Where do I start?

One of the questions I get the most sounds the most simple – where do I start? – four seemingly harmless little words packed with so much ammo. I can literally hear the overwhelmed, mounting panic behind those words.  I just wish you could all see the legal pads FILLED with to do lists I clung to my first year teaching. I also wish you could have seen my face when I walked into my classroom on my very first day teaching to be greeted with some old tables, bookshelves, and a computer. Yep. That’s it. Those loaded four little words screeched in my head – where do I start?

My suggestion on getting started is – start small. I know it’s so hard to do that. I am a embarrassing perfectionist so I understand. But, it’s better to do a few things great than a lot of things mediocre. Create a few stations and make them good. Make them really good. You can always do the same rotation of stations twice a day if they are good. You can always add more later. It’s overwhelming at first. Check out my blog series on classroom setup here.

  • You can ‘plan ahead’ for your classroom revamp. Maybe you set up the stations and then spend a few days/weeks just having your students practice rotating around the stations. Instead of doing beautifully individualized data driven work – students can complete easy independent tasks. They will learn transitioning and new expectations without the added stress of challenging work.
  • Before jumping into academic group work like a reading based morning group or guided reading groups – spend some real time work on group behavior. Can you students take turns? Follow along in the book? Raise their hands? Keep their hands to themselves? Attend to others? Build these skills before jumping into academic work.
  • Make a ton of independent work tasks. Seriously – go overboard. Make them long and time consuming. You need to get your kids busy and working. You will always use those tasks. It’s great to have a stockpile you can rotate between. Keep some independent tasks at each station in case students are done with their work early. Hit up the dollar store! Check out my work tasks here.
  • Write some grants to get some stuff! Use donors choose! They have been providing a coupon code for new grants for match your donation. So if you friends/family donate their donation will be matched! Don’t spend your whole pay check on your classroom – load up laminating pages, velcro, dry erase markers, sensory toys, pencils, markers, etc.
  • When it comes to taking data, again start small. Pick a few areas to take great data on and continue on from there. Evaluate what is going to be the most important and most doable and start there.
  • For behavior – am I starting to sound redundant – start small. Pick the worst, most disruptive, most annoying, most dangerous behavior and target that. You would be surprised how many other inappropriate behaviors disappear from other students once you get that behavior under control.
  • Last but not least: make you and your classroom a fun and reinforcing place. You want your class to be a place your students want to be. Be the chocolate chip cookie (read more about this analogy here).

Need a jumping off point? Check out our Seven Steps for Setting Up a Stellar Autism Room Checklist! This resource will get you organized and ready to manage a stellar autism classroom.



How do I train my staff?

