PRIDE month might be over, but I wanted to write about how we absolutely can and should create LGBTQIA+ affirming, inclusive early childhood classrooms — including in early childhood special education classrooms.
When people ask, “Why?”, I want to respond, “Why not?” Because, to me, it’s obviously the right thing to do. I love my students and their families. Loving them means accepting them. It means cherishing their autistic selves. It means supporting their gender identity. It means welcoming their families, in all the forms they take. I want to live in a world where everyone knows that they belong, as themselves. Unfortunately, our world doesn’t do a very good job of this yet. I can, however, make sure that my classroom does.
All too often, people answer “because it’s inappropriate”. If this is you, if this is what you’ve thought, then I ask you to please sit with this post, breathe, and think through what I am saying. Those automatic responses have all too often been ingrained into you by a homophobic, transphobic world. And I am asking — for the sake of our students — to try to understand a different way. Remember that autistic individuals are up to 6x more likely to identify as trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer. My guess is that you probably know someone who identifies as such — and just hasn’t told you, because it’s not a safe world to do so. It might even be one of your students. And, yes, even in preschool, there are students who want to explore, to question, or even flat-out know.
Those kids deserve the words and language to do so. I didn’t have these types of words for how I felt when I was little. They didn’t exist, and they weren’t mainstream. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Because when we don’t have the words, when we don’t know that it’s okay, all we feel is alone. Deeply, deeply alone. Alone and wrong. I remember being brought to the store to buy “more girly clothes” multiple times per year. I remember trying, so hard, to do what everyone else wanted, to wear what I was “supposed” to wear, to fit in. I remember it being painful. I remember it being short-term, and impossible. I remember the exasperated sighs when I chose cotton t-shirts, lounge pants, and VANS. Repeatedly. I remember being afraid to cut my hair short. I remember being so confused. Twenty years later, I remember all of these things. And I’m forever, forever, forever grateful for the Internet and friends who gave me words like agender (not identifying with a particular gender) and autigender (a person whose experience of gender is influenced by their autism).
Personal experiences aside… when I hear, “it’s inappropriate”, what I hear is discrimination. We talk about boys and girls, moms and dads, in every single preschool classroom I’ve ever seen. We have whole units of study about family, dress-up corners for trying on different roles, and practice he/she pronouns when we teach language and read stories. Cis-hetero culture is mainstreamed and embedded in our classrooms as “the norm”, as “accepted”. So when we say that talking about LGBTQIA+ stories is “inappropriate”, then we are discriminating by making something taboo, turning different into “deviant”, and perhaps even sexualizing something — all of which are common foundations on which hate speech, conversion therapy, and other oppressive actions have been built on for eons and eons. My guess is that you’re not thinking about the connection, but it’s there. Think about it with something else — if you never, ever talked about red-hair color, if you only ever acknowledged blonde, brown, and black, or if you even told them that, “no, we don’t talk about that here”, then what would our students internalize about red hair? We can’t do that to our kids. We can’t do this to our fellow LGBTQIA+ humans. We can’t do this and still say we love them. We can’t do that and still say we are building inclusive spaces.
So, yes, we can make different choices with toddlers and preschoolers. We can choose to affirm a world where everyone belongs. We can choose to name things, to normalize them, to make them part of our circle. And it’s really not that difficult. Read some of the suggestions below and ask yourself, “Would this really be that hard? Would this really be too much? Wouldn’t it be worth it, if one kid felt seen? If one kid felt heard?” I know it is.
Ways To Be More Inclusive
Stop using “boys and girls” to call students to lunch, line-up, or any other activity. There are lots of other ways that you can refer to students (including… students). Using “boys and girls” to call kids to line up, create patterns, separate into groups, etc.., just reinforces that there is a gender binary, either/or. It’s an easy change.
Create an LGBTQIA+ inclusive library. Books are everything! Make sure you have books that include all kinds of families, gender expressions, etc, in your library, and do it all year long. Some of our favorites are Mom, Mommy, & Me, Jacob Wears A Dress, Daddy, Papa & Me, Julian Is A Mermaid, Love Makes A Family, and so, so many more. Fill your library with the diversity of our world.
Encourage pretend play and dress-up explorations by all students. That means boys can try on dress-up princess outfits, heels, and sparklers. Girls can decide to be the daddy in the family. Address bullying, “that’s for girls”, and “only boys do” immediately. This is the time for kids to explore the world; exploring roles is part of that. I frequently mix dress-up clothes into the blocks area, or trucks/cars/etc into the pretend kitchen area. It helps prevent gendered use of these centers and encourages imaginative thinking.
Model using different pronouns, including the singular they. This is one I find myself still working on. If I am reading a story with a character whose gender is unknown — even when it’s a lion or a sheep, I catch myself automatically referring to them as he. What? Why is he the default? That’s our conditioning, but I’m determined not to pass that pattern on. I practice using they for unknown gender, as well as using she much more often, too. I’ve started practicing before we read-aloud a book, even if it’s a book I’ve read a million times, because practice breaks that habit. I also have started modeling different pronouns when we’re playing with puppets and people.
Be thoughtful if considering pronouns as a speech-language objective. Pronouns are a common language target in early childhood special education, but I think we need to be really careful about how we address this. Too often, it consists of looking at pictures and practicing he/she. This heavily reinforces the idea that we can determine someone’s gender by looking at a picture, as well as using stereotyped images to do so (e.g., long hair is girl). When possible, I recommend using pictures of familiar people whose pronouns you do know for sure, as well as embedding practice throughout the day. I also recommend teaching “they”. You can use books to support this, such as the awesome What Are Your Words? which also has a teaching guide.
Make it normal. Don’t make it exceptional. It’s life. It’s families. It’s who you are. Read books all year long, not just in June. Talk about pronouns in the beginning of the year. Incorporate pictures of different families when you talk about the farm, or holidays, or Spring, not just during a specific family unit. Wear a pin with your pronouns. Add it to your signature line in your school email. Make all of this a normal, every day part of life. Your students will feel seen, heard, and respected all year long. They will also grow into compassionate, accepting human beings, which we always need more of.
Are there other activities that you’ve found to be successful or important in early childhood classrooms? I would love to hear them! Undoing the things we’ve been taught, “the way things have always been”, can take time and practice. I still catch new ways that I’ve been reinforcing the gender binary, even after much reflection. But it’s always, always worth it.
We are living through a really horrid time. Period. The level of trauma — from death, illness, job loss, housing insecurity — is astounding. There is, amidst the wreck around us, a desperate thirst to return to normal. But normal didn’t work for everyone. I want safety. I want healing. I also want reimagining.
And one thing to re-imagine? Special education’s heavy use of physical prompting. When I hear blanket statements about how “virtual learning won’t work for my students with disabilities”, there is almost always a reference to a “need” for physical prompting. Students with disabilities are often at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, experiencing more severe illness, or even dying. Yet we are willing to place them at this higher risk because they “need” physical prompts.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s not our students that “need” these physical prompts. Maybe it’s us.
As I’ve written before, physical prompting has a lot of caveats and even more alternatives. We should be asking and waiting for clear consent from a student. We should remember that students can remove consent at any time. We should be exploring other options first and concurrently. But that’s not what is showing up in schools. Instead, we have embedded physical prompting into how we teach, made it foundational to special education. It is an easy way for adults to get students to complete a task — and to do it in the manner the adult wants, at the time the adult wants. It’s also a tool that has the consequence of teaching our students that their bodies are not their own. Their bodies are allowed to be manipulated and moved by others. It normalizes this for our students in a dangerous way, considering the horrific levels of abuse that the disabled community still face every day.
(Side note: Yes, we can adore our students. We can work hard for our students. We can be horrified by abuse towards our students. And we can still teach in ways that unintentionally reinforce systems of oppression. Being a good teacher for our students means open listening to the impacts of our teaching, even when they were unintentional. Being a good teacher means re-evaluating what we are doing and thinking of ways to do it better. We don’t have to stay in the defensiveness of “but that’s not what I mean when I physically prompt!!!” I get it. I get that’s not what you mean. But now we have a chance to do better.)
Within virtual learning, the same reliance on physical prompting is not available for those who maybe haven’t yet transformed their practice. But that means we now have the opportunity to re-imagine our teaching. How do we teach? How do we support engagement? Creatively! Here are some of the ways we’ve supported success with our students — without relying on physical prompts. These tools can be used virtually, but they also, importantly, can be used when we return to face-to-face instruction to significantly decrease or remove the need for physical prompting.
