind, you were thinking, okay 2 weeks, and I will get this running smoothly.  Then 2 weeks became 2 months in the blink of an eye, and you were completely, and utterly exhausted and disenchanted.

Sound familiar?

Since leaving the classroom, I have taken what I learned and used it to craft very specific resources for teachers to use in a self-contained, multi-grade level classroom.  My focus is that 1% population.   Those students who are the most severely impacted by their disability, and they are often all grouped together in the same classroom. 

So, here is the bottom line.  I have figured out the tools that work.  I have been creating them and providing them to teachers in my store on teacherspayteachers for more than 5 years.  But, just like in the classroom, I have come to realize that simply providing those tools to teachers is not enough. 

Teachers absolutely need those tools.  There is almost no content out there that is curriculum based for our severely impacted students.  Tons, and tons, and tons of file folder games… YES.  But not true curriculum.  Don’t get me wrong I LOVE file folder games as a tool, but not as a curriculum

So, here I am 5 years later asking “How can I help?”  And what I hear is:

  • I need more lesson plans
  • I don’t understand how to make this work
  • I love this unit, but I need more support

Thus, my idea for a community to support one another and teach the HOW was born.  I want teachers to walk into their classroom so excited to teach that day. I want them to wake up before their alarm, not hit the snooze button.  I want teachers to exude so much excitement for what they are about to teach, that it is literally contagious to the students and other adults in the classroom.

But for that to happen, I have to give them more than just tools.  I have to show them HOW to use the tools.  Let’s say someone gave you this tool:

They even told you the name, it is an extractor.  They told you it was a great tool and would make your life so much easier.  But, then they walked away, and you were left with this amazing new tool, an extractor, but had absolutely no idea how to use it.  Worthless right???

The same thing can happen when we find a really cool resource on google, or Pinterest, or even teacherspayteachers.  We think, oh my goodness, I love this.  This is perfect.  But, then you find yourself sitting in front of 5-10 kids, all with issues too difficult to name, and you have no idea how to make this amazing resource work for them.  No matter how great it seemed, it was a total waste of time and money.

So, as I start on this new journey, answering the question, “How can I help?” I heard you.  You have told me how much you struggle to maintain control of your classroom.  You have told me how your principal just does not understand what you are doing or why.  You have told me you are at the end of your rope. 

I now realize that just giving you more tools is not the answer.  You need to understand the HOW.  And not just how for a few kids.  You need to understand HOW to use these resources for a wide range of learning levels and challenges.

Do I have all the answers?  I wish I could say you bet.  Just sign up, and I will tell you all you need to know.  But, I know we are all smarter than that.  Every student is unique.  Every challenge feels new.  So, I may not have all the answers, but I do promise to figure it out with you.

As we build a community of teachers with the same passion and interests, we can all work together to support one another and find that best path through the chaos. 

So, let me be your guide.  Let me be the person who can provide not only the tools, but the instruction manual as well.  So when someone gives you a tool like that extractor, you will know it is just the right thing for pulling those pesky weeds out our your garden and yard.

Click on the button below to come on a journey with me, as I explore creating an instruction manual for teachers, so the tools I create are more powerful and can make more of an impact for our students.

But don’t wait, membership is only open for a short time, several times a year, and I wouldn’t want you to miss out.

10 ways to use the same circle map in a group lesson

Working smarter, not harder is what we are talking about today. We all know we need to meet our students where they are, and allow them to work as independently as possible. But, that often seems like an insurmountable task, that will take us hours of prep time.

But, what if it didn’t have to be that way?

What if you could take the exact same resource, and with some quick tweaks with crayons, markers, and scissors, you had 10 different ways to use the same activity with your diverse group of students? Let me show you how!!

1. Circle map with no pictures

So, this is for your highest level learners. They often do not even need pictures or prompts to complete their work. They are good readers, and are able to write and spell out common words found in the lesson. So, for this student, you simply hand him the circle map but no pictures. Ask him to fill in as many details as he can from the story to support the main idea. Will he likely look around at the pictures his classmates have? Sure. But that is okay. He is completing the activity at a level that is appropriate for his learning level and, most importantly, is doing it totally independently.

2. Circle map with wrong answers mixed in

This is the next level. This one is for students who can discern what does and does not relate to the main point, but definitely does require the support of pictures.

3. Circle map with wrong answers mixed in plus outlining with color

Again, this is for students who can handle wrong answers mixed in, but needs a little more support. I outline the correct answers in green and the wrong answers in red. You can also put an X through the incorrect answers.

4. Circle map with wrong answers mixed in plus coloring it in

This just adds a little more support for those students who can handle the wrong answers being mixed in. This time, instead of just outlining the correct and wrong answers, I actually outline them AND color them in. As an added bonus tip, this is so easy to fade to just using outlines.

5. Errorless circle map

So in this case, you are providing ONLY correct answers to the student. Every picture gets cuts out and goes in the circle map. It still serves as a great review tool, and the student did it all on her own!

6. Errorless (or not!!) circle map with pictures cut out

We often have students who truly struggle with fine motor skills. The process of cutting out pictures is very difficult and uses a lot of concentration. That concentration could often better be used (in this case) to actually create the circle map. And, here is the beauty. If you remove the stress of cutting out pictures, some students can totally handle the wrong answers being mixed in. Bottom line, we are not assessing the ability to cut in this activity. We are creating a visual map of the main points of the lesson.

