* Math: homeschooling kids with attention problems

how-to-improve-concentration-01In response to a question, here are some strategies I have found effective when teaching math to kids with attention problems.

1.  Make sure you complete adequate assessment so you have a solid idea of where to start instruction.  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics offers an effective overview of the basic strands of mathematics instruction for all grade levels: numbers and operations, algebra (don’t panic- this includes sorting, classification, and patterns at lower grade levels), geometry, measurement, and data analysis and probability.  They also emphasize the importance of problem solving and reasoning.

2.  Make the content meaningful.  If your child has musical interests, create authentic problems related to music.  For instance, you could compare the number of black to white keys on a piano, solve problems related to how many keys are not used when playing a melody, or determine how many two-note chords are played per minute.  Use proper names that trigger some association for your child (such as siblings, parents, and friends).  Make the problems humorous or include a competitive angle, depending upon your child’s characteristics; I find that kids enjoy problems portraying a bit of friendly competition with others.  (If you don’t know how to write effective word problems, use commercially prepared materials and adapt the questions.)   Remember to introduce kids to multi-step problem solving as early as possible.

3.  Make practice meaningful without being deadly.  Start with guided practice until the student demonstrates mastery, then practice over time for long-term retention.  Achieve higher levels of automaticity by using timed fluency of math facts, letting your child fill in graphs of progress.  Have kids complete the smallest number of problems necessary to gain competence and show retention.  Successful focus on 10 problems is far superior to desultory performance on 25 problems.  Avoid cluttered pages.  Avoid pages with so much content that your child is stressed as soon as they see the assignment.

4.  Make sure you include reasoning and interaction as your child works on math.  You could film your child’s explanations while problem solving and watch them as a review of skills, an assessment, or to coach younger siblings.

5.  Make time for breaks.  Home-schooling allows you flexibility in scheduling math when your child is most alert.  You may also provide more frequent breaks (and brain breaks) for a child who is easily fatigued or distracted.  Use a timer so your child can see when breaks will occur.

6.  Make effective use of technology and games.  Use online resources which allow for experimentation and use of manipulatives.  Math Is Fun, National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, and Illuminations are three of my favorites.  Some kids with attention problems may be overly distracted by certain manipulatives, but it is important to find those that work effectively for your child.  Consider creating a digital portfolio for the school year.  Your child can help decide which math work and videos to include (see #4 above).  Check out the websites in my Technology Cools section.

Are these suggestions helpful?  Do you have any other tips for readers?

* Update on student learning adjectives

In a previous post, I elaborated on a strategy I was using to support a student with writing difficulties.  This student is Tony, my twice exceptional kiddo.  He continues to struggle with the writing process, specifically when trying to generate ideas.  After we discussed his writing graphs, in conjunction with my observation of his work and verbal interactions, I decided to address his weakness in generating adjectives.  He has a fantastic memory, so I want to avoid simple memorization tasks.  On the other hand, he needs a repertoire of adjectives which can be recalled fairly easily.  I know he will be asking his brain to retrieve this information when he is highly stressed, so Tony does need to overlearn some adjectives.  Currently, his preferred adjectives are ‘fun,’ ‘nice’ and ‘annoying.’  Interesting combo.

I am using three activities for practice: matching worksheets, timed verbal responses to a category (such as ‘buses’), and Quizlet, where he must match adjectives to nouns.  Here’s an example of his first effort with adjective matching (created on Super Teacher Worksheets):

adjective 1

We previewed all the words on the paper first; it took him 75 seconds to complete the page with multiple errors.  (Note the quality of his lines.  You can see the unsteadiness/weakness in his graphomotor skills.)  On a second sheet, Tony completed the paper in 60 seconds with fewer errors.

Tony’s verbal production of adjectives is consistent with his efforts on the matching worksheets.  Since he is a HUGE fan of timed activities, he is allowed three minutes to generate words that describe familiar nouns.  His scores range from 6 to 14.  I allow a maximum of three color words and his three favorites (above) are not allowed at all.  He thinks that’s a bit mean.

FInally, he is matching adjectives and nouns on Quizlet, which is a way for him to overlearn some paired associations.  With his spectacular memory and love of timed activities, Quizlet’s Scatter game is a perfect match for him.

