Surviving December in Special Education

I get it. All the other classes are putting on Christmas plays, assembling their own Polar Express train out of candy bars, and watching every Christmas movie ever made. You, on the other hand, are stuck in your classroom with students, who this time of the year, more than ever STRUGGLE. Our students thrive with regimented routines, and this time of year, even at home, that all seems to go out the window. And as the teacher, you are faced with more frequent and more intense meltdowns and behaviors that threaten to derail your best-laid plans.

Let’s face it, December is TOUGH. And, really nothing I can put on this page is going to make it magically smooth and peaceful. But, I can give you a few tips so you know you are not alone. It also gives you permission to not do what every other teacher may be doing this year. It is totally okay, and preferred, to keep things as normal as possible during this somewhat crazy time of year.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind.

1. Give yourself (and your students) some grace

Going into the month of December with the idea that you will do the best you can, and to accept the bumps in the road goes a long way in setting you in the best possible mind frame. It is okay if things do not run as smoothly as normal. A lot of this is out of your control. There are changes happening at home with the holiday season, that often results in our students being less tolerant and more excitable. Knowing you have students coming to you in the morning in this state, can help you mentally prepare for a more hectic day. Does that mean you should lower your expectations? I, personally, do NOT think so. We still hold our students to the highest of standards. Just do not abandon the entire lesson if you feel your students are not completely “with you.”

There is a lot of talk about mindset when it comes to students and helping them perform at their best. But, it works for us as well. Re-framing is a powerful tool I have recently discovered. When something happens that would normally really upset or anger me, I take a step back and ask myself “why did this just happen? Is there something I can learn from it? How can I just move past it?” See all the focus on what I can do? Don’t focus on why a person did what they did to upset you. You can only control how you feel, your reaction, and your actions moving forward. It is not easy, but trust me, with purposeful intention, this has amazing power to restore peace and positivity to your life.

2. Talk with your parents

During the holiday season, we all try to be respectful of each other’s traditions and celebrations. However, when you teach in a classroom filled with students who have significant communication challenges, it can be difficult to figure out how they celebrate the holidays at home. So, I suggest, going right to the source and ask the parents. You can even send them home a quick form to fill out. I even have one you can download HERE that is editable, so you can tweak it to best fit your needs.

3. Keep you regular schedule (as much as possible)

This is probably a no brainer to many of you. But, trust me, you will be tempted to spice it up and maybe even go a little easy this time of year. Some of you may be in a classroom with students who can handle having class outside as a special treat, or have the regular schedule abandoned for a fun holiday time. And yes, your students can still learn a lot in these scenarios. But, for most of us, this just is not possible. I am here to say it is OKAY to keep doing math at 10:00 and social studies after lunch. It will be so tempting to join in all the fun extra-curricular activities, but if your students cannot handle that much change it is totally, 100% OKAY to just keep doing what you always do.

4. Add the holiday fun stuff into your regular lessons

Does all this mean your students cannot experience any of the fun holiday traditions? Of course not. But, you do need to be mindful of how you weave them into your math, spelling, science and even social studies lessons. Try to keep the subject topic the same if possible, and weave in holiday symbols or connections. For example, if you are studying the scientific method in science, you could find an experiment using candy canes that would totally reinforce what you are learning. But, if you are doing cells, then perhaps you want to find a way to build a model of a cell using holiday candy or supplies.

Luckily, special education teachers are great at things like this. We can tweak just about anything to fit a format our students can not only access but learn from.

I have a great spelling activity for Christmas that you can grab for free in my store. Just click HERE to head over and download it.

5. Spend time focusing on social skills

The holidays heavily revolve around social situations. Many of these situations our students may truly struggle with. This is the perfect time to work on some of those.

Here is a list of some skills to consider addressing:

  1. Exchanging gifts
  2. Opening gifts (I have a blog post with a free download related to this topic!! Read more HERE.)
  3. Saying thank you (even if you don’t like your gift)
  4. Going Christmas caroling
  5. Having to give up your bedroom for family who is visiting
  6. Visiting friends and family
  7. How to say no-thank you to a food you don’t like
  8. How to pass food at the table
  9. What to do if it gets too loud
  10. Where to go if you need some quiet time
  11. Appropriate holiday greetings
  12. Understanding some things are not yours (I have a FREE social story on this in my store, click HERE)
  13. To hug or not hug a family member; is it okay to say “no?” (the answer is always yes!!)
  14. Personal space with friends and family
  15. How to deal with changes in routine/schedule
  16. When things change at the last minute
  17. How to act appropriately in public spaces
  18. Visiting Santa (if young enough)
  19. Staying with others and other public safety concerns
  20. Telling others you need a break

Surviving the holidays is not easy for any of us, but it comes with a different set of challenges for our students with communication, sensory, and behavior challenges. It can also be a challenging time for family members who may not be used to interacting with these special kids. But, with a lot of understanding, preparation, and education we can all have a better holiday.

One last gift for you… Download this free social story on Surviving the Holidays to share with your students or send home to your parents. Just click the button below.

A Free Gratitude Challenge

If you are a special education teacher or parent, and you are looking for ways to deepen your kids’ understanding of gratitude, then join my 10 day Gratitude Challenge.

I have 24 different activities you can do with your kids that were developed specifically for students with autism and special learning needs. Sign up by clicking HERE.

Sign up HERE

After you sign up, you will get the Bingo board and the directions for each activity. Then, over the course of the next 10 days, you will get some emails with downloads, links, and book suggestions to keep you motivated to finish the challenge.

In addition, if you sign up BEFORE November 24, you will be entered into a raffle to win some awesome prizes that will be perfect for December. So, sign up now by clicking HERE. (If you are finding this post after November 24, 2019 you can still sign up and you will get the board and all the rest of the materials you will need to complete the entire gratitude challenge.)

Watch this short video to learn even more about this exciting and free opportunity to make a difference in the lives of your kids or students.

Join now. Sign up HERE.

Teaching about Veterans Day in special education

On November 11 we celebrate Veterans Day. For most classrooms, this is an important, but not so challenging holiday to address. But, as with all things in special education, we need to take a different approach. We cannot assume our students have the previous knowledge, or even vocabulary to fully appreciate the meaning of this day. So, how can you go about making sure your students fully understand and appreciate the importance of Veterans Day? Let’s take a closer look. At the end of this post, I have a writing prompt you can download for free to use with your students on November 11.

1. Examine the history

I like to make sure my students have an appreciation of where traditions and celebrations came from. This is also true for Veterans day. Of course, I like to make a book. It doesn’t have to be super fancy, and it should be at the reading and comprehension level of your students.

If making a book does not fit with your time frame, how about a video? A quick search on YouTube will bring up lots of short video options that will teach your students about the history of this holiday.

Here are some good ones I found:


2. Address the vocabulary

Many of your students may not understand what a veteran truly is. It is a word that may be unfamiliar and hold little to no meaning for them. For this reason, I decided to create a whole second book to deepen their understanding of the word veteran. I knew this would also benefit me when it came to teaching about Memorial day in May.

