* Survival tip #7 : Never leave class without one

Without what?  A substitute teacher!

Ask any teacher and they will tell you about the multiple times they’ve worked while sick.  Shh.  You’re not supposed to be in school with a fever.  I think there’s some kind of guilt complex and performance thing that affects teachers as soon as they’re licensed.  But a special education teacher?  It’s much more complicated.  How many subs are standing in line to work in a self-contained classroom?  As a self-contained classroom teacher of kids with behavior and emotional disabilities, I was VERY unlikely to get a sub.  As in, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.  Fortunately, I had an amazing assistant who could carry on if I got really sick.  She and I always joked about what would happen if we were both sick at the same time.

You guessed it:  Both of us got strep throat at the same time and we were flat on our backs.  Neither of us knew the other was out, which was the only reason I stayed at home.  Of course, there was no one willing to sub in my class.  The brave assistant principal and an even braver resource teacher took turns with the class.  I heard through the grapevine that the assistant principal gave up, I think after being locked out of my room.  And the resource teacher got chased out of the room by the kids.  Neither one ever talked to me about that day.  The kids were silent when I asked how it had gone, so I knew it had been bad.  Troubled water under the bridge….

As a resource teacher, subs were usually available at least one time, but they had their work cut out for them.  The problem was that I had no way of finding out how things had gone unless there was actual damage in the room.  When my blinds were broken, I knew the day had not gone well.  Or when parents called the principal, saying they would not send their child to my room with a sub.  I always attempted to pry information out of the kids, but they were usually reticent, still a bad sign.  When the kids did talk, I knew it was serious.  One sub went through a massive bag of Skittles in two days, giving out handfuls of candy to induce cooperation.   Even with the bribes, kids were quick to tell me that she was mean.  On another occasion, the kids gave me odd looks when I asked the usual, “How did it go?”  One student said, “Maria got on the table and showed us her underwear,” so I figured that was not a great day either.  In case you are wondering why I needed subs, since I have certainly taught while sick, these absences were strictly professional leave.  (I can HEAR you!)

I do not understand why anyone would ever want to be a sub, as much as I have (sort of) appreciated them.  I had to sub for a classroom teacher who was the antithesis of me.  She had the “recess” voice, of course.  That’s the booming voice of authority that penetrates cinder block walls.  She also had a certain flair for sarcasm and a knee jerk response to any sign of insubordination.  Me?  I have a teacher “look” but I didn’t know the kids’ names, I had little idea what they were to do, and no one seemed to hear me speaking.  It did get better over time, but it wasn’t my finest hour (or three).   The turning point occurred when some students were picking on a special needs kid.  They saw the fire in my “look” and that seemed to clear the air.

My best info on substitutes came from my son when he was in middle and high school.  I was always pleased that the classes were well-behaved when a sub was there (of course he was telling me the truth).  It seemed that that by 6th grade, kids and subs had a clear working relationship:  the kids would be quiet if the sub didn’t ask them to do anything.  OK, I’m not sure that was the whole story.  But it does seem like one way to survive as a substitute teacher.

* Bullying Against Students With Disabilities in Delaware

Stay tuned for my post on bullying. This is such an important yet painful topic but I promise to offer some hope.

Exceptional Delaware

In a study done in 2011 by the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council on bullying, the council found that 3.2 million students are bullied every year on a national level, and 3.7 million students engage in bullying behavior. As well, each school day it is estimated that 160,000 students miss school because of bullying. These are alarming statistics, and unfortunately students with disabilities are often the victims of bullying. The report states “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees all students and adults have access to a “free and appropriate” public education. If “peer-on-peer” harassment infringes on this right, then schools, parents and state entities must be prepared to advocate and intercede on behalf of bullying victims. This position statement outlines the DDC’s stance on bullying students with developmental disabilities and possible courses of action to limit further bullying.”

In the 2011-2012 school year, there were 549 substantiated (determined to…

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* Complex Trauma and Mental Health in Students

This post serves to remind us that many kids do not come to school “ready to learn.” In fact, they are hanging on for dear life. Let’s be sure that we (their teachers) aren’t creating further trauma.

Teacher Talk

The students I work with have significant emotional and behavioral challenges.  At our school, the staff has been getting training in being a trauma-informed learning environment.  Our local mental health service providers have worked with us and been a good resource for us in this endeavor.  We also were given a good web resource with tons of information about how mental illness affects kids, and how it looks in the classroom.  Further, there is an entire resource on complex trauma; those are the kinds of kids that I work with daily.  Now that I can see behavior through a trauma “lens,” it helps me remember that behavior is a message, and I need to figure out what the behavior is telling me.  