Will these strategies help Tony when he writes descriptive paragraphs?  Will they reduce the mental effort and working memory he must now exert?  Will they improve his confidence in generating descriptive words?  I’ll keep you posted.

* Well, duh.

SpamI never realized that bloggers get spam.  At first, I used to carefully glean every spam comment, and even clicked on their links.  How fantastic that SO many people commented on my blog!   I wasn’t even sure how they found my blog.  Surely these comments were not SPAM.  No one would take the time to send junk to a teacher’s blog, right?  After reading hundreds of comments about ladies’ shoes and weight loss programs, along with the ubiquitous “Dear web admin, you seem to be missing something,” I have almost stopped checking my spam box.  But then I found one insightful comment:

Yes! Finally someone writes about mastercard balance transfers.

How did they know about my use of credit cards?  If you’ve been following this blog, or even if you’re a first time reader, I hope you don’t follow my example.  My husband calls each school year “The Great Teachezwell Giveaway,” prompted by my never-ending purchases of teaching supplies.  Perhaps there’s a reason to keep checking that spam box after all.

* Multiplication.com update #1

learn a factIn my review of Multiplication.com, the website created by Alan Walker, I said I would begin this program with a student who is far below grade level in math.  In case you haven’t read the review of that site, Walker’s approach provides a visual image and rhyming words related to each numeral.  The images are then combined in a funny or interesting story using multiplication facts (so 2 x 3 = six has a related story called “shoe x tree equals sticks”).

The program begins with an assessment of multiplication facts and a review of the commutative property of multiplication.  My student, Khalil, does not recall any multiplication facts.  He remembers the zero property of multiplication about 50% of the time, when prompted.  He does not remember the identity property (multiplying by one) without prompting.  Khalil cannot identify the commutative property by name but understands the concept.

Here’s what happened: First, I showed Khalil all the facts he must learn, using a multiplication table provided in the teacher’s manual.  The facts for zero and one are grayed out, as are all the other repeated facts (due to the commutative property).  I had already highlighted a chart in a similar fashion but had not thought about eliminating the repeated facts.  When Khalil saw how few facts he had to learn, he was much more encouraged than when looking at the chart I had created!  Khalil memorized the associated names and pictures for the numerals in less than ten minutes.  He was not stressed by the process (as he is with a lot of math).  In fact, he really enjoyed it because he likes word play.  The only “sticking” point was that the number six seems to be associated with both “sticks” and “chick.”  I think “sticks” is a preferable rhyme, but in chicks are characters in some stories.  Khalil could play games with the memorized associations immediately.  He has only had one lesson, and only got to one multiplication fact, but he memorized that very quickly (and enjoyed saying it).

The author recommends daily sessions of 5 to 10 minutes per day.  He also suggests careful review if you have to add more content in one session.  I work with Khalil twice a week, so I will have to cover a lot of ground per session.  On the other hand, Khalil can practice these stories on the website at home, too.  Both Khalil and I are excited about this process and I look forward to more positive updates!

* Math struggles 101: Overview of problems

math struggles 1There’s not enough time!  No, this post isn’t about learning to tell time.  It’s about helping special needs kids catch up in math.  I have found it far easier to assist kids in “jumping” a couple of years in reading than making equivalent gains in math.  Why is that?  I have blamed myself much of time.  Math is not my favorite subject and I haven’t had as much experience teaching kids with dyscalculia.  Because reading problems affect performance in all other academic areas, I have provided disproportionate help in reading, if both math and reading are delayed.  There is less stigma associated with a math disability than with dyslexia.  And to top it off, approaches to math instruction in classrooms vary widely from district to district and year to year.

Educational specialists face a serious dilemma in helping kids with math disabilities: Every year, more facts and processes are “piled” on top of a shaky foundation.  The kids I’ve supported typically lack the language of math, for starters.  They have to be taught to recognize phrases which imply that quantities are being combined or separated.  These kids also lack number sense; they don’t recognize unlikely or unreasonable answers.  Ask these kids to find a number on a hundreds board and they panic; they don’t see any patterns at all.  They struggle to visualize math problems and number lines.  They never seem to know where to start when faced with problem solving.  These kids typically struggle to memorize math facts.  I’m currently teaching a fourth grader who cannot compute 2 + 3 without using his fingers.

