Teaching When You’re Not a Teacher: Promoting Engagement

Teaching SN part two

Hello again! Let’s jump right into part two of my series on effectively teaching special needs children.

So earlier this week we talked about how to set expectations with a child(ren).

I see that as the foundation of effective teaching.

Today we will build the walls.

That’s right- I’m talking about how to keep special needs children engaged.

I will start off by saying that it can be so tricky. 

Sometimes what works one day won’t work another day.

That’s why I like offering several suggestions-a toolbox, if you will- of ways to set up your interactions for success.

Give Him/Her a Job

My daughter Chicka Chicka has good days and bad days when it comes to listening and following directions.

But she takes the recycling out like a pro. 

And as I learned last week, she also excels at Magic Eraser-ing all the grubby doors.

Surprisingly, all the grubbiness is right at kid-level. Hmmmmmmm……

Kids love to be given jobs and it sets them up to receive praise. It doesn’t even have to be a crucial or involved job.

My favorite jobs when working with kids were ones that could also be used as leverage to encourage good behavior throughout the day/lesson.

Image result for pirates of the caribbean leverage


O, like you didn’t think of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Say you give a child the job of “light switch helper.” They get to turn on the lights when he/she/the group enters the room, and also turn it off when the room is vacated. You can remind them that they need to do xyz in order to be able to complete their job.

If it’s the right motivator, hopefully it will entice them to make a comment, or keep eyes on the teacher, or whatever you expect/want them to do (age- and ability-appropriate, of course).

Some other jobs include:

  • picture/book/”thing” holder
  • paper/crayon/scissor-passer-outer
  • line leader/caboose
  • prayer-sayer (if using this method in a religious setting)
  • teacher-bag-holder (assuming it doesn’t weigh 4.2 thousand pounds like my bag does)

Now, if you have other children in your home/group that will find it quite unfair that one child gets a job and they don’t, thank-you-very-much, I would randomly assign jobs to all the children. I think this is beneficial in that everyone gets a job, but it also teaches that not everyone gets the job they want every time.

Coping skills, people.

Reflective Listening

This is something I learned in college, and I luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurv it.

That r was in there on purpose. 

In your life, have you ever been listening to a teacher, worked up the courage to make a comment, and they just said, “Thank you,” and kept right on going with their lecture?

Did it make you feel good? Did it really encourage you to continue to make comments in future lessons? Did it lead to a good discussion?

Or did it mostly feel like you were in Professor Binns’ History of Magic class? 

Image result for harry potter fandom

When you use reflective listening, you validate a child’s comment, and then you integrate their comment into your next sentence. See here:

Child: I don’t think it’s okay to steal things. One time I saw someone steal a candy bar.

Adult: You are right. It is not okay to steal things. Now, if you did steal a candy bar, like Joey saw someone do, how would you fix the problem?

Obviously, not every comment a child makes is going to segway nicely into the message you are trying to get across. I can’t tell you how many random stories I have heard from children that were only slightly related to what we were talking about.

But do your best. At least validate their comment. After all, for some kids it takes a lot of courage to even say anything. It will also encourage them to keep making comments, thus keeping them engaged in the lesson.

Give the Answer in Your Question

As we’ve talked about quite a bit in this post, the key to promoting engagement in children (especially special needs children) is positive reinforcement and helping them feel successful.

This last idea is awesome for this because you give the answer to your question in your question. 

I know, I know, then what is the point in asking the question?

*allow me to stand on my soapbox*

Sometimes I feel we focus too much on cramming information into children’s heads. We focus on trying to teach them everything we know and want them to know.

But, more important than that, I think there needs to be a focus on learning how to learn. This is especially true for children with developmental delays/differences such as autism.

Now, I’m not talking about how to teach kids to score well on standardized tests.

Children need to learn how to think for themselves, how to be confident in academic and social settings, and how to handle the problems that will come in life.

But for all of that to happen, they need to have confidence in the little things.

