Easy Strategies and Accommodations for Behavioral and Mental Health Needs in Learning Enviorments

The numerous accommodations and modifications that teachers make for students often amount to a lengthy list. These adjustments can involve altering not only instruction but also lesson materials, which tend to exhaust much of a teacher’s planning time. While circumstances, symptoms, and needs vary from student to student, there are some of the best “universal” practices that teachers can employ when a student is impacted by a medical condition, without causing a disproportional amount of stress to the teacher.

Symptom: Inattentiveness

Strategies Considerations
  • Verbal/non-verbal prompting or cueing
  • Checklists or sticky notes for work completion; a checkmark or small sticky on the desk indicating strong/prolonged focus
  • Offer preferential seating
  • Proximity while giving instructions/directions
  • Brain breaks for lengthy texts or multi-step tasks
  • Brisk transitions between tasks/activities to build attentive momentum
  • Prompting and cueing could be as subtle as tapping on the desk to regain focus, and could be as direct as asking which number the student is on and encouraging further progress
  • Checklists or sticky notes would typically be paired with a weekly/monthly incentive to track student’s attention goal (504/IEP)
  • Preferential seating doesn’t necessarily mean in the front of the classroom; this could mean near the teacher’s desk, away from the window or hallway, or in the quieter back corner of the room

Symptom: Vision issues

Strategies Considerations
  • Offer preferential seating
  • Provide larger text/font size on handouts
  • Limit screen time or allow frequent breaks during prolonged screen use
  • Provide highlighted and/or condensed teacher notes
  • Suggest colored overlays for students whose vision issues are exacerbated by bright white paper (often seen with PANDAS)
  • Highlighted/condensed teacher notes allow students to follow along with notes/outlines without straining their eyes to copy from the board
  • Notes also ensure that only vital information is visually presented, avoiding extraneous details
  • Colored overlays are inexpensive plastic sheets that students can lay over a textbook, worksheet, or even computer screen to dull the brightness of the white background

Symptom: Working memory/memory processing difficulties

Strategies Considerations
  • Allow extended time for assessments and lengthier assignments, including a reduced workload when necessary
  • Provide wordbanks, multiple-choice options, and true/false for exam questions that involve more memory recall or fact-based knowledge
  • Allow use of a calculator for math assessments not hinging on mental math skills
  • Provide sentence starters or transition wordbanks for essays or timed writing tasks
  • Extended time should account for the fact that the student likely required twice as much time to review and memorize info prior to the assessment
  • When possible, reduce the exam questions to account for mastery of the skill, not the number of questions answered
  • Quiz and test modifications, such as word banks, assist students with recall by providing examples
  • True/false questions still assess the student’s knowledge of the concept but reduce unnecessary memorization
  • If a math quiz is not based solely on the student’s knowledge of multiplication/division facts, the use of a calculator removes the mental math and memorization barrier

Symptom: Executive functioning difficulties

Strategies Considerations
  • Give checklists for multi-step assignments or complex tasks, making sure to model how to order multiple tasks and check off to-dos as students finish sections
  • Maintain consistent routines
  • Provide approximate, suggested lengths of time for homework and/or classwork
  • Provide brisk transitions between tasks/activities to build attentive momentum
  • Model organizational strategies
  • Check in frequently
  • Simplify written instructions and verbally review instructions for clarity
  • Review daily and/or weekly agenda; highlight due dates
  • Allow students to write directly on assessments; avoid bubble sheets
  • Consistent routines ensure that students know the basic procedural expectations and can execute them independently
  • Students may need to be explicitly shown how to place papers in organized sections of a binder
  • Students may need extra time at the end of class to organize papers, materials, etc. in designated places to maintain organization
  • Allowing students to respond directly on test booklets avoids the confusion of bubble sheets and/or the likelihood of them losing their place or skipping questions.

Symptom: Fine motor issues

Strategies Considerations
  • Enable use of a word processor for written assignments
  • Provide teacher notes; modified note-taking
  • Utilize multiple-choice, true/false, matching, or short answer opportunities to allow students to demonstrate mastery
  • Provide the student with a larger or slanted work surface
  • Use larger lines, boxes, or spaces for written responses
  • Allow the student to use bulleted responses when appropriate
  • Encourage the use of a mouse instead of a touchpad
  • Utilize speech to text technology if available, or a human scribe if not
  • Offer pencil grips for writing and wrist supports for typing
  • Allow verbal responses
  • If providing teacher notes, encourage students to participate by highlighting or starring essential material; have them include labels or symbols while following along.
  • For lengthy assignments, consider other methods for demonstrating understanding:
    • Put story events in order using event cards instead of writing a summary
    • Match pictured steps/photo cards of a science lab to written steps, then put them in order
    • Use Scrabble letters or alphabet cards to take a spelling quiz, instead of writing out the list