Complex trauma is when children are exposed to a traumatic event multiple times; this is different than a one time traumatic event which may cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder…

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* Grateful for small mercies

To respond to the Daily Post’s prompt: How often do you get to (or have to) be awake for sunrise? Tell us about what happened the last time you were up so early (or late…).

I was a teacher in a district where elementary kids were standing at bus stops in the dark during the winter months.  I had the bittersweet pleasure of watching the sun rise next to the school roof.  Sometimes, as the sky was transformed into glowing colors, my heart was also transformed.  My grouchiness about rising so very early was exchanged for gratitude: I get to see the dawning of a new day! I get to see lives changed! I get to spend my days doing what I love!   Other days, I clung to my whining complaints and only shed them when I saw the kids walking or running into school, their faces as bright and beautiful as the dawn.

* The Top 10 Special Needs Blog Posts of 2013

The Top 10 Special Needs Blog Posts of 2013 as posted by The Special Needs Resources Blog.  I especially enjoy reading Karen Wang’s postings, a candid look at life in the special lane.  I am searching for special ed blogs out there; if you have any recommendations, please let me know.

* Mentoring 101

Mentoring takes courage.  For the teacher being mentored, it means collaborating openly, sharing your strengths and weaknesses, and being teachable.  For the mentor, It means exactly the same.  I’ve mentored many teachers over the years, with mostly positive results.  As a special educator, it’s been a stretch for me to mentor regular classroom teachers, as well as those teaching foreign language and PE.  But the basic parameters are always the same.  Just like teaching kids, your mentoring relationship can be a natural fit or you’ll discover that you must work hard to develop an effective connection.

Given my background in teaching kids with behavior problems, I have often been assigned (or offered to help) teachers whose classroom management skills are sketchy.  At first, I found it hard to predict the outcome in this type of situation.  One teacher (let’s call her Jan), had a spotless room, incredible organizational skills, and a permanent smile.  Unfortunately, she seemed to be missing her radar.  That’s a serious issue.  How can you navigate the deep seas without radar?  Jan never spotted those blips moving closer and closer to a point of impact.  I would be cringing, waiting for the collision, while she remained smiling and oblivious.  I wanted to scream out, “Dive! Dive!”  or “All hands on board!” but just clenched my teeth and tried not to intervene.  We met over 70 times in one year, with almost that many observations. By the end of the year, she transferred to another school.  Was that because of me, I wondered?  Was she sick of hearing me talk about tuning in to all the kids?  I was never sure, but she has since become a successful and admired teacher.  And she gave me a great big hug when I last saw her (perhaps thinking, “Thank goodness I don’t have to see her face in my room any more!”).

Right after my year with Jan, I was assigned to Margaret’s room.  It was hard for me to find Margaret in the jumble of flying bodies, drifting furniture, and jet engine-level noise.  Eventually, I could hear Margaret’s laughter rising above the rest of the tumult, which was both a good sign and a bad one.  It was good that she could laugh while buried alive in chaos, but it was bad that she thought the situation was just fine.  (The principal didn’t think the situation was fine at all, which was why I had arrived.)  Margaret was an easier fit for me personally than Jan, especially in the clutter department.  Also, it turned out that Margaret had a great radar but just never used it.  She alternated between a kindly babysitter role and a birthday party clown, neither of which works for more than 5 minutes in a classroom.  Margaret also went on to become a successful teacher.

I became better at predicting mentoring success because it seemed to be correlated with the amount of hours I spent with a teacher.  I guess I either wore them down or they ran away.

That leads me to Thomas, who taught a self-contained classroom like mine but with older kids. The first major problem was that he taught in a different school, so our face-to-face encounters were limited in number.  I couldn’t just drop by and observe or chat.  We talked on the phone but that wasn’t very helpful.  We obviously had a lot in common, but I still found it hard to connect with him.  You know the disclosure model where you tell someone your own miserable failures and they will be more inclined to tell you theirs?  That was a foreign concept to Thomas, who wanted to appear perfectly perfect.  Well, so did I, but my debacles have been so notorious that I couldn’t get away with perfect.  I heard from another teacher that Thomas was dying on the vine.  His kids were tossing furniture at him, he was losing his temper, and he had no desire to disclose anything at all to me.  I had just arranged a time to observe when I got the news.  Thomas had last been seen running away from the school at a brisk pace, never to return again.

That left me with a really sad feeling, along with some chuckles on those days when I felt like running away, too. I have continued to mentor to this day and no one else has ever taken off running.  Whew!