*tuck soapbox into the closet for another day*

So how does this look? Here’s an example.

(adult is holding up a picture of a child crying over a broken toy.)

Adult: This child is crying. Her toy broke. Why is the child crying?

Child: Her toy broke.

Yes, it really is that easy.

And when a child gives you the right answer, give praise and encouragement to keep giving answers. See here for my post on giving effective praise.

Brain Break

This one is sort of a bonus tip, so I’ll just touch on it.

A brain break is exactly that- a set time or activity where a child/children disengage and do something completely different for a few minutes.

This especially helps children with attention span difficulties and sensory children who have trouble sitting still for long periods of time.

With younger children, this can be something as simple and silly as a 1-minute wiggle-fest or singing a “moving” song- Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, If You’re Happy and You Know It, etc.

With older children it may be playing a quick game. I will be doing a post soon on the “Stick Game” in all its simple, beautiful glory. The Hungry, Hungry Hippos app is free and also works as a great “brain break.” There are also several group games that are fast that we all remember from childhood- Miss Mary Mack, the Cup Game, Ink-a-Bink-a-Bottle-of-Ink, etc.

It is important to use brain breaks when you first see signs of fatigue and fidgety-ness. It is much better to take 2 minutes and play a silly game than take 10 minutes trying to deal with a meltdown.


So there you have it. Four ideas that you can use to help keep children of all abilities engaged. I wanted to offer up these ideas as opposed to a token system (let’s call it what it is, bribery), because I feel that while that can be a good place to start, we ultimately want a child to feel intrinsically motivated to participate and pay attention in class.

Please email or comment with questions you may have. I want to be as helpful as possible!
Now, brace yourselves: Friday I will be talking about methods to deal with meltdowns. You know they will happen.

Teaching Special Needs Children (When You’re Not a Teacher)

Teaching Special Needs Part One

The national average incidence of autism is 1 in 68.

One in 691 babies born in the USA has Down Syndrome.

Now, I could just keep rattling off statistics, but here’s my point: whether it is babysitting, a church calling, or extended family members, chances are you will come into contact with a child with special needs.

In my life, I have seen several instances where an adult has the opportunity to interact with and teach a child, but they feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to effectively teach a child with special needs.

Because of this, I was inspired to write this series on teaching and working with special needs children when you are not trained to be a teacher.

I want this to be helpful to as many people as possible, so I am trying to offer basic principles that can be adapted for any age group or any needs that a child may have. If you have specific questions, please email me!

Set Clear, Simple Expectations

If it’s one thing I’ve learned as a speech therapist (and, let’s face it, more so as a mom) it is that I use too many words. I’ll completely botch a golden teaching moment by trying to explain it as an adult, rather than trying to explain it on a child’s level.

The best thing you can possibly do is set clear, simple expectations.

Notice I didn’t say rules. 

Rules sound so restrictive. Even though kids need (and secretly crave) rules, I think setting expectations puts it in a more positive light. As in this is what I expect and know you can do, versus you can’t do this or this or this.

Here are some examples:

Hands to self.

Raise your hand to speak. 

Eyes on teacher.  

Obviously, these are for little ones- probably ages 3-5.

You can adapt them as necessary.

Use Visuals

Pictures are great.

Pictures help enormously.

Pictures are even more helpful when your expectations are simple and direct.

It really is as easy as printing pictures off of the internet and gluing them onto construction paper.

Maybe cardstock if you wanna get fancy.

Children respond to visual input WAY better than auditory input. This is especially true for children with special needs. Pictures are tangible, and there’s no chance of the meaning getting lost in translation.

Use the Same Phrase

Children with special needs have brains that are wired differently. It’s not bad or wrong, it’s just different.

Whereas other children may have several synapses that can make connections, children with special needs tend to have “tunnel vision” when it comes to language comprehension and following directions.

What are you talking about woman?!

Basically, if you try to say the same thing fifty different ways in an attempt to help them understand, it will most likely not be beneficial because the child cannot comprehend what you are asking of them.

