Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Creating Tasks

Creating tasks, they are referred to as task boxes most of the time because we use a lot of boxes to put them together. However, in truth, lots of other types of containers are used, including simple folders.

The rules for creating an effective task:
1. Have a clear beginning
2. a clear path to follow
3. and a clear ending.
4. Begin at the left and go to the right, just like we read words.

That’s it! Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words? So for this article I am going to show pictures of some of my favorite tasks and include a brief description for each. Not all students who benefit from this type of structure are low functioning, many can read and are working near their grade level! They need to learn new skills and be motivated to keep moving forward.

This task can be adjusted depending on students skill level: counting one type of coin or a mixed set. Writing the amount or using number cards to identify the amount. The velcro strip along the top is for the number cards. 
Matching objects to a photo

fine motor skills, the tweezers light up as an additional motivation!

Reading simple sentences...matching to the real object.....the finished product goes in the last box.

This task has been modified several times, it started with a real picture, then a line drawing, words were added and then the drawing is phased out, leaving only the words to match.

There are some awesome books with task ideas, once you start making them, you will get your own ideas, it will be based on:

  • your students' skill level 
  • current curriculum 
  • materials you have available
Basic materials: duct tape (gray and colors), velcro, boxes, envelopes, folders. I have a box full of various items that are waiting to be in the perfect task. These are the pieces of games, puzzles, old programs, that you no longer use, but hate to throw away. Task building is recycling!

Remember that if a task doesn't work, don't give up, modify....adapt....sit down at a desk and be the student, does it make sense?  When you present it to your student, you almost always spot the flaw immediately!

I have many more tasks I would like to show here, but for now I think I will finish this. Please contact me, ask questions, make suggestions!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Using Visuals

It is absolutely true that a picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to teaching children with communication delays.  Using visuals with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder has been well documented, but they are also very helpful for all children.  It really is better to point to a picture, rather then talk, talk and talk some more.

Temple Grandin, a well known adult with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) has shared that she “thinks in pictures” and using visuals has helped her to become a successful independent person. She recommended that teachers and parents adjust the environment and their teaching strategies to this type of communication. Teachers can use visual supports to assist students who have difficulty with social interactions, behavioral challenges, organization, transition and communication.

When I first began to use visuals with my class, I would display a medium size visual with a word or phrase in the order of activities that we were going to do. I had a daily schedule and another for group activities. I didn’t use it for every step of the day, I wasn’t sure HOW to.
A schedule for Circle time

When we began to expand the use of visuals, each student had his or her own schedule, the type of visuals varied, based on each student’s skill level:

Object first/then schedule
a) objects: tangible objects that represent an activity. For example, a puzzle piece or peg to transition to the fine motor table or a marker to attend the art table.

b) photos or drawings: There are some handy software programs to assist with picture schedules. Taking digital photos is also a good option. Taking a picture of the place they need to go to is very helpful.
Digital photos

A checklist for the reader

c) words/phrases/sentences: Introducing words/phrases with a picture is many times the best way to ease into using words only.  Students who can read are successful  using a clipboard with their schedule attached, they can read and cross off each item as they complete it. A plastic sleeve is useful in putting the schedule in and erasing at the end of the day.
Depending on the student’s ability, the idea is to move them up through these type of schedules, the less cumbersome the schedule, the more mobile it is, and the more successful the schedule is in the long term.

Here’s the process: 

1. Hand student a “check your schedule” cue.  The cue can be a card or an object such as a domino.
2. Student goes to their schedule, located at their home desk or perhaps located in a central area that is for transitions.
3. Student looks at their schedule, if they have a removable item, they take it with them, the item/picture card leads them to their destination. They may place the item in something at the destination, an envelope or a box or even a puzzle or peg board where their piece finishes it.
4. At their destination, the next picture schedule tells what is happening while they are there, what is expected and when it ends. It is reassuring to them to know it will end!

The power of pictures became very evident to me when I was attempting to work with an Autistic student. He was resistant to sitting with me to do the lesson. I put a picture of the  work table on his schedule and he willingly walked to and sat at the table.  The lesson was one to one correspondence counting to 10. I had a number line 1-10 and 10 counting bears. I modeled first, placing a bear on the number 1 and saying “1” and so on. Nothing. I tried a little hand over hand. Bad idea! He screamed and got under the table. I got out my digital camera, took pictures of myself placing a bear on the number line, I went up to 5, hoping he would continue after getting to that point. I printed them out in black and white (color ink is expensive and we usually have to buy it!), glued it on a strip of construction paper.
I went back to the work table, yes, he was still sitting under there! I got on the floor and showed him the picture strip, I had starred the first picture of the sequence. Here is the miracle! He took the strip from me, got up, sat in the chair, and completed the activity! He smiled big at me! It seemed he was saying “Finally! You are making sense!” I nearly cried. After that, he happily worked with me whenever it was on his schedule, our “work schedule” got less detailed, but he still would try everything I presented to him.