Symptom: Behavioral issues

Strategies Considerations
  • Utilize verbal/non-verbal prompting or cueing
  • Use positive reinforcement when procedures/behavioral expectations are followed
  • Offer preferential seating
  • Give instructions/directions in closer proximity to the student
  • Allow frequent breaks for lengthy texts or multi-step tasks
  • Utilize brisk transitions between tasks/activities to deter off-task behavior
  • Use data tracking sheets and hold a weekly conference with the student, possibly providing incentives
  • Utilize the 2 X 10 strategy to build positive relationships between adults and students. In this technique, teachers engage a student in a meaningful, genuine, 2-minute conversation, unrelated to academics, over a span of 10 days.
  • Prompting and cueing could be as subtle as tapping on the desk to deter off-task behavior.
  • Prompting could also be as direct as reminding a student of behavioral expectations
  • Checklists or sticky notes would typically be paired with a weekly/monthly incentive to track a student’s behavior goal (504/IEP)
  • Preferential seating doesn’t necessarily mean in the front of the classroom; this could mean near the teacher’s desk, away from the window or hallway, or in the quieter back corner of the room.
  • Moving closer (proximity) or sustaining eye contact can often deter misbehavior.
  • The 2 X 10 strategy is proven to build rapport in difficult classrooms. It encourages a positive outlook regarding school and adults in schools.

The classroom environment is filled with a countless array of personalities, abilities, and levels of motivation. Add to that the various medical considerations or chronic illnesses that students might experience and teachers no doubt feel stressed about making sure every learner receives what he or she needs in order to be academically successful. To ensure that students’ accommodations are met, every student must be provided with differentiated, personalized learning experiences to foster intrinsic motivation and appropriate levels of challenge.

Enhancing Education with Digital Tools in the Classroom

Especially now, with the rise of technology in the classroom, teachers have practically unlimited methods for teaching, assigning, and grading student work. Features within forums such as Google Classroom, Flocabulary, Read180 Universal, PowToon, NewsELA, etc., allow for student choice, engagement, and differentiation. While the options and methods are seemingly unlimited, there are a few things to consider when it comes to utilizing classroom technology effectively.  

To ensure that the digital classroom is an asset, instead of an obstacle, for students and parents, educators will want to address the following concerns before planning and implementing:

Is the technology adding to the student’s understanding of the material, or is it simply technology for technology’s sake?

If teachers cannot readily identify how the digital tool is adding a layer of complexity, relevance, choice, or differentiation, then the tool may be better utilized for another task. What we do not want is for the learning to be secondary to the digital forum. For example, if students are using PowToon or Prezi for an assignment, then the objective should be something related to summarizing, paraphrasing, simulating cause and effect, etc., since those are skills that the digital tools support. Those two particular digital tools are more geared towards public speaking or presenting, so an objective for speaking and listening should be a component, as well.

How much scaffolding or frontloading will the technology involve?

As teachers, we know that time is limited, as we are constantly moving students from one skill to the next. A worst-case scenario would be for the digital tool to become a “time-suck” in the unit. More than anything, the technology should be comprehensive and user-friendly, so that it does not become an obstacle for students to demonstrate mastery.

How much of the student’s grade will be determined by the proper use of the technology?

Again, if the objective is for students to relay research that they have gathered in a focused and organized way, then the technology feature is simply a small aspect of that task. Consequently, if the objective is for students to construct a timeline of a story and present the animation, then the technology becomes more of a vital component.

Can the use of the digital tool be optional?

Another recommendation when considering student choice is to provide the option to not use the technology to demonstrate mastery. For some students, technology can be scary because of their unfamiliarity with it. For others, computer or internet access at home may not be a possibility. Teachers should be wary of only using digital creations or submissions, as this would mean that some students can only work on an assignment or project in the classroom—not at home.

Are my digital posts, grades, and assignments easy to access and displayed clearly?

When using a digital classroom like Google Classroom, teachers should be sure to make their digital forum as accessible and transparent as possible. At open house or parent conferences, teachers should consider inviting parents to sign up to the virtual classroom. This provides parents with their own means of logging into and monitoring the virtual classroom. Guardian access also allows parents to set email alerts anytime a new announcement, assignment, or grade is posted.

