Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Students with Special Needs

By Andrew Hawk

Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Students with Special NeedsPull-out teaching models are falling out of use whether we agree or disagree with the change. Every year, federal and state departments of education raise the amount of time special education students are expected to spend in general education classrooms. Some states, such as Ohio, have moved to full inclusion for all special education students who do not require a self-contained classroom. Finding the best practices to set up an inclusive classroom is vital. Here are some tips you may find useful if you are faced with this rewarding challenge.

Start with the Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
While there will be some similarities among most inclusive classrooms, the finer details may be quite different. This is because teachers tailor their inclusive classrooms to meet the specific needs of their students. This process starts with a detailed review of each student’s IEP. Pay close attention to students’ exceptionalities, goals, provisions, and accommodations. Check the goals to see if you will need to collect data. The provisions will tell you if the student will spend any time in a special education setting or if the student receives any additional services such as speech or physical therapy. The accommodations will describe any special things you will need to do for the student, such as preferential seating or restating directions to check for understanding.

Check Your Room Arrangement
Does one of your students use a wheelchair? If so, you need to check the space between desks and tables to make sure there is adequate space for the student to maneuver. Also, check to see if classroom items are within reach. Does one of your students have low vision? He or she should be seated close to the instructor. You will also need to print everything you can in a larger font.

These are the kinds of things that will need to be considered. The good news is that a lot of this information is included in the student’s IEP. Be prepared to make changes if something is not working.

Make a Logical Seating Chart
Forget the alphabetical order or random first-day seating chart that many teachers use. There are two trains of thought on how to group students in an inclusive classroom. You can intermingle at-risk students with higher achieving students. This offers an opportunity for peer tutoring. The second approach is to group the students together by their ability. This gives you the opportunity to deliver a lesson to the whole group and then offer remediation to at-risk students. Having at-risk students seated together makes re-teaching material easier.

Make a Schedule That Includes Services
If you have an inclusive classroom, one or more of your students may regularly receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, or social skills services. These services can make it challenging to find times for students to be away from the room without missing important content or instruction. Work with other school personnel to fit in these services during times that will cause fewer difficulties. When you have a student who is pulled out of class often, this can feel impossible, but it’s worth the effort to try.

Choose the Right Materials
When you are teaching students at very different skill levels, it can feel like you have to write individual lesson plans. This is a challenge when you’re trying to meet the needs of a classroom full of students. Finding the right materials to meet the needs of your students is crucial. This might be as easy as differentiating your regular classroom materials. However, sometimes you may need to use completely different materials. Find out what resources your school has available. A lot of free resources are available on the Internet, so check them out as well.

Collaborate with the Special Education Teacher
I know the things I have described sound like a lot of work. The good news is that you are not in this alone. Work with your school’s special education teacher to get help setting up your classroom and meeting the needs of your special education students. The special education teacher may even have materials that you can borrow if necessary. This person should be a great resource to you as you work through the school year.

Consider Co-Teaching
If your administrator agrees and your special education teacher is available, consider co-teaching for a portion of the day. Co-teaching holds vast potential for meeting the needs of special education students in an inclusive environment. Some of the benefits of a co-taught classroom include the following:

  • It gives teachers the opportunity to build leadership skills.
  • It offers a smaller student-to-teacher ratio.
  • It offers expanded opportunities to differentiate instruction.
  • Students often enjoy the opportunity to receive more adult attention.

Final Thoughts
Depending on a given group of students’ needs, inclusive classrooms can look very different from one another. Be ready to think outside the box, and do not be afraid to try creative solutions. The answers to some problems only come after a little experimentation. No idea is ever really a failure so long as it helps you know what to do differently in the future.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


Suggested Resources
Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom
The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education
The Survival Guide for Kids with Physical Disabilities & Challenges


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7 Tips for Raising Emotionally Resilient Kids

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun

7 Tips for Raising Emotionally Resilient KidsIn the 1984 movie The Karate Kid, a teenage boy becomes disheartened when his karate teacher has him doing chores to exhaustion day after day. Instead of teaching the boy fighting techniques for his upcoming competition, the master instructs the boy to paint his house and fence, sand his floors, and wax his many old cars. The boy listens to his teacher but eventually grows impatient and expresses strong negative feelings. When the master commands the boy to show him the moves the boy learned to complete the myriad of boring and laborious chores—sand the floor, wax on/wax off, paint the fence, and so on—the boy realizes that he was actually being trained all along. He is then able to easily learn the formal karate moves that he wants and needs for the competition.

