Whether you are a special education teacher, a general education teacher, a soon-to-be teacher or an instructional aide, chances are that you will teach a student with special needs. Chances are also, that you’re going to teach a student with special needs that you don’t know how to help – some students flat-out confuse and perplex us. Thankfully, that’s why we are a team and family of educators who are here to help each other. I wanted to give a quick overview of some common problems in classrooms and ways to help them. This in no way covers ALL problems, if you want tips for certain problems please don’t hesitate to email or leave a comment! I’ve broken down my tips into categories:
For the student who is fidgety in class,
For the struggling reader,
For the student who struggles with negative behavior.
I’ve worked with many students over the years, and I’ve seen mild, moderate and severe disabilities. I’ve implemented these methods for all types of learners and all severities of disabilities and have come to trust these tips. Of course, I cannot guarantee to you that these will work with your learner. Be sure to have an open mind while implementing them and have PATIENCE! Lots and lots of patience. Needless to say, these tips are not only for kids with special needs. They can be used for any or all students! Hello, Universal Design for Learning! (confused? Watch this video – link) Buckle your seat belts friends, this is a long one.
For the student who is fidgety in class:
This type of behavior manifests in a multitude of different ways and does not look the same from student to student. This could be your student who wanders aimlessly around your classroom, your student who is always talking to others, your student who is always messing around with their pencil, etc. All behavior must have a replacement behavior, so saying “stop it” does not suffice. You have to give the student a behavior to replace the old one.
Squeeze Balloons – When we made these at the library where I work at to reduce stress related to taking finals, I realized I NEEDED them in the classroom.The flour in the balloon becomes soft and pliable, and provides students with extra stimulation, which most students with ADD/ADHD need to pay attention. These would also work great as a cool down mechanism for students who struggle with anger.
Balloons, four, a funnel and a straw are the only things you need to make these sensory toys. The flour goes INSIDE the balloon, and never gets out of the balloon unless you cut it, so if you have parents that are weird about flour, they can rest assured. If they cannot rest assured, then you can always make them with a wheat free flour. Get yourself a funnel and fill the balloon with flour until the balloon is the size of a small orange or a large mandarin orange.
Pack your patience panties because it does take a while to make. You need to little by little pour flour into the funnel and pack it down with the straw. Tie the top tightly so no flour slips out, and you can even put a dot of hot glue on top, or double wrap the balloon if you want that extra assurance.
Resistance Bands/ Bungee Cords – This is another simple solution for the student that needs extra stimulation. I would try this for the student who likes to get up and walk, wander, or is always moving their body. With the resistance band, they can press it out, in, or pulse their legs on it. I personally prefer to use resistance bands over bungee cords, but it is entirely up to what the student prefers. You can order resistance bands on amazon (link), but be sure to buy the ones that are a loop, not ones with handles. To be completely honest, I got my collection of resistance bands from a physical therapy office, they just gave them to me (it always pays to be kind). All you do is loop the band between the front legs of your student’s chair! This video shows how they are used, I personally do not and haven’t heard of that certain brand, I just like how this video shows the benefit of resistance bands. (Link)
Gum/Chew Stick – This is mostly for younger grades. I’ve had many students who would chew on their fingers, pencils, erasers or anything else available to chew. If they are older, contact the parent and ask if they could chew gum. I know multiple adults (including me) who need gum if they have to maintain focus on a task. If you or the parent don’t want to go down the gum route, consider getting a chew stick. These. are. awesome. They were used when I worked at a school for kids with autism for decreasing self-injurious behavior. They also were used in a public school that I worked at for reducing benign biting, thus I love the versatility. The website Fun and Function (Link) has so many different options for chew sticks, most don’t even look like chew sticks, so students can blend in with their peers.
For the struggling reader:
I don’t need to explain this one that much. Almost everyone is able to identify a struggling reader, those students that need an extra nudge and extra help in reading. What YOUR first step is, is identifying where they are struggling. Are they struggling with letter sounds? Are they struggling with decoding? Are they struggling with encoding? In these hacks, I cover decoding and encoding, letter-sound correspondence and tracking.
Elkonin Boxes – Elkonin boxes give me life. I cannot speak highly enough of them. In order to use these, your student needs to know their letter sounds. This would be perfect for the student who knows letter sounds like the back of their hand, but cannot decode and encode. It consists of boxes and tokens, like buttons or pennies (optional).
You write the word ABOVE the boxes. 1 sound per box. I then either laminate it, or slip it into a dry erase pocket so that I can reuse the sheet.
