6 Ways to Start the Year off Right When Teaching Students With Multiple Disabilities
It seems like summer just started, but the awesomest of you are already thinking about school starting- you’re mentally planning, curating materials, and your inner Rock Star teacher is rejuvenating. I’m teaching summer school for the severely disabled this year and some of my aides will be starting as teachers in the fall. The one question they really want to know is what they can do right to start the year off right. With that in mind, here is a list of 6 ways to start the year off right when teaching LIFE Skills/PMLD.
- Plan Your Opening Routine to Start the Year Off Right.
A consistent routine will be THE life saver for you as a LIFE Skills teacher. I do a lot of classroom visits, and the one thing I see over and over again is this: the bell is ringing and a classroom full of students are waiting for the teacher, who is caught with a behavior problem, parent phone call, para question, or even a (very rare) bathroom break. The first ten minutes of class there are always little fires to be put out. Having a great and consistent opening routine that the students do every day without fail will give them predictability and buy you a few minutes to extinguish all the fires.
- Post A Visual Schedule (And Use Timers) to Start the Year Off Right.
Having a schedule that students, paras, and you can all see really does help to keep a class on task, continue to maintain the consistency we laid out in step 1, and also ensure you get everything done. This happened to me a million times in my early years as a teacher. My class starts an activity and it just takes longer than expected to get through it all. Suddenly, we have no time for math (and I miss all that IEP data), or we’re rushing to clean up for lunch. If you need to, use timers to keep you on track. And for you super-superstar teachers, manage the transitions with a plan and a routine- it will help to define the new topics and also help students to mentally end one thing and move on to the next. Remember, you may also need individual student schedules on desks for student access.
- Define The Spaces In Your Classroom to Start the Year Off Right.
A good classroom setup is so important. There is something to Fung Shui- and you need to lay out a lot of flexible spaces when you’re working with students with disabilities. I suggest having at least one area for 1:1 instruction and assessment, another area designated as a behavior area or cool-down spot, another for small group (and remember to make room for wheelchairs and maneuvering equipment), and at least one area designated for centers or independent workstations. A lot of what you need will depend on the level of your students, the space you have, and the subjects you are teaching.
- Have Students Interact In a Meaningful Way to Start the Year Off Right.
This one is a pet peeve of mine. I do classroom visits and see all the students together, but no one talking. Most students with multiple disabilities have a hard time with appropriate social interactions, yet in the classroom it seems the only people they are talking to are the teachers and the paras. Setting up a cooperative learning environment or at the very least activities where there is peer to peer interactions goes a long way.
- Focus On Reusable Activities to Start the Year off Right.
I see a lot of teachers spend a lot of energy making a lot of activities that cannot be used a lot. When you tailor an activity to one specific topic or one specific student, you are actually hurting yourself and your students. A great example of this is communication boards. I see teachers make new communication boards for every topic the class discusses, but a student with multiple disabilities often can’t master a new board every week, month, or unit. Giving a single broad based board used over time can really be mastered. Think of that when you create materials- can this be reused? Can it apply across multiple activities? Can my student use it or the skill it teaches after graduation?
- Procedure, Procedure, Procedure will Start the Year Off Right!
Whenever struggling teachers observed me teaching, they asked me how I do it. How? The answer is simple. For the first month (sometimes more) we focus on procedures. We still did academics and functional activities, but the point was to establish the procedures and routine. My expectations were high and I needed everyone on board. But what the early focus on routine does is open up my time later in the year to work on the skills my students need most- because they know what to do. What to do when they get to class, what to do on Mondays, what to do when a student has behavior in class, what to do when they can’t spell a word… there was a procedure for everything (and it typically did not involve me- that way I was always free to teach, do data, or manage the behavior problem).
My old boss used to say that on the first day the job was to “get ‘em off the bus, feed ‘em, and get ‘em back on the bus”. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I know you have high expectations, but on the first day also have realistic expectations. You will be a Rock Star, so if you have questions about what was listed above, post it in the comments. And if you have a great tip for new or vet LIFE Skills teachers, please post them as well to keep the conversation going.
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