Don’t forget a vocabulary board! These are so valuable. Once you and your students get used to using them, you will feel lost without it. A vocabulary board is simply a set of picture symbols that relate directly to the topic you are teaching. Students can then use those symbols in class discussions, activities, and even assessments. Don’t be fooled into thinking your students don’t need them or are too advanced. When learning new information, we want to remove as many barriers as possible, and communication is a big one for this population. Struggling to find the right word when asking or answering a question is quickly eliminated with the use of a vocabulary board. If you put the time in once, you can use them year after year.

This is also the perfect time to get a student’s family involved. Perhaps there is someone in their family who is a veteran. That familiarity will help deepen the student’s understanding of this word and how it impacts them personally. I came up with an easy family involvement activity that was very popular with my students. All you have to do, is just reach out and ask parents if there is a veteran in the family they would like to have honored in a classroom ceremony. Parents will hopefully talk about this with their child, and then send in a star with that family member’s name and picture of possible. All of those stars will end up decorating your classroom door the first half on November.

Family Involvement Activity

3. Reinforce with lots of activities

We all know our students need a lot of repetition (preferably with variety) to fully master new material. There was no way my students could learn and remember everything I wanted them to about this holiday with only one day’s worth of lessons.

First, I reinforced the content of the books I had written through allowing students to “take notes” on the important points. Since most of my students were non-readers, and almost none of them could write legibly, I found circle maps, using pictures, was the best way for them to independently record this information. I always had 2 versions available. One circle map would be errorless. Students just needed to cut out the pictures and place them in the circle. The other circle map had wrong answers (or distractors) mixed in. This was perfect for my older and higher level students.

Circle map

I like to integrate a theme into as many subjects as possible to help students with generalization. So, we did some patterns in math that used common picture symbols from unit.

Simple pattern worksheets

I also wanted to reinforce calendar and number skills. So simply being able to find the correct date (November 11) on a calendar was a perfect addition to my lesson plan.

Color in the correct date

I am not always a big “arts and craft” person, but we did add some to this unit, and my kiddos loved doing them. I had one for my students who were able to cut and paste on their own, and one for students who could not.

easier art project

By now, you know I love writing prompts. They are an errorless way for students to freely communicate something they have learned about the material. You can get this writing prompt for free by clicking the button below.

Writing prompt, download below

4. Assessment

Preassesesment was hopefully the very first step in your process. I love giving my assessment to students prior to starting a unit. That way, not only do I have a clear understanding of what they know, but I also have a way to measure their growth. This unit was short, so I opted for a simple close worksheet. It worked great.

Assessment: close worksheet

I truly believe with this format, your students will not only have some cute artwork to take home, but will have a deeper and more personal connection to this holiday. Of course you can get my entire unit on Veterans Day. Just click HERE to check it out.

Download here

Teach Recess

In elementary school, recess is an important and critical part of the day. Students can move around, fill their sensory “buckets” and reset for the remainder of the day. But, for some students recess can be a very stressful time. Perhaps there is the issue of social anxiety, and not knowing how to read their peers’ cues. Or maybe, a student feels isolated and alone as he or she sits and watches other students play all around them. Then there is the whole issue of the equipment. How do you use it? What are the rules? And why can’t I hang upside down when it makes me feel so good?

These are all common issues many special education teachers face and are aware of. However, few are really sure how to approach helping their students make the most of their recess time. Not every situation is the same, but here are some things that really helped me when I was in an elementary setting when it came to dealing with issues surrounding recess.

Be sure to scroll down to get a free Venn Diagram that will help you teach rules and procedures when it comes to safety on the playground.

1. Be intentional

When it comes to helping your students make the most of their time on the playground, we need to be very intentional with our approach. What does that mean? First, it means we need to have a good understanding of where our students are and what they are going to need help with. That means doing lots of observing. It also is helpful to talk with previous teachers to get a better picture of what was happening last year. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Did the student participate in recess with their peers in regular education classrooms, or did he/she have recess just with their special education class?
  • Were they with other students who were the same age, or did they go at a time when there were younger/older students on the playground?
  • Are there any physical limitations or challenges you need to be aware of? Talking with your occupational and physical therapists can be super helpful here.
  • What does he/she enjoy most about the playground? Parents can be very helpful with this as well. Do they take their child to the playground after school hours? What do they find is most enjoyable?
  • Does the student understand safety concerns when it comes to the space and equipment? Are they a runner?
  • Does the student prefer to play alone or with others?
  • Is there special equipment, toys, or activities you can take with you to make it more enjoyable?
  • Does the student use a communication device, and if so does it go on the playground with them?

None of these questions should come with any judgement at all. It is simply information gathering. I would never want another teacher or parent to feel like maybe they were doing something wrong. I just want to get a clear picture of the starting point.

So once you have this baseline information (and there are so many more questions you could and should ask), you can start making a plan that is very intentional. It can address certain areas you feel need focus, while building on and utilizing those strengths your student already has. Let’s look at how we can do that.

2. Practice, practice, practice

I found that many of my new students had no idea HOW to use the equipment, so they often never tried. Instead, they would sift wood chips through their fingers or spin an empty swing around for the entire time we were out there. Too often, I would hear remarks like, “This is their time. Just let Joey do what he wants.” And, I am all for giving students plenty of freedom when it comes to recess, but sometimes Joey is spinning a swing because he has no idea what he is supposed to do.

Reading visual cues from other students is often a skill our students lack. Just because 20 other students are in line to go down the big slide, does not mean our students will necessarily notice that and join the line. And what is the best and least intrusive way to help them? You do not necessarily want to be going up to Joey with a picture schedule of what to do at recess. So what are we supposed to do???

Practice!! I would set up certain times throughout the day where just my class would go out to an empty playground and practice what we are “supposed to do” at recess. Because this was a teaching time, I made it clear that we would be following some rules and preparing our bodies to have the most fun possible at recess. I did NOT call this time recess. Depending on the age and language level of your students, you could call it: playground practice, strength training, even follow the leader.

The important thing with this practice is that we want to create some muscle memory. That means we need to do things in a very specific way that is repeated time and time again. After a while, students will be more comfortable with a typical recess routine because it will just feel natural to their bodies.

3. Add some visual and physical cues

I have a blog post all about how to set up a structured walk. You can read that HERE. But, the idea is to take something that is often abstract when it comes to duration and expectations and add some visual structure to make it clear: 1. how long this will last, 2. what I will be doing, and 3. what will happen next. We can do this with recess as well.

This is also where all that practice time comes into play. I would not do this while other students are on the playground. This is done with a small group (preferably just your class) and follows a precise pattern of activities.

Look at the layout of your playground. Almost every playground I have ever been to has pieces of equipment that is super popular with the kids, and some that is rarely used. Focus on those popular pieces. We are wanting our students to engage with their peers on a more natural level, and that will not happen if our kids are on the balance beam all by themselves, and the rest of the kids are spinning on the merry-go-round.

