A Closer Look at Autism Spectrum Disorders

Working with students on the autism spectrum can pose unique challenges for teachers, which is why many educators decide to pursue a Master’s of Special EducationAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a wide range or “spectrum” of strengths and differences in social, communication and behavioral challenges. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children has been identified with ASD.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association folded all subgroups of autism (formerly considered separate diagnoses) into one umbrella grouping of ASD in its latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Mainstream and special education teachers, however, should understand the characteristics of these previous subgroups, as well as the teaching challenges they present, because the level of disability for students with ASD can range from mildly impaired to severely disabled. Here’s a breakdown of the subgroups.

Asperger Syndrome

On the milder end of the spectrum, students with Asperger syndrome struggle with social interactions, have limited interests and exhibit repetitive behaviors. As some experience delayed development of motor skills, they might appear clumsy and display awkward mannerisms. According to theAutism Society, “what distinguishes Asperger’s Disorder from classic autism are its less severe symptoms and the absence of language delays.”

Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified), aka PDD-NOS

Students with PDD-NOS exhibit some (but not all) of autism’s characteristics or have relatively mild symptoms, which is why some experts even refer to PDD-NOS as “subthreshold autism.” According to Autism Speaks, “its defining features are significant challenges in social and language development.”

Autistic Disorder

Research Autism characterizes autistic disorder, also known as classic autism, as a pervasive developmental disorder that appears before the age of three and is defined by abnormal functioning in all three ASD areas: reciprocal social interaction, communication and restricted, stereotyped, repetitive behavior 

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

As the rarest subgroup and most severe end of the spectrum, childhood disintegrative disorder describes children who develop normally for the first few years and then quickly lose many social, language, motor and other skills, usually between ages two and four. Often these children also develop a seizure disorder. 

Teaching Challenges

Since many of the characteristics overlap from one ASD subgroup to another, they present some common teaching challenges. For example, because of struggles with communication and social skills, students with ASD might lack eye contact and social reciprocity, resulting in one-sided conversations or giving the appearance of being aloof. They might miss nonverbal cues, struggle to “read between the lines” or see things from someone else’s perspective, making it hard to predict or understand the behavior of others. While some students with ASD might have terrific rote memory, they might find it difficult to understand abstract verbal concepts such as idioms and sarcasm.

The Organization for Autism Research points to common school situations that might cause stress and behavior problems, such as handling transitions, understanding directions, interacting with peers and feeling overwhelmed by stimuli (i.e., noises, lights, etc.). This means students with ASD might struggle with making friends, interpreting facial expressions, working in groups or adapting to a change in classroom routines. Due to the stress (and perhaps as a coping mechanism), students with ASD might exhibit repetitive behaviors (such as rocking or hand-flapping) that could be disruptive to other students. 

The Autism Society says that “some children need help understanding social situations and developing appropriate responses. Others exhibit aggressive or self-injurious behavior, and need assistance managing their behaviors.”

Each student with ASD has individual strengths and challenges, so targeted training helps teachers tailor programs to their unique needs and abilities.While a dedicated classroom might be a great fit for some students with ASD, an inclusive, mainstream classroom might work best for others. By understanding both the characteristics of ASD and the teaching challenges they present, teachers will be better equipped to help all their students succeed.

Learn more about career opportunities in this important specialty, and if you’re ready to pursue advanced education options then check out our favorite online degree programs.

3 Things Parents Need to Know About Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning: A Message to Parents

When you first hear the term Personalized Learning, it can seem like a no-brainer to parents. What parent wouldn’t want their child to have their education tailored to their strengths, weaknesses, and personal interests. It sounds like a dream come true. However, parents need to understand that there are a couple of things about Personalized Learning that are important to address.