I suppose the above movie scenario could be interpreted in different ways, but the take-home message for me is that committing to hard work leads to growth and success. Sure, the boy finally learned karate, but more importantly, he learned the importance of patience, delaying gratification, concentration, self-discipline, perseverance, being in the moment, and selflessness.

As loving parents, we want our children to grow up to be happy, and it’s natural to also want our children to do as well professionally, if not better, than we’ve done. Certainly, early academic and cultural enrichment opportunities, tutoring, and other after-school social, educational, and athletic activities can all contribute to our children’s happiness and success. But do we spend an equal amount of time teaching our children how to “wax on, wax off”?

Psychological/emotional resilience and grit are areas of study that developmental psychologists know to be important when it comes to a child’s later happiness and success in life. A child who possesses adequate psychological or emotional resilience can encounter significant challenges or adverse experiences and continue to develop well. And a child with grit will persevere toward long-term goals despite encountering obstacles along the way.

Some research has even found that psychological/emotional resilience and grit are as important as, if not more important than, having a high IQ. As a psychologist, I have witnessed this when some teenage clients of mine have been accepted and gone to four-year colleges but failed out of school within a short period of time. In these instances, the teenagers were smart enough to be at school—they earned the GPA and the SAT scores to get in—but they lacked the emotional resilience and grit to thrive once there.

Researchers believe that emotional resilience and grit develop in an unfolding process alongside specific factors like family support, community and social support, a positive self-concept, flexible communication and problem-solving skills, and the ability to manage strong feelings and impulses. Problems with emotional resilience and grit can start at a young age, but parents can help their children become emotionally strong and passionate about their lives and toward their pursuits. Whether your child is three, nine, or sixteen years of age, it’s never too late to help him or her become more resilient.

Here are seven helpful tips to consider:

  1. Teach your child the value of a dollar. If we buy kids whatever they desire, they will have a difficult time developing a strong work ethic of their own. Instead, set age-appropriate goals for items that kids can take actionable steps toward earning or buying themselves. It’s one thing to buy your child a new video game, for example, but it’s much better if your child has to earn it.
  2. Give your child chores. Whether your child is three years old and helps to carry his or her dish to the kitchen after a meal or is seventeen years old and mows the lawn, having chores provides a sense of responsibility. If practiced consistently, chores can lead to a sense of accomplishment, cooperation, and pride.
  3. Encourage your child to take risks. Like many people my age, my parents gave me the freedom when I was a young boy to take risks and to explore. From climbing trees to the highest branches and swaying back and forth without fear to biking around town all summer with friends in search of adventure, this freedom benefited me in many ways. We should do our own children the same service. It’s important for kids to separate from parents (safely and within reason) so they can find their own voices and legs within their peer group and the larger world.
  4. Let your child get dirty and get hurt. Structured activities are important for kids, but so are unstructured ones. Blisters, bruises, and dirt under the nails after a fun day of unstructured play outside are good. Let your kids scrape their knees—physically and socially so to speak—so they can learn what works and what doesn’t in their environment and with their peers.
  5. Adhere to the “If this, then that” approach to getting things. If you reward your child for good behaviors and accomplishments, he or she will begin to learn the relationship between hard work and its payoff. This is essential for setting the foundation for a work ethic that is healthy and strong. Similar to how you wouldn’t allow your child to have dessert before dinner, don’t give kids what they want before their responsibilities are completed. Consistently doing homework or chores before playtime or screen time will lead to a more emotionally durable and responsible child.
  6. Encourage your child to be selfless and to do good deeds. Developmentally, children and teens are self-centered, but it’s our job as parents to challenge them to look beyond themselves. Practicing kindness, volunteering, and giving back to others in need are good expectations to have of your children. Increasing empathy and compassion will contribute to emotional resilience and grit.
  7. Model resilience for your child. Life is a series of conflicts and resolutions, and it’s good for our kids to see us manage upsetting moments in positive ways. Being patient, flexible, committed, and disciplined—and delaying gratification and persevering—are all things that you can model for your children during a conflict. So the next time you get a flat tire, for example, be mindful of the things you say and do in your children’s presence because they’re learning how to manage their own emotions from you in that moment.