There are a multitude of issues in this topic – finding the time, providing redirection/correction appropriately, dealing with less than hmm… stellar work ethics, and maintaining it all. I am tired just writing that sentence. Finding the time: You might have the most amazing paraprofessionals ever but you somehow still need to find the time to show them what you want them to do. They won’t magically read your mind. Unfortunately. And of course – if you para is going to be providing academic instruction that is probably because you are providing academic instruction at the same time. So how can you train them. Take a deep breath and put your perfectionist/over-acheiving attitude aside for one short moment (I know – painful…). Put some easy, independent work tasks (puzzles, file folders whatever) at the station you would normally be at for a few days. It’s okay – your kids will live. They will not miss out on any ground breaking learning in just a few days. And sit with your paraprofessional at his or her station and train them. Spend a day or two running the program and letting the paraprofessional observe you. You may notice some errors or discrepancies in your data sheets or program anyways. After the para sees you do run the program, spend a day or two observing them run the program and provide feedback. Trust me – it’s much easier (and less awkward) to provide corrective feedback while initially teaching someone to run a program then after they have been doing it incorrectly for awhile. Check back in every so often. Check data and/or chart data that the aide is taking every week. Observe them intermittently. Provide praise as often as possible! Praise: Those good ole’ ABA principles work on adults too! You need to be providing loads of positive reinforcement towards the hard working behaviors of your paraprofessionals. Even if there isn’t a lot there at first – just keep on praising! This frustrated me at first because heck – I have 10 kids to worry about – why should I be bothered to using behavior management techniques on my aides? Because you are manager and you need to. So deal with it. Your life will be happier and easier – trust me. Also, share your data. My aides love seeing the data – it shows their hard work is paying off! Expectations: Don’t expect your paraprofessionals to read your mind. Be clear about your expectations. Alert them to changes in behavior plans and academic areas. We use a dry erase “behavior board” to keep track of all changes. The adult schedule will hugely help in this area. Your paras will know exactly where they should be and what they should be doing at every moment. There is no gray area or ‘I didn’t know…’ Play to their strengths: You have a super, social chatty aide? Me too. Do you think she is running the fluency station – where you can’t talk during a timing? Heck no. She runs spelling, intraverbal activities, helps with reading, and inclusion. Think about the personalities of your paraprofessionals and match them to stations/IEP goals/students accordingly. Set the tone: You are the manager. You are the leader. Act like it – your paraprofessionals will follow your lead. If you are hard working – they will be. If you follow behavior plans – they will. If you have a nice repertoire with you students – they will too. You get it. Explain yourself: Maybe not in the moment – but be sure to explain the rationale behind your choices – behaviorally academically, whatever. You will have more buy-in. For example, your paraprofessionals may be more willing to follow the planned ignoring intervention – if you explain attention seeking behaviors. This will also make it less awkward when providing corrective feedback. Explain why what they did was not the best decision. Set aside some social/good morale time: I am sure you can’t believe this but I am a busy bee all day at school. I sometimes barely stop moving and multitasking to say good morning to my paras. I get in this ‘get crap done’ mindset and everything else goes to the wayside. I realized recently – that’s just not very nice. I don’t want my classroom to be chatty and social while we are trying teach (I hate that…) but I do want to have a friendly, positive work environment. I make a point to set aside some time to chat and continue to develop good relationships with my paraprofessionals. It’s a must. The Paraprofessional Training Guide is a must-have for all your staff training needs! This resources contains a complete training package for both new and veteran classroom paraprofessional within the special education setting. Tpt - paraprofessional training manual (6)

How should I lesson plan in my autism classroom?

My lesson plans are funky. Because my classroom is funky. I can’t have a nice and neat week long summary for every section of every part of my day. I don’t have any traditional whole level instruction. Each student is on a different curriculum essentially. I worked out with my principal to complete adapted lesson plans that suite my needs. I told him my case, backed it up with loads of resources and excessive explanation – and he was fine with it! Check out my lesson plan template. My planning goes it two ways:

  1. progress based
  2. thematic based

Progress Based Planning: I don’t think progress based is a term but I made it up! My progress based planning essentially plans itself but that does not mean no work is involved. This work stems directly from IEP goals. For this type of planning what the student is working on is based on their current level of mastery. When I plan this way I set aside specific time for a goal with a student – ie. I will work on expressive counting with this student at this station at this time. However I can’t plan exactly which numbers I will be working on because what we do it based on his progress. Make sense? Read on.

  • For example, if we are working on receptive body part identification – I cannot plan a month ahead which body parts my student will be working on because I am not sure how long it will take them to master each set. Sometime they fly through them and other times we need to scale back and work on discrimination more closely. So I can plan that the student will be working on body part identification at  certain time period with a specific adult – but I cannot plan exactly the work to be done there. 
  • I don’t leave it up to guess work on the mastery criteria and which sets of stimuli are being done in which order. This type of planning is very front heavy. You plan, organize, and create a lot at the beginning and then the lessons follow your instruction. Check out my discrete trial goal sheets and program guides for how I organize this.
  • My spelling instruction and fluency instruction (that are both run by a paraprofessionals) are run this way. I dictate all mastery criteria, indicate the order of stimuli, check in frequently, and the aides make changes based on my review of their data. I cannot plan weekly spelling words far ahead because which words they are on is based on if they mastered the previous set.
  • Most of this progress based planning is used for my fluency and reading (or IEP goal/fine motor task for lower kids) stations, direct instruction area, and parts of morning group (morning group is both progress and thematic based!). Guided reading groups use a combination of progress based planning (what books they read are based on their reading level) and thematic planning (what types of books we read or skills we are working on).
  • Where do these goals, programs, concepts come from you ask? IEP goals! I write my IEP goals based on Common Core Curriculum for that student’s grade, their ABLLS, and my previous history with them (if I have had some). These build the foundation of each student’s curriculum. While writing IEP goals – think about what you would like them to have accomplished in a year and think about how you can reasonable reach these goals.

