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As a special education teacher or school-based therapist, you know that students can thrive when lessons cater to the ways in which they learn best. Everything from basic skills to self-care and social skills can be made accessible, exciting and engaging with a bit of creativity and understanding.
In schools across the country, dedicated teachers and therapists are using a myriad of innovative activities with great success. Here are a few that we love for individuals in pre-K on up!
Teacch Task Boxes
If you aren’t yet familiar with the Teacch teaching system developed for students with Autism, we encourage you to learn more about it. Task boxes can be used in a variety of classroom settings to encourage skill building and independent learning. Use small plastic bins to hold all of the materials needed for any one task, along with visual cue cards with “directions” on how to complete the task. Tasks may include letter tracing, bead stringing, stacking rings on a dowel to match a picture, clipping the correct number of clothespins to a card with a corresponding number, etc. Task boxes can be labeled with color-coded symbols that children locate and complete based which appear with their name on a daily schedule. Pinterest is a great resource for other creative task box activities, as well as ideas on how to organize them in ways that makes sense for both you and your students.
Get Soapy: Hand Washing 101
Simple skills like hand washing may not come naturally to your students. To promote healthy habits and empower self-care, consider teaching the steps of hand washing along with information on when it’s important to wash hands. Begin the lesson by discussing the importance of washing ones hands to avoid spreading germs. Demonstrate the four steps (wet hands, soap and scrub, rinse and dry) and use corresponding picture cards to help illustrate the lesson. Then, have students come to the front of the room to put the pictures cards in the correct order sequence. You can review and reinforce the lesson by showing the video “Scrubby Bear” and using the corresponding handouts and coloring pages available here.
Distinguishing between those we know and those we don’t know is an essential life skill—particularly for those who may be at increased risk. A great lesson to try in your special education class is one that helps students recognize and categorize strangers (grocery man, clerk, taxi driver, construction worker, ice cream man, a man walking, etc.) from people they know (family, doctor, bus driver, nurse, teacher, police man, principal. etc.). This is a great opportunity to teach kids what to say to strangers if approached and to never take candy, food, toys, etc. from them. Read the book, The Sly Fox and the Chicks to begin the lesson. After the story, have students work together or independently to complete a tree map titled “Strangers” with two categories: People I Know and Strangers. Provide a pile of pictures with different people. Students can take one at a time and talk to each other to determine where each picture fits on the tree. This activity can be easily modified using fewer cards or asking questions that gear struggling students in the right direction. To wrap up the lesson and reinforce key concepts, have the class watch a video about stranger awareness. When possible, this lesson may also incorporate physical techniques for escaping a stranger’s grasp. When these strategies are taught, having students practice in front of the class and/or with their peers makes a nice hook for the lesson.
Act Out the Story With Toys
This is a great activity to build auditory memory and comprehension. Choose a small booklet with simple narration that includes both pictures and words to describe events. Assemble a group of toys that correspond to the characters and actions in the story (little people, animals, food, vehicles, etc.). To begin, play the part of the “narrator” and allow the student to be the “listener.” Read a page from the story and have the student use the toys to act out the story. When reading, it may be helpful to emphasize specific elements such as pronouns and other details that the listener should be able to recall. For example, if the story says, “He rides the bike and she gets in the car with her cat,” the correct response would be for the student to put a male little person on the bike and a female little person in a toy car with a cat figure. When applicable, this lesson can be done with a partner where students take turns being the narrator and listener. It is also a great activity for students to do at home with their parents to practice listening and comprehension skills.
Cookin’ up Friendships
Teach the basics of friendship through a story, discussion and snack! This is a fun activity to do as a group for circle time, especially at the beginning of the year. Talk about what qualities make a good friend, as well as how to be a friend to someone else. Read aloud What’s the Recipe for Friends, by Greg Williamson and have students recall what ingredients go into the recipe for friendship in the story. List some of the responses on the board. Explain that as a class, you will be creating your own recipe. When you’ve decided as a group on five or six ingredients to focus on, draw a snack symbol on the board next to each quality. For example, kindness = pretzel rounds, playing together = M&M’s. Have students wash their hands and invite them to create their own friendship snack mixes by putting a small handful of each ingredient into his or her own Ziploc bag. If time allows, children can enjoy their friendship recipe treats while listening to another story about friendship!
There are SO many creative ideas for professionals working in special education jobs and therapy jobs! You classroom a safe and welcoming place where amazing things happen—we encourage you to explore these and other innovative lessons. Feel free to modify them, as needed and always provide plenty of positive encouragement to your students, regardless of their abilities.
And as always, we welcome your feedback on these and other activities you’ve had success with in your classroom.