Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sensory Saturday--Auditory and Visual Sensitivity

 Gym Mat
A gym mat is a very versatile sensory tool. It can be use for practicing yoga or s'cool moves, made into an awesome tunnel, or used to block off an area that is too distracting or a child who is too distractable. 

I have only started using music frequently in my classroom over the past couple years. Last year I used it for a student who would continually chatter during group work. We felt he was doing this because he was trying to cancel out some of the other classroom noises and it was like he was creating his own "white noise". Although this chattering may have been calming to him it was awful for the rest of us to endure! Playing  steady, calming music through headphones on low enough volume that it gave input but he could still hear me teach did the trick. I also use this calming music for kids whose engines are too revved up or for a calming break between activities.

Light Covers
A lot of my students are sensitive to the awful fluorescent lights that every school seems to have. In my little classroom I am able to switch off one of the light switches and my room is still lit fine throughout. However, in some of the bigger rooms switching off lights means a whole section of the room is dark. These blue light covers are perfect for this. Another option if you can get maintenance to do it is taking out some of the bulbs from each of your lights. I have one student who is still sensitive and he is allowed to wear a baseball cap all day.

Noise-Cancelling/Reducing Headphones
School can be a noisy place! Especially during assemblies or for my students with autism who are super sensitive to noise. Over the years I have had students who were "screamers" and I wish I would have had a set of noise-cancelling headphones for the whole class (including me!). 

It is common for kids with sensory issues to need a safe place to "escape" from the stressful school environment. Scheduling time for a student to have a tent break is a great way to provide a place for this escape. The tent can block out all of the visual stimulation of the classroom. I have had several students who were not quite ready for the classroom due to their sensory defensiveness. Typically these kiddos were kindergarteners with autism who had had limited experiences outside of their own homes. For these students, I allowed them use a tent within my classroom. At first, they would spend a lot of the day within the tent coping with the new environment. The tent was a safe place for them in the stressful new environment. Gradually we worked on getting them more accustomed to us (either by sharing the tent with them for play activities) or by setting up opportunities that were fun and not threatening outside of the tent. This eventually led to less and less time in the tent and eventually full inclusion within our classroom.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Take a Break Tuesday--Cheddar Topped Shepard's Pie

My boyfriend loves shepard's pie and when we first started dating I hated it! That was until I found this amazing recipe (from Martha Stewart of course!). 

I will not lie, this recipe is on the more time-consuming side, however it makes enough to feed two people for 3-4 days and it is super yummy so it is worth it! According to the website the filling and topping can be made a day ahead of time. I have never tried it but that is good to know! Another tip that I have used is freezing the extra tomato paste in an ice cube tray to save for next time since you will not have to use the whole can.

Martha's Cheddar-Topped Shepard's Pie


  • 2 pounds baking potatoes (about 4), peeled and thinly sliced
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, such as safflower
  • 6 medium carrots, halved lengthwise, quartered if large, and thinly sliced
  • 6 celery stalks, thinly sliced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 2 pounds ground beef chuck
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar (6 ounces)


  1. Preheat oven to 450. Place potatoes in a large saucepan, and cover by 1 inch with salted water. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are easily pierced with the tip of a paring knife, 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium-high. Add carrots, celery, onion, and thyme. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add flour and tomato paste; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add beef; cook, stirring occasionally, until no longer pink, 6 to 8 minutes. Add 1 cup water; bring to a boil, and simmer 1 minute. Set beef filling aside.
  3. Drain potatoes; return to pan. Cook over medium, stirring, until liquid has evaporated and a thin film covers bottom of pan, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat; add milk and 1 cup cheese. Mash until smooth; season cheddar-potato topping with salt and pepper.
  4. Pour beef filling into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Drop dollops of topping over filling; spread to edges with a spatula. Using a fork, make decorative peaks; sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Bake until topping is browned and filling is bubbling rapidly, about 20 minutes (if topping and filling were chilled, increase to 35 minutes). Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sensory Saturday--Movement

Mini Trampoline
A mini trampoline can give vestibular input (from jumping up and down) and proprioceptive input (from the pressure of jumping). I have used a mini trampoline for kids who need to wake up their systems in the and for kids who need to get some energy out.


A swing is another way to provide vestibular input and can be calming. 