Thematic Based Planning: This type of planning is what you would typically think of ‘teacher planning and lesson plans’ to be – however it takes a slightly different shape in my room. Thematic planning can be anything from seasonal activities, concept based units, cooking, crafts, community trips, and skill units. Thematic planning can be (and should be) incorporated with progress based planning. Ie. during our penguin unit we practiced counting (which is a progress based goal) with penguin flashcards. We practice color identification within our crafts. We practice math skills within cooking activities. These are essential areas for generalization practice. We don’t want our kids just to know colors at a certain table in a certain time of day. We want them to know their colors all the time. Generalization activities are imperative!

  • Now I know what you are going to ask – when do you have time of these fun, thematic activities? There are a few ways you can set this up. I have changed it up a but every year. You could set aside a specific time every day with small groups of kids that you dedicate to thematic unit time. You could call this something generic – like group time. I used to do something like this and then rotate activities – one day we would do a craft, one day adapted books, one day a game, one day cooking, and one day an ‘academic’ activity – all on the same theme (Halloween, Earth Day, apples, the community – whatever). You could span this out over a month and dedicate the whole month to one concept. Again – be flexile – you never know when meltdowns could hit.
  • Right now – I use my morning group to really target these seasonal activities and other thematic units. For my morning group with my lower functioning students, we have time for both calendar activities and IEP goal work. Since we hit this IEP goals very regularly – taking a day out to do something fun and still work on these goals in a different way – has been a welcome change of pace! So I incorporate themes I am doing with my higher kids into this group that way! They do any crafts, cooking, or hands on activities. I use adapted books or things more appropriate for them to hit the topic.
  • For my higher kids – we do more advanced activities – such as researching the topics online, writing activities, read alouds, comprehension activities etc. Check out my morning group video tutorial. I plan for two months at a time – in pencil! This seems to change almost constantly. We do some thematic activities as well as our curricular learning.  IMG_2783
  • A lot of my thematic planning revolves around the holidays as many classrooms do. We change up our bingo games, we have special seasonal activities, make seasonal crafts, etc. 
  • Guided reading is progress and thematic. We have groups based on reading level and have daily reading activities at the specified level. We also add in grammar units to hit topics the students are struggling with such as adjectives, singular/plural, verb agreement, etc. Fluency and comprehension are always a major focus.
  • Science and social studies both are done in monthly thematic units. My students change classes with my coworker’s class. I plan social studies for both of our classes and she plans science for both. I highly recommend this if possible! In social studies we have done topics such as geographycommunity helpers, the election, etc. If you don’t have a coworker to share planning with and are struggling to fit in both science and social studies – you could always alternate months! Better to get in quality instruction every other month than rushed and scattered instruction every month!

Snag the lesson plan templates and more in my Must-Have Forms and Templates Pack. This resource is sure to get you organized and keep you organized! Recently Updated233

How do you make a schedule for an autism classroom?

