It's true, back to school time is coming quick! If you are a special education teacher or teach in an inclusive classroom, read on to hear about my favorite necessities for a special ed-friendly classroom! Over the past few years of teaching as a special education teacher in inclusive classrooms, I've developed a list of must-haves that I cannot go without. Many would argue that these items really benefit all students, not just those with disabilities, so even if you don't currently teach any students with IEPs, hopefully you can find some items on this list to add to your back-to-school arsenal!
Must-Have #1: Visuals, visuals, and more visuals!
Arguably the most important item to have in a special education classroom is a wide variety of visuals. Many students with disabilities are visual learners, and benefit from seeing written or spoken information in visual form. Here are some examples of visuals that I use in my classroom:
Must-Have #2: Timers!
Another favorite of mine, timers not only help my students manage time but they help me stay on track as well! Students with anxiety, autism, ADD/ADHD and general executive functioning difficulties have a very hard time understanding the passage of time throughout the school day. Incorporating timers can help them grasp how much time they have to complete a task and how much time they have before the next activity. For students with work avoidance issues, setting a timer for a small amount of time can be a great way to get them to do a reasonable amount of work. For students who struggle to start or complete a task, a 'beat the clock' competition-type game can be just the thing to get them going. I love using 'Time Timers' in the classroom and use the miniature ones for individual students. I also love using online-stopwatch.com for a whole class timer.
Must-Have #3: Calming Tools and Sensory Materials
Every special education teacher needs a toolbox of items to help students calm down and relax in times of distress or during scheduled sensory breaks during the day. See my previous post about my Calming Kit for more ideas!
Must-Have #4: Dry Erase Boards
Just about every teacher has a stash of personal dry erase boards in their classrooms, but I have found them especially helpful for some of my special education students. They provide a great way to quickly draw a visual representation of something, a method for non-verbal students to communicate, and a larger space for students to work out problems. I had a student with autism this past year who absolutely REFUSED to write an essay on paper, but the second I offered him to write it on a whiteboard (which I then took a picture of, to have an assessment) he was all about it!
Must-Have #5: Positive Notes
For so many students with emotional/behavioral-related disabilities (and all students in general!) much of the work of teaching comes in building a relationship. I use 'positive notes' throughout the year to provide a little extra praise and encouragement for my students. I attached a free template below for you to use in your classroom! I am amazed by how many students save these notes all year--especially the ones who act like they despise me :)
Must-Have #6: Wiggle Seats (or other alternative seating)
Again, this is another item that has lately become popular for the general population, not just special education students. However, the flexible seating movement is nothing new. For years, special educators have used alternative seating methods for students with ADD/ADHD, autism, sensory disorders, or other difficulties sitting in traditional desks. I use wiggle seats the most in my classroom, but have also used folding chairs, butterfly chairs, pillows, yoga mats, etc. Giving students a choice, with clear expectations, is a surefire way to ensure that they are more engaged.
Must-Have #7: Data Charts Galore
Ahh, data. Don't we all just love data?! Special education teachers are constantly needing to take data on various student behaviors and skills and need to have charts o' plenty at the ready. I like to keep a binder of data charts handy, separated by tabs for individual students and skills. See below for a free ABC (antecedent-behavior-consequence) chart perfect for analyzing patterns in student behaviors!
Must-Have #8: Manipulatives
It's always essential for special education students to have easy access to multiple ways of accessing information. For many students with learning difficulties, hands-on/tactile representations of concepts come much more easily. Manipulatives for math include counting blocks, number tiles, place value charts, beads, abacus, number lines, dice, dominoes, base ten blocks. etc. I also love using manipulatives for literacy, such as 'finger lights' for tracking text, highlighting strips for visual discrimination, whisper phones, highlighters, and sticky notes.
Must-Have #9: Calm Lighting
Another great tool for students with autism or anxiety that really benefits all students (and the teacher!) is calm lighting. Sitting under harsh florescent lights all day can be very overstimulating for students who are light-sensitive, and let's face it, no one likes florescent lights! Try turning the lights off and letting the sunlight shine in through the windows. Supplement natural light with floor and desk lamps and string lights for a much more calming classroom environment.
Must-Have #10: Board Games
Unfortunately, many students in special education have learned to dislike school because it hasn't fit the way that they learn. Help students break out of this anti-school rut by making learning fun! Board games are a great way to reinforce math and reading skills, and teach essential social skills. They also provide a great opportunities for teachers or paraprofessionals to bond one-on-one with more challenging students, and game time can also be used as a reinforcer for a student completing a task. Some of my favorites include Guess Who, Uno, and Jenga.
