Starting a new teaching job is an exciting time, but can be stressful. Here are a few tips to help ease the transition into the special education world.
Build a reward system.
A strong set of rules and consequences is important in a special education classroom, as is a reward system. My students really like to earn “behavior bucks” during learning sessions. They get paid for completing their work and are allowed to shop on Fridays if they demonstrate good behavior.
It is easy to set up a consequence system by using “fines” for inappropriate behaviors such as missed homework or calling out. I have used this type of system with high school students in an full-time emotional support classroom, as well as with K-2 Learning Support students in a pull-out setting.
This type of system can be as involved or as basic as you would like to make it. It is also an excellent tool for behavioral data collection. I have individualized this system for each student in my classroom by using their specific IEP goals. Data is collected and counted at the end of the day to determine how much students have earned, and fines are subtracted.
Establish a system to collect and analyze data.
Special education is all about collecting data. Data drives instruction and helps teams make informed decisions about student learning. I collect daily behavioral data for students with behavior plans so that I have an accurate picture of each student and his or her day. This allows me to look at patterns of behavior and make modifications to programming.
I collect biweekly or weekly data on academic goals for students with learning disabilities. This data is then graphed on a chart so that parents or students are able to see progress whenever they would like. Kids like to know what their goals are and how they can beat them. Charts and graphs are visual representations that are easy to for students and their parents to understand.
Just when you think you have everything figured out and things are working smoothly, something will change. It might be a new student added to your caseload, new behavioral problems with an existing student, a sudden reduction in staff or a variety of other challenges. While it can be frustrating to continually face change, it is necessary to be flexible.
Keep up with your paperwork.
Special education teachers have a lot of paperwork to complete and it can be easy to get behind. Between individual education plans (IEPs), progress monitoring and planning individual lessons for multiple groups of students, it can be overwhelming for a new teacher. Ideally, it would be wonderful to have enough time to complete all of your paperwork during the school day, but that is not usually how it works out. One way to limit the amount of work that you take home is to get organized and make every minute of the day count.
Organization is extremely important in a special education classroom. Being organized will help your classroom run more smoothly and will help alleviate some stress, but data collection can be overwhelming when you have a caseload of 20 students who have three or more IEP goals each. I use color-coded folders for each subject area for individual students based on their goals, and I rotate through them weekly.
My students also have individual work binders to work through during times when I am working with a student one on one. Valuable instructional time can be lost in a disorganized classroom, and since there is a limited amount of time to work with students in a pull-out setting, organization is a crucial part of the successful special education classroom.
Familiarize yourself with research-based programs and interventions.
One area in education that is continually changing is which programs and interventions are best for students with disabilities. Response to intervention (RTI) is an important process that allows teams to track and try research-based programs for students with and without disabilities. As a special education teacher, it is important to learn about programs that are research-based so that you can provide your students with the best possible interventions for their disabilities.
Initiate parent contact.
I suggest initiating contact with new families prior to the start of the school year. This will help ease your transition into the classroom, and parents will feel more comfortable if you have made the effort to contact them in advance. Email can be a great tool for quick messages to a parent, but for more in-depth conversations, I suggest using the telephone.
Know when to ask for help.
One piece of advice I like to give new teachers is to know when to ask for help. It really takes a team to work with students with disabilities. I could not implement behavior plans, collect data or individualize student learning without the assistance of the regular education teachers and paraeducators in my building. Often, when you solve a problem together, you can come up with a better solution than if you were to tackle the issue on your own.