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Why You Need Individual Schedules in the Secondary Autism Classroom

Individual schedules are a necessity in autism classrooms.  None of us are strangers to visual schedules posted right the wall of most elementary autism classroom.  Usually color coded, usually tacked right up on the wall at eye level of the kiddos who use them day in and day out.  It’s just one of those staples of an autism classroom, with very good reason.

But then our kids grow up an go off to middle school.  The tippy top of those visual wall schedules are just chin level with our students.  They can read the advanced level of New-2-You for crying out loud.  A visual schedule tacked on the wall is not right for them in any sense.
But hold up a second!  Just because they have graduated from pictures and a wall schedule, doesn’t mean they are content with a usual “flow of the day” schedule.  There is a lot for our students to get out of individual schedules around the classroom.
If you haven’t ever been convinced of why you should still use schedules for your advanced students, allow me to share some reasons I personally think it is imperative.

A chance to practice transitions

As crucial as visual schedules are in the autism classroom, there is a chance that you inherited students that never had a chance to learn how to utilize schedules.  Your classroom might be their first opportunity!  For our students, being able to manage themselves in the classroom is a first step to being able to self-direct and manage themselves in a workplace.  There’s not always going to be a paraprofessional or manager to direct students to do what they need to do.

Time management

One way to up the ante for your work schedules is adding time.  This is a great way to generalize time identification if your students are working on time.  Depending on your students’ level, you can add just digital time, or even add clock visuals.

Teach flexibility

Chances are, your schedule is going to get screwed up sometimes.  No matter how hard we try to create predictability for our students, occasionally, a wrench (or fire drill) is thrown into our day.  These can really good opportunities for us to model flexibility and how to be chill when this happens.  The beauty of using a page protector is that it easily can be written on with a dry-erase marker.  Students can take the time to change their schedules when they find out there is a change.

If the schedule is not on the wall, then where should I store it?

For my students, our schedules live in a binder. Housed in this binder is all of their morning work, behavior incentives sheets, IEP goal work, and even tools they know they can reference while they work.  It gives them an opportunity to organize themselves and know where everything they need is.

Why Mindfulness is Important for Your Students (and You!)

Mindfulness has the power to help us become centered, reduce anxiety, and overcome obstacles. No wonder it's a great tool for your special education students! Read more about how to incorporate mindfulness easily in your classroom.

If you have been anywhere near social media in 2018, I am sure you have heard at least one from this handful of words: meditation, mindfulness, self-care.  The yesteryears of wearing the busy badge of honor are out with 2017.  2018 is all about balance.  This whole world of mentally taking care of ourselves seems like some sort of trend that will come and go, much like LulaRoe leggings.
However, research is showing that mindfulness is not just something that is coming and going. According to a review of over 200 research articeles done by Kang, Smoski, and Robins mindfulness brings about various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation”.  Better well-being, less emotional reactivity, and improve in regulating behavior? That’s pretty heavy.  I never believed in the power of mindfulness until I found myself with a minor bout of anxiety last school year.  My mom was going through cancer treatment.  Although we were all pretty confident she would make it through (she did!), the waiting game of when the treatment would finally be over was a challenge.  I started utilizing the meditation app on Alexa and giving myself a moment every day to just sit and notice that moment.  Anecdotally speaking, I can’t tell you what a difference it made in my ability to get out of my anxious thoughts.  I only recently discovered that research was showing the effects of mindfulness on a barrage of different mental health issues.  Mindfulness is definitely not some sort of trend, it is a necessity.
Soooo knowing firsthand how effective mindfulness was for myself, I started thinking of the ways I could help my students using mindfulness.  Of course, this stuff isn’t a substitute for positive behavior supports or conducting functional behavior assessments.  However, it does give our students replacement behaviors that are not only socially appropriate, they can also be naturally reinforcing.  I think these techniques give children some of the power of something tangible they can do when they feel a certain way.  For our students with disabilities that can be a really powerful thing.

