Substitutes and the Special Ed Classroom

In October we chatted about having substitute paraprofessionals and all of the challenges that can bring but what about when you need a substitute? Even if you are the healthiest most superstar teacher in the world – you will need to take days off both planned and unplanned. There will be conferences to attend, children who get sick, and cars that break down. And once in a while you may need a mental health sick day to sit home in your sweats and watch netflix (shhh, I won’t tell). And just like with everything in our jobs – you need a plan.

Have a sub folder or binder and tell your paras where it is.

The most important thing related to planning for a sub is to tell your classroom assistants where those plans are. You can make the most beautiful and useful and detailed sub plans but if you suddenly have to call out sick and nobody can find those plans – they are useless. Clearly label a binder, folder, or tab with your sub plans. Show each of your classroom assistants where they are and explain to them what is included. Even if you never plan on taking an unplanned day, emergencies happen. This also makes planning for those planned absences a breeze as well.

Include a note, schedule, and list of activities.

There are three main things you must include in your sub plans – anything extra is bonus. First off, you need a note explaining your classroom and giving some ‘ground rules.’ Don’t assume the substitute knows anything about special ed or autism. Also remember that most classrooms are run whole group, so your small group schedule may be very new to them. I explain in my note that the students’ schedules must be followed, the classroom assistants will take the lead, and the sub should follow my schedule (see attached schedule). I also include that if the sub has any questions about the students he or she can ask one of the classroom assistants in private and that we don’t talk about students in front of them (aka my life’s biggest pet peeve) I also note that the printer, laminator, and computer are for teacher use only so please do not use those items. I once had a sub who spent all day (and half an ink cartridge) printing off resumes and I’ll be damned if that ever happens again. Don’t feel bad being straightforward. They are in your classroom. Include a copy of the classroom schedule and highlight your section so they know what to do. Also include a list of activities to do with each group. Keep is simple, easy, and things that the kids know.

For planned absences, leave out the work in a clear way.

When you are able to plan for an absence, leave of the work for each group in a really concrete way. You are most likely to get the work completed if you make it easy to find and simple for the students. My go-to is a pile of work for each group with the names written with dry erase marker on the top. There is minimal room for confusion or misinterpretation. You can also leave a typed list or directions on where to find your lesson plans.

Lower your standards and keep it simple.

I know you are a rockstar teacher who took a pledge at the beginning of this year to make the most of each and every single minute you have with your students but for days you aren’t there lower your standards just a bit. The goal of this day is that your students work without you. It’s the they generalize their learning and independence and communication to a completely new individual. The goal of this day is also to let your classroom assistants step up to the plate. Let them take on the teacher role and make sure the schedule runs smoothly. But most importantly, the goal of this day is to keep everyone safe and happy. If you accomplish that – that’s all you need!


  1. Hi Sasha, Do you have any suggestions for long term sub plans?


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