1. Personalization Can’t Occur Without Technology
Personalized Learning and Blended Learning are not synonymous, however Personalized Learning cannot occur without Blended Learning. Blended Learning occurs when a student learns partially online, within a brick and mortar building, and along an individualized learning pathway (www.blendedlearning.org). This cannot take place without the use of technology. Technology is what gives educators the ability to personalize learning for each child and provide the real-time data that is required to truly know what each child knows. Some parents have concerns about technology use and their children. Parents need to know that students who are learning in a personalized learning environment will need to use technology.

2. Your Child Needs to Learn to Work Independently
In the old days, a teacher was much like an orchestra conductor. The students all played the same piece of music and the teacher orchestrated the classroom in a smooth manner so that there was harmony. Except there was one problem, not every child could play the song in the right way and at the right speed. Personalized Learning looks to flip this instructional style so that students are moving at their own pace and learning only what they need to. This can mean that some students may end up working by themselves for a period of time. Parents need to be okay with this. Personalized Learning is not all about independent study, but it is about individualizing the instruction that each child is getting. Within Personalized Learning, students may have opportunities to work in groups, however the likelihood that students participate in activities as an entire class seems more and more less likely. Because students may be working independently for longer periods of time than in the past, students need to develop additional skills such as project management skills, the ability to plan and set personal and academic goals, and the ability to stay on task. All of these skills will be beneficial for students to develop as they prepare to enter the workforce.

3. Teachers Will Make Mistakes
Personalized Learning is a relatively a new teaching pedagogy. Many teachers are still learning about it and undergoing professional development to help them implement it into their classrooms. Obviously, mistakes are bound to happen during the implementation of Personalized Learning until a teacher becomes confident and experienced enough so that these “hiccups” do not happen. Parents need to have realistic expectations while at the same time providing patience to teachers as they try to determine how to best personalize the learning for their students. Parents should be encouraged to learn alongside teachers and be actively involved in providing feedback to teachers on the type of learning environment that they want for their child. Parents should also be encouraged to be flexible as the school environment changes from the one that they experienced as a child.

Personalization Has Individual Student Needs at Heart

As more and more schools shift to an environment that focuses on Personalized Learning, mistakes will be made, questions will be asked, and new ideas will be tried. It will be messy. It will me different. But the one thing the teachers and parents can agree on, is that both stakeholders are trying to do their best to help provide the personalized learning environment that students deserve. If teachers and parents work together, then no matter how many mistakes are made, student needs will remain at the heart of the individualized education that they are trying to receive.

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Setting Goals in the Classroom: The Importance of Classroom Management

Creating a positive classroom environment in which students are enthusiastic about learning can be crucial to the student’s overall learning success. By establishing both personal goals for each student based on their own needs, learning style, strengths and abilities while also creating group and class goals can be a great motivating factor to make learning fun.

Effective classroom management by the educator helps students with a variety of strengths to focus and set measurable goals on a large and small scale. SMART is a great tool to use to help your students create their goals.

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Attainable

  • Relevant, Realistic, Rigorous and Results Focused

  • Timely and Trackable

Analyze Classroom Data

Meet with each student individually and look at their strengths and challenges as it relates to the other students within that environment.

Help the student to create goals for themself to attain long-term, as well as short term goals, breaking down the school year by weeks at a time to show them how they can progress and learn, week by week. Be sure to focus on their strengths, encouraging them to capitalize on the ways in which they seem to learn the best.

Create a Goal-Setting Tracker

While every student learns differently, they are also motivated differently. When establishing individual goals with each student, it is important to create individualized goal-trackers. Some students prefer bright colored charts with stickers or stars, depending on their age or maturity, while other students are digitally motivated and are excited by an online tracking system.

Celebrate Student Success

Depending on the personality of the student, celebrating their success can be done in a wide variety of ways. Regardless of what that celebration may entail, the most important thing to remember is that when a student meets their goal, they are recognized and praised accordingly.