This means that parents receive notifications in real time, as opposed to having to wait for their child to bring home the new assignment or rubric. Guardian access also allows teachers to post entire lessons, documents, and reading to the classroom. This type of transparency provides parents with a peek inside the day’s activities and lessons. With documents posted, there will also be a backup option for parents if their child has lost or forgotten the paper copy.

Cultural Competency in the Classroom

A beneficial, yet challenging, factor of education today involves the increasing diversity in our schools. Because of the ever-growing demographics, teaching cultural competency has become a major focus in the classroom, especially for a public school system as vast and diverse as Montgomery County.

It’s not only students that are getting instruction on cultural competency. These lessons start at the top with administrators, curriculum writers, and educators all participating in this movement in favor of cultural awareness and appreciation.

Because culture involves a deeply personal, ingrained set of beliefs, behaviors, practices, and values, most people are at least somewhat unaware of cultures to which they do not prescribe. This is especially the case for young children who are just beginning to explore the world around them.

Culturally-responsive instruction truly begins with a look at one’s self through reflection—it isn’t until we truly understand ourselves that we can begin to understand others around us.

Build a classroom environment founded in cultural appreciation by abolishing the word “normal.”

Just because a behavior or characteristic might be our cultural norm, this does not mean that it is the “normal” or “right” way. Likewise, just because a behavior or trait may be unfamiliar to us, this does not mean that it is weird, wrong, or abnormal. Remind children that, just as we are all unique beings, our beliefs and values may cause us to speak, dress, and behave differently. Reinforce the mindset that cultural diversity provides learning opportunities that a culturally-homogeneous classroom would not necessarily have.

Because each student comes from a different upbringing, with different customs, traditions, family structures, etc., the perspectives that we can gain by embracing our peers’ cultures are limitless. If we hold one another’s culture in high esteem by valuing it as a chance to gain knowledge about something new, we no longer see our peers as “odd” or “different.” Instead, children learn to place the emphasis on the fact that a peer’s culture has provided them with information and knowledge that they would not have known otherwise.

Beef up the classroom library with culturally diverse options for students to explore.

Keep in mind that a culturally-relevant text does not receive its credit simply from the author’s culture. A novel about a child growing up during British imperialist India could provide plenty of opportunities for culturally-rich discussion—or it could oversimplify a culture or lack an important perspective all together. The key is to explore an abundance of different styles of texts, by many different authors, on a plethora of different subjects and themes. After doing plenty of research, and taking your students’ cultures into account, set up a culturally competent classroom library.  

Encourage courageous conversations surrounding cultural norms and where they originate.

For instance, when examining the protagonist throughout the course of a novel, prompt the class to ask analytical questions about the character’s motivations, thoughts, and decisions. What do we know about this character’s values, background, upbringing, family structure, etc.? How are our lives similar or different because of our own cultures? How might our own beliefs impact the way that we view or characterize the protagonist? What more would we need to know or discover about the main character in order to fully understand why she behaves a certain way?

If we take steps to expose students to diverse cultures and guide their exploration of different customs, traditions, and perspectives, they will learn to embrace new ideas and better navigate our world.

Creating Gender Inclusive Classrooms: Boys, Girls, or Purple Penguins?

Gender

A school district in Lincoln, Nebraska recently decided to avoid using the gender terms boys or girls in order to become more gender inclusive. Specifically at Irving Middle School, teachers and staff were provided with materials educating them on how to use more generic expressions for children, such as “campers, readers, athletes, or even purple penguins to be more gender inclusive” writes Deena Winter of the Nebraska Watchdog.

Winter reports on  a handout called “12 Easy Steps on the Way to Gender Inclusiveness” which advises teachers on how to avoid separating students by gender, but instead make divisions using birth dates or other preferences. Working with children ages 5 to 14 in a mix-gendered environment, I found myself asking this question about my work environment. The phrase “alright boys and girl” is commonly used to get the participants’ attention along with “you guys” or “yes sir or yes ma’am”.

“Always ask yourself, ‘Will this configuration create a gendered space?’” said Step 1 of the handout.

Or they could “Create classroom names and then ask all of the ‘purple
Penguins’ to meet at the rug,” the handout said.

Step 5: “When you find it necessary to reference gender, say ‘boy, girl, both or neither,” the handout said. “When asked why, use this as a teachable moment. Emphasize to students that your classroom recognizes and celebrates the gender diversity of all students.”

Step 7: “Look for examples in the media that reinforce gender stereotypes or binary models of gender (it won’t be hard; they’re everywhere). When with others, call it out and interrogate it.”

Step 8: “Be intolerant of openly hostile attitudes or references towards others… on their statements about gender. Being punitive may stop the behavior, at least in your presence. Being instructive may stop it entirely.”