A scooterboard can provide a range of movement input. By pulling a student on a scooterboard you can provide vestibular input which is calming. If you whip the scooterboard in a circle (safely!) or zig-zag it back and forth this input would be alerting. If you have a student pull themselves with their ahands (as pictured) or if you sit on the scooterboard and have them pull you it is proprioceptive input.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Take a Break Tuesday--Girly Spare Room

I use our spare room to get ready before school every morning so I have completely taken it over. For this reason it is the "girliest" room in the house. Here are some of the girly decorations:

The lighting of this pic isn't ideal but this is showing the "girly" 3D flower decorations from Bed Bath and Beyond that are over the bed and stretch to the adjacent wall. 

Here is one of my favorite "girly" and functional pieces. It is a homemade earring holder. I love having my earrings on display and it makes picking a pair easy in the early morning hours. 

Here is my "girly" necklace display from Pier One (favorite decorating store ever!). Again having them all on display it makes it very easy to pick a necklace in the morning.

Here is my vanity area. Some of the "girly" features are the cotton lace runner (Target--second favorite decoration store), cute straighter plate (Pier One), picture tree turned bracelet holder (Pier One), and antiquey looking jewelry box (not an actual antique... it is of course from Pier One). 

Some features are just sentimental too. The mirror my mom has had since she was in her twenties, the dresser was from my first very own bedroom set that I picked out when I was about 9 (notice those super cool chunky drawer pulls!), and the bowl in the back I purchased at a local art high school fundraiser where the students made the bowls and served soup in them. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sensory Saturday-- Tactile

Last week I provided a list of Special Ed Teacher Must Haves and one of these must haves was sensory equipment. Over the next few weeks, I am going to focus on different sensory equipment that I use in my classroom for a new post series that I will call Sensory Saturdays. 

This week I will focus on tactile sensory equipment.


All of my kids LOVE theraputty. It is great for a tactile sensory break but it also works well for working on fine motor skills (each color of Theraputty is a different resistance). Additionally, we have used it during academic activities such as hiding coins to find and ID or hiding counters to find and count.

 Calming or Cooling Bags

Last year I learned that students who have sensory processing issues also often have a higher core body temperature. When I learned this it totally made sense because I noticed that after bouncing on a therapy ball or spending time in a body sock the kids would be beat red and sometimes sweaty even in just a short amount of time. This is when I started trying to incorporate some cooling activities at the end of a sensory break. I made cooling gel bags which the kids loved because they were squishy and I could add beads or small objects to also provide sensory input. I put the bags in the fridge to cool them down. However, several of my students squeeze too hard so I made goo gloves for them which can also be put into the fridge to cool down. 

For those students who need oral/tactile input (you know the kids who always have their hands in their mouths) I use "chewys". They can be attached to a string or lanyard and worn as a necklace or attached to a stretchy spiral keychain and hooked to a belt loop.

Sensory Tubs
Sensory tubs are another great sensory tool for kids who need tactile input. Rice and beans are calming because they can be heavy and therefore provide deep pressure while pasta is alerting because it is "pokey". The sensory tubs pictured here are in my sensory table. The table acts as a catch-all for messes and decreased the amount of rice on the carpet each night. I would recommend getting tubs with lids and not putting more than one in the table at a time because no matter how many times you ask them not to the kids will mix them! Sensory tubs are also great to incorporate into academics by burying manipulatives (shape blocks, foam numbers, etc) and having kids dig them out and identify them. 


Fidgets are a good way to occupy a student during a short break (when waiting their turn) or help with transitioning (fidget signals moving from place to place). They are also good for those kids who have difficulty keeping their hands off of materials or out of their desks. Many students focus better if they have a small fidget to squeeze or roll in their hand while you are talking.

Sensory Bottles
Sensory bottles can be used like fidgets and are great for those kids who like visual input. Additionally, they can be calming for some students who like watching the oil and/or items settle. However, I do not recommend them for something to use during small group time because they can be very distracting. Click here for how to make sensory bottles for your classroom.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Classroom Organization and Storage

I recently had a fellow MD teacher email me to ask about how I organized all of my materials. This is such a tricky part of the special ed classroom because we often have lots of stuff!! Each student has different needs which typically leads to different materials which leads to me making (and storing) a whole bunch of stuff. Plus, once you spend a lot of time making materials you hate to throw them away and end up hanging on to them just in case you get a kiddo with similar needs.