Some students prefer individual attention by the educator, while others may want to seek recognition from their peers or family. Here are a few examples of ways in which you can celebrate a student and their goal-meeting:

  1. Hang up the accomplished goal-tracker sheet in the classroom for all of the peers to see and praise.

  2. Offer rewards such as one-on-one lunch in the classroom with the teacher, homework rewards or extra credit.

  3. Send a special note home or email their family with the student’s accomplishment as the sole subject.

Introduce Fun Classroom Traditions

One way to immediately create a fun and exciting environment of learning is to begin the first day of school with an activity that your group of students will do once a month, once a season, once a semester, or upon the completion of a group goal.

Here are some fun ideas that you can implement in the classroom to engage your students and get them excited to be in your classroom:

  1. Create a measuring wall to track the growth of each student as the year goes on.

  2. Film a video diary of each student on the first day of each month telling a little story or a joke. If the students are shy at first, you can create group diaries to help them to feel more comfortable.

  3. Make a time capsule the first week of school to be opened on the last week of school, where every student contributes and feels like they are a necessary part of the project.

  4. Build a birthday chart with the students as a group, making sure to celebrate those students with birthdays in the summer months before the end of the school year.

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Meet a Teacher: Insights From a Pre-K Special Education Teacher

Are you passionate about a career working with exceptional children? Educational requirements for special education jobs typically include a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or master’s in special education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of a special education teacher in 2016 was $57,910. Academic and monetary aspects aside, how do you know if you’re cut out for this type of work? One of the best ways to gain insights is asking someone who already works in the profession. 

We recently spoke with Lois Shell, a pre-K special education teacher from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida. Lois has worked with elementary-age students with special needs for more than 16 years, focusing on the pre-K population for the past 12 years.

What inspired you to go into special education?

I babysat for a two-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. She was my little inspiration for teaching special-needs kids. I also volunteered at a hospital when I was younger, which developed my interest in medical issues related to special-needs children as well.

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today? 

I received my degree in special education with a concentration in early childhood from the University of South Florida. While working on my undergraduate degree I worked at a preschool to get toddler and early childhood experience. I also did internships and had practicum experience where I assisted a teacher in a classroom. I completed my graduate degree through an online learning program. I was working full-time so I took one class per semester. Eleven classes later, I had a master’s degree! 

What does a typical day in your classroom look like? 

In my class I have a paraprofessional and a “unique needs assistant” who helps students with physical disabilities. After the kids arrive we have breakfast together and work on feeding skills. Back in the classroom we do a greeting and circle time. Then we move into center time, small groups and table time, working with students one on one if needed. Later we play outside, have story time, lunch time, music and movement, and rest time. Math, science and social studies are covered within circle time and small groups. Table time is where we do manipulative activities – handwriting if they’re ready for it and pre-handwriting skills if they’re not.

Describe the specific skills a special-needs teacher should have?

Patience. Patience. Patience! You also need to be able to think quickly on your feet. Every child, whether they have special needs or not, is different. You need to be ready to adapt, modify and think outside the box to accommodate each’s child’s specific needs. For example, I had a little girl who would always throw her spoon. The occupational therapist came up with the idea to put a cotton glove on her hand with Velcro that attached to her spoon handle. The next time she tried to throw her spoon it didn’t move, and her reaction was priceless!

What are your biggest challenges? 

Meeting all the students’ varying needs. They are all on different levels with different challenges. To handle them all, first and foremost, you need to love and have a passion for the child. No matter what the disability is, you embrace it and move forward without feeling sorry or having a pity party for them. My goal is to keep them safe, care about them and provide them with the best education I can.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

Seeing the children’s reactions to their successes and the smiles I’m able to put on their faces. I’ve always loved all the kids. I still keep in contact with one of my former students who is now 31 years old!

Do you have any tips or advice for anyone considering becoming a special education teacher?

Get as much hands-on exposure as you can with the special-needs population. Volunteer with organizations like the Special Olympics. Another valuable thing you can do is to talk with the parents of a child with special needs. They are one of the best sources of information.

