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