Kids learn best when they can solve problems that are at a “just right” level: not too difficult but not too easy, either.  In my experience, kids are not usually identified with math disabilities until they are already well below grade level expectations. This means they have spent a lot of time frustrated, copying others’ work, and trying desperately to memorize snippets from classroom instruction.  Effective mathematics instruction allows time for kids to reason, to experiment with strategies, and to share that problem-solving experience with others (whether peers or teachers).  When a student needs special education support in math, that time is shortened.  As a specialist, I must now prioritize my instruction.  My students’ peers are racing along the math road and we are crawling behind.  An effective math assessment is a crucial first step.  I must complete an informal assessment and review standardized testing, along with analysis of classroom work samples and teacher evaluations, in order to write an effective IEP.

I will be sharing more about effective strategies for teaching math, including current neuroeducational research that enables teachers like me to use brain-friendly teaching strategies.  Stay tuned!

* Rubric for school assemblies

In response to a question about how to support special needs kids in school assemblies, I have created the following rubric.  Before using it, though, you need to role-play and discuss the relevant issues.  For some kids with sensory disorders, an assembly can be a nightmare of sound, action, and bodies.  Most kids already know what aspects of an assembly are the most distressing. The assembly’s topic, length, volume, and visuals can all create problems.  Many presenters begin by greeting the audience and then ratcheting up “attentiveness” by repeating, “I can’t hear you!”  At that point, maybe 200 kids are screaming at the top of their lungs, so my student with sensory overload is already in dire straits.  Consider these issues:

  • Seating: Try to place your student near an adult who will be responsive to your student’s needs, including leaving the assembly if needed.  Seating near the end of a row is also helpful for quick exits and for reducing the number of people clustered around your kid.
  • Topic: Consider an alternative, non-punitive activity if you know the assembly topic will trigger serious distress.  I’ve had kids who were freaked out by scary puppets and “evil” characters.  With their parents’ approval, they could skip assemblies with a fairy tale focus.  You may include that modification on IEPs as necessary.
  • Volume:  A small pair of foam ear plugs may help; check with parents first.
  • Preview: Most assembly presenters provide a description of their performance, including an online site.  Students who know what’s coming are at an advantage.  In fact, it’s remarkable how little any kids can describe an assembly.  We’ve often discussed them during lunch bunches and I’ve been amazed at how little the “typical learners” retained.
  • Debriefing:  In light of the item above, follow up with your kids by eliciting details and sequence of events.  Like a good lawyer, don’t ask questions for which you don’t know the answer!  It’s best to attend the assembly yourself, if possible.

Remember that rubrics should be individualized to meet the needs of specific students; I wrote this one with a certain kid in mind.assemblies rubric

* Survival tip #12: Roaches, critics, and climbers, oh my!

When I started teaching the BED class described in a previous post, everything was pretty much a disaster.  There were many reasons for this.

First, I was sweating bullets in a humid southern state after moving from chilly San Francisco.  The school was not air conditioned.  When I turned on the rustic fans, they spewed roaches across the room.  Naturally, that drew the kids’ attention (and mine) to the fans, which had previously been unnoticed.  Who knew that fans could also be used to launch a variety of classroom objects?  The fans stayed off.  I sweated through my pants’ waistline AND through a leather belt every day.

Second, my adorable assistant was completely opposed to my methods of behavior “management.”  He had been hired by the previous teacher, who left after a being stabbed in the head with a felt-tipped pen.  The assistant and I got along well, but were working at cross purposes.  I sent a student to time-out and that kid ended up playing in the assistant’s lap.  In fact, every direction I gave to one particular student was countermanded by my assistant.  My behavior “management” got so shaky that the child’s family removed that student from my class at the recommendation of his therapist, who considered me a walking disaster.

Third, I had no materials in the class except for a couple of random “touchy feely” games.  Knowing that these kids had already played those games to no avail, I was left with nothing.  I had to bring my own notebook paper and pencils.  I created worksheets for the kids every night, right after I cried into a glass of wine.

Fourth, I became quickly ostracized by the school staff.  Those teachers who had previously befriended me now considered me a pariah.  As I was standing in the main lobby of the school, the guidance counselor said loudly to some nearby teachers, “She’s not going to make it!”  So much for confidence building.