Model skills. I love this guideline from language modeling on communication devices — “model without expectation”. When we teach communication partners to model on devices, we teach them to immerse the student in modeling. They learn to model as a way of being, rather than as a prompt for doing. Students then have many opportunities throughout the day to see others communicating in a form that they may be more easily able to produce. We really stress taking the pressure off in this process, because communication is about sharing your own message — not about saying what someone else wants you to say. Well, learning is about the process of discovery and exploration and making meaning. It’s not about regurgitating an action when someone else wants you to do it. There are also many reasons that someone may not be able to imitate actions on demand — apraxia, anxiety, autonomy… Indeed, many autistic students show more strength with delayed imitation, showcasing the modeled skill when both context and supports align.
We also need to recognize our student strengths when modeling. Modeling isn’t just about in this moment — and it’s certainly not about being in person with each other. I’ve been able to use a lot more video modeling throughout virtual teaching, and my students have thrived with it. Each video is no more than 3 minutes in length — and often 1 minute. I quickly demonstrate a skill that we are learning, from the names of shapes to the way we form letters for names. I’ve sent videos of myself playing dinosaurs, reading books, and creating cakes with Play-Doh. Students can then watch these videos on their timing — when their body feels safe and ready to engage in learning. They can watch it one time, five times, ten times. They can watch it now and again in seven weeks.
Priming, chunking, and repetition — with variety. These three tools should be used way more often than physical prompting, yet I see them written into IEPs way less frequently. Priming is a preview of a skill or concept prior to when it may be taught in class. If tomorrow’s class is going to speak about the causes of the Revolutionary War, key terms could be reviewed or introduced prior to class, whether in a session with a teacher, through materials at home, or even through one of those video models! It helps prepare students to engage with the material more deeply by activating background knowledge — and decreasing anxiety! It can also be a preview of an expectation or an opportunity to respond. For example, a student who may require time to build a message on a communication device could be given their question for morning circle in advance (if they prefer to prepare their message in advance).
With chunking, we break larger concepts or skills into smaller, more manageable sections. Like we chunk telephone numbers into 3-4 digits at a time, we can chunk the information and activity into pieces more easily stored, manipulated, and mastered. I have started to prefer this term as “task analysis” tends to lend itself to an ABA approach, which is not what I’m advocating. But we call can get overwhelmed when given too much information at once, or when a task involves far too many challenging skills and not enough “just right” learning opportunities. With chunking, it could be breaking a 30 minute lecture into 2-3 minute video clips, with opportunities for practice in between. Or it could be a student practicing circles and stars in a sorting activity first, while an adult continues to take turns, where they model the other shapes for now. (Yes, I teach preschool.) The size of those chunks is really going to be dependent on the student in front of you, but ensuring that we are working within that “zone of proximal development” also ensures that we are staying in emotionally safe, ready to learn zone. Everyone wins.
Repetition with variety is a phrase I first heard from Linda Burkhart, and I fell in love. Repetition with variety means that we teach content and skills multiple times but with differences. It could be teaching letter sounds across transportation, farm, and zoo themes in preschool. It could be exploring new content vocabulary through picture, video, and hands-on materials. It means that our students get that repetition of the word or skill, but they get it from different angles and different examples. Special education is known for our love of repetition, but YIKES when we don’t include that same rich variety of content that all students access. First of all, it’s an educational and human rights issue. Our students have the right to access the general curriculum. They have the right to learn. They did not lose this right when they were found eligible for an IEP, and yet so many of our students access to repetition has robbed their access to the curriculum. Second, this is how our brains build connections. I love Burkhart’s example at the workshop I attended, which was around the concept of “shoe”. (But you can do this with any word or idea). When we think “shoe”, we don’t envision one or two or even five images that we were drilled repeatedly. We think about so much more — what it looks like, how many different kinds there are, what they feel like, when we wear them, where we get them… We have an entire schema built around “shoe” that cannot be taught with picture cards, nor can it be assessed through trials. We must include a variety of experiences in our curriculum so that our students can build ALL of those neural connections. Finally, it’s so much more interesting! I am autistic and I love familiarity. I love sameness. And I also still get bored out of my mind when something is the exact same way, over and over. Variety catches the brain’s attention and keeps us engaged.
Support emotional needs. Learning is hard. We will make mistakes. We will feel incompetent sometimes. Adults still avoid both of those things. For learning to happen, our students need to feel safe. They need to feel physically and emotionally safe. They need their accommodations to be respected and delivered, their sensory needs respected. They need encouragement. They need their teachers to respect fight-flight reactions, be present with them, and create the space to re-regulate (or co-regulate). They need to know that IT IS OKAY TO BE MAD, including BEING MAD AT US. It is okay to be frustrated. They also really, really need to know that you know they are competent, capable learners. (This also means not using baby voices that you wouldn’t use with other 13 year olds.) Each student’s individual needs may look different here. But it cannot be forgotten.
Multiple means of expression. When I model skills during a synchronous lesson, I am fully aware that in-the-moment imitation and response can be difficult for my students. And so I never, ever assume that students are not learning or do not have the knowledge because they cannot express it in a specific way at a specific time. I may model a concept through song, demonstration, or a game-like Google Slides activity during a synchronous lesson, with opportunities to respond via vocalization, gaze, or gesture. But that’s not the only way students can show their learning. Instead, we create multiple opportunities in multiple formats for students to showcase their knowledge during a unit. Students may make letters with Play-Doh, stamp letters on paper, or match letters in a See-Saw activity. Families can choose activities from BOOM, See-Saw, file folders… Art and toys…. All kinds of ways, all kinds of skills. We are all about finding best fits for students and their families.
We also look for that knowledge in different ways. Many of our students use their bodies to communicate more easily than they may use words. What are they telling us with their bodies? Do they move differently when one of the choices is stated? Do they look at a different part of the screen? Are they shifting the type of gaze? I am 100% over “need to generalize” being used as a stand-in for “need to show it on my assessment tool when I want”. Learning is our goal. And our students show it many ways. My daughter may turn her head, watch something from the corner of her eye, pause her music, or reach out during a lesson. Each of these actions tell me something about what she is learning, her response to the material, and what she is thinking. And none of them are inferior to saying or touching the answer on the screen.
Time. I’ve said this over and over again, but we need to make sure we are giving our students enough time. They need wait time in the moment. They need the time and space to show their learning in ways that work with their ways of thinking, communicating, moving, and being. Time is not something often found in our rapid pace, standardized testing world. But all — all, IEP or no IEP — students need it.
Blanket statements about how students with disabilities cannot learn in virtual settings ignores (1) the ableism inherent to these blanket “cannot” statements, (2) the responsibility of educators to adapt and accommodate, and (3) the very real problems inherent in physical prompting. I have seen students with complex communication needs and complex bodies be successful within virtual learning. I have seen and heard of autistic students, students with intellectual disabilities, students with learning disabilities be successful.
Is virtual learning during a worldwide pandemic ideal and sustainable and sunshine-rosy-perfect?
That is obviously not what I am saying. I am not ignoring the real challenges that educators, families, and students all face in our current world. I am not ignoring the stress that each parent feels as they wonder if they are doing enough, if they are being enough. (You’re doing awesome. I appreciate you. Thank you.)
I am saying that our students can learn. I am saying that we have the opportunity to gain teaching skills and techniques that will make us BETTER teachers when we are able to be safely together again. I am saying that we have the opportunity to imagine and create a better model of school, where physical prompting is a rarity, where students own their own bodies, where multiple ways of learning are recognized and celebrated.
I am an autistic adult. Many, many autistic adults have been traumatized by the world, simply for being autistic. There are so many things that people do that hurt, unknowingly.
Removing and controlling autistic people’s passions is one of them.
It seems harsh, maybe. But when you take away the Dora, the Pitbull, the Ben 10, the repeated final scene of End Game?
It hurts. It traumatizes.
First, we allow allistic (non-autistic) children their interests. We encourage their passions. We take them to dance camp and pay for travel soccer teams. We should do the same for our autistic children. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Legos, or yarn, or the way the light filters through the blinds. It’s their love. But, also, autistic passions are more than just “likes”. For me, it is integral to my very being, like breath and thought, intertwined with all the joy and brightness that exists within me.