Schedules and instructions aren’t the only uses for visuals in a classroom.  They can be amazing in behavior management, show a student a strip with 1-5 on it while he is engaged in a fun activity, tell him (or sing it) “5 more minutes to play”, he removes the 5; adult moves away; return in a short time (we don’t really time the minute) and say/sing “4 more minutes to play”; repeat until student removes the last number and gently begin the clean up song. Depending on your student’s needs, a picture of the “clean up” might be under the 1. The key is for the student to move the numbers, they acknowledge they know a transition is coming up. We sang it because our student loved music and singing, we could get him to look and focus with music.

Organizing all these visuals is overwhelming! You have spent a lot of time printing out these cards for specific activities and will use them over and over, but you need to be able to find them when needed again! I am still working on the perfect organizational system for them, I have 3 drawers full of bags of cards and strips with Velcro. When I pack for summer school, I try to figure out how to travel with them and make them useful. One idea I have used for the last couple of years is a large 3 ring binder system. Cut  file folders in half, label the tabs, apply rows of Velcro so your cards will stick, then you can flip through quickly and find the picture you need.



Fettig, A. Meadan, H., Michna, A., Ostrosky, M., Triplett, B. July/August 2011, “Using Visual Supports with Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, Teaching Exceptional Children.

TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-handicapped Children) Classroom Training, 2009.


Pictures were made from Mayer-Johnson's Boardmaker and/or Writing with Symbols 2000 programs.

Monday, January 7, 2013

How to begin

How do I begin to set up a successful program for children with various disabilities?

This has to be the most frequent question asked by Special Education teachers! It is asked repeatedly, because the students change, and therefore, their disabilities and needs change continually.  In this world of budget cuts and larger numbers in classrooms, we have to be creative to educate children in general. It is especially a challenge to effectively educate those with disabilities. In one classroom, there may be students diagnosed with Autism, Downs Syndrome, Learning disabilities and Cognitively Impaired. Each one learns differently, each one requires and deserves our attention!

I am a teacher and case manger for elementary students, who are considered to have “intensive” disabilities. The way my program looks has changed dramatically in the last 5 years. Five years ago I had a self contained classroom (self contained is defined here as a  classroom that has strictly special education identified students and special ed. staff). We did our own thing pretty much, I was master of my curriculum and schedule! I have always followed the philosophy that my students can learn what the general ed. students are learning, only it might need to be presented differently and slower. So that’s how we rolled for quite a while. That didn’t work for everyone. That’s the special education mantra isn’t it?
My classroom has evolved, more children being in regular classrooms all day, with support from us in that classroom! Exciting and scary!

My goal  is to share what has worked for me, both in a self contained setting and in a “regular” classroom setting.

The Inspiration
A few years ago, I attended a class presented by TEACCH. (http://teacch.com )I was feeling discouraged, nothing seemed to work. Sure, I could keep everyone busy, the room was organized, there were lesson plans for every day, but were my students PROGRESSING?  I observed other teachers who were using TEACCH, in a pre-school setting, they mostly had what they referred to as a TEACCH desk and would work with certain students at that desk. The organization of TEACCH, use of visuals and schedules looked very promising to me. I work with  students in the kindergarten through 2nd grade range. I usually have a mix of ages and a variety of disabilities.  TEACCH is geared toward people with Autism, but what if everyone followed the TEACCH model? Of course, individualize for each student, some students had object schedules, another a picture schedule, some had simple words, some had a clipboard with basic sentences. The important thing is that they knew what to expect. It was a lot of work initially and you can drive yourself crazy setting up a schedule for just one kid! Now you are thinking this is a TEACCH advertisement, but really it’s not! Their program helped me find the path, but I adjusted it to fit my students and my own needs. We special ed. teachers know how to MODIFY and ACCOMADATE ( or my husband, an ex Marine, would say “ADAPT and IMPROVISE”) The other very important thing I learned from TEACCH was how to create activities for students to do that were interesting and motivating to them.

The activities (tasks) can be time consuming, but they are never a waste of time! Even when the student has moved on, there is always someone else who can learn from that task. It might sit there for a year without use, but then someone shows up at your door and asks if you have a task for a specific skill and viola! My tasks are organized (sort of) and in one place, I loan them out all the time and the appreciation from teachers and teacher aides is rewarding.  I also teach summer school and they come in handy!

Next time I will talk more about using schedules and visuals. In the meantime you might be interested in googling and learning more about the TEACCH program in North Carolina.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Welcome to my blog! I am a special ed. teacher in Alaska and I have accumlated some great experiences along the way.