Once you have identified those few (3-5 at most) popular pieces of equipment then gather some beanbags or other object that are easy to see and carry. Place a bean bag at each location. Students then go from one piece of equipment to the other retrieving a bean bag. To make this even more effective, I would use several at some locations. For example, I had a bean bag at the bottom of the stairs going up the slide. Then, I placed one on the top of the slide, peeking out so kids could see if from the ground. Finally, I would put one at the bottom of the slide. You can even number these if your students are able to utilize that skill. Students would gather all 3 bean bags as they went up the ladder and then down the slide. I am not going to lie, this took a lot of patience and a lot of practice, but once students understood the goal, it was worth it. I could begin removing some of the bean bags, and students would still use the piece of equipment as designed.

Here are the key things to remember:

  1. Always use the same objects
  2. Always go in the same order
  3. Have a designated place, person or container to place the bean bags
  4. Keep it short and focused
  5. Do not do this with other peers on the playground

4. Address the safety rules and other procedures

Most playgrounds seem to have a list of rules that kids and adults are supposed to follow, and it is posted somewhere (not always obvious) on the playground. However, I am willing to bet only first time moms ever see it or bother to read it. That means we need to take some time in our instructional planning to address the rules and procedures on the playground. Of course, a social story is my favorite way to do this along with some practice activities.

I find photos really help students visualize what we are talking about. Of course adding in your own photos using your playground and your students is even better if you have the time and capability.

I think repeating the information in as many formats as possible can be incredibly helpful with generalization. That is why I like to put the same information in the book with photos into a black and white booklet using picture symbols that the students can color and personalize.

Finally, adding some cut and paste or circling activities is a good way for you to assess if students understand the information when presented in a quiet, low distraction environment.

I created the Venn Diagram below just for this blog post. It compares and contrasts student behaviors on the playground vs the classroom. It you would like a FREE copy of this activity, just click the button below.

Get this activity FREE by clicking the button below

5. Identify a safe place

I learned this one the hard way, and hope to help you learn from my mistakes. Sometimes our students know what they are supposed to do. They do their absolute best. But, there are times they simply get too overwhelmed. It is a great idea to identify with your students during that outside practice time as well as in your classroom rules and procedures teaching time where a safe place they could go when feeling overwhelmed and need a break. It could be a tree, a bench, or maybe you even take an object like a safety cone with you to recess. Place the cone in a location other students will not bother it, but is consistent and easy to access for your students. Explain to your kids, that if they need help or just need a break, then go to the safe place and a teacher will come help them. This fosters independence and learning the valuable skill of asking for help.

So, there you go!! Recess in 5 not-so-easy steps. But boy is it worth it.

  1. Be intentional and get some background information
  2. Practice, practice, practice
  3. Use visual cues
  4. Teach rules and procedures in a safe place with minimal distractions
  5. Identify a safe place

If, after all of this work, Joey still is sifting wood chips through his fingers or Sally is spinning the swing in circles, at least you know that is their CHOICE and not because he/she has no idea what to do at recess.

Grab my complete social story unit on: What to do at Recess by clicking HERE.

Download this unit HERE

Novels that teach timely lessons for today’s youth

I am such a lover of books. One of my favorite things to do is to curl up with a great book and a cup of my favorite tea. So, obviously, I want to pass on that love to my students.

I have written a few blog posts about my feelings on the importance of reading novels to your students regardless of their ability to comprehend all of the story. If you missed them, check these related posts here after you read this one and grab the free downloads.

  • Reading novels to a low incidence class <click HERE>
  • Not your average novel study <click HERE>
  • Why I don’t create adapted novels <click HERE>

I get so many requests for novel units from teachers who are discovering that reading the same novels their general education peers are using is not only possible but engaging for their students. Some of the requests lately have been from books I had never read before. And, as I dove into these new stories, I was amazed at how the subjects are so timely for experiences many of our kids are facing today. I applaud all the teachers out there who are leaving some of the classics behind in favor of titles that will not only get kids excited about reading, but allow them to connect on a more personal level. Let’s look at a few so you can see what I mean.


Restart, by Gordon Korman, was such a great book, especially for boys. It has football, athletes, jocks, and all those things middle school boys live for. It is a story about a boy, Chase, who was once the star quarterback and a truly terrifying bully. In short, he was NOT a nice person. Then, one night, he falls off the roof at his home and develops amnesia. All of a sudden, because Chase can’t remember the bully he once was and has a second chance to be a good guy. But, then he struggles with the memories of who he used to be as his memory slowly returns. Finally, he must come to grips with the reality of some pretty awful things he did before the accident, and how he treated other students and people in his community.

I love this book. First of all, because we need more books that appeal to boys, and this one definitely does. Second, it also takes a very honest and raw look at the devastating effects of bullying. Finally, the idea that it is never too late to start over, is so appealing that it makes you stop and think “what if I did something different starting tomorrow?” If you teach middle school, then absolutely put Restart on your reading list. 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan was another novel requested by a teacher, and I dove into it this summer. This is the story of a young girl, Esperanza, who was living a privileged life on her family’s ranch in Mexico. But after a family tragedy, Esperanza and her mother are forced to flee to California. This story takes place during the Great Depression, and Esperanza’s life of luxury is quickly replaced by one of a poor migrant worker. Her struggle to see herself in this new role and understand the change in her family’s status takes us into the darker world of migrant workers here in the United States. But, in the end, she learns what and who is really important and necessary to make a person happy.

I loved this book because I read it at a time when the news was filled with what felt like anger and hate for people not born here in the United States. It seems like we have forgotten how our country was literally built, on the backs of immigrants, many of whom were unwilling slaves. In this book, Esperanza has to face the reality that she is now an outsider and looked down upon by most people in the neighboring communities. Undoubtedly, you will have students in your class you are dealing with some of these same feelings. On top of that, the fact that the main character was a girl just made me feel even sadder and more discouraged at how we can treat people who are different. Again, if you teach middle school or even high school, and teaching about immigration is in your curriculum, Esperanza Rising is a great book to use to ease into this emotionally charged topic. 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The War with Grandpa

I actually just finished the novel unit for The War with Grandpa by Robert Kimmel Smith. This story, seemingly funny on the surface, takes a hard look at a common situation families are faced with today: having an aged parent (or grandparent) come and live with the family. Peter has to give up his room to his grandpa, and he is so upset about it, he declares war and engages in battles to try and force his grandpa to give up the bedroom.

How many of your students are finding themselves in this situation? An aging relative not only comes to live with them, but might actually end up taking over their bedroom. I think this is an important conversation to have, and one that may be easier for a kid to have with a teacher than a parent. I like how this story is good at identifying feelings. Yes, Peter says he feels really bad about the tricks he is playing on his grandpa, but, as Peter says,” this is war.” If you teach students in elementary or middle school The War with Grandpa is a good one to talk about some challenging family issues. 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


So, I would be totally remiss if I did not talk about Wonder, by RJ Palacio. I got so many requests for this novel unit!! It is the perfect story to teach kindness to all students. Most of you know already, but if you don’t, Wonder is about a boy named Auggie, who has a significant facial deformity. He suffers through many surgeries and health problems, but finally enters the school system in fifth grade. His struggle to find acceptance and true friends is portrayed in a realistic way, that often makes your heart hurt. But, in the end, it all turns out okay with one of those tear jerking moments of triumph.