At the end of The Karate Kid, the boy wins the competition, and he even wins over the girl he likes and wins respect from some of the bullies in his life. That doesn’t all just happen to him by chance, but rather it happens by pushing through his physically and emotionally upsetting and painful moments. Through perseverance and passion to be the best, he learns the importance of “wax on, wax off.”

Author Michael OberschneiderMichael Oberschneider, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental-health practice located in Northern Virginia. He has been featured as a mental-health expert on CNN, Good Morning America, and other popular media outlets, and he has written articles for several news agencies, including The Washington Post. Dr. Oberschneider has also received Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top Therapist” honor for his work with children and adolescents. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife Liz and two children, Ava and Otto.

Ollie Outside: Screen-Free FunMichael Oberschneider is the author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun.


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Four New Year’s Resolutions for School Administrators

By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room

Four New Year’s Resolutions for School AdministratorsThe holidays! It’s that time of year that students, teachers, and—maybe most of all—school administrators long for. It’s a time to catch your breath, get some much-needed sleep, and spend time with friends and family. It’s also a time to reflect on the last year and look forward to the new one. Many of you, like me, make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve been a New Year’s resolver since I was a child. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I learn to set more achievable goals.

While I generally avoid giving unsolicited advice (one of my previous New Year’s resolutions), I’d like to suggest you consider one (or all four) of the following resolutions for school administrators. If asked to list the top four resolutions that would significantly improve the lives of teachers, students, staff, and administrators, I would give the following:

1. Focus on creating a positive school climate.
Research shows that there is a strong correlation between school climate and many critical educational concerns, including attendance, graduation rates, teacher retention, behavioral referrals, and student achievement.

People are the most important resource in a school. People become more invested and perform their best work when they’re provided with a working or learning environment that addresses their physical and psychological needs for safety and security; positive, trusting relationships; personal empowerment; autonomy; and fun.

While it is primarily the teacher’s responsibility to create a safe, orderly, connected, and engaged classroom, it is the school leader’s responsibility to create a school climate and culture in which faculty and staff members experience:

  • a sense of physical and emotional safety
  • support
  • positive, trusting relationships among and between various stakeholders
  • a voice in decision making
  • recognition
  • useful feedback
  • meaningful professional development opportunities
  • autonomy
  • laughter and play

2. Transform faculty meetings into community meetings.
Ugh, the dreaded faculty meeting! It’s been years since I’ve been a classroom teacher, but I still remember how much I disliked those meetings: sitting in the auditorium, surrounded by colleagues surreptitiously grading papers or texting on their phones, while the principal (who clearly was not enjoying the experience any more than we were) shared data, read the latest state mandates and school board policies, or fielded questions that were often totally unrelated to me. I thought the hour would never end.

Instead of the traditional faculty meeting, use a community meeting approach. Email memos (requiring a response) to faculty to dispense necessary information (like those latest state mandates), and make the meeting a value-added learning experience for everyone. Here are basic guidelines for a community meeting.

Arrange the seating in a circle. The circle is the most effective seating arrangement for meetings: everyone can make eye contact, no one can hide, and there is a sense of shared power and community.

Begin with a greeting. Get up and greet someone in the group by name, shaking his or her hand (or giving him or her a high five or fist bump). That person then gets up and greets someone else, and the process continues until everyone has been greeted. This breaks the ice and ensures that everyone has made at least one personal connection.

Demonstrate an engaging team-building or instructional strategy. Turn each faculty meeting into a mini professional development experience. Use a different “strategy of the month” for each meeting. The first strategy could be the community meeting structure itself. Or, use an energizing game to get staff laughing and lower their stress. (I was once told that my after-school professional development sessions were “better than a martini” because I engaged participants in movement and energizers.) After the activity, provide clear expectations and ask faculty to think of ways they could use the activity in their classrooms.