I was not a novice teacher, but I sure felt like it.  My assistant I parted ways amicably after two weeks or so (he visited my class years later, telling me how he had nearly burned alive when the kids in his group home locked him in the time-out room).  I had trouble finding an assistant, duh, so I was granted a series of substitute assistants.  I think that was worse than being alone. That first month was dreadful enough, but for some reason I had invited the head of the Parks and Rec department to visit our class to demonstrate rock climbing.  Why, oh why?  I have no idea.  We ended up outside the room, watching this huge guy fasten himself into a harness for climbing up to the roof.  I’m sure that wasn’t MY idea.  The kids were mesmerized as he tightened and clipped the gear around his “privates.”  One kid dared the others to try it, so the poor man ended up sweating bullets himself as he grappled all these kids (who were laughing hysterically) into the oversized harness and then hoisted them into the air.  The kids went wilder than I could have imagined, swinging like Tarzan in the harness, tearing up the hill to watch from better angles, and using colorful language to describe this remarkable experience.  They all rotated through time-outs in a very short period of time.  I couldn’t decide if it was better for me to monitor the time-outs or have my substitute assistant do that.  Ultimately, it didn’t matter.  The man literally ran off, never looking backward.  The sub turned to me and said, “I don’t know how you do this.”

* Celebrity-Culture, Quick Wins and the Impact on Student-Aspirations.

This post is written by a British educator but the message also resonates across ‘the puddle.’ Some of our special needs kids are even more vulnerable to the current trends of how to look and act popular. In the world of social media, this desire for ‘friends and followers’ can lead to cyber bullying.

* Quizlet

Quizlet 5Quizlet was was created by Andrew Sutherland in 2005 as a way to study for his high school French class  Officially launched in 2007, it became available to the public as a site for creating study words lists.  Quizlet quickly grew as students and teachers created word lists for practicing vocabulary, language, and grammar; today , it is used by millions of people around the globe.Quizlet 3Feature by feature, Quizlet has improved dramatically as a site for educators.  There are now six options for students using Quizlet.  By purchasing Classroom Superpowers for $25 a year, my students have an ad-free study zone, I can record my own word cards, and add my own images.  Classroom and student progress are monitored for me.  The features I describe below are “superpowered.”

What kids get:  Once they are assigned to my classroom, students select an avatar and may access one of six modes for studying the content I provide.

Quizlet 2

They may begin by reviewing flashcards which display the cards; the flipside of each card identifies the skill they are learning.

Quizlet 4

card for Quizlet

After reviewing the flashcards, the “Learn” mode allows them to type answers relating to the list.  For example, if they have a list of words from six syllable types, they may be prompted to type a word representing closed syllables.  The “Speller” mode is simple: students type the words they hear.  I can decide whether to use my voice or the Quizlet default voice.  In the “Test” mode, I can create one of four types of online or printed tests: multiple choice, matching, true/false, and written/typed.  There are also two games for students to play: Scatter and Race.  In the Scatter game, students are timed as they match correct answers to their words, such as pairing a prefix with a base word.  The Race is a timed game that requires students to type the answers to questions before the images disappear across the screen.  If a correct answer is not typed, the game stops and provides the answer for students to complete.

What teachers get:  Teachers can create sets relating to a wide range of subject areas, from math to literature to spelling.  You can record your own voice, which is helpful if your list requires specific pronunciations (such as vowel sounds).  You may add an image to a card from the ones available online or select your own.  Specific progress for each student is provided, such as the words or problems they miss, their timed scores, and what activities they’ve completed.  The page is ad-free.


  • You can use the site for free if desired.
  • The games are engaging for kids.
  • You can create highly individualized lists for students.
  • You can access lists that have been created by other users.
  • Quizlet is a work in progress; new features are continually being added.


  • You must “ask” students to join your class and they must register via email, Google, or Facebook.  The Fix: For younger students, parents will need to provide assistance in this process, such as determining a user name and password.
  • The Learn and Race modes do not work well for many lists I have created.  If there is more than one correct answer (two words that both have the au vowel team), the student will have to guess which word is being required. The Fix: Skip these modes of practice.
  • The Race game requires quick typing and I typically cannot use this for younger students.  The Fix: None.
  • The online images available are sketchy for some categories.  The Fix: You will need to create your own images or go without.
  • All lists for my class are visible to all students.  The Fix: Create separate classes for each student.

My rating:  4 out of 5 stars