The edition I happened to get out of the library had a bonus section with a chapter from Julian’s, the antagonist, point of view. I found this chapter to be especially insightful because it shows you how you never know the struggles others may be facing. It also deals with the issue of a hidden disability. This chapter really gave a lot more depth and meaning to the story for me. I wrote a blog post about it with a bunch of extra activities you can download for free. Read it HERE. Wonder is a must read if you are looking to teach your students about kindness. 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Number the Stars

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is my last review for this post. This is the story of a young girl, Annemarie, living in Denmark during World War 2. Her fear and struggle with the imminent Nazi invasion, makes this novel a perfect companion to your social studies curriculum focusing on European history or World War 2.

The main reason I am including this novel, even though it may not feel timely, is that I wanted to make sure you knew you could get this COMPLETE novel unit for free in the resource library. So, if you are on the fence about doing a novel unit with your students, then here is a risk free way to try it out. Plus, it is a truly important story and one students will be able to identify with. 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

If you have not joined the resource library yet, then click HERE to get the password. If you have, but did not know this was there, then click the Resource Library tab a the top of this page and look under the ELA section.

To access these novel units in my store, then click below:

  • Restart <click HERE>
  • Esperanza Rising <click HERE>
  • The War with Grandpa <click HERE>
  • Wonder <click HERE>
  • Number the Stars (in the library for free!! click HERE to get the password)

Adding music to your lessons to increase engagement and recall

Remember when you were a kid, and School House Rock would come on? I still remember the basics of how a bill becomes a law thanks to that catchy tune.

With technology today, it is even easier to add music either with or without video to many of your lessons. And, if you teach in a special education setting this is not only a powerful tool for increasing engagement and recall, but it can be a great tool for minimizing problematic behaviors.

Let’s look at some best practices when it comes to adding music to your daily lesson plans in a special education setting.

Then be sure to download the list at the end of this post that has over 175 links to songs on YouTube organized by topic to use in your own classroom!!

1.  Plan to play the song as soon as most students are sitting at the table.

I always found it challenging to get everyone settled for a group lesson after gathering from different places and activities in the room.  I would start the song as soon as most or all of the students were seated. 

This had three main advantages.  First, it encouraged the stragglers to hurry up and get to the table.  All of my students LOVED the songs, and no one wanted to miss it.  Second, it gave them a couple of minutes to get those wiggles out and settle their bodies.  Third, it gave me time to make sure I had everything I needed for the lesson ready to go.

So, playing the song as the actual first activity in my lesson was a constant.  As soon as the song was over, we would jump into the book and then the activities.  This consistency was so incredibly helpful and was such a reinforcing way to start the lesson.

2.  Use manipulatives if you can.

If I could easily come up with some sort of manipulative for the students to use WITH the song, then it was even better.  For example, when we sang our alphabet song, every student had a simple ABC chart.  They would point to each letter as we sang.  Either I or my assistant would be modeling this behavior for them.  

In math, when we did the money song, I had printed off pictures of the money for them to point to. So, here is the thing if you have not already figured it out.  Don’t make the manipulatives too distracting.  Using real or play money would have been way too over stimulating when combined with the music.  I know, I tried it.  For almost all the songs, I had a simple “song board” I could use. 

Sometimes, the manipulatives were our hands.  We would do certain hand movements if called for in the song.  And then, sometimes, I just didn’t have anything, and it still worked just fine.

3.  Use age appropriate music

You all know this is a soap box of mine.  Does that mean you cannot sing in middle or high school?  NO!!!  Look at this video about the Reconstruction: 

I think that is pretty cool for older kids.  Plus, if you choose to just play the music without the video (which is how I chose to do it) then it is even easier to find things appropriate for older students.

Music transcends all ages, so there is a lot of leeway here for sure.  Just do the best you can.

4.  Be mindful of the tempo you choose.

I found that some songs just ended up winding my kids up way too much.  It takes a little while to dial in exactly what you can and cannot use with your students, but it won’t take long for you to identify what not to use. 

5.  Technology to use.

Well, things have changed A LOT since I was in the classroom as far as technology.  I was limited to an actual CD player and CDs.  Luckily, being in an elementary school, I begged and borrowed tons of CDs from the regular ed teachers.  Today, I would choose a totally different route.

If you have a smart phone, I would consider investing in a small portable speaker that would connect via Bluetooth.  This is the one I use at home and it was inexpensive on Amazon.

That way you can connect right to YouTube from your phone and play the song.  Again, using the video component of the song is not always necessary, and in some cases can be too distracting.

So, what should you NOT do?

The biggest mistake I made, and saw others make when it came to music, was trying to use it as a cue it was time to transition.  In other words, the students would all be doing different things in different locations, and you go up to the CD player and hit “play.”  The idea is the music starts and all the students go to check their schedules and move onto the next activity.  Ugh, this NEVER worked for me.  Inevitably, there would be dancing all around the room and craziness.  I needed to have them sitting BEFORE starting the music.

The other problem was not making your expectations simple and clear.  You need to teach this strategy for it to really work.  That means lots of practice with consistent clear procedures.  For example, you need to decide what you will do it a student decides to get up and dance at that table.  Oh yeah, that happened in the beginning, A LOT!!  You could use a visual cue card to sit down.  If that does not work, simply try turning off the music until the student is sitting back down.  The only problem with that strategy is that I had several students over the years who became quite distressed if a song was stopped unexpectedly in the middle.  (My son was one of them.  I have spent probably hours sitting in the car in the garage waiting for his favorite Johnny Cash song to end.)  So, you have to play with this a little, and come up with something that can consistent and effective. 

Just remember, this is not like a magic wand.  As with any strategy it takes time and teaching.  But once they understand, it can be one of the most effective classroom management strategies in your toolbox.

To get you started, I spent hours on YouTube looking for some appropriate songs that would go with many common subjects taught in Math, ELA, Science, and Social Studies. I have assembled over 175 links in this spreadsheet that will serve as an awesome quick reference. Download it for free by clicking the button below.

Teaching about fall in all subjects all day long

Today is September 23, the first day of fall here in the Northern Hemisphere. I know many of you are planning lessons to teach about the season of fall. Here are some ways you can weave this into all of your subject areas (with some free downloads to use as well!!!

1. ELA

When I think about an English/language arts lesson, one of my favorite activities comes to mind… writing prompts. There are SO MANY things you can get your students writing about when it comes to fall. I like to make my prompts errorless, so students have the freedom to create their own story, and there are no wrong answers.

I just re-did my Fall Unit in my store on TPT and, yes, it now includes a writing prompt. Go check out that unit HERE.

2. Literacy

Oh my, there are so many great books out there with a Fall theme. If you are looking for books on apples, then check out one of my favorite bloggers, Storie who has a great post with tons of apple books for kids. Click HERE to see her complete list.

Another great list of books, all on fall, comes from Rhythms of Play. Click HERE to see that complete list of Fall books.

I have the perfect literacy unit for fall on The Lonely Scarecrow in my store. Click HERE to check it out. It has lots of activities, a craft and a social story on Feeling Lonely.

3. Math

So many things you can count that are fall-themed. You could count acorns, leaves, pine cones and more. Have you download my FREE count and color fall leaves worksheet in the free resource library? Click HERE if you need the password. Click HERE if you already know it 😊. Just look under the science section.

