The Ballad of the New Student


Last week, I was sitting in my classroom thinking about everything I had to do. I had to prepare paperwork for a student growth pilot I am participating in, make minor adjustments to student schedules, choose a health insurance plan, prepare for an observation, and get extra-organized to prepare for the start of basketball season in November.

As I sat, wallowing in my mind-pool of undone work, the special education instructional coordinator (read: my boss) walked in. She smiled at me uncomfortably and then told me that I was getting a new student.

As she described the situation and the new student, half of my brain listened to her explanation. The other half was racing to make a comprehensive list of everything I needed to do before the new student began.

My previous pool of undone work now seemed shallow and manageable. The student would start the following week. It was mid-day Wednesday. I had three days.

Bum bum bummmmmmmm…

Day One

As soon as my boss left, I began creating materials to create a schedule book. Students’ schedule books included a homeroom mini-schedule, daily schedule, daily desk work (targeting daily skills and IEP goals), and other materials that students need access to on a daily basis. The schedule book is truly the student’s “home base”.

Luckily, much of those materials were already created on my hard drive and were easily printed. I customized worksheets relating to personal information and called it a day on that. I could continue to individualize the binder in the weeks to come as I got to know him a little better. After I printed the materials, I sent them to lamination (our school only laminates on certain days). The materials would be laminated and returned the following day.

After this prep work, I had to attend training on our new alternate assessment for students with significant disabilities. In lieu of doing any more real work for the new student, I stressed about vague concerns and entertained various ‘what if?’ scenarios.

That night I had a glass of wine with dinner.

Day Two

Next, I created the necessary visuals for the new student to be successful in the classroom. I made a ‘reinforcement circle’ (a colored round reinforcement menu). I added his name to the job chart and gave him morning and afternoon jobs. I assigned him a locker and a cubby. I added his name to our computer schedule, password lists, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I also spent substantial time reading and re-reading the student’s IEP. Paperwork on students with disabilities can be confusing, since some behaviors and concerns can find their way in and remain even when they are no longer a problem. I believe the thought process for that is we need to be prepared for these behaviors in case they are to resurface, and I agree with this manner of thinking. However, it can make students seem like much ‘bigger adventures’ than they actually are in practice.

After reading the paperwork, it was obvious that the student would need his own space in the classroom with opportunities for movement and spending time away from staff and classmates. I cleared out our break-out room except for a bookshelf of leisure activities and a comfortable chair, and requested an exercise bike from the PE department. I got the ‘ok’ and custodial staff agreed to deliver it that night.

In addition to all of this preliminary work for the new student, I also managed to teach my other classes and meet with other staff members about a behavior plan for current student. I gave myself a high-five for efficiency, and headed home feeling pretty good until I remembered that

Day Three

was HOMECOMING ASSEMBLY DAY. If you teach in a large public high school, you know that Homecoming Assembly Day is also known as the day during which nothing can be done. There is an energy in the air that causes all students and staff to behave as if they are constantly snacking on espresso beans and Lucky Charms.

I erased my goals for the day and set a mental target to simply keep everyone safe. That’s it. And that was enough for Homecoming Assembly Day.

The Weekend

I spent the weekend making necessary adjustments to the master schedule. I readjusted who each student was paired with to better meet the needs of the current students as well as the new student. When the master schedule was in place for Monday and Tuesday, I used Boardmaker Studio software to create picture schedule templates for each student.

I also planned out my reading group lessons, large group lessons, and community lessons for the week. I wanted to be able to focus on scheduling and student behavior for the rest of the week.


Today was the day! The new student’s parents dropped him off and attempted to linger. After several ‘hints’ gently given by having the student repeatedly say ‘good bye,’ he was on his own.

He responded well to his schedules and the visuals we used. He manipulated his schedule and various mini-schedules and checklists fairly well with minimal prompting. The movement breaks integrated in to his schedule seemed to work to regulate his body and his sensory state. He used his reinforcement menu and verbal language to communicate his wants and needs. His behavior was generally appropriate and gentle.

Overall, he had an excellent first day! Neither he nor we had any trouble at all—he seemed to fit right in.

No sweat.


How to Teach a Student with Classic Autism to Take a Break in a Safe Place


This is how to use a student’s autism against him. It will be helpful for teachers who work with students with classic autism who may be prone to self-injury, interpersonal aggression, or object aggression during meltdowns.

You know the scene—a student comes back from PE and, for who-knows-why, begins to escalate quickly. He bangs his head on the table, stands up, and begins to pace the room. He is unable to respond to verbal direction and pushes anyone in his way to the side.

At this point, the student is beyond the point of his own control. As the teacher, you know that he is a risk to himself and others in his current state in the classroom environment. Pencils, scissors, fists, and chairs can quickly become weapons in the hands of a strong, enraged teenager—and you have a classroom of students to protect.