Lois got her master’s degree online, on her own time, and you can too! Learn more about some of our favorite online degree programs for advanced degrees in special education.

Dealing with Challenging Behaviors

I Wasn’t Trained For This

Each year, countless adults decide that they want to make a difference in the lives of children and young adults by becoming a teacher. They enter the field with idealistic thoughts of how their first year will be, but then reality strikes as they teach their first class and realize that some students exhibit challenging behaviors that impact the teacher as well as other students. Unless you are a behavior specialist or a special education teacher, many young teachers may feel unprepared to deal with varying types of behavior that occur in the classroom on a daily basis.

Challenging Behaviors Aren’t Created Equal

Challenging behaviors can be either disruptive, unsafe, or extremely dangerous. Disruptive behaviors can interfere with learning but may not be directly harmful like swearing, teasing, and breaking things. Most unsafe behaviors are potentially harmful but won’t need a hospital visit. These behaviors can range from scratching and biting to leaving school property without asking. Extremely dangerous or potentially lethal behaviors have a high likelihood of causing serious harm like bringing weapons to school. Law enforcement should always be involved in documenting these behaviors. Luckily for educators, most challenging behaviors fall into the disruptive category.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Reinforcement

The book, “Conscious Classroom Management” by Rick Smith provides a variety of wonderful strategies to address misbehavior in the classroom ranging from teaching classroom procedures to implementing rules and consequences. The best way to combat challenging behavior is by utilizing a healthy dose of positive reinforcement in your classroom. Reinforcement can be verbal praise, an edible reward, or time with friends or the teacher. Regardless of the reinforcement that you use, every child deserves to be encouraged as we try to help them change their behavior. Some important things that we need to remember about reinforcing students is that teachers should reinforce students right after or during the behavior they want to increase. If the reinforcement is delayed, then it won’t be as effective. Reinforcement should always be genuine and enthusiastic while stating specifically to the person what they did right. There is not one type of reinforcement that all students find motivating, so find out what each student is interested in and wants to earn. Reinforcement should be varied and teachers should avoid doing the same thing. Finally, layering the reinforcement system so that rewards can be earned daily, weekly, and monthly is an essential key to an effective reinforcement system.

Addressing Challenging Behaviors with Trackers or Contracts

Often as part of a reinforcement plan, teachers may contract with students to decrease the frequency of challenging behaviors. When setting up a contract with a student, the child must understand what expected behavior they are aiming for, how frequently they must demonstrate the appropriate behavior, and for how long. The great thing about contracts is that students can track their progress over time. Expectations can gradually be raised over time as students improve their behavior.

Handling Challenging Behaviors Professionally

Teachers all have stress and frustration in our private lives, so when a student misbehaves in class it only complicates a potentially stressful situation. When a child exhibits a challenging behavior, handling it professionally might be easier said then done. Some students in our classrooms might do things that even very calm people find irritating, insulting, provoking, or even intimidating. Despite these challenges, teachers must always interact with students professionally and respectfully. A common pitfall that teachers can fall into is withholding reinforcement from students when they have earned it. This occurs when the classroom teacher becomes so satiated with the negative behavior that they believe that the student does not deserve reinforcement. However, if teachers can stick to the contract, they’ll see improvement in the long run.

Practical Considerations

One thing that teachers don’t typically think about is that the behavior may get worse before it gets better. This is referred to as a behavior extinction burst. To limit this effect, teachers should make sure that reinforcement is given frequently. As a general rule of thumb, reinforcement should be happening more often than the challenging behavior. Teachers should attempt to withhold any attention given to the behavior without ignoring the student. When the student shows a decrease in the frequency of a negative behavior or when they are able to choose a positive replacement behavior to do instead, the teacher should be waiting and ready to provide reinforcement.