Step 10: “Avoid using ‘normal’ to define any behaviors.”  Read Full Article

Middle school children face numerous obstacles and difficulties during those three years. There is an increasing need to fit in, yet one is also beginning to figure out who they are or who they want to be. Understanding one’s gender identity only adds to the stresses an individual encounters during those early teen years.

Lincoln Superintendent Steve Joel provided a statement referencing what children who struggle with gender identity may be facing and how this initiative can help. “Kids who are “living an alternative lifestyle” or have a “gender difference” are going through an “emotionally traumatic time,” Joel said, and other students “don’t understand what that child represents” so the school needs to help students understand “differences are OK” and “we’re all there to learn”.

The handouts have so far only been provided to teachers and staff at Irving Middle School. However, Joel believes it is up to each individual school to decide what the needs of the student body are. Members of the Nebraska Family Alliance and other sister organizations have commented on how the information is “some of the most radical material we’ve ever seen”.

Although extreme, the decision to implement gender inclusive material into the school system is progressive. As a future social worker, the gender inclusive initiative that Lincoln Nebraska has started takes them one step closer to equality for all individuals, regardless of gender identity. Social workers actively work to advocate for equal rights in schools for members of the LGBTQ community. I believe, after time has passed, Irving Middle School may be used as an example for other schools on how to better address gender differences at this age. To understand gender as a social issue, one must first acknowledge that gender is not binary. Although, some people may view gender inclusion as only a means to  appease the LGBTQ community. This intervention could also help to minimize effects of gender assigned roles that thwart the growth of our young people in early education.

Girls are less likely to interrupt others to speak, but those who do are interpreted as rude or unwilling to follow class rules. Boys interrupt their peers and the teacher more frequently and this can be interpreted as either an assertion of leadership or inability to follow class rules. Girls’ school work is often described in terms of their perceived effort but boys’ school work is interpreted according to their smartness and capability. Often, girls are rewarded for being nice, helpful and compliant while boys are rewarded for demonstrating skill and assertiveness. Educators reflect the cultural assumption that it is “natural” for boys to be boisterous, aggressive, competitive and unruly, but girls’ behavior becomes a “problem” when it challenges the boundaries of femininity. Read Full Article

Middle to late childhood, ages 9-14, is a time of increased need for social acceptance. Not only are there physical changes that impact children in this group, there are also changes within an individual’s social circle. I am sure we can all attest to the claim that middle school was one of the most stressful and terrifying time periods of our lives. If worrying about how we chose to identify ourselves or what actions are appropriate for our gender was eliminated in school, imagine what character qualities may have been nurtured.

Why Social Justice Education Matters

After reading about the Isla Vista killings,  it got me thinking about my role as a teacher and what we can do to combat  injustice and inequality within the schools, communities and even classrooms that we occupy. The role of a teacher is complex and multi-layered but we must ensure that teachers have the ability and curriculum to have serious discussions with students about the issues they will/have/are facing in their worlds.

social justiceSocial Justice Education is not only learning about specific topics, but it is a framework for interacting with students, establishing classroom culture, and inviting students to become active participants in their worlds to make it a better place.

If we don’t engage students in this type of learning, and only prepare them for the labour market, then we are failing to engage them with the task of making the world a more just and equitable place.

In short, social justice education matters because….

  1. It challenges and seeks to end dominant narratives/actions of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny in and out of the classroom.
  2. It seeks to understand social and economic systems that create poverty and suffering for millions.

  3. It challenges students to understand their privilege and encourages them to become allies of those seeking justice.

  4. It seeks to deconstruct racism not just as an individual act but as an institutionalized mechanism of oppression.

  5. It actively fights against homophobia and advocates for the rights of LGBTQ people.

  6. It teaches students to learn and understand the “hard and difficult” issues of our society and that they cannot be ignored if we want to make progress.

  7. It demands that we advocate for the rights of those with disabilities to ensure they can benefit from all society has to offer.

  8. It challenges students roles as oppressor/oppressed and actively encourages them to self-reflect on their actions as citizens.

  9. It demands that we investigate colonialism and challenges us to decolonize for a more just world.

  10. It is essential if we want to end the misery of oppression in all of it’s forms throughout our classrooms, schools, communities and the larger world.

Too often, as parents and teachers, we offer simple solutions to complex issues so we don’t have to have these hard conversations with our youth. This is unacceptable if our goal is to create a safe, just, and equitable world for all people. It’s time we prepare ourselves, and the teaching profession, to take up the task of social justice education.

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