* MathCoach Interactive

MathCoach Interactive is an ambitious site with a huge amount of resources for teaching elementary mathematics.  It has two basic paths for students: one is module based (Topic Progressions), which starts with a pre-assessment and allows the program to determine the next steps.  The other path is lesson based (Grade learning Paths), with a program determined by the teacher.  There are excellent teaching videos for most specific skills, along with games that reinforce those skills.  A writing or student feedback feature is also available, where students can describe the strategies they used.  The program is pricey for a classroom teacher but reasonable for homeschooling or tutoring.  The support folks I’ve talked to have been real teachers who understand math instruction.  You must use Firefox, Chrome, or Safari for the program to run properly.  This the screen you see after logging in.

Math Coach interactive

What kids do:  After logging in, students can create an avatar from a variety of cartoon-like characters and animals.  Here’s an example:

math coach for kid

Students can view their most recent assignments and progress at the top of the screen, the completed assignments in the “Done” category (available by date ranges), and their unassigned work/games under “On My Own” at the bottom (again listed by date ranges).  Looking at the left sidebar, you see that students may select their own activities from the same subject menu as teachers and look at/print special certificates on their Brag Page.  When a student completes an assignment, they click “turn it in” and that work cannot be modified by the student again.  Students may also click “back” or home/dashboard” to return without completing an assignment and return to it at a later date.

What teachers get:  As noted above, teachers may work from either or both of two modes: module-based and lesson based.  You may search through a sequence of all math skills for kindergarten through fifth grade, or go to a module on a specific skill.  Under each skill, you will see what resources are available for that skill (whether printable, online, video and/or game) as well as a reference to Common Core State Standards.  Referring to the top illustration, you can see that it’s possible to search for a specific skill or worksheet, as well for as online practice (which includes games and teaching videos).  For any lesson you want to assign, there is a link for “assign,” “play,” or “download,” as appropriate.  Teachers can monitor student progress through their Gradebook.


  • This program provides a complete scope and sequence for teaching math skills at 6 grade levels, which is very impressive.
  • There are an incredible number of printable worksheets available.
  • The teaching videos are excellent, with a real person guiding students through a concept.
  • The games closely match skills being taught and students seem to find them interesting overall.
  • Students may choose how they play many of the games (by selecting variables, type of play, etc.).
  • Monitoring and managing students is quite simple.
  • The Help section is well organized and provides solid support.
  • The graphics and images are excellent.
  • Assigning activities is very simple.


  • The site needs a better linking system (I’m sure there’s a technical term for that- hyperlinks?).  Every link opens a new window, so students (and teachers) may have multiple homepages opened at once.  There will also be a new tab for anything you open, which is equally confusing.  Partial Fix: Keep closing all but one homepage.
  • Printable student assignments can be humongous, which is startling for both teachers and student (see the 64 exercises above).  Printables cannot be monitored by a computer; it is often difficult to enter responses because theses exercises were never intended to be used online.  They are only useful if downloaded and even then, they are often very lengthy.  Fix: Only download printables.
  • If students do not return to their homepage, none of their work is saved.  Fix: Remind them to return to their homepage.
  • If students select “turn in assignment” before it is completed, they cannot do anything about it.  Partial Fix: Remind them to be careful about finishing before turning in work.
  • Student scores are always visible within a specific date range.  For fragile learners, it can be devastating to see a 17% score on an assessment.  Partial Fix: In the case of the above student, I created a new home page so that that child’s previous scores and assignments were no longer visible.
  • Related to the point above, a student can also venture “on their own” and then face an equally dismaying set of scores.  Partial Fix: Over time, those scores will not be evident unless you change the date ranges.
  • Once a student starts an assignment, the teacher cannot delete it, even if it turns out to be a mismatch for that kid.  Partial Fix: Be careful when assigning lessons.
  • Some students want to change their avatar with each log in or open homepage.  Partial Fix: Set a limit on the number of avatar changes per a certain time period.
  • While the videos and lesson introductions use real voices, other content is read by a robotic male.  Fix: Just laugh along with the kids.

Top recommendation to MathCoach: Hire a new programmer to Improve links to eliminate multiple open windows; allow teachers to remove scores and assignments from students’ homepages; make printables downloadable only; and allow teachers to determine whether an avatar may be changed once selected.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

* Rubrics #3 Teaching social skills

This is my third post on the use of rubrics for instruction and assessment.  In this post I will review some effective ways to use rubrics for students who struggle with social skills.  Many of these student have been labeled as autistic (on the autism spectrum or as having a Pervasive Developmental Disorder).

Rubrics fit well into explicit and sequential instruction in social skills.  (Hey! Just as in phonics instruction!)   Using a case study approach, let me introduce you to Jonathan.  He was identified as having PDD in preschool.  He’s a bright kid who looks a lot like a miniature “professor.”  Jonathan is very rule-oriented and eager to please.  He is easily distracted by sounds and movement around him and is on medication for a diagnosed attention disorder.  He appears to be daydreaming much of the time.

When I first observed Jonathan in his classroom, he was sitting quietly but not accomplishing much.  His teacher confirmed that he did very little unless he was seated by her or the assistant.  It was fairly easy to change that behavior by setting specific goals for task completion and monitoring/rewarding his progress.

I also observed Jonathan in the cafeteria and at recess.  That particular cafeteria was in a perpetual state of bedlam, but I did notice that other kids managed to talk (or yell), whereas Jonathan seemed overwhelmed by the noise and activity levels.  At recess, Jonathan was glued to the teacher assistant, who was quite impressed by his wide range of knowledge on certain topics.  However, he would only talk about his particular interests and never responded to questions on other topics.

Jonathan began a course of social skills instruction individually because of scheduling issues.  It is possible to teach social skills to one student at a time, but it’s not ideal.  I prefer a group of 6 or 8 (even numbers, please!), but you take what you can get.  After a couple of sessions to prepare him for a small group “lunch bunch” with some typically developing peers, we were ready to launch.  His targeted skills were eye contact and willingness to respond to topics other than his primary interests.   I had permission to videotape, so Jonathan and I could review his conversational skills individually.  Jonathan used a rubric similar to the one below to evaluate his performance during lunch bunch.  I had designed the rubric so that he would not score below a two in any category.rubric conversations 2He chose not to use the rubric during the actual lunchtime.  Students vary in their desire to have visual cues as they participate with classmates.  If they choose to have cues provided (which may take the form of a rubric), I make sure that all members of the group are prepped with the same cues. I also practice nonverbal cues with students like Jonathan, so that my prompts are as subtle as possible.

After the first couple of lunch bunches, Jonathan experienced a sudden spurt of interactions with peers and was even talking in the cafeteria. Jonathan revealed that he was quite desperate for relationships with the most popular kids in the class, which resulted in his ignoring those kids who asked to join him for lunch.  The more popular kids tried one lunch bunch and decided they preferred the melee of the cafeteria.  Jonathan was then left with his “second” choice of classmates for lunch bunches; however, he continued to ignore the interested students and started begging the elite group to rejoin him (until I discovered what was happening).  By then, I had to make lunch bunches a more desirable opportunity because no one wanted to join us (we moved from a conference room to my classroom, which had games in it).  We finally had a stable lunch bunch group when we hit another bump in the road.  Jonathan became obsessed with anything that made other kids laugh.  Forget those intellectual discussions on his topics of interest.  Suddenly, all his conversational  topics were related to toilets and private parts (he had obviously been absorbing social skills on his own!).  I had to drop our videotape reviews because once he saw himself being silly, he was so thrilled that he copied himself.  His rubric changed to match this new fascination and continued to successfully shape his behavior.  Since humor was his preferred way to get attention, we began using riddles and jokes as a conversational topic.  Although Jonathan was as rigid with that subject as he had been with others, his classmates could participate more easily.  I eventually set a time limit on the joke topic in order to preserve my sanity and any order in the group.

Note: It is important to respect personal preferences, even as you teach kids to navigate social settings which are out of their comfort zone.  Once he started interacting with others, it became obvious that Jonathan was a funny kid who loved to be the center of attention.  Despite his zoned out appearance, he was definitely absorbing social information.  Had we not curtailed the toilet talk, he might have gotten into trouble simply because he was operating from a different perspective and set of rules.

To summarize, rubrics provide clear expectations for social behavior, such as conversations, playground interactions, and interactions with teachers.  As evident in the example above, your rubrics will change as kids both develop skills and help set their own preferred course for making friends.

* How best to talk to Aspies

Robert Loves pi says it well: “These phrases, and questions, are likely to confuse people with Asperger’s. Unless confusing us is your goal (and why would you want to do that?), please consider alternate wordings.”



Throughout this post, I will refer to people with Asperger’s as “Aspies.” This is not considered a derogatory term; it’s simply how we refer to ourselves.

First, we are not stupid. We also are not trying to be difficult when we say we don’t understand you. We don’t have a disease, and the vast majority of us would refuse a “cure,” if one were discovered, for such a development would be seen by many of us, myself included, as an attempt to commit genocide. Like other groups of people, we want to stay alive, as individuals, and as a culture.

We are, however, different from most people. Our brains are hard-wired in ways that are not typical, with the result that we do not think in the same manner as others. These differences give us certain advantages which we value, but the trade-off comes in the form of problems involving…

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