Friday, July 14, 2017

Tips for the 1st Week in Special Ed

Hey everyone! So in the "blogosphere" over the last few weeks I've noticed a lot of questions coming from special education teachers about what the first week or two looks like in everyone's classrooms and if they have any tips or suggestions to share. A lot of these questions coming from first year teachers.

When I try to think "what do I do the first week" the only thing that really comes to mind is the word 'survive'.

All jokes aside, I do still have ALL of my lesson plans from every year of teaching so I pulled them out and looked back on the first 1-2 weeks of school and took some notes. Reading through and reflecting back on (some repressed) memories, I was able to make a list of several tips that I think any new teacher may find very helpful during those first few weeks of school.

#1. It's OKAY to be scared, nervous, re-thinking your career choice.

Seriously, I've been doing this for 7 years now and I still get terrible nerves the night before the first day. As soon as those little feet hit your doorway on day 1 those nerves somehow quickly flutter out the window and you immediately jump in and do your thing. So I just want you to know first and foremost that being nervous is completely expected and completely okay. It might appear like the other teachers around you have it all together, but I promise you-- we're all nervous!

#2. Be prepared, better yet, be OVER prepared.

I always feel a little ambitious with my planning in the first weeks. I put a lot on deck-- nothing complicated; we're not making paper snowflakes here, but I'd rather have more activities/lessons planed than not enough. Truthfully you can't really tell what's going fit the criteria of "enough" until you have your students in the classroom as a whole group together. They may be able to complete activities faster than you expected, or it may take them longer than you expected. By being over prepared/over planned, you won't have to worry about too much extra down time/boredom which can sometimes lead to unnecessary and unwanted behaviors. Anything you don't get to you can save for the next day, or even for the next week.

#3. Know their IEP goals, preferred items, unpreferred items, and behavior plans.

This one can feel very overwhelming, especially when we might inherit an IEP that we will soon realize left out some pretty important information about a kiddo. Here's my suggestions on how to approach this one. Start by getting copies of their IEPs as soon as you can. READ through each one. I didn't say skim, glance, just look at goals; READ that IEP and read the whole dang thing! I don't care how many sections sound repetitive, it will help you learn the student. While reading either highlight ANYTHING you want to remember about that student, or have a spare piece of paper you are taking notes on. You want to look for what the student likes--things that could be possible reinforcers. What the student doesn't like-- things that could be possible triggers for the student. What do any behaviors look like? Will the student require any visuals? What are their goals? Do they have a behavior intervention plan? How do they get to and from school? Do they require transportation supports? Do they eat in the classroom or cafeteria?

Now what to do with all of that stuff?

Make sure you're classroom has 2-3 of their preferred items/edibles available on day one. Make sure unpreferred items are not offered to the student on day one.

Make sure any visuals the student will require are ready for day one and in an appropriate place in the classroom where both you and your support staff know where to find them. Most likely any visuals mentioned in the IEP are already with the student and already in your classroom. You'll want to make sure you find them and familiarize yourself with them.

Decide what data tracking system you're going to use for the first marking period and complete it for their benchmarks. I say that this way because you might think you like a system for data collection and use it for one marking period and change your mind. That's okay! This is the only way you will find your preferred system. If you can-- have these sheets ready for day 1. That doesn't mean you need to start your data collection on day 1, but there will be so much keeping you busy those first few weeks that you will thank yourself later for having these done.

Review any behavior intervention plans and make sure that you have all components available and located within your classroom. I find it helpful to make "cheat sheets" for these. A 1 page visual that I can have quick access to and share with my support staff that specifies when x occurs, y must follow. Make sure not to disclose any confidential information if it will be out somewhere in your classroom, or if you have multiples, place each cheat sheet in a binder and share with your support staff where you are keeping that binder. That might be the same place you decide to keep your behavior data.

Prepare a dismissal clipboard. I always say, if they go home with 10 fingers and 10 toes and go to the right place, then it was a successful day. Dismissal the first few days can be nerve wracking to say the least. There is always a lot going on and a lot of people trying to figure out a lot of things. Be prepared. Have a dismissal clipboard that says where all of your students go. Who is responsible for getting them there, and what times they need to be there. I suggest using a clipboard with some storage. You can keep a pen handy, store any notes about transportation changes for the day, parent pick-ups, etc. If any students receive rewards at the end of the day you can store them there to hand out on your way out the door. Just helps to keep everything at your finger tips.

You will also want to know where your students eat. Planning for things like specials, breakfast, and lunch always gives me the biggest challenges because these are usually OUR break times and planning times. If you're not careful you will quickly lose your planning and lunch times.  I personally don't mind, and understand that I might lose 5-10 minutes assisting with the transition and that's understandable, but we need that time to prep materials and take a breather.

For the first week of school I assist my paras with breakfast, lunch, and most of specials. Why? I don't know what supports to put in place at those times if I don't know what it looks like. So I help with getting students through the line and to the table, etc. Once things seem to be situated and under control I step out to use the bathroom and grab a quick bite to eat. I also plan quick meals during these first few weeks like a protein shake, etc. I don't need time to sit down and eat that.

I attend each specials class so that again, I know what it looks like and know what accommodations we need to make. We learned that for some specials we needed to take alternative activities with us for a few students. We learned that for other specials a few students would go and a few would stay in the classroom. -- this alternative meant I was sacrificing my time in the classroom during planning. It wasn't ideal, but I had to make due with what my students needed and what resources we had. I always made sure to leave the room and take my planning in the faculty lounge.

-- wow. I fit a lot of things into #3 there, but they all really build upon each other.

#4. Keep demands low

In my first few weeks we focus mostly on routine, classroom rules and expectations. I keep the demands on the students very low. I want to focus on establishing myself as a reinforcer and the classroom as a reinforcing environment. Once we get to week 3 I start to increase the demands and gradually increase throughout the week and into the following weeks.

You might be wondering what I mean by low demand. This doesn't mean I'm not asking them to follow directions and the classroom is just a fun free for all. It just means that the tasks we are asking them to do are low level and are going to result in success. This way we can ensure reinforcement is happening and continue to establish that positive reinforcement. For example, during work boxes, I might assign all "easy level" tasks so that students can get through the routine and access their reinforcement. Then as we go into weeks 3 and 4 I'm going to gradually be increasing the level of difficulty with those tasks so that it starts taking them just a little bit longer to access reinforcement. Make sense? If not-- let me know!

#5. Don't be afraid of self-reflection or to ask for constructive feedback from peers.

This is really, really, really important. I cannot tell you how many times I feel like I'm in a cycle of "trial and error" with a lesson, strategy, intervention, you name it. We must always be reflective on what went well and what didn't so we can continue to self-improve for both ourselves and our students.

It's okay if a lesson doesn't go as you had planned. At the end of the day, reflect on it. What didn't you like about it? What would you try differently? Be sure to implement your changes the next day. I also find it really helpful to turn to my peers. Sometimes I'm stuck. Something isn't quite right, but I can't put my finger on it. So I'll invite a peer to look at something or ask them for their opinion and they may be just what I need to find what I need to tweak or adjust.

And if you're anything like me, you get excited about your new ideas! I love when something new comes to mind and I can't wait to put it in place. I've made far too many 10pm Wal-Mart runs due to the need to implement a new idea right away. It's important for our growth as teachers to have self-reflection. Never put yourself down when something doesn't go the way you planned.

I hope you have found my tips and suggestions for the first week helpful! If you have any questions, never hesitate to ask! I also ask you to check out where some pretty awesome teachers have come together to create a great learning environment for special educators to support one another! Check it out!

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