One of the worst insults I’ve received, one of the ones that has stung and last the longest, was when colleagues told me: “Gosh, you really love this job” about teaching in a way that implied “too much”. Because it’s what I want to talk about, always. All day. It shut me down, closed out connection, and cut at the very heard of who I am.
Growing up, free access to everything I loved is one of the ways that I knew I was loved.
To share an autistic passion, to see it, to experience it… It is an autistic love language.
My mom bought me every Titanic book and helped me find cool Titanic exhibits to see. She stored bins and bins and bins of newspapers from the time when I was laser focused on politics and the media. I was allowed to spend whole days in my books, days and days.
My grandparents decorated their guest room in Little Mermaid when that was all I would watch. They recorded my absolute hands down favorite episode of Babar so that I could watch and re-watch and re-watch, long past the age that other kids were watching. They created Saturday morning routines and stuck to them, because I needed them.
Some of my daughter’s largest smiles are when we sing, “Click! Take a pic!” on repeat for twenty minutes (especially if we can do it in the pool). My son loves to show off his collection of sticks that he’s found.
Think about this when you tell a child that they spend too much time talking about Disney, or when you ask them to comply with neurotypical standards before you deign to “provide access.” Or when our children hear that they must hide this part of themselves, that it’s “too much” for their classmates or friends. That they must change. They must be LESS.
What are you telling that child about themselves?
What are you telling them about the things they love?
What are they learning?
And is that the story you want them to learn? Are those the feelings that you want them to have?
I use See-Saw for both in person teaching and virtual learning. Here are some of the ideas and ways that I’ve used See-Saw.It worked well last year. We will see how it goes this year Hopefully there’s some inspiration here.
Daily Announcements / News
Each morning, I post the link to our meetings, our learning goals, and a “to do list” of available activities. It helps when things could otherwise feel overwhelming or get buried. I post this by “post student work – note”, but you could also do it through a photo or video.
Student Work (Photo / Video)
During the school year, I share photos and videos of students from their time at school. It’s such a nice way for families to see their students’ learning in action in a way that IEP goals just cannot always capture. It also helps us all be on the same page. I do this by “post student work – upload”. Parents oftenl send me photos in the message center, but they can also post them to student journals in the See-Saw Class app.
Parent Support (Photo / Video)
I also share 2-5 minute videos about different strategies that we are using at school. Families can send photo or video of something they are trying or want assistance with. It’s a great tool for asynchronous sharing of multimedia.
The message center is amazing. I set it up for push notifications, so I know when someone has messaged me. We can message back and forth, similar to text messaging. But you can also send photos, videos, links, etc, just like real text messages. It keeps the whole history of conversation so you can scroll back as needed.
Student Activities: Hands-On
See-Saw is also a tool for asynchronous virtual learning. You can create assignments that allow for students to submit photos, video, notes, etc… This frees you to move away from the screen, which is a concern with many families and teachers. How do we engage around play? Communication? I have an assignment to practice rolling balls with Play-Doh. Students can then send me pictures! We’ve done sink or float experiments, stacking blocks, practicing requesting water (drink or play), and so much more. I love to also post a video fo myself modeling the activity. Rather than needing Flipgrid, it can be completed right there in the same app.
Student Activities with Screens
You can also create activities that you complete inside See-Saw, similar to Google Slides, drawing, etc… Again, it’s a great way to do a variety of activities without having to change apps. You can create or search activities for drawing / coloring, drag & drop, video, photo, etc… We’ve sorted types of animals, traced letters from our name, added photos from our homes for big / little, and counted out loud while the microphone recorded. Providing FeedbackYou can give feedback to students and families through commenting on any post — or even sending a video to students talking about what worked well! Some useful things to know:
Folders will help you organize your life. Teachers and parents can pull up just one folder, so it’s easy to scroll back through newsletters, links, etc… The two most common ways I’ve organized are either by type of resource or by subject area.
When you tag multiple students in one post, then every tagged student and parent will be able to see each other’s comments. This can be great when you want to encourage connection, but something to be mindful of for more private notes.
I set my account so that all posts and comments have to be approved by me. This makes it so I can read parents comments but not post them if they are personal.
Are you still learning the See-Saw Activities Center? Search the community! There are so many activities that you can copy to your library, edit, and play around with to learn how to write directions, create templates, etc…
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that changing our behavior is one of the most critical ways we support our emergent communicators. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count… A child communicates successfully in one environment, only to struggle in another. A student has back-and-forth conversations with one staff member, but says nothing to another. We are quick to blame the student or — worse — to not believe the student, their family, or their staff about that student’s previous success. But when do we look at ourselves? What could we be doing that leads to this shut down, this quieting?
In the field of supporting people’s communication, we tend to hear a lot about “creating communication opportunities” and “engineering the environment”. The role of the communication partner is often seen as someone who blocks access to items in some way, and then prompts the student to request or comment about that item.
This is not being a great communication partner. For starters, few people would like to live a life in which access to everything we love came through gatekeepers. It is not fair. It is not respectful. It also doesn’t teach voice. Instead, it teaches that you can perform this specific action to say exactly what I want and get the item that I’ve selected. On top of this, it creates pressure and demand, two things that frequently make it more difficult for our students to access their language or motor skills.
I believe in our students. They have so much to say. And, most importantly, they have a right to say what they want, when they want, how they want. If you’ve made this mistake, if you weren’t taught to center autonomy, there’s still time to change.
Start by believing your students. This is not just the first rule, but it is the hands-down most important rule. When your students say something, that is their voice. Believe that they are saying something. Respond accordingly. Do not say, “I don’t think he meant that.” Do not say “she’s just playing around.” Do not ignore, walk away, pretend it didn’t happen. If there might be a mis-hit, because we all mis-speak sometimes — wait and see. Or ask — just don’t assume. Conversation is an art of co-creation, and we must respect our students as that co-creator. Even with our earliest and youngest communicators, who may babble and explore as they learn where words are… They benefit from us responding to their words. They learn the meaning and context of those words by hearing our response.
In my Spanish lessons, if I say the wrong word for what I mean, my teacher still responds. She works with me to figure it out. This is the basic building block of seeing me as a competent communicator, as someone who will be a fluent Spanish speaker one day. This is also why I keep trying. No shame. Our kids know whether we believe they have voice and autonomy, if we believe that they can be fluent communicators. They know whether it’s worth the effort. They also know when they will be doubted, misheard, misunderstood, and disbelieved. And they stop talking. If a student is not using their communication system in your environment, but used it elsewhere… Ask: What can I do differently? What did they do to support them? Do not just write it off as an exaggeration or that it did not happen. (That was a really, really long paragraph. But I cannot overstate this as a key difference between environments where kids are successful, and environments where they are not.)
Give plenty of wait time. Oh my gosh, guys, can we please just slow down? Have you tried to use a communication device to express your thoughts? Even when very familiar, it can take time. Auditory processing, anxiety, apraxia… There are a dozen reasons why our students need time, and zero reasons why we shouldn’t give it. Stop asking question after question. Stop assuming they can’t do it if it can’t be done within 5 seconds or 10 seconds. Stop assuming they can’t do it if it can’t be done on demand. Learn to observe. Watch for communication all day long. Comment, ask your question, or perform your action — and wait. Wait 15 seconds. Wait 30 seconds. Wait 2 minutes. Observe your student to see what their wait time is, and then wait. Count in your head if you need to. Learn to be okay with silence. Ask or observe if they prefer your attention — eagerly watching and directing your gaze to them — or if they prefer you to turn away, continue with an activity, or come back to them in a few minutes. There are a wide variety of needs. Our students will tell us what theirs are, if we’re listening.
Stop asking so many questions; comment and wonder. Think about the conversations you have with your friends, your loved ones, or even your speaking students. We comment. We draw attention. We describe our feelings, or theirs. We typically don’t engage in 20 questions every time we converse with our friends. Why do we do this when someone is nonspeaking? Why do we pepper them with questions? Why do we relegate them to the role of respondent, and never initiate? We can do the same with our AAC users. We can comment on their actions — describe what they are doing, describe our own actions, share our feelings, connect their words or actions to something else we know. If you don’t know, try wondering. Try offering choices. This allows you to be equal communication partners, but it also can decrease the anxiety and difficulty responding as the demand drops significantly. Students can respond when they are able and want to, instead of feeling pressured to respond when we want them to.