Here are a few simple, easy to implement ways to bring mindfulness into the classroom:

Practice Breathing

Long, slow breaths from the diaphragm have a positive effect on our feelings.  When we breath from our diaphragm, we actually massage our vagus nerve.  This nerve is responsible for reducing stress, anxiety.  There are lots of ways to teach even our neediest learner to practice breathing mindfully.  You can always use bubbles to help students to learn how to take long, slow, deep breaths.  Go Noodle also has videos under the breath section.

Mindful Movement

Yoga is pretty much just meditation but moving.  It was originally used to help teenage boys sit still during their meditation practice (this is coming from my yoga teacher).  There are plenty of resources to teach yoga in the classroom.  You may have to take very small, slow steps to work up to doing a routine or even doing an isolated move.  Take it from me, though, the effort to work on teaching the small behavior make a big difference.

Stop and Notice

If you have the ability to go on community-based trips (or heck, just walk around the perimeter on your schoolyard), take your kids on a mindfulness walk.  Have your kids walk quietly for 1 minute (or however long is possible for them) and have them note the things they noticed.  Just being in the moment and noticed what is happening at that moment is mindfulness.

Be aware though, in order to teach mindfulness, you really need to dive into it yourself.  It is not just enough to teach our students but to model and embody the idea of being mindful yourself.

Teaching Reading in the Secondary Autism Classroom

Teaching reading in a secondary classroom can be tricky when students are reading significantly below grade level. Here are some ideas of how I target reading in my classroom.

Teaching reading skills in a secondary self-contained classroom can be tough.  Most of our students are reading significantly below their grade levels.  Many times, we are also dealing with students at a wide variety of reading levels.  The biggest challenge is often finding materials that are not only at the students’ instructional reading levels but also of high interest.  Yes, there are a lot of moving parts when planning for reading.  However, there are ways to ensure reading in fun, functional, and age appropriate.

Graphic organizers

Teach students to use graphic organizers during guided reading.  Make sure you use ones that are related to the skills you are trying to teach (ex: wh questions, sequencing, etc.)  Once your students are well-versed, you can have them try using the graphic organizer for independent reading.  One thing I love to do to as a visual prompt for students to understand when they need to stop and add a detail to a graphic organizer is to take a sticky note and stick it on the page where they need to stop and read.

Adapted texts

Thankfully, there are tons of adapted texts available for secondary students.  News 2 You is an awesome way to implement social studies reading while maintaining a lower reading level.  Curriculums like Reading to Standards by the Attainment Company also include adapted texts, such as Holes and Number the Stars.  They even give students exposure to timeless poetry, such as Still I Rise by Maya Angelou.  There are tons of adapted text on the website http://www.ric.edu/sherlockcenter/wwslist.html.
Ever have that the issue of finding age-appropriate picture books for read alouds, but the text is way too advanced?  Try modifying the text.  You can simply change the text and overlay it over the text in the books.  I recently adapted the text for The Empty Pot, a picture book about honesty.  More mature picture books are hard to come by, so it made a great text to use with my students.
With adapted texts, you can also add in repeated storylines.  I find lines of texts that are repeated help with fluency as well as maintaining attention to the story.  If you have non-vocal learners, you can easily program the repeated lines in to a communication device.  You can also use the awesome recordable answer buzzers to record repeated lines.

Teaching reading in a secondary classroom can be tricky when students are reading significantly below grade level. Here are some ideas of how I target reading in my classroom.

 Peer-mediated fluency

Nothing’s more fun than playing teacher.  Last year I had my students work on fluency skills together.  I created a datasheet for the instructor as to how to test their peer on data.  Not only does this give students a chance to practice fluency, it also opens up the opportunity for students to interact in a meaningful way.
Teaching reading in a secondary classroom can be tricky when students are reading significantly below grade level. Here are some ideas of how I target reading in my classroom.

What do you find challenging about teaching reading to your secondary learners?

My 5 Favorite Social Skills Curricula

Social Skills curriculum that fits in to a special education teachers' budget is hard to come by. I'm sharing some of my favorite books to teach social skills to students with autism.
Note:  This post contains affiliate links.  You pay no extra cost from purchasing anything from this link, but I do receive a small commission from your purchase.  This helps me keep the blog running and provide you with great content!

Most of us don’t get social skills curriculum from our schools.  Cue to many of us spending hours making our own material and trying to write a scope of social skills curriculum.  Yes, curriculum creator is one of the jobs we usually unexpectedly sign on to do the day we sign our first teaching contract.  However, I think not having a set curriculum leaves us open to missing out on some super critical skills that our students, frankly, need to learn to be successful.  It’s like trying to wing it through while cooking.  Yeah, you might be able to make a really a really great casserole by just winging it, but have too much or too little of an essential ingredient can leave you dissatisfied with your creation.  I have learned so much about teaching theory of mind, flexibility, and more thanks to using resources that really dig deep into these vital skills.
Between teaching in a special education classroom and working with in-home clients, I have acquired a small collection of social skills books.  Whenever I am planning lessons in my classroom or writing a program for a client, I always consult these books.  It just makes it so much easier to know how exactly to break these skills into manageable parts. 

Confession: I have never heard of the concept of theory of mind until I was given a book on it by my clinical director.  It’s really nothing none of us haven’t heard of.  It is basically perspective taking, which many of us know this is tricky for our students.  However, I love that this book begins with very basic skills, such as joint attention, emotions identification, and imitation.  The book then moves up to targeting more advanced skills, such as understanding figurative language and self-assessment.  There are also caregiver letters to photocopy or just use as a template for notes home to parents about skills targeted.  The format is based on classroom lesson, so it’s super easy to implement for a special education classroom or small group.

This book gives you EVERYTHING to develop a Lego-based social skills club.  I think it is more for social skills group run in clinics, but honestly, I have had no problem implementing a Lego club in my own classroom.  This book goes through all the steps of creating a club, such as following rules, assigning roles, and assessment.  I love using Legos because, although they are technically toys, there is a broad range of ages that can play with Lego.  Keeping things age-appropriate while motivating the heck out of my student.  Oh yeah!

If you are familiar with writing ABA programs, this book is for you!  I love the fact that this book is based on ABA principles.  Not only that, it is easy to implement in a classroom or with an individual client.  Each skill is task analyzed and lists prerequisite skills.  I found this book could tackle a very broad range of skills.  I have personally used it with clients as young as 7 all the way up to those in their teen years.

Hopefully by now, you have heard of the glory that is the Social Thinking Curriculum.  Unfortunately, the books tend to come with somewhat hefty price tags.  However, I found You Are a Social Detective to be worth the price.  Just from this one picture book, you can pull several concepts, including (but not limited to): expected and unexpected behaviors, making smart and wacky guesses, making inferences, whole-body listening….I could go on for quite a while.  The first year I used this book, I was able to utilize it for an entire year.  As I went along and taught the different concepts, I made sure to make a binder with all of the materials I used to support the book.  In the following years, all I had to do was pull worksheets as I taught the lessons.

The best part about these materials is that these books are much more affordable that a lot of curriculum out there.  Even the most penny scrimping teacher can afford those types of prices!
Teaching Theory of Mind: A Curriculum for Children with High Functioning Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and Related Social Challenges
LEGO®-Based Therapy: How to build social competence through LEGO®-based Clubs for children with autism and related conditions
Crafting Connections: Contemporary Applied Behavior Analysis for Enriching the Social Lives of Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder
You Are a Social Detective

Five Amazon Alexa Apps for Teachers

Amazon's Echo Dot can be an aweome tool to use in a special education classroom. However, there are also many awesome way to use Alexa as a special education teach as well.

Note:  This post contains affiliate links.  You pay no extra cost from purchasing anything from this link, but I do receive a small commission from your purchase.  

Technology is a beautiful thing.  We’re connected to our loved one with a click of a button.  We even have the ultimate motivating reinforcer.  So of course, teachers are looking for any type of technology to help us out.
A while ago, I discussed how I was using the Echo Dot in my classroom with my students.  Honesty, I bought the Echo Dot for my kids.  However, I have found so many ways to help me multitask and streamline everything I need to get done.


