Getting students to learn and practice a new classroom rule or procedure isn't always easy. Students with special needs, in particular, often have difficulty latching on to new expectations and directions. By becoming aware of the subtle cues and actions that can help or hamper these children, teachers can make following rules and procedures an easier path for kids to follow. The simple plan presented here will make it easier for all students to do what is expected, while providing additional support for students with special needs.
Tell the students exactly what you want them to do. Clearly and positively state what, when, and why. Avoid telling students what not to do; focus on telling them what to do. For example: "When you finish your assignment, put it in the red basket on my desk and then choose a quiet activity to do at your desk. This poster lists three such quiet desk activities: reading silently, pencil drawing, and puzzle sheets. In the bookcase below the poster there are reading books, drawing paper and pencils, and puzzle sheets. Following this rule will help all students get their assignments done on time, and make it easy for me to find and correct your work."
Model the procedure for the class. Talk out loud while modeling to demonstrate critical-thinking skills and to help students learn the steps of the procedure. Do not assume that all of your students have received these instructions before, automatically know what you want them to do, or can figure it out on their own.
Watch students in action. This is the only way to determine if they can do what you have just taught them. Avoid asking questions such as: "Does everyone understand?" or "Are there any questions?" Some students to avoid embarrassment won't speak up. Instead, let them know: "Now I am going to give you all a short assignment to complete at your desks. When you have finished, follow the procedure I have just taught you." Use a simple checklist to assess how well students understand the procedure.
Coach students who look unsure of what to do or who are not following directions. Provide quiet prompts and encouragement. In any activity, some students learn the skill on the first try, while others need more coaching. Avoid showing frustration or highlighting the fact that these students need additional assistance.
Encourage students every step of the way! This is especially true for students who have had a history of not being able to follow directions or remembering what to do next. Students with problems related to sequencing, organizing, listening, focusing, remembering, or understanding language will also have difficulty following classroom procedures. In one tried-and-true approach, "Catch Them Being Good," teachers watch for and praise students who are doing what they are supposed to or making small steps in the right direction. This will help boost the self-esteem of special-needs students.
Remind students of the steps in a new procedure frequently. Do not assume that if a rule has been taught on the first day of school then all students will have mastered it and will be able to use it throughout the year. Use refresher lessons when needed, and post new rules and procedures.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Practice makes perfect! Students need a great deal of practice to be able to use a skill accurately and automatically. If quiet desk time is only an option on certain days, or if some students seldom finish early enough to have quiet desk time, the chances to practice and learn are decreased. Unfortunately, students with special needs may run out of time more frequently and, as a result, will have fewer opportunities to practice. If all teachers in a school work together to use the same rules and procedures, these students will be able to build on their skills by practicing them throughout each day.
Sharon A. Maroney, Ph.D., is an associate professor of special education at Western Illinois University and president of the Council for Children With Behavioral Disorders.