There are so many more ways to converse that don’t involve questions. Examples of adult commentary that pepper our snack times (not all at once), with key words highlighted: You look hungry. You have an apple for lunch. I love to have apples. I ate an apple last night. I wonder if you want your apple whole or cut. I wonder if you want your banana or apple first. Oh, it looks like you want the banana. I wonder if you need help to open that. Let me know if you need help. Your friend has a banana too! I had so much funbuilding with you before lunch. I wonder if we should build more or play music after lunch. You looked happy when you were building. I wonder what we could tell your mom about your building… It looked tall and red.
All the words, all the time, for all the reasons. This is just a reminder that our students need so much more than a few nouns. They need action words, describing words, complaints! They need to tell us how they feel, where they hurt, what they did last weekend. Even if they are not yet doing that now, they need to be able to grow into that. When we say “core words are too hard” and then don’t include them — we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every student has a right to as many words as they can access. They have a right to have those words available everywhere they go. And they need us to be modeling all of those words. We cannot just model requests or happy words. We should model “this sucks” and “I hate this” and “leave me alone”. We should model “stop” and “help” and “need” and “tell” and all kinds of words. We can model what it looks like to comment, to protest, to ask questions. (Yes, our students should be able to question us for once!) Communication autonomy cannot happen without access to lots of words (and a keyboard!) Too many times students have stopped using their communication systems or shown low interest simply because they could not say what they want to say. My students’ first words have been everything from “mad” and “stop bugging me” and “play” to “train” and “fruit snacks” and “hungry”. All the words.
Respect the power of their voice. This is honestly a repeat of the first one, but, yes, it’s that important. If our kids use their voice to tell us to stop, then we need to stop. If they tell us they need a break, then we need to give a break. We can compromise, we can negotiate, but we must listen. The quickest way to get a student to shut down is to act as if we do not care. My daughter once was asked if she liked a book. She clearly said “no” with both her voice and her body (tapping a “no” button). The teacher took her hand and said, “Yes, you do like it”. My daughter learned so many things that day. She learned that her opinion was both wrong and didn’t matter. She learned that other people could put words in her mouth and manipulate her body. She learned that it was not worth the effort. When I saw that video, I was no longer surprised that my daughter did not use her communication device in that class. Because why should she?
Go with the ebb and flow of communication. Communication growth spurts come and go. There are times when our students may be chatterboxes, and other times when they go silent. My daughter may not use her communication device for 3 months, but then use it to talk to me back and forth for 25 minutes. It could mean that she’s focusing her energy somewhere else. It could mean anxiety or illness or sensory processing or even just a temporary change in preference of communication form. It doesn’t mean everything is lost. It doesn’t mean that we stop doing any of the above things. It means that we are patient, that we stay with them, and that we respect whatever communication form they are able to access in those times.
Let’s commit to being better communication partners — though the highs and the lows. Let’s show our students that their voices matter to us. We want to hear them. Them. Not us. Not what we think should be said or done. But their truest voice. Because the world needs that voice. We need that voice. And they absolutely have a right to that voice.
Let me start with this: distance learning is made possible for our families because I run a preschool classroom, not a discrete trial instruction classroom. My focus is creating access to the rich literacy, math, and play-based experiences that are the foundation for a life-long love of learning. Is distance learning perfect? No. I would much rather have my students in my classroom every day, laughing and making memories together. Is it possible? Yes-ish, or at least as best we can, given the circumstances that we’re in.
Yes-ish: Because distance learning is inequitable. The end. Some families have easy access to internet and multiple devices. Some do not. Some families have time or a stay-at-home parent. Some do not. Some are more worried about health, job security, and food on the table. Understandable. Some students are able to sit and work for a little while. Others need direct adult support for every activity. Some know many words on their device, while others are very emergent communicators. A good classroom for our students is a classroom where universal design and accommodations create access. And not all of the elements needed transfer easily to distance learning.
Yes-ish: Because to try is better than not to try. When possible, I’ve done what I can to make distance learning more equitable. I use a platform that I know all of my families are able to access. I assist them to fill out the information needed to get technology support through the county. I use a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, a combination of hands-on and sit-down activities, so that each family is able to flex learning around their needs. But it’s not perfect. And any conversation about distance learning has to acknowledge that. It’s doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been given.
Our Distance Learning Plan
AAC System Support – We started a video-based parent training on AAC earlier this year, and finished out the training modules as schools went into closures. Every two weeks, I will send an activity template that encourages modeling and creating communication opportunities at a specific activity or routine. I also post a video explaining or modeling how to do this, pulling from videos I have of their own students when possible.
Sample Schedule – I sent a sample morning schedule home to families who may be struggling to figure out how to structure their day. I was torn about this, because I don’t want to put pressure or stress on families. But several families asked specifically for some guidance around this. The schedule alternates a more structured activity (e.g., reading a book together) with child-directed play. For example, breakfast – movement activity – literacy choice – play – snack – movement activity – math choice – play.
Activity Menus – This is my favorite. It’s my favorite because 1) it requires no technology or computer, 2) there’s built-in flexibility, and 3) this is where I can list ideas for hands-on activities. I am creating an activity menu every two weeks for families. There are five activity ideas each for literacy, math, sensory, and outside play. Yes, that means that half the menu is movement-oriented. It was a deliberate decision. Activity menus allow me to encourage and describe the more hands-on ways of learning that we love in early childhood in a way that isn’t otherwise easy to capture in a “packet”. All activities have been done previously at school. They typically range from 3-10 minutes in duration. They also can be repeated frequently.
Daily Prompt – Every day I post 1-2 prompts to See-Saw for a quick daily check-in with families. Some days, I connect it to the Activity Menu. For example, I shared pictures of home obstacle courses for inspiration on Friday. I’ve also connected it to communication, such as asking students to share what their favorite snack is using the picture communication board or their talkers. Finally, I’ve sent videos of read-alouds, modeling AAC while singing a favorite song on YouTube, and puppets practicing articulation. All quick and easy. The goal here is not to overwhelm families with a jam-packed schedule, but to provide a variety of opportunities. I want families to be able to design their day. Do they only have time for their child to watch video read-aloud while they fold clothes? Great, done. Do they need more things to fill their day, or are they worried about a specific academic skill? Great, we are building a whole library of prompts that you can go back and revisit anytime you want.
Manipulatives – Guys, if you could see the backpacks. When we first closed, I crammed everything I could. Puzzles. Bingo Dotters. Watercolor sets. Paintbrushes. In an ideal world, I would love to make a little “distance learning kit” that I could drop off at homes. Bubbles. Shaving cream. Water beads. Play-Doh. I would fill it with so much sensory. Preschoolers benefit so much from that sort of hands-on, get messy play. Rich sensory experiences provide communication opportunities, language development, science exploration, build math concepts, and strengthen motor skills — and fun. I’m not sure our society gets this, with how much we have to fight for developmentally appropriate practice. It’s something I am trying to stress with my “everything is optional” and “play is central” and “look, so much movement” activity boards. Because it’s true. Play is the work of childhood.
Office Hours – I’ve set virtual up office hours twice a week where I am available for parents to come, ask questions, share experiences, etc. I am pretty available on See-Saw via messaging, but wanted another option. I think sometimes families are afraid to bother me with requesting an appointment or time to talk, so I am hoping this eases their mind. I have them set up once for the morning and once for the evening so that families can choose the time that works best for them.
Virtual Circle Time – We have circle time twice a week right now. It’s filled with music, singing, and dancing — and, of course, lots of modeling on talkers. Even our stories are video stories. I wanted to make it super enticing and enchanting. I really didn’t want my families to have to spend time fighting their child to attend. I don’t even do that in real life… We use sensory regulation, children’s interests, and choice-making to entice children to circle. It’s just that there’s a lot less opportunity for hands-on action in virtual circle time. So we’re focusing on embedding literacy and counting concepts in our favorite songs and stories as we come together each week.
Visual Supports – I’ve offered home picture schedules, first/then boards, and other visual supports to families via digital access or mail.