Conclusion: Attitude + Reinforcement = Success

Students in today’s classrooms come from all walks of life. Teachers may not be able to control which students are placed in their classrooms or the behaviors that they exhibit, but they can control their attitude towards their students and how they react to these inevitable “behavior hiccups” that occur when educating children. When teachers react professionally and strategically provide reinforcement to their students, they will be ready to handle the variety of behaviors that are thrown their way.

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5 Ways to Support Teacher Professional Learning

Learn, Learn, Learn

Part of being a professional is staying up-to-date on a research based practices. This is true for any profession, especially educators. As a school administrator, I try to provide as many professional learning opportunities for my staff as possible. By providing them many different avenues to access professional learning, I increase the likelihood that I can provide a type of professional learning that works best for the individual. Here are my top five go-to-resources to support teacher professional learning.

1. Buy Them Books
This may seem like hey no-brainer, but I will often buy my staff books to stimulate professional learning. Frequently I have conversations with staff and I recommend books for them to read to increase their understanding about various topics. Instead of lending my own books, I offer to purchase them their own book on the topic that they would like to learn about. This sends a message that I support their own professional learning and that I value it. I have found that many of my teachers are avid readers and prefer the ability to go through a text at their own pace to digest their professional learning.

2. Give Up Faculty Meetings
The second thing I do to stimulate professional learning among my staff is I refrain from conducting unnecessary faculty meetings. Instead, I still hold the meeting but allow my staff to choose an activity rooted in professional learning. This can be anything from assessment Google classroom to project-based learning. They no longer complain about coming into work early, because the meeting agenda is there’s to set. Giving staff that little bit of control does wonders to support their professional learning.

3. Visit Schools
Teachers love to steal ideas from other good teachers, so allowing my own staff to visit other public and private schools is something that my school staff enjoys. To start, I reach out to my own contacts at other schools or I will allow my teachers to use their own connections to determine which schools we will visit. Often the schools we visit will be using a particular program or curriculum that our teachers want to see in action. These visits will occur two or three times each year. After the visit a debriefing session is held with school administrators to determine what was learned and how this new knowledge will impact our own school. I have found that this activity is extremely beneficial for new teachers and for older teachers who may be stuck in a rut of doing things in only one way.

4. Conduct Surveys
Survey data is a great way to stimulate professional learning among your staff, especially if a weak area is identified. In our school district, surveys are required every year, however they do not provide good data because they’re not open-ended. I encourage my staff to provide informal open-ended surveys each year so that students and parents can contribute ideas that will make them better educators. These surveys serve as a catalyst for identifying areas that my staff can focus professional learning on.

5. Video Record Classroom Practices
The last way I stimulate professional learning with my staff is through video recording their classroom practices. We set a date and time for the video recording and then as a team, we sit down and analyze the video together. We identify strengths and weaknesses and then determine actionable goals that we can create to improve performance. This is a great professional learning tool for advanced teachers who are looking to take their instruction to the next level.

Supporting a Growth Mindset

No matter what method you use to stimulate professional learning with your staff, the most important thing is to stimulate a growth mindset that emphasizes the importance of being a continuous learner. No matter how experienced a staff member is, research continues to be conducted and new teaching strategies continue to be implemented. To keep your staff on the the cutting edge, provide a variety of professional learning activities that can meet the needs of everyone, no matter their learning style or preference.

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Meet a Teacher: Working With Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, emotional and behavioral disorders affect 10–15 percent of children globally. Disorders include attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), autism, bipolar, anxiety and oppositional-defiant. Children experiencing behavioral disorders (BD) and emotional disorders (ED) often struggle with maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships and learning in a mainstream classroom setting. Special education jobs that include working with BD/ED students present unique challenges.

We interviewed Katrina Wojtasinski, M.S. Ed, a certified special education case manager at Falmouth High School in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to learn what it’s like to teach students experiencing emotional and behavioral disorders.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in special education?