Buuuuuuuuutttt…….. if you have the same simple phrase that has meaning to a child, you are far more likely to get the response you want.

Can you tell what the word of the day is?

Remove the Unknown

Children with special needs often thrive on routine and “the known.” Some children have anxiety and/or will act out when they don’t know how long something is going to take, what is going to happen next, where mom/dad is, etc.

Luckily, you as the teacher can remove the unknown.

Depending on the anxieties of your child, you could use:

  1. a timer (for how long each task will take)
  2. a visual schedule or routine (ha! you’re in luck- I just did a post on this!)
  3. a whiteboard with the number of tasks (check them off as completed)
  4. a countdown timer with how many minutes are left in class (you could keep it on your phone so it’s not a distraction for other students).

I hope that this post has offered you some helpful ideas for working with students with special needs.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series- how to promote engagement with special needs children!


Why Visual Routines Work

visual routines header

So I know this post is a bit ironic, seeing as how I have definitely gotten out of the routine of blogging. My last post was over a month ago!

Y’all, blogging is hard. Starting a blog is even harder when you feel like a teeny-tiny guppy in a huge ocean of blogs.

Those of you who have left comments, liked my Facebook page, and shared with your friends, thank you.

It motivates me to keep going.

So to kick-off my re-emergence into blogging, I want to talk about visual routines; what they are, why they are awesome, and different ways to implement them in your daily life.

Visual routines are just that: you put what/how you want your child to do something in picture form.

Like this:


visual routines

Aren’t these beautiful? They just make my speech-therapist/momma heart sing. These are from a company called Easy Daysies. I found these ones in the clearance bins at Barnes and Noble, but it appears you can order them on Amazon. There also several different options, such as getting dressed, doing chores, etc.

They are so awesome, not because my little one needs help remembering the steps, but it encourages her to do it quickly. Mommy is not amused when a simple potty break takes 15 minutes and a miracle to finish.

But that is a tangent for another post.

As my example shows, visual routines can serve several purposes. They can introduce a new routine, they can help set expectations and maintain routines, and they can improve the frequency/speed of the routine.


Because most children are visual learners, at least in the early stages of life. Visual instructions are tangible, and the child can mimic them until they reach the rote memory, or muscle memory stage.

This is especially important for children who may be delayed in their development. They often need additional support to complete multi-step tasks; they may also struggle with cognitive processing- in this case, the ability to hear directions, process them internally, and then act on the directions.

Have I sold you on putting some visual routines into your child’s life?

Why, yes, Miss Haley, but you haven’t told me how to make them tailored to my child and my life. Also, I don’t have a laminator. 

Okay here are my thoughts for implementing visual routines at home:

  1. Think about the times of day that are the hardest for your child. Is it getting ready for the day, going to the bathroom, cleaning up, or getting ready for bed?

Not that I’ve ever experienced any difficulty in getting my children to cooperate during these parts of the day.

Start there.

2. The order of the routine has to be non-negotiable. If you have a particularly stubborn child (once again, no experience with that), you might want to involve him/her in deciding the order of things. Within reason, of course.

3. The pictures you use need to be simple and direct. No distracting details here.

When I made visual routines for the special needs preschoolers I worked with, I simply cut one long strip of construction paper and then printed the pictures out and stuck them on the construction paper.

If you doubt your creative abilities, I found some awesome FREE printables at Tools to Grow OT (and yes, sometimes occupational and speech therapy overlap. It’s just how we do.)

You could also use a product like the Easy Daysies I mentioned earlier.

Or, if you have a child that loves technology, there’s the Visual Routine app. It is 3.99, but it looks to be a great app to manage routines!

I hope I have inspired you to try some visual routines in your child’s life! They are so simple, but can make a BIG impact on your child’s ability to follow directions ( which is a nice way of saying KEEPING YOUR MOM SANITY!!)

Please give them a try and let me know how it goes!