One thing I really like to do is to make things as versatile as possible. I want to be able to use things over and over and with many different students who have many different needs. This is especially true if I am going to go to the trouble of printing something in color, then laminating it AND adding Velcro.

I created these free fall counting cards that you can download by clicking the button below. They are so versatile, and can be used in so many different ways. Just take a sneak peak at this short video to learn more, and then download your free set!!

4. Science

Of course, you will be teaching about Fall in your science block. This is an easy one if you have the right materials. I recently went back and totally redid my unit on Fall in my store. It has 7 days worth of packed plans to keep your students busy. Click HERE to check it out. Be sure to watch the video preview to see how it all is laid out.

5. Social Studies

This is becoming one of my favorite subjects to explore and research. So, my mind immediately went to how I could incorporate fall into my social studies lessons. Geography was the obvious choice!! As I said in the first sentence, we are starting the season of Fall here in the Northern Hemisphere. But, I know I have followers from all over the world. Also, not many students may understand what or where the Northern Hemisphere is. It would be nice for our students to realize that people are experiencing not only different weather around the world, but also different seasons.

I do cover the idea of season more in depth for older students in my unit on Seasons. Click HERE to check that out. But, I wanted to give you all something to use right now.

So, be sure to download this map and have students identify the 2 hemispheres and the current season in each. Just click the button below.

I hope this has given you some ideas of how you can teach fall in all subjects all day long. There is so much we can dive into with each season!!

One final note…. Have you been getting my emails for Free Worksheet Wednesday?? This week, I have yet another Fall worksheet that will show up in your inbox at 6:00 am EST Wednesday morning. So, if you are not on my list, then be sure to sign up HERE.

Free Worksheet Wednesday

I’ve been creating resources for special education teachers for a long time. I started on teacherspayteachers back in August 2012. At first, it was just a hobby and a way to share some of the things I had created and were working so effectively in my own classroom. It was fun, but certainly not my primary focus.

Then in 2014, my family made a big move from NC to PA. At first, I had planned to continue teaching and transfer my license once we were settled. But, my son who was 18 at the time, had a more difficult time with the transition than we were prepared for. I soon realized that I was going to need to be home to help him more. But, I missed the classroom and working with other students. I needed a way to feel connected and still important in the world of special education. So, I re-focused my efforts on my TPT store, Special Needs for Special Kids.

I spent the next 5 years fully immersed in creating resources that would engage and support students like my son, intellectually and behaviorally challenged. Jimmy was my tester of all things. I would have him try to complete the activities, watch for difficulties or lack of interest, and make some tweaks. I watched my store grow from 75 resources to now almost 450.

Over the years, I have interacted with hundreds of teachers through email and text. I have watched their excitement grow as they realize how having the right tools can make your job not only easier but so much more exciting and rewarding. I am so thankful to all of these teachers who have reached out to share their experiences with me. It kept me connected and feeling like I still had something of value to add.

I am always looking for ways to do more, give more, offer more in the way of free resources. I try to offer something of value here on my blog every Monday, and I know that has impacted many of you in a big way. But, sometimes teachers need something QUICK and EASY. Sometimes you just need a worksheet. And, how much better if it is a FREE one????

So, every Wednesday, I will be sending out a free worksheet to all of my email subscribers at 6:00 am EST. Hopefully, it is something you can download before school, print off, and have ready to go that day. So far, I have been overwhelmed with simple thank you’s and emails with a smile emoji.

I don’t want anyone to miss out!! So, if you want to get on the list and get a free worksheet every Wednesday morning that you can pull out and use that day, then sign up HERE.

If you missed out, here is the one I gave away last week. Click HERE.

Get this free circle map HERE.

What’s coming this week? Here is a hint… September 21 is International Peace Day. Something I think we could all take a minute to think about…

I don’t want anyone to miss out!! So, if you want to get on the list and get a free worksheet every Wednesday morning that you can pull out and use that day, then sign up HERE.

Thank you for all your support over the years. I feel like I have a network of teachers that literally stretches around the world.

Teaching about the Constitution in a special education classroom

September 17 is Constitution Day. If you teach in a special education classroom, especially if you teach students with truly significant challenges, you may be at a loss about how to teach this material. You may even be asking yourself IF you should even bother teaching about this topic.

Woman thinking

If you are asking yourself IF you should even bother teaching about the Constitution, then the answer is YES. If other students in the school are expected to learn about the Constitution, then your students deserve the same opportunity to learn how this important document shapes everything about our government and who we are as a democratic country.

American flag

So, once you decide to tackle this challenging content with your students, many of whom may not even be able to read, the next question is HOW. That is what this post is about. HOW to teach your students, even those with significant intellectual disabilities, about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So, let’s dive in…

US Constitution

1. Finding appropriate information

Let’s face it, once you leave elementary school, it can be very challenging to find text books and other printed material that your students can access in a meaningful way. That means we often are left modifying resources provided to us by our administrations, or we are supporting students so heavily that they are not truly engaging with the content we are using.

Unfortunately, the best option can be a time-consuming one: writing our own books. It is critical that we start with a resource that can build that foundation of basic knowledge we can then start to build upon.

No worries, I have you covered on this one. You can download this book I wrote on the Constitution for FREE by clicking the button below. In the unit I created, I actually have challenging and easy versions for this book. (Below is the example of easier version.)

2. Building vocabulary

As we introduce this new content on the Constitution, there are so many new words that our students may have never been exposed to. Focusing specifically on new vocabulary should be an intentional part of your lesson. Once you identify the vocabulary words you want to focus on, be sure to read my blog post about 10 activities you can do with those words to help students practice them in engaging and effective ways. Click HERE to read that post.

Vocabulary cards for Constitution unit

3. Making it visual

Another crucial step in teaching about something like the Constitution, is to make it as visual as possible. I am a big fan of circle maps as a way to organize material so students can quickly look at all the facts and see how they are all related and support the main topic. You can choose to make it errorless by including only correct answers, or mix in wrong answers to make it a little more challenging for high level students. Just be careful… this is NEW content for many of your students, and even though you may think they are ready for a non-errorless option, it may not be the case. It may take a few days or weeks of repetition before the students are able to discern correct vs incorrect choices.

Circle map on the Constitution

Another good visual tool when teaching about the Constitution, and specifically The Bill of Rights, is to have students do collages. This is very similar to the idea of a circle map, but just in a different visual format. Using different materials is one way to increase the likelihood the material you are teaching will generalize and deepen the student’s understanding.

First amendment collage

4. Adding movement when possible

All students like to get up and move around the classroom. In a special education setting, having kids moving around can sometimes lead to problem behaviors. So, I like to make this as purposeful and clear as possible. Timelines are a great activity to use when teaching about the Constitution, and it gets kids up and moving around.

1786 Timeline card:  Alexander Hamilton calls for a meeting to discuss a new law.

I do have timeline cards included in the unit I created, but if you are doing this on your own, it does not have to be that fancy. Simply writing the number of the amendment on a large piece of Construction paper and the date is was passed is all you need. Students take a card and then they position themselves in the correct order in the front of the room.