As an adolescent I struggled with learning in a traditional setting, and a high school teacher told me I wasn’t “college material.” I was self-aware enough to know this wasn’t the truth and advocated to school administration to receive the support I needed. In college I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and developed the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom and beyond. My experiences helped me realize how important special education is for those with disabilities and those who don’t learn best in a traditional classroom. 

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today?

I started as a special education paraprofessional. I’m grateful my career began this way because I learned a lot about the field before deciding to further my education. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and my Master’s of Science in Special Education from Saint Joseph’s University. I chose Saint Joseph’s University because it was one of the few U.S. colleges offering a science-based degree in the field.

I obtained certifications in special education, safety care, crisis prevention institute (CPI) and CPR/AED/First Aid.

What is a typical day in your classroom like?

I’m not sure there’s ever a “typical” day in special education but I have daily routines that help students build their organizational, social and writing skills. I work with students in a resource room for specialized instruction and in an inclusion classroom alongside typically developing students. In my resource classroom I provide children with a visual overview of the day, divided into directed instruction, mini-lessons and one-to-one or group work.

What skills are necessary for a teacher working with BD/ED students?

Patience! Although there’s tremendous gratification that comes with the field there are many, many days that bring challenges that test patience. Strong communication is also key as you’ll collaborate with various personnel involved in supporting students’ learning needs. Versatility and adaptability are also important because the environment and demands are always changing. 

What are some specific techniques educators use when working with BD/ED children?

I’ve had success with “extinction,” which is ignoring or redirecting attention-seeking behaviors. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), functional behavioral assessments (FBA) and the behavior intervention plans (BIP) are among several methods for parents, teachers and school professionals to collaborate on identifying, minimizing and replacing negative behaviors.

What are your biggest challenges?

I would say the challenges are more at the legislative level. Special-needs students are on individualized educational plans (IEPs) to best facilitate student learning. Lately they’ve become a source of contention, with court cases increasing constraints on them. 

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

The kids, 100 percent. Everything I do is for the kids. 

Is there anything that surprised you about working with BD/ED students?

How humbling they are. I had a student who was totally self-aware of his behaviors but had a difficult time controlling them. He eventually reached a point where he could seek out a trusted adult for comfort, often crying because he realized he was having a tough day yet couldn’t control his response.

Do you have advice for anyone interested in teaching students with emotional/behavior issues?

Volunteer, network or obtain a position within the field. Most importantly, reflect on why you want to pursue the field. It sounds heroic to tell people “I’m a special education teacher,” or a “behavior specialist,” but at the end of the day the people who excel are the ones who put their heart into everything they contribute.

Katrina chose Saint Joseph’s University for her master’s degree, and through the university’s online degree program you can too! Find out more about other favorite online master’s degree programs.

Inclusion Strategies for Special Education Teachers

Inclusion programs are a hot topic in special education these days. These programs allow students with special needs to learn in classrooms alongside mainstream students. Research from the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) reports that inclusive programming helps students with disabilities become more successful both socially and academically. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 6.5 million students receive special education services, about 13 percent of total enrollment. Students receiving those services have learning, developmental and/or physical disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

Training Holds the Key

A special education teacher who receives specialized training is better prepared to meet the needs of exceptional students within an inclusion classroom. Many collegiate institutions offer certification programs, bachelor’s and master’s degrees for special education jobs. These programs, such as the one at Perdue University, provide instruction on the most innovative techniques to effectively overcome different learning challenges. 

Teachers may choose specific areas of concentration such as: learning how to best accommodate children on the autism spectrum; effective ways to work with students who have visual and hearing impairments (which is among the specializations taught at Saint Joseph’s University); or how to alter teaching methods to instruct culturally and linguistically diverse learners within an inclusive setting (taught at George Washington University, for example).

Programs for special education teachers also demonstrate how to develop individualized education programs (IEP) for exceptional students. The IEP contains goals for a student, customized to the student’s individual needs and abilities. In addition, special education teachers working in inclusive classrooms assist students in the area of emotional development, helping them learn to feel comfortable in a variety of social situations.

