TAH Teacher Spotlight: Skylar’s Middle School Classroom

Meet Skylar and her middle school class!

I have 8 students on my caseload with 3-4 paras in and out of my classroom throughout the day. My students are with me for all core subjects, as well as Life Skills. They go to elective classes (music, art, PE, computer class, cooking, etc.) with their grade level peers. My students have a WIDE range of abilities, with about half of my students using a variety of communication devices to express their wants and needs.

Teaching the barista way! 🙂

As I finished my first year of teaching I felt like I didn’t spend enough time on simple life skills and social skills. I knew my students could benefit from more direct time on life skills.  Being able to have a conversation and follow simple directions to complete a task are very necessary skills. In order to appropriately prepare my students for the future, I knew I needed to spice things up in my Life Skills class. I wanted to find a job or task that would allow my students to gain skills they will need later in life when they have a job. That is when the idea of “Coffee” came to mind. Teachers LOVE coffee, hot chocolate, and tea and my students love having the responsibility of being baristas. In addition to giving them a sense of responsibility and emphasizing prevocational skills, it also teaches social and daily living skills that benefit my students in a very practical way.

At the beginning of the year we started a business known as Mustang Express-O, A Cup of Positivity. Our motto is “brewing independence one cup of positivity at a time.” With the help from peer mentors, my students make and deliver coffee, hot chocolate, apple cider, and tea to the staff at our school. The goal of the business was to make it as simple as possible, to allow all students to be a part of it.

Teachers purchased a travel coffee mug with their name on it. The travel mug has the Mustang Express-O logo on one side and it has the teacher’s name on the other side. The personalized mugs allow my students to make and deliver the drink without a lot of confusion. The travel mugs are also safer to use with hot drinks, as it helps prevent spills and burns and it eliminates waste.

How Mustang Express-O Works:

On Mondays I send out a Google Order Form. The Google Form asks staff what kind of drink they would like and if they would like any cream or sugar. I take the order forms and write the orders on visuals to help the students make the drinks. The visual order forms include step by step directions in completing a drink. This allows all of my students the ability to help make and deliver drinks without an excessive amount of direction from a teacher. There are also step by step directions on the cupboard above the coffee makers. These visuals are used to help make the baristas as independent as possible.

One of the biggest benefits of this process has been creating a sense of inclusion by increasing the communication between my ACP students and both the regular education staff and students. When the students deliver the drink, they quietly walk into the classroom, hand the teacher the drink and thank the teachers. For my nonverbal students, they use their communication devices to communicate with teachers when they are delivering the coffee. It has been amazing to see the reaction from their regular education peers when they see the baristas communicating through technology. Some individuals have expressed that they didn’t even realize that students who are nonverbal have the ability to communicate. My goal was to create a more inclusive environment. Since Mustang Express-O, my students are no longer the “ACP kids down the hall,” they are baristas.

Coffee mug and visual order form

Coffee supply cabinet


With having three grade levels in my class, I have many different schedules. I use a variety of schedules to keep the day as organized as possible. Our day is broken up into 8 periods.  My students go to grade level elective classes. I have paraprofessionals who support my students in elective classes. With the students being at electives during different parts of the day, it can make scheduling challenging. Some of my students use visual schedules. A few of my students have a schedule binder they take with them throughout the day. This helps them know what to expect throughout the day. The binder includes a first/then board, a token board, and visuals for each activity the student completes during a given day. Schedule binders work great because they are portable and they travel with the students during the day. Since different teachers and paraprofessionals are working with the students during the day, this also helps keep everything consistent throughout the whole day.

Tips for Dealing with Running Behavior

If you have a runner in your classroom, you know the stress. Having a runner can be VERY stressful! It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, having a runner can offset even the most organized classrooms. I have one particular student who leaves the classroom very frequently. He will just get up and run out of the classroom. It got to a point that he was out of the classroom an average of 2-3 hours a day. He would leave the classroom and wander the halls, in addition to going into other classrooms and disrupting others. The problem is it takes a while for him to come back to the classroom. He often sits down in other classrooms and refuses to get up. We tried almost everything under the sun, visual, social stories, stop signs, a bell on the door, and even tape on the floor by the door. Nothing seemed to be working. There was simply no rhyme or reason to why he was leaving. I knew something needed to change.