There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness for our students.  Honestly, all teachers should be practicing what they are teaching.  Guided meditation is probably the one app I have utilized more than any other.  Every morning before my students arrive, I (try to) take time to meditate or pray.  I find it extremely helpful when I have my drive to work is crazy or I know it’s going to be a challenging day.


Ever think of all kind of random stuff you want/need to do at work but always forget to jot it down while you’re knee deep in data and work tasks?  I love using the list app to randomly add things throughout the day.  The cool thing about List is that you can differentiate your lists, so possibly have a list per student or content area, etc.

Pebble Push

If you need more of a gentle push to get stuff done, Pebble Push can be really awesome.  It goes beyond the usual list app because it actually gives you reminders when you need them.  Say you want to work on a IEP during your prep.  You can add “work on ____’s IEP at 2:00” and it will give you a reminder.  To me, it’s great for those preps where I am just so exhausted that I sit down and have a huge brain fart.

Focus Word

Did you ever think that technology could help you be so mindful?  The Focus Word app gives you a focus word of the day.  This is another app to get you started on a positive note.  (Ironically enough, today’s word was resourcefulness and it quoted the same Tony Robbins quote that is on my About Me page!).


Okay, this is not in any way directly toward teaching or getting into a good mindset, but I find this to be a super important skill.  I don’t know about you, but my what-should-be-a-45-minute commute can vary greatly.  Knowing the traffic can be a huge time saver when it comes to when I should leave at the end of the day.  Why waste twice the time in traffic when you could be hanging out at school getting stuff done?  

Targeting Executive Functioning Skills Using ABA

Executive functioning skills are foundational and vital for our students with autism. These are the skills that are going to allow them to work, travel, and live indpendently. Using applied behavior analysis (or ABA) can make the process of teaching executive functioning skills more managable.

Do you realize the skills that it takes just to make sure you’re ready in the morning for work?  There’s a lot that can go wrong if you don’t have good executive functioning skills.  You might not wake up on time, or forget to pack your lunch.  You might even not know what to do if your bus never shows up.  Difficulties in executive functioning can really get in the way of true independence.  Our goal here is to get our students as independent as possible, so it is imperative we make sure they have these skills.
Executive functioning is the ability to make a plan and execute it successfully.  This might sound like a really vague explanation as to what it is.  However, when you look at the skills that fall under the executive functioning umbrella, it begins to make a lot of sense why lacking these skills can cause real challenges in the way our students navigate through life.

So what exactly consists of executive functioning skills?  Quite a bit, and they are all linked together.
Working memory
Sustained attention
Flexible thinking        
Planning and Goal Setting
Problem solving
Controlling inhibitions

Even though some of our students might not naturally pick up these skills, they are still able to be taught and learn them.  Good old ABA methodology can be super useful for teaching these vital skills. 

Here’s how you can start to work on those ever-important executive functioning skills:

Identify deficits

Figure out what is tripping up your students.  Do you assign a task, and then have them stare in to the abyss for 10 minutes before beginning, despite how fluent they are at the skills?  Does your student break down every time you take a different route to your classroom?  There are several assessments available, to quick and free assessments to pricey, more comprehensive ones.

Make objective goals

As super skilled IEP goal objective writers (and occasional BIP writers), writing objective goals should not be new to us.  The skill we want to teach should be written in objective terms as well.  This will make data collection easy and remove the ambiguity.

Incorporate reinforcement

Just like any behavior, make sure a reinforcement system is in place.  Your students may need you to be delivering the reinforcement or you may even want to use a self-monitoring system (read this post about how I set up a self-monitoring system for my students).

Take data

Of course, you need a data system in place to make sure your student is actually making progress on the skill.  Since many of these skills can be targeted with chaining, using a task analysis can also serve as an easy way to take data.

Okay, so you are probably no stranger to the whole idea of setting goals, taking data, and all that good stuff.  What should we do when we actually put these things into place?