Optional Activities – Finally, for families who want more, I am posting additional — but very optional — activities on See-Saw. I post a teaser each Monday on activities that are available, and students / families can choose to log-in to complete them or not. These tend to be more structured activities, but still short. There’s currently an activity for matching letters and one for creating your own school bus (including adding pictures of yourself or your family). They can be completed one per day, all in one day, randomly throughout the week. Some families have asked for the code to log-in. Some have not. It’s all good.
Throw in a ton of “this is optional” and “do what you need” and “I’m here for you” reminders… Then that basically sums up our current distance learning plan. I hope it sparks some imagination for you if you’ve been struggling with how to reach your littlest friends or your students with higher support needs. May you find the right combination of magic to support your families, whether they wish for a lot or a little.
I am in my fifteenth year of working in special education, including one brief year as a coordinator. (I missed daily direct work with students far too much to stay.) But there is little that changed the trajectory of my career as much as becoming a mom to my two children did. Both of my children receive special education services — and at many different places on the “continuum of services” over the years. Sitting in their IEP meetings, building relationships with their schools, seeing the way my children were included (or not)… We teachers think we know. I thought I knew. But school and home are not the same. Parenting and teaching are not the same. There’s just so much that I want to say.
We are fighting because we have to. If we seem fierce, if we seem frustrated, if we seem like we’re always anxious about something… It’s because there’s always something to be anxious about. Other kids show up on the first day of school. They just show up. And now they have access to reading, writing, math, and friendship. They hear stories, read to their teachers, read with friends, and learn to spell words. They are taught number sense, reasoning, measurement, and so much more than counting and computation. They experiment! They go to lunch, recess, and resources with their peers. They are assumed to be capable of learning these things. My daughter didn’t get this until she was in sixth grade. My son once didn’t have some of his accommodations implemented for 4 months, despite repeated emails and meetings. On another occasion, the school implemented multiple behavior plan systems with him that were known to trigger fight/flight — despite multiple reminders that his very IEP stating “no behavior plans without team consent”. When we have a great teacher, we know. We know and we are so 100% on your side. We just want the best for our kids. I promise.
Open communication isn’t about helicopter parenting. The statistics are not great for our children and adults with disabilities. Seclusion, restraint, bullying, and flat out physical or verbal abuse are rampant. I understand that there is no way for a parent to know everything that happens every day with any child. I understand that many general education students come home and share minimally. It’s different. It’s so, so different. Our kids are hurt in places where they should be safe — often. We see these stories in the news. We may have lived these stories with our kids. And even when they are physically safe, our kids are left behind in other ways. They are taught separate curriculum, given meaningless grades, or meaningless tasks. My daughter spent several months clipping clothespins to the side of a box or sorting highlighters and pens in her fourth grade year. Their voice may go unheard, as a teacher says “you didn’t mean to say that”. (We have a video of our daughter once saying, “NO” when asked if she liked something. The teacher then hand over hand prompted her to say yes instead.) I understand this whole paragraph is very negative. I understand that if you’re a great teacher, you’re thinking — but not me! Not all of us! That’s wonderful. I’m glad. Show us. Show us that it’s not you. Show us every day, every week. Tell us what you’re teaching. Tell us about your daily schedule. Tell us when our child has a great day or a hard day. Show us some of the things our child is learning so that we can see their progress. Show us so that we can practice at home. Show us so that we can advocate for them in the future because we now know — they can.
Believe in our kids. Give me all the strength-based everything. Strength-based IEPs. Strength-based report cards. Strength-based notes home. Guys, we know our kids are behind. The doctors, therapists, education professionals, and even strangers of the world never fail to remind us. I get if you need to share what the math benchmark score is and where it should have been. But can you also tell me about the time my child was really kind to a kindergartener who was lost in the hallway? Can you tell me how they read a book independently for the first time? The time they made a new attempt at a word, stood for 20 seconds longer than usual? Or all the unconventional ways our children are leaders, go-getters, and bring value to their communities? Maybe they have skill with learning the routine, with trying to solve problems independently, with finding creative ways to self-soothe and self-regulate in a busy classroom. Every child has so many strengths. Let this part of your IEP be big and detailed and long. Let my child shine in your eyes. They will feel the way you see them. We will, too.
Be kind & listen. This probably seems like it doesn’t need to be said. But you cannot imagine the things our children have experienced, or the things that teachers and administrators have said to us. We’ve had administrators tell us that the community would be banging down the door to complain if our child was included for 30 minutes of instructional time a day in elementary school. This is a literal quote, recorded in a meeting. We’ve had home-school communication concerns dismissed as “but she didn’t hit herself that hard, so that’s why no one told you”. Listen when we have concerns. Empathize. Speak kindly about our kids and our family when you have concerns. I want to hear your concerns — just think about how you’re saying them. It’s so different to say: “He can’t be in that class! He’ll disrupt everyone!” and “I’m worried that his anxiety will really spike in this specific setting. He is making a lot of progress with XYZ supports. I really want him to feel calm, regulated, and ready to learn.” Or this: “She doesn’t know any of her alphabet,” versus “She loves to explore alphabet letters by picking them up and looking at them. She will occasionally say one of the letters, but it’s hard for her to consistently name them yet.” THEY. ARE. SO. DIFFERENT.
We are doing the best we can. This applies to the clothes our students wear, the lunches our students pack, the homework folder that doesn’t get checked, whatever it might be. I get that we sometimes might do things that are very frustrating. I am open and honest about how I AM TERRIBLE AT CHECKING THE HOMEWORK FOLDER. I suck at sending in lunch money and permission slips. I get this is a lot of work for you to remind me. I wish it wasn’t this way. Remember, we also are always juggling medical appointments, therapy visits, multiple special education teams, home physical therapy programs, etc — an enormous mental checklist — on top of all the regular ways that we just want to be a family. We just want to watch movies together, build Lego designs, and go to the park. We want to hang out with our kids and appreciate our time together. Sometimes that means that we suck at things. Thank you for being so kind and compassionate and understanding when that happens. Thanks for finding ways to work with us. (My daughter’s teacher now emails when she has a form to sign, or sticks a note in her lunchbox when she needs clothes. I SEE YOU AND I THANK YOU.)
We want our kids to have a sense of community & belonging. My kids have been almost everywhere on the continuum. They’ve been in general education with minimal supports. They’ve been in private day or hospital settings. They’ve been everywhere in between. I understand why the continuum exists. But we can still ensure our kids have a sense of belonging and community, wherever they are in the continuum. A sense of belonging comes from all the little things — having a place to hang your coat, a desk with your name, a chance to be the star of the week, even if you’re only in the classroom for short periods. It comes from teachers and administrators wanting our kids in their schools and shining a light on our kids’ talents, so that all children can appreciate the value that our kids bring to the table. It comes when other kids know your name, wave hello to you in the hall, and ask how you are doing. It’s being on the stage with your peers, not on the floor next to the stage. It’s being at the table with your friends for lunch, not separate and far away. It comes from being invited to participate in school-wide events, whether it’s PTA spirit nights, talent shows, grade level school performances, or field day. It’s about being more than an after thought.
We are a resource and can do great things together. As we grow as parents, we gain so much knowledge. We know what worked for our kids in previous classrooms. We know what helps them communicate. We know what this adapted sign, that vocal approximation, or this sign of frustration means. We have learned from all the teachers that we had before. We can help you problem solve. We can brainstorm. We can (*gasp*) help write IEPs as we share our children’s strengths, the needs we’ve seen over the years, the skills they’ve carried over or haven’t. We have so much value to add as an equal part of the team — if you’ll have us.
I’m in a virtual book study exploring Koppenhaver & Erickson’s latest work, Comprehensive Literacy for All. I can’t wait to share the things I learn from the text and the discussion. One of the early elements that always leads to a lot of conversation is around the time piece. Erickson & Koppenhaver recommend a minimum of two hours of literacy instruction per day. This can be incredibly overwhelming when teachers are new to literacy instruction in the special education classroom, but we need to remember that it’s not necessarily one solid two hour block. And, even more importantly, it’s definitely NOT two hours of the drill or discrete trial instruction that many of our students have previously experienced with literacy. It is immersion in real reading, and real writing. It is authentic. It matters.