14th Amendment timeline card

For even more structure, tape a small index card on the floor for each amendment so students know exactly where to stand. By the end of your time teaching about the Constitution, you will probably be able to remove these small reminder cards.

Finally, read my blog post all about how to use timelines most effectively as part of your lesson. Click HERE. It is a great way for kids to access the information in a more interactive way.

5. Assessing what students have learned

After all the work you put into teaching about the Constitution, surely you want to know how much, if any, material your students have learned. Doing a formal assessment, however, starts on DAY 1.

Before you ever start teaching about the Constitution, you need to give every student a pre-assessment. I recommend using the same assessment you will be using at the end of unit. This way, you will know exactly how much growth your students have had over the course of the last few weeks.

And, there is one other great benefit to doing a pre-assessment. By giving a pre-assessment, it forces you to create the assessment before you even start teaching. Why does this help? If you are planning a trip, the route you take is based on where you are now AND where you want to go. If you are not clear on exactly what you want your students to learn, then you risk teaching a lot of disconnected facts that never create a full picture. So, take the time to make an assessment BEFORE you start teaching about the Constitution, and administer that to your students as a pre-assessment tool before you begin to teach a single thing.

assessment on the Constitution

I hope this has inspired you to create your own unit on the Constitution. I have done the heavy lifting for you by providing you with the book you can base all the rest of your activities on.

But, if you are still stretched for time, and just want the complete unit, then be sure to grab my complete unit from my TPT store. You can click HERE to check it out. There are over 200 pages of material, including 2 weeks of lesson plans. Wouldn’t it be nice to just have the right tools for once? Let me help you claim back some more time, and make your lesson planning a little bit easier.

Why your students should never maximize their potential

In 2000, a new swimmer emerged in the sports world named Michael Phelps. He qualified for the Olympic games in Sydney and was the youngest American male swimmer to do so in almost 70 years. Although he did not win a medal, it would be obvious to think this young swimmer had potentially maximized his potential. But we all know better.

Michael Phelps went on to swim in 4 more olympic games, winning a total of 23 gold medals, 3 silver medals, and 2 bronze. After each Olympics it would be so easy to think, NOW he has gone as far as he can. Michael Phelps has maximized his potential. But the more he won, the more he competed, the more he swam, the better he got. His potential grew with him.

Thank goodness no one ever gave Michael Phelps a goal of winning 5 gold medals as his maximum potential. Think of all that would have been lost.

That is exactly how we need to think of our students. I was one of those parents (and teachers) who would say I just want to maximize my students’ (son’s) potential. What I was really saying was that I wanted them to do MORE than what they were currently doing. I wanted to challenge them to go further and support them on that journey.

But, I now realize that phrase, “maximize their potential” can be a dangerous one in special education. We all have good intentions when we say it, but are we really meaning that we KNOW what the student’s potential truly is? How is that possible? I don’t think it is.

As we expose our students to more rigorous materials, regardless of their challenges, we open up new doors and often tap into unknown skills. We are providing students with the stepping stones they need to go farther than we had imagined. If we do it right, their potential is limitless. And, you cannot maximize something that is limitless.

So, the next time you are in an IEP meeting, and you hear that phrase, “maximize their potential,” I challenge you to push back. We cannot possibly know a student’s potential, and it we try to define it, we are potentially crippling them from achieving something more, maybe even greatness.

Teaching math in high school in a special education classroom

More and more I hear teachers tell me they are being expected to teach higher level math concepts to their high school students. Topics like functions, linear equations, geometry, coordinate graphing, and even advanced algebra are all requests I have gotten over the last few months. The sad reality is that these teachers are rarely given anything more than a list of standards to follow. Why? There is just very little material out there to support students with significant disabilities in the middle and high school range. So what are you to do?

In this post, I want to give you some concrete, actionable tips to use and remember before jumping into these more advanced math topics. More importantly, I want you to see it is possible with the right tools and support, even your most affected students can work through these standards and gain some knowledge and understanding that may benefit them in the future. And, of course, I will have some free downloads for you to try if you still are not convinced.

1. Pre-requisite skills

Ok, let’s face it, most of the topics I mentioned above have a laundry list of pre-requisite math skills a student would need to have in order to be successful. In addition, 99% of the students coming into high school just do not have them. It is a tough conundrum to solve for sure. But, there is a simple solution, have a mind shift about what those pre-requisite skills really are.

You will never, ever be able to go back and teach all the math skills necessary to solve a linear function equation. But that does not mean you cannot still teach your students how to complete a simple function table. And, if you can get them to do that, they are right on the precipice of solving a linear equation.

Meet your students WHERE THEY ARE. Rather than trying to go back and teach all the skills they never were exposed to or never learned, figure out how to use the skills they do have to teach them this material. Sounds impossible? Let’s take functions as an example.

So here is the standard: F.IF.1c Identify the input or output of a function given in table form. (see the complete standards for this unit HERE) A standard function table may look like this:

But what if you could make it look like this:

And not only that, what if you used actual objects and a real-life function machine. (I made this one while in the classroom, and used it for so many things. The kids loved it. CLICK HERE) With enough practice and creativity, many of your students will start to understand the input/output concept.

Still struggling, try moving away from quantities and leveraging those skills they do have. Like this table:

Function table with colors

As special ed teachers we are so good at thinking outside of the box!! Even with these more advanced standards we just need to get even more creative. Be sure to download my free set of function worksheets at the end of this post.

2. Vocabulary

As we introduce these higher level concepts, I find it so helpful to take a step back and really focus on vocabulary. As much as possible, I would encourage you to use the REAL words. Do not make up cute replacements that you think will be easier for students to remember. Instead, use simple pictures to pair with these curriculum based words.

Functions vocabulary cards.

I know so many students who have learned very sophisticated words for items that are highly desirable to them. Since most, if not all, of this content will be new let’s just start off with the correct vocabulary.

Play games, practice daily, and be consistent with your use of words and symbols to deepen their understanding of this new and challenging material.

3. Real world examples

This one is probably fairly obvious to many of you. When you start on a new topic, try to relate it to items and processes your students are already familiar with.

A snack machine is really just a function machine.

Again, we may need to think outside of the box but it makes such a difference. Google searches were my best friend when trying to come up with ideas for some of these more advanced units. There is so much out there, it just takes some time to hunt it down.

4. Repetition and re-teaching

So, if you have followed my blog for any time or purchased any of my resources, you know how I feel about repetition. It is absolutely crucial and should never be taken for granted. When I create these high level units, I not only make tons of worksheets (probably way more than is necessary), but I also strongly encourage teachers to use them more than once.

This is likely a brand new skill, and it will take many, many, many trials to master. Now, I do like to add some variation to the mix. Change up the objects, the quantities, the colors, even just changing the font all adds to the variety and increases the likelihood of generalization. So, repetition with variety is HUGE!!

How much time to spend on re-teaching? That is a question that can be hard to answer. If your students just do really horrible on the assessment, then I would definitely go back and re-teach for at least a week. But, here is the key: if you give the assessment BEFORE starting the topic as a pre-assessment, then you have a much better idea if there was any growth. I would often have students who only got 3 out of 10 correct on the assessment. Sounds awful right? But, they had only 1 correct on the pre-assessment. Guess what?! That is 200% growth. Without that pre-assessment piece I might feel really discouraged and spend way too much time re-teaching. How much growth is enough? Only you can decide that.