Hold a discussion. As the facilitator of the community meeting, it is important that you review the ground rules with participants each time. Here are the ground rules I use:

  • The person with the talking device (soft toy, talking stick, or stuffed animal) has the floor. Everyone else’s role is to listen. (In time, this device can be omitted, but at first, it makes it clear who is speaking, avoiding interruptions.)
  • No verbal or nonverbal put-downs.
  • Use “I” statements when sharing an opinion.
  • Stay focused on the present and the future.
  • No interruptions or side conversations.

After setting the ground rules, the facilitator’s role is to explain the topic, issue, or problem that will be the focus of the meeting and then ask questions that follow a Define, Personalize, Challenge format.

Defining Questions: These clarify the problem, concept, or topic under discussion. For example, if your school is promoting a growth mindset, the defining questions might be:

  • What is a fixed mindset?
  • What is a growth mindset?
  • What are the benefits of having a growth mindset?

Personalizing Questions: These connect the content of the discussion to the participants’ lives. Continuing with the growth mindset example, personalizing questions might be:

  • Have you ever had a fixed mindset in any area of your life? What resulted from that mindset?
  • What is an area in which you have demonstrated a growth mindset?
  • Do you know anyone who has a growth mindset? Discuss.

Challenging Questions: These are designed to help apply, synthesize, or evaluate strategies, concepts, or solutions to the issue or topic under discussion. For example:

  • How can we encourage a growth mindset in students?
  • What is an area in which you’d like to grow as a professional? What is one thing you can do today to achieve this?

3. Listen more, talk less.
A great way to both empower others and build trust is to be present and to listen with a mindful ear—listening to understand, not just composing and waiting to respond.

As Stephen Covey states in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When we listen well enough to be able to articulate what another person is saying, without judgment, that person feels as if we really care. She or he feels respected. Even if we disagree with her or him, the relationship remains intact. One of the best ways to listen is through the community meeting, but as a school leader, you have dozens of opportunities to listen to parents, teachers, students, and staff members every day. During a hectic day, it can be difficult to be mindful about taking the time to really listen, but like anything else, deliberate practice develops mastery.

4. Be vulnerable.
In order for school leaders to influence their staff, they must be perceived as trustworthy. Like Rome, trust isn’t built in a day. But one way to accelerate trust building is by being vulnerable. I’m not talking about sharing all your past mistakes or present fears. Instead, I’m suggesting that you model what you want from your teachers and students, and when you make a mistake, follow these three steps:

  • Admit it. Don’t try to cover up a mistake, or worse, blame something or someone else for it.
  • Share what you’ve learned from it. Turn the mistake into an educational experience.
  • Change your behavior accordingly next time, if there is one.

Being vulnerable not only helps others see you as human, but also sends the message that it’s okay to make mistakes, that we are always learning, and that we learn important lessons through our mistakes. When others see mistakes as essential to the learning process, they will be far more likely to take risks and try new teaching and management strategies, which will only help them grow as professionals.

Author Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A.Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, a professional development specialist, a college professor, and the director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.

The School Climate SolutionJonathan Erwin is the author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room.


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The Semester Ahead: How to Help Your Kids Set Realistic Goals

By Beverly K. Bachel, author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens

The Semester Ahead: How to Help Your Kids Set Realistic GoalsThe beginning of a new year is the perfect time to prepare your kids for academic, extracurricular, and social success by helping them set goals for the new semester.

Here’s a seven-step goal-setting process I recommend:

Step 1: Set the stage.
Clear off the table and turn off the TV, phones, and other electronic devices so that you can give your child uninterrupted attention. Explain that successful people set demanding yet reachable goals—for school, sports, getting along with friends and families, and making a difference in their communities. Also explain that setting and sticking to goals can ease stress and anxiety, boost concentration, and make life more satisfying.

Step 2: Assess the past.
Invite your child to reflect on the past semester by asking open-ended questions, such as:

  • What went well? What could have gone better?
  • Who was a good influence on you? Who wasn’t?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What are you most disappointed by?
  • If you could have one do-over, what would you change?