7 Top Tips for Inclusion Classroom Success

Classrooms in which students of all abilities work side-by-side can provide a positive and supportive setting for students with learning challenges. An influential study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals and shared by NASET in 2009, was strongly in favor of inclusion, reporting that inclusive classrooms are also beneficial for mainstream students by teaching them to develop empathy and improving their social skills.

Last year, however, Education Week reported on a newer study that found some negative effects on non-disabled and neurotypical students resulting from the practice. Even the study’s author suggested more research is required, adding: “The point is, here is a situation that we have and what systems of supports can improve outcomes for everyone?”

Special education teachers must balance the needs of all their students. Those who successfully integrate their special needs students into a traditional classroom utilize specific strategies to make it all work. Here are seven great tips for inclusion classroom success:

1. Organize: Clear clutter, stabilize furniture, secure any loose cables with tape and ensure there is plenty of space for students to safely move around the room. Post clear signage with symbols that point out exits in case of emergencies.

2. Grouping: Arrange student desks into groups of two to four desks to foster discussion and encourage cooperative learning.

3. Classroom decor: Decorate the classroom in neutral tones. Avoid bright, flashy colors as these can be distracting to some students or lead to sensory overload.

4. Home base: Occasionally the social and emotional challenges of a mainstream classroom may overwhelm a special needs student. Provide a safe space where students can go to reduce stress and regain control of themselves.

5. Transition time: Transition times can be particularly difficult for students with social or emotional challenges, leading to behaviors that may disrupt the entire class. Plan ahead and create a consistent routine for transitioning students from one activity to the next. 

6. Teamwork: Help ensure the success of your inclusive classroom by maintaining regular communication with all members of the instructional planning team. Team members may include parents, paraprofessionals, support staff and other specialists.

7. Break it down: Break down instruction into smaller tasks, starting simple and working your way into the more complex concepts, using a step-by-step approach that incorporates a lot of repetition and practice. 

Preparing Exceptional Students for the Real World

Working in an inclusive classroom setting with students of widely varying abilities may seem challenging, but the right education and training can help educators create a positive and effective learning environment, successfully meeting the needs of all their students. An inclusive learning environments ultimately allow students of all abilities to develop friendships and experience success that will prepare them to enter the world beyond the classroom.

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Making the Most of Tech in the Classroom

Choices, Choices, Choices

Make no mistake about it, technology can be an effective tool to increase student learning. More and more classrooms are being outfitted with devices to help gather data for the teacher and to allow students to learn in ways that they never thought possible. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Programs are becoming more commonplace and earbuds are becoming an essential back-to-school item. However, all schools are faced with the same daunting task of determining which devices to purchase. This is problematic as more and more new devices are released each year and technology as a whole continues to move forward at a rapid pace. Regardless of the device that is used, here are some ways to get the most out of the technology in your classroom.

Meet My Friend SAM R.

The most important thing that you can remember about technology is that it is just a tool. Technology ineffectively utilized will not change anything. What you do with the technology is more important than the actual technological device. No one understands this more than Dr. Ruben Puentedura. Dr. Puentedura created the SAMR model which provides guidance for educators on classroom technology integration. If tech is used to substitute a task, then don’t expect leaps and bounds in student learning and success. However, if tech is used to modify a task or redefine a task so that students can create something new, then educators might be starting to understand how to use technology in a positive way. When the harnessed in the right way, technology can help teachers be more effective than they ever thought possible.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Because how you use a device is more important than which device you use. Educators should invest in a variety of different devices that can do different things. Chrome books and iPads are an example of two very different devices. Allowing students the opportunity to create an iMovie project about a social studies topic might be a great way to allow them to demonstrate their understanding while using technology to create something new. Conversely, having students collaborate on a Google doc about a persuasive essay might be a great use of tech in the classroom. Putting all of your eggs in one basket could be sheer folly, especially if students are more talented with one particular device or program over another. Bottom line: make sure that you provide tech options for your students and don’t limit their choices to devices that the classroom teacher is only familiar with.