Additionally, if you work in a responsible setting, the student in this vignette is not at the point where you could or should put your hands on him in order to physically manage his behavior. He needs to get himself to a safe place to begin to calm down before he continues to escalate, and you need a reliable cue to get him there.

In order to teach him this valuable skill, you must start by establishing a break location that you can use every single time. A quiet location with a comfortable chair/beanbag to ‘crash’ and nothing that could be dangerously projectile-d (definitely a word) is ideal. Koosh balls, pictures of interesting animals, and other things like that are appropriate for this area. If you have head-bangers, you may want to secure padded mats along the wall/floor in this area to keep students safe.

This should be a location in which the student enjoys spending time, and he should visit this spot on most days. It doesn’t need to be student-specific, as long as you are easily able to clear out other students if a student in distress needs it.

break area

Next, you need to clearly label the area with a picture that is not used elsewhere in the classroom/building. A unique picture with the text ‘break room’ will suffice. Laminate the picture and hang it on the wall in the break area. Laminate several smaller versions of the picture and affix Velcro to both the wall sign and the smaller pictures.

Once you have the break area set up, the work begins. The good news is, that this is relatively easy on both the teacher and the student to teach and even easier to implement throughout a typical school day.

When the student is calm and happy, hand him one of the small versions of the pictures. Without any words, guide him to the break area, hand-over-hand match the picture to the sign, and gently direct him to sit in the chair/bean bag in the break area. It is important not to use any words during this process, since it is likely that the student will be unable to process auditory input if he is in distress. Set a timer for however long you like (I usually start with 5 minutes when I teach this) and, when it goes off, have him return to the activity he was working on.

Do this throughout his day during periods of calm and happiness. He will probably only need you to show him the process two or three times. Soon, you will hand him the card and he will trot to the sensory room, happy to somehow be getting out of five minutes of rigorous classroom activities to look at pictures of Barack Obama’s dog.

Soon, hand him the card when he is showing signs of low-grade anxiety or distress OR interrupting preferred activities. He should still follow the normal procedure, walking to the break area, sitting in the chair, and waiting for the sound of the timer to return to the activity. If he doesn’t, you need more repetitions when the student is calm and happy. Remember to eliminate all verbal directions and try to guide him as much as possible from behind, fading cues out when appropriate.

Even after he has mastered the routine, continue to sprinkle it through his week during periods of calm in order to keep it ‘fresh.’

Most students I have worked with have picked up on this very quickly and feel compelled to complete the routine when handed the unique picture. Students with classic autism experience major anxiety and feel a strong compulsion to complete routines after they hear/see specific triggers. You are teaching a visual trigger with a specific behavioral routine that follows, and a student’s need to complete this routine will almost always override everything else! By triggering this response, you are keeping the student and others safe. Rather than against him, you are using the student’s autism to work for him.

Good luck! Please share if you have other techniques or have used this successfully!


The Four Types of Parent-Teacher Conferences


Happy PTC season! My district held parent-teacher conferences last week.

Most teachers in my high school meet with parents in ten minute increments. I do conferences a little differently. I have a small caseload and a self-contained classroom. Parents have the right to sign up for 10 minutes for each class their student is enrolled in with me—50 minutes per student.

This extra time gives our conferences a little extra time to **ahem** develop character. The ‘character’ of the conference can be classified in one of 4 different categories.

The But He’s Perfect at Home!!! Parents

These are the parents who immediately become defensive when you attempt an honest conversation of areas to improve. You may hear things like, “He never gets like that at home” or “He was probably just going for a high-five!” Your description of his behavior under stress is met with disbelieving expressions, although their description of his home life indicates that the most stressful thing that happens is that he has to watch his favorite DVD down in the basement instead of the big screen. Descriptions of how well he is doing in other areas are met with similar expression of disbelief. They apparently present a strategy of parenting that simultaneously provides no room for stress and no room for growth in the home.

The But He’s Terrible at Home!!! Parents

These parents come in with horror stories of their student’s behavior at home. From bathroom ‘finger painting’ to breaking the window in their car, it seems that their child’s behavior at home is out of control. You may hear things like, “How many people does it usually take to get him out of the pool?” or “Can I hire you for respite outside of school hours?” When you describe the progress that their child has made in school, these parents frenziedly seek out the strategies and take notes. After they take note of the various strategies, these parents often stay for as long as possible in order to hear more and more stories of their child’s success from someone who genuinely enjoys being around them.

The Therapy Session

These parents come in, listen to your spiel on their student’s progress, and then use any excuse to veer from the topic at hand. It isn’t that they don’t care about their child’s progress—they are just more excited to be having a real conversation with a real adult. You may hear things like, “What is your typical workout regimen?” or “What was your favorite season of Breaking Bad?” These parents can be fun to talk to, but generally don’t leave unless you ask them. It is best to arrange a colleague to pull you out of the conference after about an hour, or you may be chatting all night!