Taskboxes: A big part of teaching kids with autism is using taskboxes. Students with autism seem to thrive with taskboxes since there is a clear beginning and end. They are a great, reusable way to assess skills or provide extra practice.

In my room I use one of those white wire dividers to hold all of my taskboxes and some file folders that I use for students at the independent (or TEACCH) work center.

When we aren't getting materials off of the shelf I cover it with a simple, twin sheet from Walmart to decrease the visual stimuli in my classroom (if only I could get rid of that awful carpet!)

On the shelf, things are organized by type of task (matching, sorting, reading, writing, math, etc). I use different colored file folders for these different skills as well. To make for each clean-up each folder and taskbox has a colored foil star on the bottom that indicates its type. Therefore all of the right tasks are but together. This also makes for easy task set-up because I can just list what activities I want pulled for them (i.e. Student Name: 1 Math box, 1 Sorting box, 1 Reading file folder) and then my aides can easily get them set up.

Some of my kids don't use a lot of taskboxes but they still have independent work. For this, I use a huge pocket chart with individualized pockets for each student. This is also located near the independent work area and easily accessible.

Other materials for tracking specific IEP goals are located in clear plastic bins on an IEP bin shelf. The gray bin on the top of the shelf is where we keep all of the kids progress monitoring binders. It is all centrally located so that any of the staff members in the room can easily locate the needed materials when it is time for them to work with a student.

We use thematic units in my room so we have a lot of materials specific to one theme. Some themes have more materials than others. For the bigger collections, I have book boxes stored over my cubbies with all of the materials. For other themes I place a file in my file cabinet/closet. Some activities are stored on the other side of this cabinet in a hanging closet organizer (which also houses our movies).

The biggest life saver though are two huge metal shelves that I had purchased at my old school and my principal graciously let me take to my new building. I have TONS of stuff on these shelves. I store binders and resources I don't use often, most of my math manipulatives and materials, board games, extra school supplies, and multisensory math and reading materials.

I purchased some pale blue curtains which I hung on tension rods to cover these shelves because although they are as organized as I could get them, they are still a lot visually.

Each week after planning for groups, I grab any needed materials off the shelves and put them in my group bins on my amazing IKEA shelf with the removable bins. When it is time for a particular group I just have to grab my bin and go.

For the kids' toys, I have sectioned off a part of the room just for play time. Everything has a picture label and a special spot on the shelves that has a matching picture label. This helps with clean up. Also, I never let my kids have a free for all with the toys! They always choose one thing to play with on our choice board. I have learned from experience that this is the only way to keep that little area from looking like a tornado hit it every afternoon!

I don't think my storage is perfect, but I have a small space so I work with what I have. The key I think is to be as organized as possible and have a designated spot for everything. This makes it easier to locate needed materials quickly. If only I could get my desk under control!!! Ahhhhh!!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Take a Break Tuesday-WTC Memorial

This summer I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the WTC memorial in NYC. The memorial is beautiful and I really liked the way they assigned times for you to visit so that you didn't have to spend all day in line. This was especially helpful when we were there because we were trying to see the whole city in one day!

In honor of today being 9-11 I wanted to share some of the pics from the memorial.

This is the North Pool which has names from WTC North, Flight 11, and Feb. 26, 1993. There are 400 trees within the memorial plaza which are such a great thing to see in NYC. I am sure they will be beautiful this fall. 

This is the south pool which has all of the names from WTC South, First Responders, Flight 175, Flight 93, the Pentagon, and Flight 77. 

This is one of the towers they are rebuilding. I think it is Tower 1. 

Here is a view from across the river in NJ. You can see the cranes and Tower 1 pictured above. Tower 1 is huge!

The memorial has a great website that specifically features an area for teachers

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Paraprofessional Handbook FREEBIE!!

Classroom Freebies Manic Monday
I mentioned that my teaching team and I worked on a paraprofessional handbook a couple weeks ago when I posted out Paraprofessional Survival Kit and several readers were interested to see what we came up with.  So this week I am featuring a modified version as my Manic Monday FREEBIE!

I tried to make the handbook neutral and its really pretty basic. We tried to address any reoccurring issues we were finding (checking email, confidentiality, cell phone use, how to address behavior problems) as well as provide necessary information (working with kids with language impairments, classroom behavior system) especially for anyone who was new to working in our unit.

