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.

Author: Miss Haley

My name is Haley, and I am a wife, mother, and speech therapist. I want to teach parents simple yet effective speech therapy principles and strategies to improve language at home.

Speak your mind, but please be kind!