Our preschool literacy instruction looks different than an elementary school literacy block, because we’re preschool. The primary occupation of preschoolers is to play, not to sit at a table or to complete numerous teacher-directed activities. That being said, it’s still very common in early childhood special education classrooms for literacy instruction to be reliant on rote memorization or occur significantly less than in a general education classroom — especially in special education classrooms that serve students with complex bodies or communication needs.
I get it… We aren’t really taught about emergent literacy, supporting literacy in students with complex needs, or meaningful literacy instructions in our special education programs. I’ve been in special education programs across 3 different universities in 2 different states, including programs that led to both general education and special education licensure. I’ve still self-taught most of what I understand about literacy. Our kids have the right to the same high quality tools, the same comprehensive approach that their peers access each day. As such, I thought it would be helpful to showcase the ways that we target literacy skills across the day.
Of note, I teach in the most restrictive preschool public school placement in my county. All of my students use AAC systems and assistive technology tools to participate in various parts of their day. I mention this because no student is too anything for literacy instruction. Ever.
Personal Belongings: Students practice name recognition by locating their cubby to place their items.
Sign In / Out: We also have had students “sign in” by moving their name, writing their name, or otherwise indicating that they are here. We do a similar activity at the end of the day. Signing one’s name is NOT a hand-over-hand act. It’s not about perfect letter formation. It’s about creating meaningful connections about print — what letters mean, why we write them, what our names are… It’s really important that it’s not just a disconnected routine, but that there is a purpose. I’ve used sign in to help students locate their cubbies, to sign up for an activity, or to help me do attendance. Students typically sign independently first (which could be one dot on a page). We then model how we would write their name. This is a great opportunity for use of alternative pencils.
Schedules: We make our individual schedules with the students each morning. It not only gives us a chance to talk about each day, but to also showcase another purpose behind text and how it can convey meaning. Although our schedules do use pictures (as the goal is to be able to use them independently), we draw attention to the print and the letters. We also can showcase how we read from top to bottom.
Quick activities: We have recently incorporated activity cards into that transition “down time” where students are waiting. We started after seeing a similar activity in an Erikson math video. The use of a visual to reference, combined with communication devices, makes this a more accessible “transition filler” for students. We might look at letter cards and name them, find letter sounds on the keyboard, or think about words that start with certain sounds and letters. If students do not know, then we model and talk about it together. It is not repeated drill of a letter. It is not hand-over-hand “this is the right answer” errorless learning. It is a quick check in, a moment of connection, a chance to chat about letters, numbers, and provide a little structure to time that can be hard for our students to manage independently.
Clean-up Chart: During clean up time, students have assigned jobs. These jobs rotate every week. They can find their job by looking at our clean-up chart that is posted on our projection screen. We use names of students (not their photos) so that they are learning another way print can be meaningful and provide needed information.
Circle Time Activities
Calendar / Message: We start with a 5 day, Monday through Friday calendar in our circle. As the year goes on, we are moving into the full month. But it was really important to me that calendar be something that didn’t just act as a vehicle for literacy and math, but made sense to their lives. I wanted it to feel important and manageable. Our calendar has a picture of what they will be doing in art, any special activities, etc… As a shared writing activity, we use that calendar to create a message about the day.
Words of the Week: We have 2-3 core words every week that we highlight at every circle time. We look at the picture and the text at circle, while I model the words for each child. Some students like to model them for their peers. These words are typically connected to the songs that we are singing.
Question of the Day: We read a question together, and then students respond by moving their names. The question is typically connected to daily routines, special activities, or our thematic content. We mostly ask preference / opinion questions as our students are very emergent communicators, but mix in some fact-based questions at times (e.g., “Which one of these is a dinosaur?”) The question is another opportunity to use their name for meaning, but we also connect the different answer choices to letters and print. For example, one question was, “What do you like to do outside?” We had run, walk, and climb. We talked about each option, modeled it on the talker, and modeled the sounds we hear at the beginning of each word.
Voting: We love to vote! We vote on which songs we will sing, on which activities we should do for sensory, on what we should cook, and so much more. Voting, like question of the day, is a chance for students to make meaningful, real choices using their names and other print concepts.
Songs: We always connect songs with their titles — and sometimes their written lyrics. I’ll also search for our songs on YouTube, while modeling sounding out the word, finding the right letter to enter, and using that search engine. Once again — it’s meaningful, it matters, it’s important to the students, but it also is a fantastic vehicle for building a lifelong literacy foundation.
Literacy Concepts: I didn’t highlight the specific literacy skills for each activity, because they really have an endless number of possibilities. On some days, we focus on letter recognition and letter sounds. We might find the letters in our message, in the calendar, or in our schedule. At other times, we focus on tracking text left to right. Students take turns to track it with pen, pointer, etc. We’ve also clapped the syllables for different words, counted the number of words in out sentence, and practiced touching one word at a time.
Directions: We use visual supports for our art activities, which typically includes a model. I always write short directions to go along with the visual. The staff member leading that activity draws attention not just to the picture, but to the printed directions. Although preschoolers cannot independently read directions, that’s not the point. The point is to model all the different ways that print adds meaning to our lives. The point is that students need to see us reading, writing, and participating in literacy experiences for a wide variety of purposes.
Tell me about it… During and after art, we always encourage students to tell us about their artwork with their talkers. We try really hard to keep this open-ended, and so we might say, “I notice lots of…” and then describe colors, shapes, sizes, etc… We don’t want to tell them what their art is, but we do want to model the language used. We write down ANYTHING they dictate to us. ANYTHING. If that means I write, “one one one one one one one one one”, then that’s what I write. I ask questions. I wonder out loud. I show them how much it means to me that they are sharing their words with me.
Signing: We always encourage students to sign their work! Similar to above, it’s not about hand over hand writing a name. It’s about saying, “This is mine! I did this!” Through repeated opportunity and modeling, we scaffold towards writing their name in more standard form over time — a process that all kids go through.
Activities in the iPad center are super individualized to each student. We have apps that cover a wide variety of rich experiences. Students scribble, draw, and make stories in alphabet and story apps. They match and sort (which is a huge favorite in our room) in ways that include letters and words. The Endless Reader apps are also a fan favorite, especially when each letter makes its own sound. We do also have some interactive books on iPad, which can be a great gateway for students who are still discovering an interest in reading and listening to stories.
Reading – We engage in shared reading activities in groups of 1-3 students. Students also have the ability to self-select books at any time during the day. We are pretty open to self-selection of books happening anytime, anywhere. Shared reading is a different type of experience than just reading the text to students, and I’ll elaborate more on that in another post.
Writing – We engage in shared writing and independent writing several times a week. We use visual structures, assistive technology, and pictures to support students to write. Sometimes we create a story or write sentences together, such as when we each talked about where our monster liked to jump after singing “Five Little Monsters Jumping on the Bed”. At other times, students select images from their week or preferred things and write on their own. This is another process that I’m hoping to expand on in a blog post soon. Because this tends to be a little more teacher-directed, this doesn’t happen every day. With older students, we would likely rotate through this center daily — but we are still preschoolers. We are made to play!
Play – The most important! We have letter toys, letter magnets, giant letters, letter blocks…. We have alphabet dinosaurs, acorns, and lollipops. We have so many alphabet puzzles, from inset piece to 48 piece floor puzzles. We play with song and sound and silly noises. We explore and experiment with letters. We have dry erase markers for coloring on the board. We pull out crayons and shaving cream and play-doh for making scribbles and letters. This is so much more important than any structured writing activity could be at this age!
Pretend Play / Blocks
This is probably where our incorporation of print activities is weakest. I have so many ideas on how to incorporate literacy, but it can be really difficult to implement them. For many of my students, pretend play and blocks tends to be more challenging for them (in comparison to visual activities, puzzles, gross motor, etc). When we add the literacy element, such as making a sign for a building, taking a lunch order, or looking in a cookbook, it can become too much or too teacher-directed. It turns from play to work. We are working to choose one embedded activity that we might include per unit. For example, we are adding cookbooks and menus to our kitchen center for the next few weeks. When we talked about sharks and fish, we had hanging charts that students could reference about sharks and fish. The use of these items is often primarily adult modeled at this time.
However, we focus HEAVILY on providing aided language stimulation (adult modeling of student devices). This is an important part of literacy for our students, as the speaking and listening components are essential to being able to convey meaningful ideas through both spoken and written language. Each and every student in our classroom has access to a robust vocabulary AAC system, which means LOTS of words. We model request, comments, questions, protests, social engagement… Our goal is to model language on a device every single time we are talking and interacting with a student.