7. Circle map with enlarged pictures

Okay, I know this may take an extra step. BUT, if you email me that you need enlarged picture choices (as some of you have), I will do that no problem and email them right back to you!! (specialneedsforspecialkids@gmail.com) This activity is perfect for our students who have the most significant fine motor struggles or loss of that ability all together. Again, the goal of this activity is to determine 1) if students understand what the main points of the lesson were, and 2) create a visual map of those main points for review. So, if your student is truly incapable of cutting, pasting, or writing, then simply hold up 2 choices and ask which goes in the map. Using their communication method of choice, they should be able to tell you which picture relates to thecircle map. Of course, you can ALWAYS simply eliminate the wrong answers and make it an errorless task. Either way, the STUDENT is telling you which pictures to use in the circle map.

8. Circle map using photos

This one can be a little tricky AND may require a little more work. Some students are just not ready for images, and need photos, you replace the images with photos and you have not only the perfect activity for THIS learning level, but an additional activity all of your students can benefit from.

9. Circle map using color only

If you teach in a multi-grade level classroom, then you often have very young students participating in the same lesson as your older students. Let’s say you are doing a lesson on the Civil War, but you have kindergarten students sitting in the group as well. You read the story to the whole group. Everyone can benefit from hearing the story. When it comes to the circle map activity, for your very young learners, go back to the color coding option. Heavily color in the correct answers as well as the center image of the circle map. Students are then doing a circle map of all the yellow answers. The content, which may be above their grade level, is irrelevant. BUT, the color matching task is not.

10. Circle map with objects

So I add this as a last option, because I know it can be really difficult to find the objects you need. I know, I tried this many, many times with my students. But, if you have students that are truly significantly impaired, and need a more tactile way to complete the activity, then using objects is always a good choice. Unfortunately, it is not always practical, and I realize that. I found using a hula hoop, or even just a box to put the items in made it more likely the student could complete what I was asking independently.

So there you have it. One circle map used in 10 ways. And most of them took very little if any extra prep time. The goal of course is to increase independence of our students, but it is more than that. By using one activity for ALL of your students:

  • Saves you time
  • Saves you frustration
  • Helps eliminate overwhelm
  • Increases engagement for your students
  • Increases your excitement
  • Saves you money

Want to try it? Click on the link below to download my book on the Civil War and accompanying circle maps. Then, use it with your students. ALL of your students. Email me a picture and comments on how if worked out, and I will send you the rest of my Civil War unit for FREE. How can you lose? Email me at: specialneedsforspecialkids@gmail.com

Download the resources below by clicking the button.

Why I don’t use (or create) adapted novels

So, as I enter this summer I have told many of my followers that my primary focus will be creating more novel units. These are some of my favorite resources to make, and they have become one of my biggest source of requests and downloads. So, many of those I have lined up, will adress those popular requests.

However, one request, I am NOT doing is to create some adapted novels. By that I mean, rewrite the novel in a simple, easy to read format that still conveys the main idea, but in a style and language our students can better connect with. Let me tell you why, I don’t do these. (Then I will tell you where you can download a COMPLETE novel unit for free.)

Source of value

First, I actually DO think adapted novels provide value and get our students excited about reading. IF done well, they can even help build an appreciation for good literature and what these famous authors were crafting with their classics. The key word there is IF.

I think it is really difficult to re-write something like The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton in a way that truly honors the author and mirrors that talent. And to be honest, I am not that good of a writer. So, I don’t try.

I am sure there are some sellers and authors out there, however, who are able to rewrite these classics in a way that rings true to what the author intended. But, just be cautious, and make sure they really do that. Giving our students watered down resources can start to lower that bar of high expectations.

Only you can decided if an adapted novel you find is right for your students. Trust your instincts. I have trusted mine, and choose not to create them myself.

Raising the bar

So, let’s talk about those high expectations. If you use my resources on teacherspayteachers than, you know I strive to create material that is respectful, appropriate, and raises the bar for our students. Novel units are the PERFECT way to do this.

Assuming your students won’t get the meaning without even trying, is simply a silly (and often dangerous) precedent. Many times our students have much stronger receptive language skills than expressive skills. In other words, they understand a lot of the language they hear and process, even if they are unable to convey that in a verbal manner. Playing to this strength and providing rigorous and engaging content is critical to helping them succeed.

Comprehension is not always the point

I have said this before in relation to other topics, but sometimes it is not always about the content and more about the behavior and building some foundational skills.

For example, teaching students to sit quietly while someone/teacher is reading out loud is a critical skill. There will be so many times in a student’s life where they need to sit or wait quietly while adults are talking. Often, the subject matter may not even be relevant to them, or be of any interest. But, being able to sit and wait until that conversation is over is a great skill to have.

Listening to a novel unit in the classroom is a great way to start. I have another blog post, where I give you tips and suggestions on how to decrease a student’s anxiety and undesirable behaviors about sitting and waiting for an unknown amount of time. Read about it HERE. I used these methods A LOT, and they really, really worked.

A sign of respect

Finally, I feel very strongly that reading the novel aloud, unchanged, is one of the best ways to show respect to the person who wrote it. To write and publish a book is such an amazing feat. I want to honor that effort by reading aloud the words they wrote.

It has always amazed me (and I have heard the EXACT same thing from many of you) that my students were often riveted by the words I was reading out loud. Perhaps it was the sound of my voice, perhaps it was the cadence of the words, but they loved it. In all my years of teaching, I never had a student who did not come to appreciate this part of our day (although some required a lot more structure and direct teaching of expectations than others.)

One last thing before I tell you where to find that free novel unit…

I have one other blog post with even more tips and free samples when it comes to reading novels as part of your daily lesson plans. You can read HERE about why my novel units are different than others. And why, even if your students are non-readers or significantly challenged, they can still participate and be actively engaged in completing these novel units.

So, if you want to give it a try, then head over to my Free Resource Library where you can download my complete novel unit on Number the Stars by Lois Lowery. Free Resource Library Password