The Relieved Professional Parents

These parents have accepted that their child has a significant disability, but haven’t grown accustomed to some of the discomfort or embarrassment that can go hand-in-hand with it. They insist on using only the most sterile, rigid medicinal terms to describe their son’s ‘issues.’ You may hear “I believe the functional behavioral assessment indicated that the function of his behavior is attention” or “I just spoke with the doctor about lowering the Depakote and increasing the Lexapro to manage that.” They cringe when I mention their son’s effective, albeit odd, strategies in the community and turn bright red when I suggest he wear jeans instead of athletic shorts due to his newfound interest in girls. After the conference, you can feel the relief as they slink from the room.

As a teacher, it is interesting to observe parents both with their children and in the classroom in a PTC setting. It can often reveal a lot about student behavior or misbehavior. It is also nice to get to know the parents and lend them an ear from someone who also genuinely cares for and enjoys their child.

These descriptions are caricatures, and are not meant to insult or criticize any parents. I work with students with disabilities for my career, but I cannot imagine how life would be different if I came home to a child with a disability. Parents have my utmost respect!

Good luck to all with your own conferences!


Classroom Environment for Students with Autism and Other Low-Incidence Disabilities.


I work in a large public high school. Most of my colleagues are not special educators. They teach algebra, or English, or a slew of other classes to which students trudge on a daily basis. During our August teacher work days, they labor over finishing syllabi and setting up their Canvas calendars.

Remarkably, none of these teachers take their ID photos sparkling with a sheen of sweat on their foreheads after a long morning of lugging around desks.

Every year, I’m the sweaty one.

Classroom environment is extremely important for students with significant disabilities, particularly for students with autism and sensory needs. The physical structure and lay-out of a classroom needs to be thoughtfully and intentionally designed in order to maximize physical space while meeting the needs of all learners.

Most students with classic autism/developmental disabilities will be most ready to learn when spaces are visually defined. The environment needs to give students a clue about what he/she will be doing and what the expectations are while the student is in the area.

I find that most of the examples online regarding physical classroom structure for students with autism target elementary school kids. This is great—the high school structure truly is just an extrapolation of this example—but there are important differences for the high school kids.

The first difference is that high school students are bigger. Much bigger. They need bigger tables, bigger chairs, and more space to move from one space to another. They are taller so they can see over tiny shelves.

elementary structured classroom


Here is an example of an elementary school structured classroom. The spaces are quite clearly defined and I’m sure it works well for pint-sized learners—but look how small the furniture is! And how short the room dividers are! Additionally, the classroom décor (including the open windows) would make for too ‘busy’ an environment for some of my students with autism. It would also not be age appropriate for high school students. This simply will not do for a high school classroom for structured learners.

I hope to write about my physical classroom structure along with examples with what students complete in these spaces. I find it difficult to separate the explanation of the physical design from the activity since they are so closely entwined.

My Classroom

When students arrive at school, they first visit their lockers to drop off their coats, boots, lunches, etc. Students walk past their cubbies as they enter the classroom.


Each student’s cubby is labeled with his/her name. He stores his take-home folder and other accessories in the cubby, removes his schedule binder, and heads to his classroom seat. You can see that there is a visual cue above cubby (Check In, with a picture of a schedule binder and someone putting things away).

There is also a suitcase labeled ‘deliveries’ where I toss things during the day that need to be delivered elsewhere in the building. A student will make these deliveries every afternoon as part of a classroom job. Above the suitcase is our community calendar for the month of October as well as a job schedule. The job schedule is more for the benefit of staff… Student jobs will be included on each student’s daily schedule.

After students move their schedule binders to their seats, they are able to choose a leisure activity to engage in until 8:00. Choices are arranged on a large circular choice board. I use circles when students are provided a choice to signal that they can choose any icon on the board. When symbols are arranged vertically or horizontally, students have been taught that they should move either left to right or top to bottom in order, like a schedule or a task list.

IMG_20121205_074034leisure choice board

When the timer goes off, it signals the end of leisure time and time to start school. Students put away their activity and start their homeroom schedules. The homeroom schedules are located in the front of the schedule binders and are housed at their ‘home base.’

home base

I use two types of homeroom schedule. One is a Boardmaker template with ‘to-do’ and ‘finished’ columns.

homeroom template

The other is a more sophisticated, checklist-style schedule. It is a little more specific and has worked well with students who are more prompt dependent.

homeroom schedule

You can see that ‘schedule’ is part of the student’s homeroom routine. During this portion, students use a template to compile his schedule. A template might look like this:

sample schedule

Students follow their schedule from top to bottom, left to right. The morning activities are on the left and the afternoon activities are on the right.