Before I could change the behavior, I needed to get a better understanding on why the behavior was occurring. Every time he leaves the room, I document the time he leaves, where he goes, and how long he is gone. With the documentation, I was able to find a pattern on when he was leaving the room. Once I found the pattern, I created sensory walks for him. The purpose of the sensory walk is to help decrease his wandering behavior by putting in structured walks into his daily schedule. This student goes on sensory walks three times a day. With the sensory walks in place, it has eliminated most of his running and wandering behavior.

How the sensory walk works: I have 10 wooden titles with a variety of different textures Velcroed around the school. There are two tiles velcroed in each area. I put the blocks in central locations around the school. He collects the mini tiles and Velcros them onto a bigger tile.  He follows his sensory walk schedule to go collect the tiles and bring them back to the classroom. The last stop on the sensory walk is in my classroom. He pushed a cart and wears a sensory apron on his walk. The cart is weighed down with a sensory bin full of rice. He LOVES pushing carts.

Yes, this simple activity sounds silly, but it has eliminated most of his wandering and running behavior. Before the sensory walks, my paras and I were spending half of our day trying to convince him to come back to our classroom. With this replacement, he is not constantly leaving the classroom.

Small Group Spaces + Sensory

The layout of a classroom can make or break the year. My classroom is broken up into many small group areas and individual work spaces. There are also multiple break options provided throughout the classroom.  Many of my students need sensory breaks throughout the day. My favorite part of my classroom is the sensory area. The sensory area includes a swing, a yoga ball, music, texture/weighted blankets, and many hand held fidgets. There are three study carrels that are used to separate the sensory area from the rest of the classroom. Having a sensory/break area in the classroom has removed the worry of sending a para with a student out of the classroom to have a break.

Teaching is stressful. There will be many times that you will question your career choice and wonder if it’s all worth it. Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and aspirations.  And finally, simply fake it until ya make it. ☺

My name is Skylar Albers. I am a middle school special education teacher in an Alternate Curriculum Program in Omaha, Nebraska. This is my second year teaching. I graduated from a small college in Nebraska with a degree in Special Education K-12. I always knew teaching was the career path I wanted to pursue. However, I never realized how much I would LOVE teaching! There is never a dull moment and there are never two days that are the same. I love that every day is full of new challenges and new successes.


  1. I absolutely LOVE the idea of the travel mugs! Fantastic post!

  2. The barista idea is genius!!! So appropriate and teaches so many amazing skills!! LOVE!! And those scheduled sensory breaks?? Awesome!!!

  3. I love the coffee idea! Do the teachers pay for the coffee/hot chocolate? If so, what system do you have in place to handle the money?

  4. Thanks for sharing another for those kids who are runners. Nice to have another example to share!!

  5. I teach a very similar class in Maine. I love the coffee idea and have toyed with it for a few years. Do teachers pay weekly for the coffee or when they buy their cup, that’s their ticket to the coffee? There are so many ways to do it but I love your individual cup plan! 2 years in and you’re already rocking it!

  6. I have a variety of students in my middle school classroom. Only a couple have an autism diagnosis but they are all functioning at a level about 4 grades below their age. I will have 2- 5th graders and 3- 8th graders next year. with 1- 6th grader and 1- 7th grader for reading only. One student is an ESL student and does not speak much English. He has many phrases but does not answer questions. I have so many questions about this curriculum? Are there standards aligned for 6-8th grade? Do you think this curriculum is beneficial for students that are do not have autism? (Cognitive delay, downs syndrome, SP, and no specific label) We have used the Unique/News2You mostly for science and social studies. The math is very weak and the comprehension is basic. Do you have any words of advise for me?

    • Hi Betti! We would love to talk to you about the curriculum. Can you email sadie@theautismhelper.com? Quickly, our curriculum is aligned to grades 6-8th and it is widely used for students with disabilities other than autism. Because it is so visual-heavy, it would also be perfect for your ESL learner.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *