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Teaching Reading in the Secondary Autism 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 Standard 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.

 Peer-mediated fluency

Nothing’s more fun than playing teacher.  In my previous post about promoting peer-yoked language, I discussed how 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.

My 5 Favorite Social Skills Curricula

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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 kind of one of the many jobs we have as special educators.  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 as a BCBA, 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 they each book costs around $35 or less.  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

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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 student.  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 when I get to school, 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 in and out of New York City 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 ish done?  

Targeting Executive Functioning Skills Using ABA

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).


Chaining is breaking down a skill into steps.  This allows our students to learn small steps in order to make a skill attainable.  The type of chaining you use will depend on what type of skill you’re teaching. 

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 4th floor, so I couldn’t blame him too much).  When there were times that the elevator was crowded, I would model self-talking myself 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, Ms. Liz. 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.  However, many of us spend time teaching our students how to use their individual schedules. 

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 have them do. 

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.

Back to School Series: Training Paraprofessional in the Special Education Classroom

Training is crucial but often overlooked in special education classroom.  Read about the different steps for effective staff training to ensure that traing is effective and a good use of time.

Training our staff is one of those things that necessary for a well-run classroom that we receive no training ourselves on.  When there’s so much to do in the classroom and getting your students to sit and be engaged feels like you’re herding cats, it’s so easy to see why training falls to the wayside.  Instead, paras end up getting brief and/or vague explanations of systems that frankly, need to be done correctly.  Not being done the way they’re meant to can mean data gets skewed, students are not making progress on goals, and we are not holding out classroom up to a high standard.
So you can see why you NEED to make the time to train.  It can be really hard, but it’s the only way to know for sure that your staff is doing what they need to do the right way.  It may be hard to let yourself carve out this time, especially if you have kids that really need the staff engaged with them to do any work.  I’m giving you the permission right now to let the kids get some time that maybe is not so intensive for the sake of training staff.  If engaging independently means letting your kids on the computer or tablet, that’s okay!  If it means coordinating related service providers to push-in/pull-out your students simultaneously, don’t be afraid to ask for some help.
How do we make use of the time we’re given with our staff?  It definitely helps to make a good plan.  One method of training staff consists of discussing, modeling, rehear, al and feedback. 

Discuss- Explain the skill you will be teaching them.  I find it helpful to also discuss WHY this skill is important to know and master.  You might also want to give them a guide to what exactly you want them to do (such as a task analysis) so they have the steps to refer to.

Model- Show them exactly what it will look like.  Most of us are visual learners and benefit from seeing the skill performed.

Rehearsal- Give your staff ample opportunities to practice.  I can’t tell you how many time I have been in trainings where a presenter discusses and models a skill.  I feels so confidently just observing the skill that I feel like I could do it in my sleep, only to find myself tripping up once we get to the rehearsal part.  This part is super important, because different things might pop in your head when you are rehearsing and the best time for somebody to ask questions and troubleshoot is when the instructor is right there.  Also, you want staff to be doing these skills to fluency

Feedback-  Make sure you tell your staff what they did great and what they need to change.  Make sure feedback is immediate and you are correcting errors as you see them happening, rather than waiting until the end of rehearsal.  You want to be giving ample praise so that they stay motivated and they know exactly what they can keep doing the same.  When giving constructive feedback, make sure you are describing the desired behavior.    Constructive feedback should tell the receiver what they need to be doing differently and why it needs to be done that way.

Parsons, M. B., Rollyson, J. H., & Reid, D. H. (2012). Evidence-Based Staff Training: A Guide for Practitioners. Behavior Analysis in Practice5(2), 2–11.

Read more from this blog series:
Week 3: Training Staff
Week 4: Handling Conflict with Staff

Training is crucial but often overlooked in special education classroom.  Read about the different steps for effective staff training to ensure that traing is effective and a good use of time.

Back to School Series: Increasing and Decreasing Behaviors in Staff

Our classroom paraprofessionals are there to help us.  However, we need to be mindful of how we make sure they are successful at helping us do our jobs.

Hopefully you got some ideas for discovering the preferences of your staff.  This is going to be key to figuring out what motivates them, what activities they find reinforcing.  This will make things much easier once we start thinking about the behaviors we want to increase (and possible and possible decrease!
We have all been there.  Maybe you had a staff member that looked at their phone more often that the data sheet in front of them.  Or you had a para that didn’t run a program the way you explained it.  It’s frustrating, and sometimes, you feel like you are the problem.
When we are thinking about what we want to change in the classroom, we want to keep one thing in mind.  It’s one of those ABA things that should be thinking about with our kids too (so many overlaps).  We should really be thinking about the skills we need to teach rather than the skills we are trying to diminish.  Many times, the behaviors that we don’t want to happen are happening because the individual doesn’t know another skill.

Think about what change you want to see in the classroom, not just the result

Thinking about the effect you want behavior change is important, yes.  However, we want to think about what observable behaviors will make this happen.  Maybe you really want to see your classroom be kept clean throughout the week.  In order to achieve this, we have to think about the behaviors that will cause this type of change.  Maybe it’s having a para sweep during their 1:1’s free time, or having paras make sure they put their garbage in the garbage when they are finished with it.

Setting goals together will definitely help with buy-in from classroom staff.  Like I mentioned before, think about the behaviors in objective terms.   Avoid thinking goals in term of what you want the end goal to be.  For example, assisting a student to complete work in 20 minutes is thinking about the end results.  This can lead to staff not using the best methods to meet that goal, such as over prompting.  Picking one or two goals to target at a time is a great way to keep each other accountable, rather than setting multiple goals.  Kristine from Autism the TeenYears has an awesome post about goal setting with staff. 

Set them up for success

No matter how busy things might be, make the time to TRAIN YOUR STAFF.  This is personally tough for me to wrap my head around after all these years, but really, your staff will have no idea what you want from them unless you spend the time to discuss, model, and give feedback.  I’ll be discussing an evidence-based method to training staff next week.
Once staff is trained, I personally love using self-monitoring to help keep staff accountable.  It is a little less intrusive than having to be continuously taking data and makes staff accountable.  A checklist or task analysis can be great ways to help staff self-monitor.


Make sure you’re reinforcing staff immediately.  Just like with our kids, feedback is much more effective if it’s immediate rather than delayed.  How you reinforce is going to change based on your staffs’ preferences.

Verbal praise, many times, is going to be the method in which we’re reinforcing our staff.  Make sure praise is specific and enthusiastic.  Nothing is less motivating than a piece of feedback which you don’t even entirely believe the giver actually believes.  If you find staff is really reinforced by attention, you may even want to look for opportunities to let administration know. 

Read more from this blog series:
Week 2: Increasing and Decreasing Behaviors in Staff
Week 4: Handling Conflict with Staff

Our classroom paraprofessionals are there to help us. However, we need to be mindful of how we make sure they are successful at helping us do our jobs.

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