This is probably the question I get the most and I understand – because this is something I struggle with constantly. Anyone else feel like they are in a race against the clock? Like there cannot possibly be enough minutes in the day to fit everything in? I feel you. I constantly feel this way. I am constantly thinking of lessons that work on multiple concepts, making everything as efficient as possible, and seemingly never ending arranging/rearranging. The main way you decrease this anxiety in your life is to make a kick butt schedule. A schedule that maximizes every second, every staff member, and every learning opportunity. A schedule that is both ambitious but doable. A schedule that gives every student a chance to work on every IEP goal and learning standard. I so wish I had a magic wand and could make you all one. I must admit I spend the end of every school year and many (embarrassing) moments of the summer planning the next year’s schedule in my head. I know. Am I in the right field or what? I have problems… I think about what worked/didn’t work last year. I think about what areas we never seemed to fully fit in. I think what students I didn’t seem to get to. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm. I have a love/hate relationship with my schedule. I kind of love making it because it’s like a crazy soduku puzzle but at the same time it’s a pain in the freaken butt. And I can never really get started on it until school starts to figure out when my specials are, what time lunch it, and exactly how many kids I will have. Bottom line: Your schedule will never be perfect. You will never feel like you are fitting in everything.  So take a deep breath. Do the best you can. And cut yourself some slack.

Check out this post on scheduling. It talks you through each step in creating a student excel schedule. Do the best you can and make it work. Prioritize. If everyone can’t go to every single inclusion class because you only have one paraprofessional for 13 kids and unfortunately cloning isn’t an option – do what you have to do. It’s not ideal. It’s not what you’d envision for a perfect class. But many of us work in districts that are underfunded and understaffed. So we make due. And we do the best can.


How do I cope with students who are very aggressive?

Aggression is hands down the most critical, important, and time sensitive issue to deal with in your classroom1 Because let’s be honest – it doesn’t matter how organized you are, what math curriculum you are using, how you are charting your data – if you are getting punched in the face. Right? Before you can even think of tackling (god – I don’t even mean to make so many puns) any other issues you have GOT to decrease aggression. If you were hoping for a magic cure all solution in this post – I’m sad to disappoint you. But you can follow the same steps with all aggressive behaviors to determine the appropriate intervention.   Determine the Function of the Behavior Bottom line: All behaviors are done to get something. Every behavior in life. I scratch my nose to relieve the itch, I push the door shut to remove the cold breeze, I text on my phone to access attention from friends. It’s the same with aggression. Every behavior has a function (or reason for occurring). You need to figure out the function of aggression before intervening. Check out this post for more detailed info on identifying function. It basically comes down to two options, the aggressive behaviors are done to:

  1. to try to gain access to something
  2. to try to escape something

Again – no easy solution within that. Gaining access to something can be food, toys, teacher attention, student attention, parent attention, electronics, you name it. Escaping something can be escaping work tasks, social demands, certain staff/students, changes in routine, transitions, etc.

  • Caveat: Behaviors can also result in a ‘sensory’ function – to achieve some sensory sensation. Aggression is not typically going to fall in to this category because it cannot be done alone (ie. you cannot kick yourself). Sensory behaviors will always be done alone since this internal sensory function has no social components. However – self injurious behavior (hitting yourself, biting yourself, etc.) can have a sensory function.

Now how do you figure out the function of the behavior you ask? This is the tricky part! Because I absolutely know how difficult it is to take data on aggression. Are you seriously going to bust your clipboard out mid punch to the face to make a tally? No! You are probably worrying about the safety of the students and yourself and dealing with the issue. My best advice for taking this data: your best is good enough. This data isn’t going to be published – it’s for your own use. Do it as accurate as you can and don’t stress if it’s not perfect. It won’t make that big of a deal in the long run. Make a super simple data sheet and pick a super simple behavior to target. Track single hits or minutes in meltdown. Whatever you do – keep it consistent. Check out this post for tons of data sheet suggestions and links. Check out this blog series on reducing problem behavior and my behavior plan flow charts and tools for loads of suggestions on getting start on this proves..

