FAQ: Planning, Curriculum, Units, and more

So if you read yesterday’s post – you had a small glimpse into the pure madness of arranging a schedule that is somehow simultaneously supposed teach multiple curriculum to multiple types of learners. The schedule is really the key to all planning. Because then you will know what you need to plan for and how. My planning is not lovely and fluid. I have no beautiful, visual, link filled weekly lesson plans to show you. Of course not. That would be too easy.

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 trials data sheet post 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  (who are alone or in pairs – see yesterday’s post), 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 (right now we are doing snowmen), but I also use this time to hit concepts we are struggling with like this Angry Verbs unit, Cartoon Problem Solving, and Poetry to work on fluency. I struggle to fit everything into this time period. Next year I will plan for a longer morning group. However – a caveat – these are kids I have had for several years and we spend SIGNIFICANT amount of time working simply on group behavior until we could really add in some heavy duty academics. The nice part about my schedule now is after morning group – we break into our locations – so I can finish up any leftover work or provide more focused intervention during my teacher time. 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 (we combine our reading groups – so they just stay in her room and do science at her center). 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 geography, community 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!


I really think you need both progress based planning and thematic based planning to have a well rounded curriculum. You want to make sure to dedicate some time to really focusing, intensely on individualized skill building but you also want to let your kids have fun, do crafts, work in a less structured way, generalize their learning, work in groups, and … be kids! Thoughts??


  1. That about sums up what I do! Last year I planned my themes according to the letters of the alphabet that they were learning to write using the Handwriting Without Tears “curriculum”. I was lucky enough to have our OT in the classroom once a week in the afternoon, so it came from collaboration with her. I also try to include “messier” sensory items that are difficult to do during structured task times. This year has been crazy hectic with lots of behaviors along with staffing changes, and my theme based planning has suffered. I am looking forward to getting back on track. I try to include a book during morning group time that relates to the ‘theme’ so that I can pull it out later in the day and use it to reinforce literacy during art time.
    Thank you for writing out your planning method – made me feel so much better knowing I was not alone!

  2. I do basically the same thing. Each student has a schedule of what objectives are to be addressed on each day. Anyone can pick up a students folder look at the schedule and know what to work on. In the afternoon we have a large group session and break out individual work for our thematic units. I love using these units for vocabulary building and concept generalization.

  3. Awesome Cathy! That is the key isn’t it?! – that goals are so clearly written anyone can jump in hypothetically. Love it 🙂

  4. I love the letter of the week idea – Valerie! I totally feel you on the off track thematic plans – ugh. Glad to know we are all doing similar things!

  5. Oh I miss the days of visual sclhduee. My son really used his tons when he was in preschool and phased out sometime during kindergarten – we still used one at home for some time after.. have the ‘picture steps’ up in the bathroom for potty, handwashing, toothbrushing, and on his closet for dressing.We didn’t use the red/green/yellow at home but the teacher uses something like that at school and I’ve thought about bringing it home many a time!!!

  6. Thank you so….much for sharing your wealth of knowledge. You are a blessing to many special education teachers and parents. I wish that you were around when I was raising my autistic son who is now 21 years old.


  7. Awww thank you so much for your sweet words! Thank you for reading!


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