Modeling is awesome for skills that may not be so objective looking.  Depending on what the student’s challenges are, you may have to explicitly model an appropriate response.  For example, I had a student two years ago that got very upset when we couldn’t use the elevator (our room was on the 5th floor, so I couldn’t blame him too much).  When there were times that the elevator was crowded, I would model self-talking through not using the elevator.  “Whoops, there’s too many people and it will take too long to ride the elevator.  We’ll just take the stairs, NBD”.  (NBD= No big deal, which was more or less our class motto).    He eventually caught on and would say “you’re right. NBD.”

Teach systems

Sometimes, the best way to teach a system is to task analyze the heck out of it.  This removes any ambiguity from completing the task and help our students use a systematic way to complete something.  This is where task analyzing comes in.  Break skills in to steps that a student can follow.  Using schedules in the classroom offer lots of opportunities to teach executive functioning skills, such as task initiation, task completion, and more.

Play games

Games can be an awesome way to work on executive functioning skills.  A rousing game a memory can really motivate a student to practice those working memory skills.  Fun games like red light green light can be fun for practicing impulsivity.  Using motivating, low-pressure opportunities to practice skills can help students transfer those skills to other areas.

Use curriculum

Personally, I love the Social Thinking curriculum to target many of the areas of self-regulation and flexibility.  I know they are not technically evidence-based, but they certainly lend easy to understand rationales for skills that are not at all black and white.  The Zones of Regulation is awesome to teach students to understand their emotions and appropriate reactions.  The Team of Unthinkables helps students recognize difficulties in thinking and help students develop strategies for overcoming their difficulties.

Back to School Series: Managing Conflict with Staff

Conflict with classroom staff can add a lot of unnecessary stress in our jobs.  Tensions can distract us from getting done what needs to get done.  Unfortunately, dealing with staff conflict is just part of the gig.  And just like the other parts of being a classroom manager, nobody really gives us the proper tools for how to handle classroom conflict.  The biggest challenge is being that we’re in a position of managing, but we can’t enforce any punitive consequences.  We are in a very tricky position as special educators.
This is why we have been discussing heavily the elements of behavior change that rely on teaching and positive reinforcement.  We make our best efforts to avoid these types of situations using antecedent strategies.  However, even the most well-seasoned special educator will have a run-in with a staff member that won’t follow behavior plans, complain in front of the students, or not follow school-wide rules. 

 Teach the skills that are incompatible

We have discussed teaching behaviors so that we can hopefully avoid unpleasant situations.  This works for the stuff that you might witness that we couldn’t foresee when training.  This is for behaviors that are aggravating, but not too big of a deal.  Again, it’s a matter of teaching behaviors, especially teaching those that are incompatible with the problem behaviors.  Things like leaving personal items around the classroom could be an example of something that is unpleasant, but not a pressing issue.

Have a sit-down

Sometimes you have to just be blunt with people.  Tactful, but blunt.  Make sure these conversations happen one-on-one, as opposed to in front of other staff.  Use language that put the onus on you.  For example, instead of saying “you should be….” Start with “I need you to….”  Take the time to train staff if necessary.  In my experience, most paraprofessionals appreciate when the teacher is direct and tells them what they need to be doing and why. 

Don’t take it personally

There’s going to be times when you must work with staff members that attitudes that just plain suck.  Despite your best efforts, there are just some people that will come in with a not-so-great attitude.  Just keep working to the level you’re capable.  Praise them when they do something right.  Model a positive attitude.  Sometimes there are going to be outside factors that have nothing to do with the classroom that you can’t change. 

When to take it further

Sometimes you might be in a situation where you can’t manage the behavior alone, such as safety issues.  Make sure you document instances and discuss with administration so they are on board.  If your administration is on your side, you can attempt to rectify the problem by having a sit-down with the staff member.  This way, at least your administration has your back if the situation doesn’t improve.  If the situation doesn’t improve, it may be time to have a sit-down with administration.

Conflicts with classroom paraprofessionals can cause unnecessary strain on our jobs.  Read about what to do when you need to manage conflict in your autism classroom.

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