Some overall suggestions:

  • Think about safety first. If you need to evacuate the room – do it. Don’t try to move the child in the meltdown (unless you have a safe time out room and staff trained to safely move a student – however still avoid this – it increases risks exponentially). You can however move the rest of the students out of harm’s way. We had to do this in my classroom a lot. Sadly – my students got in the routine of it. I assigned some of the higher functioning students a student who needs more help to be their ‘partner’ when they needed to evacuate. One aide would take the rest of the students out of the room while the other aide and I dealt with the aggression. It’s better to have your student miss out on some academics than make the most horrible phone call ever – to tell a parent their child was hurt by another student. Trust me.
  • Again – cut yourself some slack when you are dealing with extreme behaviors. Don’t plan elaborate units or lessons. Don’t get super mad at yourself if you are missing out on huge parts of your schedule. Be flexible. Like I said in this post – dealing with the drama is in our job description. You can get to the rest of the schedule later. You need to first make sure everyone is safe – that is most important.
  • Let yourself vent! I completely understand how stressful and impacting these situations can be. I had such a bad situation last year that I broke out in hives each night. Easier said than done – but try not to take it personally. It’s hard when you work with a child for so long, spend sleepless nights thinking up behavior plans, put in countless hours of extra work – only to get your hair pulled and face scratched. I get it. Completely. But just keep reminding yourself not to hold it against the child. When you get home – do what you need to do to relax and rejuvenate. Cry, work out, have a glass of wine (not too many – haha), play with your kids, cook, – whatever!
  • Don’t vent to your aides! This is a tricky one. I highly recommend not spending tons of time venting with your paraprofessionals. It’s tempting. They are on the front lines of combat with you. Of anyone – they probably understand the situation the most. But keep in mind – they are dealing with this too. Your venting – or negative comments (which are okay to have!) – will only lead to a more negative environment in your classroom. You want to keep your paraprofessionals positive and empowered – not depressed, overwhelmed, and down.
  • Feel free to email me to vent :) I understand how hard it is to find someone who really understands. You closest coworker – maybe a general education second teacher – might not understand your bad day. Her rowdy students might not compare to 2 hour meltdown that left bruises and scratches. Venting is therapeutic and might provide some new outlook – so if you are ever in need of an ear to listen – I am here for you!

If you are dealing with extreme aggression – take a deep breath and make a plan. It will get better. It will not always be this bad. So keep your head up and hang in there!


What is Assessment of Basic Language and Learning (ABLLS)?

ABLLS stands for the assessment of basic language and learning skills. It’s an assessment, curriculum guide, and tracking program for children with language delays. It’s used very commonly with children with autism and cognitive disabilities. If you have been in the field for a while or hung around The Autism Helper block you have heard my reference this assessment frequently. I LOVE this assessment for my students who are lower functioning or have emerging verbal/academic skills. The skill set is focused on a typically developing kindergartener. {Purchase our ABLLS Resource Kit Here}

Why is this assessment so useful?

This assessment gives such valuable knowledge of what skill sets your student is missing. In doing so it gives great insight into what you should be writing for IEP goals or program goals. This has been especially helpful for the students I have had for a few years and aren’t quite sure where to go next. The other reason I love this assessment is you can update the progress tracking chart to show progress. It gives this incredible visual depiction of growth (that parents love!).

How is the ABLLS organized?

So basically there are 26 skill areas (ranging from visual performance to labeling to reading). Within the skill that there are a bunch of tasks. You rate how well the student can accomplish the task with the rubric. If they can’t do it at all you leave it blank. The rubric will indicate how many boxes to fill in if they can somewhat do the task. 20130115-152417 The Autism Helper - ABLLS Once you go through all of the tasks your progress tracking sheet will look something like this: IMG_2800 While I go through this assessment, I find it gets overwhelming with how many goal ideas I could use. I always keep plenty of post its near by to start a list of significant areas of difficultly I am finding. IMG_2807

How can you track progress with the ABLLS?

Now the cool part: the color you fill out the form with is associated with a date. Every few months or twice a year you can update this to show progress. The next time you fill it out – use a new color. This has a great visual cue of how much progress your student has made. Check out my student’s rockstar progress: (the orange and blue are two different assessment dates since I have had him as a student and the gray is his baseline when he came to me) IMG_2810

You can get the ABLLS from Amazon for $65.00. We convinced our  principal to get it for us two years ago – I recommend that approach :)
If you use the ABLLS, I highly recommend you check out my ABLLS Resource Kit. It has made implementing this assessment one million times easier. Where has this been all my life? Worth every minute of laminating time and then some.
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