Rotate, Rotate, Rotate

The last way to get the most tech out of your tech in the classroom is to realize that you do not need an entire classroom set of devices. Technology is great when it is purposeful, allows for student choice, and is used in small doses. Teachers can utilize a smaller number of devices through a station rotation format. A station rotation consists of a teacher running several small groups within the classroom that are all working on different activities. One of the groups could be utilizing a tech device for the activity. Conducting a station rotation will allow a classroom teacher to understand that they do not need a 1:1 device initiative for their school. Starting with fewer devices in a station rotation format will also help teachers be purposeful in the technological activities that they have assigned their students as well.

Tech is Just a Tool

Technology can do some pretty amazing things. It can allow for students to travel the world on virtual field trips, connect to other classrooms that are halfway around the world, and allow students the ability to collaborate on projects anywhere and at anytime. However, technology should not be used just because it’s there. Educators have a responsibility to make their tech use count because tech is just a tool and it will never replace an effective educator who uses it with purpose.

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Building a Positive School Culture

What Makes a Good School?

When acquaintances find out that I am an elementary school principal, they invariably ask me about other schools in their own neighborhood and if I would recommend them. My answer to their question is always the same: a school is as good as its culture and the people that work within it. Well, what makes good school culture? Is it when the school principal knows every child’s name? Is it when the lunch room serves their famous peanut butter bars every Friday? Or is it a combination of things that help your school be great? Regardless of what you think makes a good school, here are some great ideas for educators to help improve the culture at your own school.

1. Share Your Story

The old adage,”No news is good news” does not apply to schools. If schools aren’t entirely focused on communicating to the community about the good things that are going on at the school, then the community will assume that nothing good is happening at the school. Schools can communicate their story through social media or some other parent communication platform like Class Dojo. The important thing to remember is to highlight events, school staff, and of course the students! As schools share their story, schools will build a positive culture that will impact everyone. From taking a picture of a student and a teacher who received a special recognition award, to writing a few sentences about the fall festival carnival that the school had the prior week—all “good news” should be shared to build positive school culture.

2. Show School Spirit

Another way to build school culture is to put an emphasis on showing school spirit at your school. Do you incentivize students to wear school colors? Does your school have a mascot that a student can dress up in? Does your school have a school song and do the students know the words? Does your school feature a central piece of artwork like a mosaic or mural that depicts your school motto or something that appeals to children? Does your school have kid-friendly decorations in the halls or does it look like a really old museum? The more a school appeals to its student body and instills a sense of pride about where they go to get their education, then the more a school will build on a strong tradition of success and strengthen school culture.

3. Make it Personal

The last way to build a strong school culture to allow teachers and students the ability to personalize their school to make it home. When was the last time you asked the faculty if they wanted to renovate or update the faculty lounge? Are students allowed to give input on the classroom and which flexible seating options might be available? Are students allowed to provide input on what types of pictures and games are put on the blacktop for students to participate in at recess? When students and teachers spend as much time as they do at school, we owe it to them to provide a place that makes them feel appreciated. At our school we renovated our teachers lounge. We got rid of the horrible and ugly furniture that was dark and looked like your grandma’s basement. Now it is bright colors with blankets and snacks. Teachers were allowed to provide input on the new teachers lounge and it strengthened the positive school culture at our school. When you allow teachers and students to personalize their school environment, then the school turns into “our school.”

Good Culture Takes Time

Positive school culture can be built in a myriad of different ways, but the most important thing that anyone can remember is that building a good culture takes time. Take a walk around your school and see how personalized it is. Go outside at recess to see if students are wearing school colors.I. Ask a random student if they know your school song by heart. If your school is in need of a culture makeover, then be patient and start the culture change today. Your school’s future students will thank you for it!

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