5. Using pictures

So as you saw in the function table example, you can insert pictures in the place of numbers and letters as much as possible. A program I used, Hands on Equations, did a great job of this. (You can see a YouTube video about that HERE.)

Compare these two worksheets:

You may have some students than can complete this function table with the numbers. But, more likely, you have students who are not even able to read much above a 1st – 2nd grade level. Could they do the worksheet with pictures? Same exact problem, just less pre-requisite knowledge needed. I know they would need support of course, but you are more likely to make some connections and gain some independence with the second worksheet.

Hopefully, by now I have inspired you to try it. At the very least, I hope I have eased that sense of panic you may have had as your administrator handed you these “new” standards that had to be addressed. It is absolutely possible!! And, if you still feel like you have no way to put all that together, I have you covered!! I have lots of advanced math units in my store ready to download, print, and go. Use your energy on the teaching rather than the creating. Click HERE to see all the units I have specifically for middle and high school.

Now, about that free download. Just click the button below to grab my set of function table worksheet. Then, watch your email for some more function freebies!!

Free function table download using pictures in place of numbers.
Grab these FREE below

Take a look a this video that covers my Functions and Linear Equations Unit. Get it now, click HERE.

Get this unit HERE

5 ways to make a big impact as you head back to school in a special ed classroom

Some teachers are so excited to head back to school. Some teachers are nervous or even feeling overwhelmed. Most of us have been in both of these places at some point or other. The important thing is to start your school year off with some quick wins that can make a big impact in your classroom. This will give you the motivation and momentum you need to make this the best school year ever.

Here are 5 ways you can make a big impact easily in your classroom this year. Be sure to grab the free downloads as you go through!!

1. Set up a structured walk

I wrote a blog post about this technique a few years ago. You can read about it HERE. I cannot tell you how much this helped my students learn how to behave in the hallway and other areas of the school.

Transitioning between classrooms and walking down the hall, can be a challenge for some of our students.  And, most of our kiddos need LOTS of practice doing something in order to master the activity or expectations.  That is why I came up with the idea of structured walks.

Structured walks are set up so there is a clear purpose to activity and there is a defined end point. It is super simple to set up.

Structured walks are very similar to scavenger hunts with the difference that you are leading the class on specific paths through the school.  Students are not just walking around looking for hidden symbols.  They are walking in a line with the class in a calm and quiet manner (which will come with time.)

The other difference is that these symbols are NOT hidden.  They are clearly affixed in obvious locations. Read about all the specifics in my earlier blog post (HERE) and download this free set up symbols to use by clicking the button below.

2. Use music as a transition strategy

Yes, I also wrote a blog post about this a few years ago as well. You can read more HERE. But, this was such a powerful tool, and so simple, I wanted to repeat it here.

I mainly did small group teaching in my mixed grade level classroom. That meant I was trying to get 5-8 kids all to the same table at the same time from various locations with very little help. I used picture symbols for most of the schedules, so after cuing students with a check schedule card, they would all start gathering at the group table.

All that movement was often the start of some behavioral challenges. Students were fidgety, and often reluctant to sit in a chair. So, I would ALWAYS start the lesson with a song. If is was a math lesson, I used a math song. If is was a science lesson, I would find a science themed song. (Basically you can find anything on YouTube.)

I would start the song as soon as everyone was at the table. This would give the students about 2 minutes to settle down, and gave me some time to gather up all my materials (and thoughts) for that lesson. I found music to be so calming and the students loved it.

3. Creating an IEP calendar

So many dates to keep up with. It drove me crazy, and I had a small caseload compared to my friends who were either resource or inclusion teachers. Either way, dates are a pain to remember, but critically important!!

I kept a totally separate calendar to note all my IEP dates. This included:

  • annual reviews
  • re-evaluations
  • transition plans
  • inclusion timelines

It seems so simple, but going through and making a clear schedule of upcoming meetings for the entire school year truly is worth the time and effort.

4. Meeting with enhancement teachers

Before the start of school, I found it incredibly helpful to sit down and talk with the enhancement teachers. These are the teachers who will have your students for things like: PE, music, art, library, or maybe even a foreign language.

Do not assume these teachers will have the tools or knowledge on how to make their lessons meaningful or even successful for your students. Especially if you teach in a classroom with students who have truly significant needs, this can be even more intimidating for these teachers.

Share your strategies with them, but keep it SIMPLE. Do not overwhelm these teachers with elaborate behavior plans and modification strategies. If you keep it simple and in plain language, they are more likely to do their best to try your suggestions.

5. Determine the best schedule level for each student

I know it is so tempting to want to just go with one schedule type for every student in your class. Unfortunately, it is unlikely all of your students will be ready for pictures, symbols, or words. You also don’t want to keep those student back from using a more mature schedule like a checklist simply because it is easier to have everyone using symbols.

When we think of schedules, we typically think about:

  • Objects
  • Photos
  • Picture symbols
  • Single words
  • Phrases/simple sentences

If you can get an idea ahead of time what each student will need, you can get all prepped. Otherwise, you just have to make a best guess and then do some observation to see if you need to move up or down a level.

Object schedules can be the most challenging to set up, so I have included a free download here of some common objects you can easily use when setting up a schedule. Just click the button below.

So, this year plan to make a big impact with these 5 simple strategies:
  1. Plan to set up a structured walk
  2. Use music as a transition strategy
  3. Set up an calendar with IEP dates
  4. Meet with enhancement teachers
  5. Determine which schedule levels you will need

A new look at a back to school favorite: The Kissing Hand

The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn, has been a long time favorite story to use for back to school. Especially for our younger students who deal with separation anxiety, often for the first time, this story helps teachers talk with students about their feelings. I loved using this story. But, in a special education classroom, we often have students who are with us for many years and were not as excited to hear this story by year 3. Sometimes, even the best stories can get stale. So, I wanted to share with you a new approach to this favorite story.

At the end of this post, be sure to download the free sorting activity add a new twist to this back to school story.

As our students come back to school, they are faced with many changes. Our students with social and emotional challenges can often find these changes more challenging than other students do. That brings me to the first new way to look at this story:

Dealing with Change

Photo of change ahead

The bravery of this little raccoon is the perfect way to address constructive ways students can deal with change and the emotions that come with it. Of course social stories are a natural fit, but also adding related activities to explore further ways students can deal with the stress are also important.

Pull out the resources you may already have on dealing with change, and work them into your literacy lessons focused on The Kissing Hand. Social stories, circle maps, sorting appropriate and less appropriate ways to deal with your emotions, and power cards are all great ways to teach students on how to deal with change. (To read more about using power cards, visit my blog post on how to use them HERE.)

A Nonfiction Study

photo of raccoon

I know it is the doctor (veterinarian) in me, but I love exposing students to nonfiction studies on different animals. That is why I chose to put together a short unit on raccoons to use with this story. Often, our students have an easier time comprehending nonfiction content.