I often see on the web these days about how tantrums and meltdowns are different. I understand the importance of connecting meltdowns to sensory and emotional overwhelm, of teaching others to be compassionate and kind in these moments.
My concern is not with how we characterize meltdowns. It’s important for people to understand meltdowns and how to best support the people in their lives. There is so much good writing out there about meltdowns, and I strongly encourage anyone with children in their lives to go read or watch it.
My concern is with how we are characterizing tantrums. More and more often, this discrimination is used by the layperson to imply that there is an element of control involved in a tantrum. A willfulness. A “he just doesnt want to”.
I don’t buy this. It’s not possible for me to work from the philosophy of “kids do well if they can” and for me to see a tantrum as manipulative, or to say “well, she’ll learn to stop when she realizes I’m not giving her what she wants.”
Tantrums, like all other “challenging behavior”, happen when a child’s skills bump up against an environment orexpectation that surpasses their ability to cope. Basically: no, they do not have the skills. They are not in total control. They still need empathy, understanding, and support. They need support to re-regulate in the moment. They also need support to learn the long-term skills needed — and to navigate the triggering environments while they develop. Our job is to meet the need (which does not necessarily mean providing the child’s momentary goal, but does mean connecting with them and centering our relationship.)
Let’s take the classic example of the two year old who wants a lollipop in the store, but has been told no. The child begins to scream and kick the cart, yelling “I want my lollipop.” Yes, this is a tantrum. But — this is still a child who is missing the skills needed to cope with the environment and demands they are facing. This is a child who does not yet have the skill to cope with disappointment, who cannot yet safely express disappointment, who cannot yet negotiate for a compromise, who cannot picture when they will next get an item, who has difficulty shifting from one plan to another. This is not a child who “is in control” and “just didn’t get what they wanted”. We all face times where we don’t get what we want; how we face those times depends on those skills. And to complicate matters: our ability to use those skills and cope are always in flux. Outsiders may see a child mid-tantrum, while the mom knows that this is also a child who is overtired, who missed their nap, who is late for lunch, who is bothered by the lights of the store, who is dealing with big changes at home, and so on.
With all of that happening, isn’t it better to err on the side of “this is a kid who is doing the best they can”? What harm would come from that?
What does that mean in the moment? Regulation takes priority. Connection comes first. And we don’t let fear of “reinforcing the tantrum” keep us from connecting with the little person in front of us. What that looks like depends on the child. For some students, that means empathy and providing language to match what they might be feeling inside. For others, it may be silence or a deep squeeze or simply waiting out the storm in compassionate companionship.
Teaching does not come first. Talking and lectures and conseuqences? They all don’t happen here. Because it doesn’t matter how many lagging skills there are, we cannot teach them in those moments of dysregulation. We can only teach when the person we are supporting feels calm, safe, integrated, and connected to their “upstairs brain”.
And, yes, sometimes that means modifying our expectations. If a toddler regularly has a tantrum in the grocery store about a lollipop, then it might be that they are not quite ready for the grocery store. Maybe it means having the toddler have a grocery “job” so they feel connected to parents during the busy moments of checking out. Or maybe it means that we get our own bag of dum-dums that we carry and provide one upon entering — here’s your lollipop for our trip today. None of this is “giving in”. This isn’t “weakness”. This is meeting our kids where they are. This is providing the scaffolding that is required for our students to be successful. This is helping them get to the next step, one day, when they’re ready.
The best part? Our strong relationship, our many moments of co-regulation? That’s going to set them up for more success than any consequence, ignoring, or lecturing ever would have done. And you are going to feel so much better through the process than you’ll ever feel from leaving a child to cry, placing them in time-out, or otherwise disconnecting.
If you’re looking for more resources on connection first, I cannot recommend the work of Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson more highly. The first step in their Whole Brain Child is “connect, then redirect”.
Disclaimer: Please remember that the work of early childhood is play. All of what I’m about to say is important, for sure, especially for older kids… But also — we need to stop being so focused on work in early childhood. We have pushed down the work expectations more and more each year, but 3, 4, and 5 year olds — even six year olds — should be playing for the bulk of their day. They should be experimenting, exploring, being curious, and living the idea that learning is a fun, full-bodied experience. That learning is something they initiate, they do, they are. Most of our best learning happens way outside of structured work. That is how we create life-long learners.
There have been a lot of questions over the last few weeks about how we engage in students in teacher-supported and teacher-directed learning activities. I think it says a lot about the culture of coercion that can seep into our classrooms, especially in special education, that this question is so pervasive. Before you get defensive, I have been there. I am writing about my past self as much as anything else. It can be hard for me to sit and reflect on the mistakes I’ve made, even when the mistakes are a decade ago. But I’m grateful for the readings, the mentors, and the students who have taught me along the way. And I will forever be committed to doing better in their names.
Things that I don’t do: withhold all the things a student loves, sanitize the environment, require sitting for instruction, “escape extinction”, physically prompt (force) through all of the actions… And, yes, my students to engage in teacher-directed (I choose the activity) and teacher-supported (we choose the activity together) activities throughout the day. Yes, they work many times throughout the day. Yes, they have expectations and rules. Yes, they learn lots of pre-academic and academic concepts. Yes, you can hold high expectations and meet student needs. Yes, you can accommodate and respect students’ bodies while teaching new concepts. Yes, you can pursue student interests and celebrate who they are.
We focus on relationships and felt safety. Students need to feel safe. Students need to know that they can trust you. Students need to know that you will not harm them, that you will help them self-regulate, that you appreciate and honor their needs. This comes first. No other learning can happen when our stress systems are activated. There’s a reason “connect” is the first step for responding when reading any discipline book that wasn’t written by behaviorists. (I recommend basically everything by Daniel Siegel, by the way.) If we spend the first days, weeks, and months of the school year working on establishing these relationships and building self-regulation skills, that is not lost time.
We use visual supports. We have picture schedules, work time schedules, bathroom sequences, visuals for where things belong… We have pictures of what work looks like, what specific expectations look like, what self-regulation can look like… I do not make visuals just for the sake of making visuals. I assess the needs in the classroom and make visuals that will support students to meet expectations. A great example of this are visual cues for directions. In the past, I’ve printed visual cues from TPT — and promptly found that none of my staff were using them. It was overwhelming; it wasn’t targeted to our specific needs. This year, keychain lanyards are specific to our class rules & lining up. These are the times we’ve most found that we need a visual cue. And now they are both used by staff and understood well by students. This means I can’t usually print a bunch of stuff off the internet. I have to custom-make our visuals, and I have to do so many times throughout the year. But they actually work for the needs that come up, and that’s what matters.
We adapt the work to meet the need. I have students who complete 5 work tasks in a row, who work for over 15 minutes, who have to be told, “Please leave work time, because your friend needs to take a turn now.” I also have students who have been working on completing 1-2 actions with an object. Or students who need to take three 15-30 second breaks of running across the room before finishing their work. This is the power of rotating schedules — flexibility to meet student needs. If a student can only work for one minute, then we start with working for one minute. If a student can only do 3-5 pieces of a task, then we might start at 2-4 pieces. We build stamina and engagement over time, rather than forcing a pre-determined time and wondering why students are melting down. Some students prefer to do the hard work first, followed by the easier thing. Others prefer to build momentum by doing easier tasks prior to hard ones. The work itself is also adapted to the student need. For example, if we are sorting letters and numbers at circle time, a student who has trouble scanning an array of 8-10 items may go last — when there are less items to scan. If we are doing finger-painting art projects, but a student detests the feel, we may let them do it with the paint inside a Ziploc. Or just give them a paintbrush, it’s not that big of a deal.
We pursue student interests. Notice that it doesn’t say use student interests. I don’t artificially stack on interests in an attempt to get students to do what I want. I don’t just stick a picture of Mickey on a folder and call it a day. But we do pursue their strengths and interests. If a student loves to count, then I’m all about building on their math skills and expanding the depth of their counting. If a student loves everything alphabet, then let’s practice problem solving and spatial awareness with alphabet puzzles. Let’s look for letter sounds with magnet letters hidden in our kinetic sand. We can read No David for the four hundredth time. We can match letters and sounds within a book we made about your favorite song. If a student loves the magic of dropping something inside a bin, why not do sorting with these bins instead of plates? My daughter’s OT used to practice categorizing with her favorite television shows, so they could talk about her favorite characters, their catch phrases, how they are alike and different. One of my students loves to make pretend soup. I’m going to the library this week to get cookbooks and picture books that will enrich his already awesome play. These are all authentic tasks, expansions on interests.