Step 3: Hone in on the future.
Ask your child to think about the upcoming semester. Again, open-ended questions are a great tool for encouraging your child to talk about his or her hopes, dreams, fears, and frustrations. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • What are three things you’d like to accomplish this semester?
  • Is there a specific subject you’d like to do better in?
  • Is there anything you’d like to stop doing?
  • Who might be a good influence this semester? Who might not be?
  • Of all the things you’re learning, which do you think will be most helpful to you in high school? In college? As an adult?

Step 4: Pick some goals.
Your child can’t do everything, so help him or her pick out a few goals to concentrate on—perhaps a subject, a sport, and a friendship or perhaps improving an existing skill or learning a new one.

Step 5: Make goals SMART.
SMART goals bring structure and accountability into play, turning vague ideas and unrealistic daydreams into well-defined statements of intent. SMART goals are:

  • Savvy: Easy for kids to understand and meaningful to them. (Improve my grade in science from a C to a B.)
  • Measurable: Define exactly what needs be done. (Learn 10 vocabulary words.)
  • Active: Feature an action verb (Read for 15 minutes every day.)
  • Reachable: Require kids to stretch—but not break. (Study math on either Saturday or Sunday.)
  • Timed: Have a specific deadline by which kids can say, “I did it!” (Finish my essay by next Friday.)

Step 6: Create a goal ladder.
Imagine eating an entire apple in one bite. That’s what going for goals can feel like—especially to kids—if you don’t first break them into bite-size pieces. I recommend using a Goal Ladder. You can download one here.

A Goal Ladder is an action plan made up of the specific steps your child needs to take to reach his or her goal. Just as a real ladder is climbed rung by rung, so is a Goal Ladder. Here’s an example of one:

Sample Goal Ladder

Step 7: Celebrate success.
When your kids achieve their goals, both big and small, honor their accomplishments. Also honor their efforts. You can do so in both big and small ways, though, ideally, the size of the celebration should be proportional to the size of the goal. An afternoon spent studying might earn a chore-free evening, while acing a test might earn a weekend sleepover. In any case, celebrations—just like goals themselves—should be meaningful to your child.

Follow these seven steps, and you’ll be well on the way to ensuring that your child has a goal-filled second semester worth celebrating.

Tips to keep in mind when helping kids set goals

  • Think small. While you may be tempted to focus on end-of-semester grades, smaller goals that can be achieved along the way will keep your kids more engaged.
  • Make goals visible. Have your child write out his or her goals. Then, to help kids keep their goals in mind, post the goals on the refrigerator, the bathroom mirror, or anywhere else your child (and you!) will see them often.
  • Check in. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of life. To ensure that you don’t forget about checking in with your kids about their goals, add a weekly reminder to your calendar.
  • Stay positive. Kids should see goal-setting as an adventure, not a chore. So while you’ll want to help your kids achieve their goals, be careful not to nag. Also, don’t penalize your kids for missing their goals. Instead, help them regroup.
  • Be a good example. Setting your own goals and working to achieve them is a great way to motivate your kids to do the same.

Author Bev BachelBev Bachel has helped thousands of get-to-it-later teens (and adults) become real Goal Getters. She set her first goal—sell twenty-five glasses of lemonade—at age five and has since used the power of goal setting to make new friends, buy a car, run a marathon, read a book a week, and buy an island beach house. In addition to writing and speaking about goals, Bev owns her own marketing and communications company and writes freelance articles.

What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for TeensBev Bachel is the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


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Home for the Holidays

Happy Holidays from Free Spirit PublishingDuring this hectic holiday season, Free Spirits are reflecting on the past year and the people who have made it memorable. We have welcomed wonderful new authors and illustrators into our publishing family, launched a beautiful new website, and learned so much from you, our readers. Thank you for making Free Spirit what it is. We wish you happy holidays and a hopeful New Year.

The entire staff at Free Spirit Publishing is heading home this week to celebrate and recharge. We’ll be back to blogging Monday, January 2, with a post from Bev Bachel on New Year’s resolutions for second semester.


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