When the timer goes off to signal the end of homeroom, students record one thing they did during homeroom on their student feedback form and move on to the next item on their schedule, the first work station. The student feedback form goes home with each student daily. It is a great tool for parents to use to see what their child does each day and to have a conversation with them about their school day. Students will continue to fill in what they do during each session throughout the day. student feedback form

Students each have four work stations in the morning. Each work station is approximately 25 minutes.

One work station is independent work. Students choose a reinforcer/preferred leisure task, and follow a task list to complete mastered work independently. Generally, no prompts are given at the independent work stations. Work tasks include sorting, academic work, pre-vocational work, and other tasks that promote independence. At times, the goal is to increase stamina working independently. At other times, it is to have the student continue to practice goals that they have mastered.


You can see in this picture that the student has a list of activities on the left side of his desk. He matches each number to the corresponding number on the left and grabs the appropriate task. When he completes it, he moves the task to the right, puts it on the shelf, grabs the next number, and continues down the line. When he finishes, he gets to engage in the activity he selected for the remaining amount of time in the rotation. The paraprofessionals in my classroom are wonderful—they know who has mastered which tasks (this is usually noted on the task somewhere) and they rotate the tasks through the students’ bins. Paraprofessionals collect data on tasks complete, elapsed time, prompts needed, etc.

Another work station is reading group. My school has purchased the Unique Learning System (ULS). The ULS comes with different books with corresponding reading comprehension questions. A paraprofessional mans this station and works on the ULS, News2You, or another reading activity with a pair of students. In the picture, you can see a bottle of hand sanitizer—another reading group staple, especially during cold season!

reading area

A third work station is computers. Students access a variety of programs independently. Necessary cues are hung on the wall, including passwords, log-in information, and a schedule of which program students should work on at different times.

computer area

A fourth work station is working 1:1 with me. We work on a wide variety of things at the 1:1 table, but we focus on working on skills that will help the student become independent and then generalizing them to the rest of the classroom, school, and community. I generally sit next to the student when we are working on new academic skills, and face the student when we are explicitly working on conversational exchanges.

A fifth work station is domestics. We are lucky enough to have a domestic center with a mock apartment, including a bedroom, kitchen, and living room. During domestics, students follow a checklist to complete a variety of domestic skills. Typically they work 1:1 with a paraprofessional or typical peer in the domestic center.

domestic cntr checklist

After four work stations, we typically have bathroom, and then a sensory break. Students are able to take sensory breaks throughout the morning on request, but sensory breaks are built in to schedules in the morning and afternoon.

The time I have with students in the morning goes from 7:45-10:30. After that, students travel to lunch in the cafeteria, and then PE. They have PE with typical peers who had to go through an interview process to get their positions. The peers are phenomenal and allow our students to interact with typical peers in a way that might not be possible in other high schools.

When students return to the classroom, we either go out for community instruction or we do a group activity. Group activities are done at a student’s ‘home base.’ We follow our group activity rules that have been explicitly taught.

group activity expectations

It is difficult to keep group instruction from turning into disjointed 1:1 instruction, moving from student to student. Joint attention is a major struggle. It is important to keep these short and well-planned, with multiple access points for each student!


After group activity/community, students have two more work stations and then complete their PM jobs. Students check their jobs using the job chart and jobs rotate occasionally. Jobs include checking mailboxes, making deliveries, closing the blinds, cleaning work stations, etc.

After PM jobs, students have another sensory break and then head to adapted art. This is another class in which students work with typical peers. Again, the peers are wonderful and it is fun to see my students forming relationships with teens their age!

Students complete their going home routines and board the buses after art, around 3:10.

At some point during the day, students complete a grooming routine. Students are staggered throughout the day to prevent a back-up in the bathroom.

A few additional details:

The lighting in the classroom is fluorescent. There are two switch settings and we typically have the lights on the ‘low’ setting. I also purchased floor lamps from Ikea and we occasionally forgo the fluorescent overhead lights in lieu of the floor lamps, a much ‘softer’ light.

We do not have any windows. All light must be produced artificially.

The room dividers are on wheels and can be folded to be shorter. The base is fairly wide so it can be difficult for students with gross motor difficulties or students in wheelchairs to navigate the classroom. They are wonderful because they muffle some sounds and are tall enough that students can’t see over them. Extra bonus: You can staple or push-pin in to them in order to hang things up.

We have two doors that exit directly to the hallway and one door that goes in to the domestic center. Escape artists must be carefully monitored.

As you can see from the explanation and the photos, the students are extremely busy within the classroom and within the building from 7:45-3:10. The structure provided by the physical lay-out of the room and the schedules is invaluable to all students and staff.

Please feel free to share how you have structured your classroom. There are many ways to do this well!

Want to see more? Check out Part Two here!