We are flexible about seating. Students don’t have to sit. They can stand. They can sit in a chair. They can sit on a stool. They can sit on the floor. Yes, I have students that get their work tasks, bring them to a preferred part of the floor, and complete all of their work there. It’s fine. People worry about — “but what about when they are 19 and they have to XYZ?” They aren’t 19 now. We have to stop the pushing down of developmental expectations. We don’t get ready to sit at 19 by forcing extended siting at age 4. We get ready by teaching self-regulation, self-advocacy, motor skills, engagement, etc…
We are thoughtful about scheduling. Most people think of scheduling simply as “if you do the work, then you get this awesome thing”. But that’s not exactly what I mean. When I schedule rotations, I’m very mindful of how, when, and where each student gets placed. Some students need to move their bodies very hard and active before they are able to engage in teacher-directed work, so they may have lots of gross motor play before their work time. Some students need a big chunk of free play time, while others prefer more structured tasks. Some want to complete all of their work at once, while others prefer it split into many sessions. I also work really hard to make sure that no one has to leave a most favorite thing in the world to go to their least favorite thing. Because who would ever want to do that? Mindful scheduling also applies to large groups. I schedule circle at times that will be successful for the biggest chunk of students. Before our morning circle, students may be engaged in gross motor play, sensory manipulatives, or morning snack. Those activities are available to help student self-regulate and adjust to being in the classroom in a way that meets their needs. They are then much more ready to learn and engage in a big group activity. Morning circle tends to be our most successful of all activities because of this.
We talk to our students; we empathize. Hard work is hard! We use “we can do hard things” from Glennon Doyle as a catch phrase all the time. It started in my own family, became a class mantra, and now is even in our student talkers. We all need pep talks and encouragement in our lives. Our students need it too. We talk to them and visualize why something is important. We talk about how work time is like exercise for our brains, making our brain grow in the way that running makes our legs stronger. We talk about how letter sounds help us read words. We empathize with challenges, offer help, and problem solve together. Our students also do not have to be able to talk back yet for us to have this conversation. It is basic respect.
We are mindful of anxiety, apraxia, and pathological demand avoidance. I’m not going to go into detail about each of these things, because they are all their own long blog. But I think it’s important for special education teachers and support personnel to become more educated about each of these — what they can look like, what they feel like, and how they can be accommodated. Work with occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other knowledgable professionals. Read the words of autistic and disabled adults who write about their experiences. For some students, it can be as simple as asking a question and providing plenty of wait time, rather than giving a demand and expecting it to be completed. Others may need a lot more accommodations. That’s okay. That’s what we’re here for.
What Work Time Looks Like
Work time can look very different depending on the students’ needs.
Student A. We approach SA with their schedule. “Let’s check our schedule, it’s time for reading.” Student A takes the picture from the schedule and matches it to the books center. We point to the visual “choose a book”. SA looks at the books but does not make a choice. We wait. After 15-20 seconds, SA picks up one book. We bring their book to the table, pull out a seat, and ask SA to sit with us. They walk to the table and open their book, which happens to be a favorite. We browse the pages together, using core words to describe what we see, pointing out letters, and asking students where various things are. When SA touches the words on a page, we write an observation note. After we have flipped through their favorite alphabet book several times, SA looks to us, looks to their talker, and says “go”. We say, “Yes, of course, go. Can you put your book away?” We hand the book to SA. They put their book on the shelf and run to gross motor center.
Student B. We approach SB with their schedule. “It’s time for work!” Student B is playing with an alphabet puzzle and just put the letter J in the puzzle. “Oh, I see you are finishing an alphabet puzzle. Let’s finish the puzzle, and then it’s work time.” Staff allow Student B to finish placing all of the letters in the puzzle without interruption. Once SB is at a stopping point, staff show the schedule to SB again and offer their hand. SB takes the adult’s hand and walks to work time. When they get there, a shape and color sorting activity is on the table. SB stands at the table and begins to look at each shape. They pick it up, twirl it, and examine it from multiple angles. Staff allow this exploration of materials, because, really, why not? After several minutes, SB attempts to put the square in the circle hole spot. They try this multiple times and then put the piece back down. Staff state, “Hmm… let’s try a different way.” Staff pick up the square and place it on the square spot. They repeat this action several times so that the student can see what they are doing. They hand the square back to the student, who then places it on the square. The student and staff member celebrate this together. Later, the student has trouble with matching the triangle and needs to twist it. After showing, the student is still not able to do so. The staff person asks the student: “Can we do this together?” and holds out her hand. The student puts their hand on the adult’s, and together they twist the triangle to put it in. They do this together for three triangles. The student takes the fourth triangle and puts it in independently and grins. Staff give the student a big high five!
Student C. Student C is listening to a “Baby Shark” book when we approach to show them their schedule. Baby Shark is their all time favorite. We remind them, “Yes, you can bring Baby Shark, but it’s work time” and hand the work time picture to them. They begin walking to the right area, but then walk to the side and hang the picture in a different place. Staff grabs the picture and says, “Work time is this way. Let me show you where I hang this.” Staff get low next to student and point to the work time area, showing the picture again. Staff offer the picture to the student, but the student does not take it. Staff carries it to the work time area and calls the student. The student walks towards the staff and approaches the table. The student places their “Baby shark” book next to their work time area. They look at their work time schedule, pulling the “triangle” off and matching it to triangle on the shelf. They take the “triangle” bin to the table and complete the puzzle inside. They put the bin in finished. They look at their schedule and see “square”. The student does not take the square picture, but turns to the shelf of work time activities. They pull off the circle bin and bring it to the table. Staff say, “Yes, you love the counting cows! Let’s count!” and joins them in counting the cows and putting them in a line. After several minutes of playing with the counting cows, staff point to the student’s schedule and show the square again. The student puts the counting cows in the finished bin, takes the square and matches it. The student then completes their second work activity.
Student D. One staff approaches Student D with the art time picture. SD takes the art time picture to art and hangs it. They look at the art project for today, which is creating a tractor from construction paper cut-outs, and then run away. Staff wait for one minute for the student to re-regulate and then approach again with the art picture. The student says, “No no no no no” and then hides their face. Staff say, “We will try again in a few minutes.” After several minutes have passed, staff re-approach student for art project. The student continues to refuse. Staff go to the art center, collect the student materials and bring it to the student on the tray, moving to where the student is. Instead of forcing the student to participate through physical prompting, staff opens the glue and begins to put the glue on the tractor piece. After glue is on the piece, staff offer it to the student, “Where should this go?” The student turns their head. Staff place the tractor piece on the construction paper. Staff put glue on the wheel and then offer it to the student. The student turns towards staff this time, and watches as staff puts it on the tractor. The student maintains gaze on the art project, so staff offer the glue stick. SD takes the glue and puts a speck of glue on another wheel. Staff exclaim, “I love it when we work together!” and finish putting the glue. They hand the wheel to the student and they place it on the paper. Staff and student continue to work together, taking turns and doing different pieces of the art project until it is complete.
Student E. Student E uses a first/then visualization to help them throughout the day. This student also uses iPad activities for learning. We do schedule the harder, more hands-on activities prior to the iPad sometimes. Hard work is hard. Many of us need time to self-regulate after completing something challenging, and this student self-regulates though iPad play. The sounds, the visuals, the structure all seem to help them stay feeling good in their brain and body over the day. It has really helped this student to 1) know when iPad is on their schedule, 2) know what comes after hard work (it’s not always iPad), and 3) know exactly how much work they have to do. One way that we prevent this from becoming coercive is by having iPad scheduled multiple times through the day. We have times where all students get access to iPad, and that includes this student. We do not hold their work from 10am over them at 11:30am. At other times, the schedule might read “first circle time, then Starfall”, “first reading, then work time”, and “first lunch, then play centers”. I share this to emphasize that the first/then board is not a token economy, but is specifically about making the schedule and expectations visually clear.