Please refer to the great resources on the last page where I got some of the ideas. Also, I reused my favorite special needs clip art by Phillip Martin.

Happy Manic Monday and Enjoy! :)

Special Education Paraprofessional Handbook

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Special Ed Teacher Must Haves

There are several things in my classroom that I cannot live without. Any Special Education Teacher new or old should definitely have the following things:

You can NEVER have enough velcro. This year I invested in tons of velcro. The best investment was the white 1/2 inch velcro dots. Anyone who has spent hours cutting velcro into tiny pieces to stick to visual schedule cards knows how awful cutting velcro can be! The dots are worth the money!

Boardmaker is a program that has tons of simple clip art that you can use to make any visuals you need. Almost every MD classroom I have seen uses Boardmaker. This year I have just started working with the interactive boards using our classroom interactive whiteboard.

Interactive Projector

Last year the district gave us an interactive projector for the whiteboard. I was SO excited! I had always heard about the amazing things that classrooms did with interactive whiteboards and now I could do those amazing things too! My favorite thing about my interactive whiteboard is how engaged my kids remain throughout the lesson. They are all dying to get a turn and they all can't help but keep their eyes fixed to the board. The only thing I don't love about my projector is that the kids need to use a pen to access the interactive features. For my kids with fine motor concerns this an added obstacle.


The iPad is another tech addition we made to my classroom last year.I love my iPad and so do my kids. Like the interactive projector, the iPad keeps my kids really engaged. Plus, there are so many awesome free or cheap apps available. Check out my list of great apps for kids with special needs here.

Hand Sanitizer
Let's face it kids can be little germ monsters! This is especially true for my kids who don't understand that having your fingers constantly in your mouth and/or nose is not socially acceptable.  Some days I wish I could take a long soak in a bottle of hand sanitizer and once I witnessed one of my paras actually rub sanitizer all over her face (this was after a very slobbery hug from a student!). Although Purell seems to be the standard, I really love the scents from Bath and Body Works and I especially love their mini sanitizers with holders that can be attached to badge clips, wheelchair handles, door knobs, etc.

Switches and Step by Steps

This year I am quickly learning that my classroom has not been equipped with enough simple assistive technology. I am working on getting more switches and switch toys. I am also beginning to use a little step-by-step which a student has to push in order to participate/communicate.

Sensory Equipment

Managing student sensory systems (click here for information about sensory management ideas) is critical to teaching students with special needs. Sensory Equipment big and small can be found all over my classroom! My students all accept that other students need "school tools" to help them be successful. At first managing the equipment (where to store, who needs what) and remembering to use it was a challenge but over the past few years we have gotten the hang of it and it is such an important part of helping my students be successful.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Take a Break Tuesday--Easy Walnut Pesto

I love, love, love pasta! I especially love pasta with pesto on it. And I especially love pasta with HOMEMADE pesto on it! I think it is such a wonderful, fresh summer dish. However, pine nuts are super expensive so for a long time I made pesto with roasted pecan slivers. It was good... BUT THEN, I found a recipe that is even better....

My boyfriend is getting his masters in bio and one of his lab friends is Kelly from GrowCookPreserve. The first time we met we were chatting about blogging and I was very excited to check out her blog which features awesome gardening tips and super yummy (and healthy) recipes!

My ultimate fave is her pesto recipe which uses roasted walnuts instead of pine nuts or pecans. I think it works much better for consistency and taste than the pecans.

photo courtesy of GrowCookPreserve
In addition to being tasty, pesto is also very easy to make. I find the hardest part just being harvesting the basil. I use the Magic Bullet just like Kelly does unless I am making a super big batch and then I use my food processor.

If you make a super big batch, a great way to save the extras is by freezing the leftover sauce in an ice cube tray. Then, when you have a fresh, hot batch of pasta you can just throw in a couple pesto cubes! How easy is that?! (I also use this trick for Chilis in Adobo and Tomato Paste because none of the recipes I use these ingredients for calls for a whole can).

Another tasty tip is to top your pesto pasta with feta cheese. I tried this one day when I had some extra feta and it was so delicious! Feta adds a perfect amount of cheesiness and saltiness.

P.S. I know I keep saying pesto pasta, but as Kelly points out in her blog post you can really use pesto for a bunch of yummy things such as a caprese salad topper or a sandwich spread.