I hope this list gave you some ideas as you prepare to head back to school! Special education teachers--I would love to hear what other items you consider must-haves! Please share in the comments!
Have you ever heard that quote, "You cannot pour from an empty cup, fill your own first"? Up until recently, I didn't buy it. I believed that as an educator, taking care of myself first was just an expected part of my job description. I would lay awake in bed at night worrying about my students, stay at school getting projects and tasks done until 7pm, and return home to quickly eat dinner while grading papers until bedtime. Sound familiar? I thought I was doing everything I needed to do to keep my head above water as a teacher, and I felt that taking time for myself was selfish. And then it hit me--going to school sleep deprived, anxious and unhappy was hurting more than just me, it was hurting my students. I had less energy to plan engaging activities, implement proactive behavior management, and build relationships with my students.
So there's no more denying it, taking care of myself is an essential part of my responsibility as an educator. Investing in my own well being has made me both a happier person and a stronger teacher. Read below for a few strategies and tips that have worked for me!
Tip #1: Develop morning and evening routines that make you happy
I think that it's safe to say that as teachers we are naturally creatures of habit. Working some habits and routines into your life is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety and take some guesswork out of your day. I find that as a special education teacher, my days at school are highly unpredictable, so having a morning and evening routine keeps me sane. I picked 2-3 non-negotiables routine items that bring me happiness and relaxation that I work into my morning and my evening. In the morning, I have gotten myself into the habit of waking up early enough to make time for some brief stretching, a comforting breakfast, and enjoying my cup of coffee while watching the news. Before bed, I take 2 minutes to jot down three things I'm grateful for, do a few minutes of meditation, and read a chapter of a book. Again, I chose these tasks because they make me feel happy, calm and relaxed. You know what works best for you, and I encourage you to make a list of tasks that bring you happiness, and try narrowing down this list to 2-3 morning and evening routine items.
Tip #2: Set limits on your out-of-school work
Okay, okay. I know this is WAY easier said than done. As a special education teacher teaching multiple grade levels in an urban school, I often feel like I am drowning in IEP paperwork, don't have a second to breathe during the day, and have piles of grading and planning to do every night. But if you think about it, the work really will never be done. As teachers, we are constantly coming up with new ideas, being met with new challenges and deadlines, and being asked to do more than we can handle. I suggest writing out a schedule each week or day, and blocking off a certain amount of time outside of school to complete work. Think about your body's energy and what time of day is best for you be most efficient. If you find yourself falling into a black hole of venting and gossip (not healthy!) with other teachers after school, get into school an hour early instead and leave as early as you can. Or maybe you want to co-plan with another teacher 3 days per week after school--try holding each other accountable and making sure you both only work for one hour. This past year I even set an alarm on my phone at 5pm each day saying "leave school!". Start my setting small limits on the amount of time you'll dedicate to school work. Remember that your students will benefit more from a teacher who is well-rested, relaxed and energized than a stressed-out, exhausted teacher who has everything "done".
Tip #3: Participate in #SelfCareSunday
So long, Sunday Scaries! This is a new discovery of mine that I absolutely LOVE. Social media can be overwhelming at times but can also be a fantastic resource for ideas and inspirations--as all teachers know well. I've been following the hashtag #SelfCareSunday and seeing what people all over the world are doing to nourish and care for themselves has inspired me to make intentional self care a more deliberate priority. I even went to Target this summer to stock up on some items that make me happy to put into a "Self Care Kit" for when I am feeling particularly depleted or anxious. My kit includes some lavender essential oil, delicious smelling candle, face masks, luxurious body wash and lotion, chamomile tea, and Justin's chocolate peanut butter cups. I stashed it under my bed so it's not an everyday indulgence, but something special I can look forward to once a week. I think Sunday is a great time to invest in self care, being that it tends to be a day full of nerves and anxiety going into the week. Take some time to love and care for yourself instead of devoting all of your energy to overthinking the week ahead.
Stay tuned for more posts about some other anxiety-relieving routines that have helped me become a better teacher and a happier person, such as gratitude journaling and meditation. In the meantime, I hope you take some time to invest in and care for yourself!
What do you do to care for yourself? I would love to hear in the comments!