Raccoons actually play an important role in our ecosystem. They are masters at adapting to the extreme changes humans make to the environment. Due to the fear of rabies, raccoons have earned a reputation of a potential hazard. Although they certainly can carry this disease, it is not nearly as common as people fear. More often than not when a raccoon gets too close to a home or populated area (like a campground,) they are simply foraging for food.

If you do not want to take the time to put together an entire unit on raccoons, look for some National Geographic or other wildlife magazines that feature raccoons. In the past, I have even just quickly printed out some google images to pass around and share with the students.

If you would like to grab this sorting activity I created to go with my Kissing Hand unit, click the button below. It contains photos of real animals, some of which are raccoons and some that are not. There are also some great suggestions for differentiating this activity even more if needed.

Free raccoon/no raccoon sorting activity
Click the button below

I hope this has inspired you to breathe new life into an old favorite. Yes, I still made the heart in the hand craft every year. But, these additions made the story seem new and fresh to my students who had been with my for a few years.

If you would like to check out my entire unit on the Kissing Hand. CLICK HERE

Kissing Hand Literacy Unit
How to teach spelling in special education

Teaching spelling in a self-contained classroom

Teaching students to spell in a classroom that often contains multiple grade levels and multiple learning levels can be a challenge. You have some students who are non-readers, some who are just emerging with their reading skills, and then you may have a few who read at a level that is just 1-2 years behind. It can really be a challenge to take one resource and make it fit for everyone. Let me share how I envision this happening.

At the end of this post, you can download a COMPLETE spelling unit for FREE.

For your non-readers

There are a lot of activities you can do with the activities that come in many spelling units that will work for your non-readers.

You can make any activity into an identical matching task by simply making 2 copies. So, if the purpose was to sort -ack vs -ap words, these students can take one copy, cut out the sorting pictures and match them on the second copy.

Sorting task turned into a identical matching task in a spelling unit.

You can also use color coding to provide that additional level of visual structure your non-readers need to complete the activity independently. When doing a word-picture match activity, outline the word (or box) and matching picture the same color. That way, the task becomes a color matching task using the same materials the other students are using.

Adding color coding to a word to picture matching task from spelling unit.

Finally, make the activity errorless. This is something I have come to realize many teachers have come to expect and appreciate and now comes in many of my units. For the circle map displaying -ack words, only give students correct answers to choose from to place in the circle map. If you use my units, I provide this as a choice, so there is no need to eliminate wrong answers. Simply choose the errorless version for those students who need it.

Errorless circle map for spelling unit.

For your emerging readers

Well, this one is easy. This is the group of students who are the target for this type of unit. These are all the activities you will find in this unit, perfect for your emerging readers:

  • Circle map
  • Sorting activity
  • Photo-picture matching
  • Word-word matching
  • Word-picture matching
  • Circle the correct spelling
  • Fill in the missing letters
  • Choose the best work to finish the sentence
  • Writing prompt
  • Quiz

For your more advanced readers

This group of students are usually beyond the easy spelling lists and units that other students are using (or so you may think). But, you can use the same list and create some extension activities to build more skills using the same resource.

Here are some activities you can do with your more advanced students:

  • Go through magazines to make a collage describing the word, synonyms, and maybe even antonyms
  • Have then make a small dictionary for each list (either let them look up words on the computer and copy definitions, or you could type them up and let them cut and paste them
  • Use the words in a novel sentence
  • Remove the picture choices from the activities, so students have to come up with on their own:
    • words to complete the circle map
    • sorting words
    • words for picture matching

If you visit my Free Resource Library (click here), you will be able to download some extension activities for the unit below that is perfect those more advanced students.

(Don’t have the password? Click here to sign up)

Ready to start spelling with your students? Grab this complete spelling unit on -at words for free. Just click the button below.

The First Men on the Moon

This weekend as I was trying to decide what to add to my free resource library, I was watching all the coverage on the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. So, I knew I wanted to do something to honor those brave men, and give students in a special education setting the ability to connect with this historical event.

So, I sat down and did some research and wrote a short story about this special moment in history that I thought students with significant challenges could understand and appreciate. You can see a video preview below and download the book for free.

This brings me to the topic for this particular blog post. I want to share how I go about writing the books that go with my units, and is the same method I used for writing this book on the Apollo 11 landing. That way, you too, can write your own stories to supplement your lessons and content this year.

1. Do research

This is always my first step. Even when I feel I know the content fairly well, I like to do some research. I spend a few hours, or even an entire day, searching and reading about the topic. I like to add the qualifier “for kids” when I am doing google searches. For example, if I am researching about evolution (my current project), I would use the search terms, “evolution facts for kids.” That way, I tend to get back results that highlight the most important things to know in simple terms.

Once I have combed through all those results, I like to do some reading without the “for kids” qualifier. I find it helps me get a deeper understanding of the material. I may not use much of this content in the finished product, but it is important for me to truly comprehend the content.

The very last thing I like to do is watch some YouTube videos if I can find them. When I was in the classroom, I did this to help me find some appropriate ones to show the students. Now that I am no longer in the classroom, I still search and watch them because I find it is just one more way for me to assimilate all the information. If I can watch a video and feel like, “oh, yeah I totally get this,” then I know I have researched the topic enough.

2. Take notes

So, as I am researching, I am taking TONS of notes. I am a paper and pen person. I have my favorite pen and yellow legal pad that gets me inspired and ready to tackle even the toughest subject.

When I say I take a lot of notes, I mean A LOT. I paraphrase and rewrite things in my own words that I know will work with my students. I am taking notes on the main points and supporting details. Honestly, much of what I write, I don’t always use. But I like to have a lot of material to choose from and reference while writing.

You may also notice that I highlight certain words. I like to create vocabulary lists to go with the books I write. So as I am taking notes, I am highlighting any words I think are 1) important to the content and 2) may be unfamiliar to the students.

3. Write the story

I know this may be intimidating for many people, but this is my favorite part of the entire unit. The beauty of doing so much research, is that the information gets totally saturated in my brain. So, when I sit down to write the story, it just flows out naturally. I do refer back to my notes a lot, but the sequence and flow of information is easy for me to put into words.

It is critical to think about the students who will be reading your story. I keep the sentence structure super simple. If at all possible, I stay away from big words. I tend to use words like “great” rather than “distinguished.” I also try to only have 2-3 sentences at most on each page. Focus on the BIG picture.

5. Add photos

The last part is finding some engaging photos to go with the story. I like to use because they have tons of free photos. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of diversity there, so I do find I sometimes have to purchase a photo from another source. But, if at all possible, I try to find something that will work on pixabay.

I hope by sharing my process it will inspire you to write your own story to go with your curriculum content. Most textbooks are just not going to work for our students, but they still need access to the material. This is a GREAT way to help your students make deeper connections to the information.

Here is the book I wrote to celebrate the Apollo 11 landing 50 years ago. You can download the actual book below.

Click below to download the book.

If you would like more information on the moon, check out these units I have below:

The Earth, Sun, and Moon Unit (CLICK HERE)

The Moon Unit (CLICK HERE)

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 Reinforcers

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!! ( 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:

Download the resources below by clicking the button.