Why, yes, we do work.

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. 

image of two tangrams, one kite and one fire truck, on a table.
This student selects their work time from an array of choices.

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. 

An alphabet puzzle that one student loves to include in their daily work time.

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. 

image of Abby Cadabby from Sesame Street in 3 different costumes -- witch, orange robot, and wolf-doctor.
Play is the work of childhood; playing dress-up with Abby Cadabby was an October circle time activity.

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. 

image of a page of numbers with blanks to fill in: 3,4..., 8,9...
exploring number sequences with a number-loving student

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.