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Meet Sofia and her academic and life skills based middle school class!

Our program is geared towards teaching the students a combination of core academics and life skills. I teach all core academics inside the classroom, with the exception of an inclusive general education P.E. class the students attend with support staff. Aside from core academics, we teach social skills and life skills through social stories, work tasks, campus jobs, computer-based activities, and more. My students receive most instruction in small-learning centers or 1:1, depending on their needs and abilities. I have 9 students in 6th-8th grade, 1 classroom Behavior Technician, and 1 Behavior Technician 1:1. My students’ levels range from pre-K to on grade level, and all have a high need of behavioral support. Some are  verbal and others use an AT device to communicate. Each student has their own desk, and the classroom is arranged to have a calm down area where students can de-escalate or enjoy a choice time.

Teaching Outside of the Classroom

ne of my favorite things about my job is the different platforms we have to teach our students. Every Thursday we go swimming with several other classes in our program, and on Fridays we alternate between cooking or community-based field trips. Before swimming and most cooking lessons and field trips, I go over a social story presentation with students that tells them about expectations during the activity as well as step-by-step of what they will do. I also use email/Google Docs to help my students plan out their restaurant orders or shopping lists prior to our trips so that they are more prepared and set up for independence.

Schedules are a must!

With so many different activities going on each day of the week, my students, staff, and myself rely heavily on detailed schedules to get through the day. Everyday, we follow a classwide visual schedule that includes each main activity, break type, and non-flexible times throughout the day. Although I start most activities around the same time everyday, I learned that avoiding posting most schedule times has helped my students learn flexibility and to focus more on the activity instead of amount of work-time. I also created visuals for specific types of breaks, so that my students can know exactly what to expect. Some examples of our break types are Choice Break, Movement Break (we do a series simple exercises, deep breathing, and read aloud a “Positive Thought of the Week”), Garden Break, and Game Break with Class. I post a calendar and a whole-week snapshot so students and staff can see their service times and upcoming events.

I made individualized schedules for those students who need it, depending on their levels. One of my students follows a checklist-based schedule where she checks off items as she completes them, or checks off each table center she attends. Another one of my students has a high-level of sensory needs, so I have him make his mini-schedule for each activity by pointing to the number(s) we are doing on his schedule snapshot, then have him select his sensory break from a field of three. As he completes the tasks on the schedule, we move each item down until his mini-schedule is completed. For one of my higher students who is highly motivated by computer time, I have him copy the class schedule on a Google Doc, then write what activity he will do during each Choice Break so he remembers when to use his two computer passes.

Light cue and color coded center schedules help with transitions.

Teaching transitions was not easy, and after repeating myself for what felt like a thousand times, I decided to incorporate something more visual. Even though we are still working on the smoothness of our transitions, these lights have made a huge difference! Each time free choice is over and I want my students to be all cleaned up and at their desks, I turn the cube light to white. Before we start our centers, I use a call and response and give the students a countdown to blue for them to get their supplies and walk to their first center (i.e. “If you can hear my voice put your hand up. When the light turns blue it’s time for centers. 3…2…1, go!”).

Students that transition immediately are given tickets as soon as they get to their groups. For students who needed extra reminders, I taped color-coded individualized center schedules to their desks to remind them their rotation orders. Each center is labeled with a sign, picture, and description of what activities are done there.

Token Economy and Expected/Unexpected Behaviors

I use a class wide behavior incentive system based on “Expected and Unexpected Behaviors”. Students receive up to 4 tickets for each activity on their schedule, as well as tickets throughout the day for expected behaviors. If a student has unexpected behaviors, (i.e. yelling or taking something from another student) a teacher marks it as a “Fine” next to the students’ running totals for the day. For students who are sensitive to others seeing their ‘Fines’, we go directly to the student and ask for the ticket back, explaining why we are asking and what behavior we want to see so that the student can earn more tickets.

Students who do not keep their hands to themselves will lose their tickets, but can always earn tickets again for expected behaviors. This combined with the running totals students have in the bank has helped to keep them consistently motivated. At the end of each day, students count out their tickets and hand back any fines accrued throughout the day. Then they write their totals on the board and wait to cash out. I found that it works better for me to have the student store open everyday, so that even students who are having low-ticket days are still motivated to participate and get their work done. I remind students to budget throughout the week, because on Friday’s, I sell specials such as snacks and drinks.

Each day, students are provided two 5-minute break area passes and two 5-minute computer passes that they budget during their choice time accordingly. This helps keep computer time to a minimum and helps the students select more of a variety of choice time activities.

To keep students individually motivated, I use token boards, individualized passes (i.e. bathroom passes, adult conversation passes, etc.), schedules, as well as extra reinforcers for those who need to be reinforced more immediately and more often. Since we have many different events throughout the week to work for, I created a visual that details all the reinforcers and events students can earn for the day when they follow the classroom rules. It has a velcro strip with the icons for the day, such as “Fun Friday”, iPad, and cash out for Friday’s. If a student’s behaviors cause them to lose an icon, I’ll switch it out with a different option I know they are motivated to work for, i.e. when a student grabs, I’ll switch out ‘iPad’ for ‘slime’.

Behavior Techs are part of the team.

My paraprofessionals (or Behavior Tech’s as my district calls them) are crucial to my classroom’s success. I am SO thankful for them and know that all great special education classrooms are based on team effort. The BT’s in my classroom are similar to me in that they have to wear multiple hats, all the time. They are trained in ABA techniques and knowledgeable in behavioral supports, yet also assist in delivering instruction 1:1 or in centers. I try to make my BT’s feel that they can come to me with any problem. I also try to seek out their input on academics, behaviors, and student progress whenever possible, and remind them that they are an equal part of the classroom. I seat my BT’s at a work table next to my desk. Our days are very busy, so by seating us close together, still facing the students, it allows us several minutes here and there to debrief each other on anything necessary throughout the day.

“Believe in yourself and remember your why.”

I’m only a second year teacher, so I still feel brand new much of the time, however, one piece of advice given to me from another teacher was simply to “believe in yourself and remember your why”. I know it sounds corny, but it’s truly resonated with me. People get into this profession for a reason, however in this line of work you are often thrown in without much guidance and direction. What helped me was seeking out several people I knew I could go always go to for quick questions, and reminding myself that at one time every amazing teacher felt like they had no idea what to do, and every veteran teacher still has moments where they feel overwhelmed. Also, it’s easy to get bogged down in the paperwork and the prep and perpetual To-Do lists. Taking a moment to reflect on funny things or highlights of the day has really helped me enjoy more moments with my students and staff.

My name is Sofia Yassine and this is my second year teaching middle school students with Autism and speech and language impairments. Before teaching, I was a paraprofessional for two years in several different classroom settings, including adult transition and middle school. I knew I wanted to be a special education teacher as soon as I started working as a paraprofessional. I love this job because even though we follow such a routine schedule, no two days feel the same and there is always something to keep me on my toes. My students are always making me laugh and smile and I love trying to see the world through their eyes, as well as trying to help other people see their endless abilities.

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