Students then, one by one, slide the tokens into the boxes, sounding out the word. This video demonstrates the movement of Elkonin boxes well. (Link). You can also skip to 3:18 on this video to see someone actively doing it. (Link). I owe one of my first grader’s ability to ready solely on Elkonin Boxes. If they help your student, I recommend taping a small version on their desk and giving them a dry erase marker so they can use the boxes as needed.
Letter/Sound Popsicle Sticks –
These sticks have on one side the letter, and on the other side a picture of a word that has that letter sound. It’s a quick way to drill letter-sound correspondence whenever the student has some free time. I do not spell words for students unless they are a tricky sight word or a word with silent letters. These sticks help when students are trying to spell words on their own, or if they’re confused with what sound a letter makes. If a student is really struggling, they can keep a set at their desk for reference.
Funny Fingers – I use these for tracking. Get your students any kind of funny fingers, the ones I use are ones that look like old witch fingers, but you can also get ones like these (link). I also found this cute blinking ring at Walmart for .97 cents.
Anything that is wacky and zany and will get them to think about their finger is perfect. (but not too distracting) If you’re a teacher and have a student who struggles with tracking, you know how beneficial it is when they use their finger to follow along. I, in the past, have used the Popsicle stick method to help with tracking, but I have seen that students use the funny fingers more consistently. I mean really, what’s more cool, a popsicle stick, or a tiny monster that fits on your finger?!? Let’s be real.
For the student that struggles with negative behavior:
This is for your students with autism, oppositional defiant disorder, and other general emotional and behavioral disabilities. The focus of most “tricks” for working with students who are exhibiting negative behaviors is to draw attention to their positive behaviors and reward those while taking attention away from their negative behaviors.
Token Chart – Oh my word the token chart. THE TOKEN CHART. This is almost as beautiful as Elkonin Boxes. You can use a token chart for EVERYTHING!!! Raising hands during class. Reading more pages in a book. Paying attention more during class. These are just wonderful. On the top of the chart, you need to write a goal for the student. The main focus of a token chart is to focus on positive, not negative. Example: If you’re trying to reduce the number of times your student yells out during class, instead of writing “I will not yell out during class”, on top of the board, you will write, “I will raise my hand to speak” on top. Then you make a chart. I recommend starting out with 5-10 boxes. Clearly 5 boxes is more scaffolded than 10 boxes and so on. Once a student masters having 10 boxes, you can add more, just as easy as that.
When the student exhibits the behavior you want them to see, you give them a token, or a button or whatever. I recommend putting Velcro on the chart and then on the tokens so the student can attach the token to their chart easily (and then the chart is transportable –yay). Once the student gets all of their tokens on the chart they get a predetermined reward. Then their tokens are cleared and then they’re working for their reward again. You can even give them choices with the rewards (yay!). Examples of a reward could be 5 mins computer time, 5 mins reading time, walking break, snack, etc. I like to place, “I am working for: on the bottom. This comes in handy when your student is beginning to stray away from their positive behavior. You can remind them, “Hey, what are you working for? You can get tokens by raising your hand and not yelling out”. Decorate the token board to things that the students like! The token board is a fun experience 🙂
I have attached a downloadable version of an example token board. Page one is the board itself. Page two is options for breaks with extra spots to make your own. Page three is examples of tokens you can use, either that groovy star design or encouraging words. Or ditch those and use buttons or sequins. I recommend having tokens EVERYWHERE. In your pockets. In your desk. On your desk. Everywhere. You ALWAYS want to be ready to reward positive behaviors with our kiddos who seriously struggle with negative behaviors. Click down below to download the example!
Choice – I so recommend giving students choice and voice in your classroom. It cuts down on so many negative behaviors, especially in your kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I had a student once who I suspected to have this, and she was absolutely digging her heels in at the idea of having to draw a picture. Rather than starting a power struggle between us, I decided to let her pick what we did next. I said to her, “Not drawing the pictures is not an option right now, you need to draw these pictures by the time we switch subjects. Either you can draw it now and then we’ll do this worksheet on verbs, or, we can do the worksheet with verbs and then draw. Which order do you want to do them in?” When students have choice in the classroom, they feel that they have power over what they are learning, thus reducing power seeking behavior. You can set up an atmosphere of choice from the start by having your students help you set the rules of the classroom.
Behavior past the ones discussed are definitely behavior that needs to be discussed with either your school psychologist or a special education teacher or coordinator! I hope this post helps some of you with your kids with special needs in the classroom! Comment or email me and let me know if you’d like to see tips and tricks for any other types of behavior! I’d love to do a post on it.
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