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!
Do you use a 'calming kit' or 'calming caddy' in your classroom? Or maybe a 'calming corner'? I teach in an inclusive 4th/5th grade classroom and I first started using these tools for particular students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders, but they've come in handy for many students in the general education population as well! Front-loading explicit instruction early in the year about recognizing and managing emotions will save you a ton of time and stress later in the year. Teaching students to be in control of their own emotions is a skill they will need throughout their entire life, and having a few tools handy in the classroom helps them develop this essential skill.
I was at Target today browsing the Dollar Spot and noticed a lot of items that would make a great 'calming caddy' for students who need to calm down in the classroom. I keep mine in the corner of the room tucked away, near a carpeted area with pillows for students who need a break.
What I would add to this:
These Dollar Spot items are a good start, but I would probably add a few more things to appeal to the senses. Something that can be scented with calming essential oils (lavender and eucalyptus are great) such as playdough or Theraputty would be very calming for many students. I also like to include a therapeutic brush which I have found to be calming for many of my students. For students who are sensitive to sound, I include a pair of noise canceling headphones. Sometimes kids just need a break from the sensory overload that school often gives them! If you have access to an old iPod or even a Discman (!) that you can pre-load with some calming music or guided meditations, that would be even better! I also add some visuals that I have created to guide students through the calming process. I laminate them and put them in a binder that I keep next to the caddy, along with a dry erase marker. You can download them for FREE at the bottom of this post!
Calming Caddy Must-Do's:
With any classroom strategy or tool comes the need for some explicit teaching at the beginning. Discuss the purpose and expectations of the calming kit to your students -- these items are tools not toys. This may look different from classroom to classroom. You may want your whole class to have access to this, or just a few students. If the latter is true, be sure to create a plan for how to discuss it with these students and the rest of the class. Clearly model to your students how to use the items in the kit and the consequences for misusing the items. The last thing you want is Theraputty getting smeared all over the carpet and walls by a student in a fit of rage. You'll want to establish, model, and practice clear calming kit routines, such as how to signal a need to access the calming kit, how to take out and put away the materials, and volume and time expectations. Again, this will look different from classroom to classroom. Because I teach in a classroom with 30 students, I set the expectation of a whisper volume and 5 minutes maximum with the calming kit (add a dollar store timer to the kit)!
How do you help students learn to self-calm in your classroom? What else would you add to this kit? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!
There's no doubt that 'mindfulness' has become a buzzword in education today. Some may call it a trend, waiting for it to fizzle out. But the more I have studied, researched, read and practiced, the more I have become convinced that mindfulness is the missing piece in many of our public schools. As I began reading articles about the effects of mindfulness in schools, I became more interested and curious about starting this practice in my own classroom. I came across study after study showing the short and longterm effects of mindfulness on students' emotional regulation, self-awareness, and response to stress.
When I started to implement "mindful minutes" in my classroom, one thing became strikingly clear to me: I couldn't expect my students to practice mindfulness if I hadn't cultivated a practice of my own. I was trying to teach my students to be emotionally present, calm, and aware, but as I rang the chime and started the "mindful minute" in my classroom, my own thoughts were racing. How am I going to respond to that tense parent email? How is José going to react when he finds out he failed his quiz? I have to remember to send Maria to the nurse at lunch time. Who's messing around right now? Who isn't taking this mindful minute seriously? WHO JUST MADE THAT FART NOISE?!.....and so on. I myself was not at all present, and I was stressed. I was in my second year of teaching, and contrary to what I had always been told, it was shaping up to be way harder than my first. I had a caseload full of students with emotional behavioral disorders, and the unpredictability of each day had me in an anxious frenzy. I would lay in bed awake at night going over every negative encounter and interaction of the day. I would pick apart every student meltdown and over-analyze my role in it. I would approach school in my car on a cold, dark winter morning and drive around the block 4 times just to delay the start of the day. I knew that if I wanted to make school a more stable, calm, peaceful experience for my students, I had to start with myself.
I started reading more about mindfulness for myself rather than just as a classroom strategy. The truth is, it isn't a "strategy": it's a state of being. Being aware, being present, being tuned-in to yourself. I started to make a habit of practicing mindfulness before bed each night and occasionally in the morning before school. Mindfulness is called a practice because it is exactly that. It takes commitment and eventually becomes a habit with practice. After devoting more energy and time to practicing mindfulness, I found myself practicing it naturally on my lunch break, walking down the hall, on the rare (luxurious) opportunity for a bathroom break. And the best part is, I started to quickly see the payoff. Just ten seconds of paying attention to my breathing and tuning into my body could instantly change the way I reacted to a chaotic co-worker, a disruptive student, or an emotional parent.
I am still learning about mindfulness and how to cultivate the practice in my own life and in my classroom, but I wanted to share what I have learned so far. If you are interested in starting a mindfulness practice of your own or for your students, check out this book, this free app, and this website. These are just a few resources that have helped me throughout this journey!
Have you practiced mindfulness? How has it impacted your life & your teaching? I would love to hear about your experience!