Three panic-inducing words: “Find a Partner…”

This post is the first in a short series on helping students with disabilities work in pairs and small groups. Today’s focus: Reasons group work is difficult for students with special needs.

As teachers or volunteer leaders in schools or churches, we encourage students to collaborate and work together…it’s an important skill (and a necessary one!) However, students with hidden disabilities often struggle with this type of activity.For them, the three most frightening words uttered by teachers might  be “Find a partner.” They are all-too familiar with the feeling of being chosen last for a study group…or not being chosen at all.

Often, students with hidden disabilities lack the skills necessary to work effectively with a partner or small group. Reasons for this may include:

  • Poor impulse control.  Students may blurt out answers, talk about irrelevant topics or leave the group to work on something else.
  • Difficulties with taking turns.  Students might interrupt their peers or demand the first turn (and, if they don’t get it, they might become angry)
  • Social anxiety.  Working in a group can be so stressful that it causes physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach, racing heart, or sweating. Students who experience this might be unable to take part because they feel unwell.
  • Problems with expressive language. Sometimes, students have difficulty retrieving information at the same speed as their peers; they need extra “wait-time” to collect their thoughts.
  • Struggles with perspective-taking. Working in pairs or groups requires cooperation…and that means being able to understand another person’s perspective. This is a sophisticated skill that can be elusive for many students with hidden disabilities
  • Difficulty with task completion. When students work in groups, they often need to complete tasks at home. Students with hidden disabilities sometimes struggle with organization and task completion.
  • Low frustration tolerance. Sometimes, students with hidden disabilities are quick to become upset or angry when the group does not agree with their ideas, or when they perceive that the work is not going according to the “right”plan. When this happens, they may become frustrated and angry with their peers. They might also have difficulty regulating their emotions.
  • Uneven skill development. Sometimes, students with disabilities may be very capable in some academic areas, but have tremendous difficulty in others. When a group assignment requires them to perform in a less-developed skill set, they may be embarrassed and reluctant to participate.

The good news? These students CAN — and should–work in pairs and small groups. They just need explicit instruction in order to be successful. (and the truth is, EVERY student benefits from such instruction.) As teachers, we need to plan the students’ interactions just as carefully as we plan our own teaching.

Stay tuned! Next week, we’ll talk about how teachers and volunteers can smooth the way for great group work!

Your partner in planning~

Communication and Confidentiality: Say THIS, not THAT (+ win a prize!!)

I love those segments on the “Today” show featuring David Zinczenko, author of Eat This, Not That.  It’s fascinating to me that a few changes in a meal can transform it from gluttonous to good-for-you. It seems that the main idea (based on good, common sense) is to focus on what is nutritious and necessary to the body, and leaving out the excess ingredients that promote disease. By doing this, you end up with a healthy body and a good taste in your mouth.

What a good word-picture for communication about children and families…

When working with kids and families who have special needs, we must choose our words carefully. We want to include accurate descriptions of behavior that inform, rather than judge. Our communication with parents is a time to build up relationships and offer solutions.

A few guidelines:

  • Report what you SEE and HEAR, not how you FEEL
  • Don’t editorialize; leave your opinions out.
  • Focus on working together and finding a solution
  • Pray before you speak. Ask God to guide your words
  • Remember that parents of kids with special needs are all-too accustomed to hearing negative reports about their children. And it hurts. Try to focus on a positive aspect of the student’s character.

SO…let’s play “Say THIS, not THAT..”

Instead of this…

We were playing a Simon Says game after our Bible story today. Eric didn’t get the first turn to be “Simon” and he just started having a big old fit. He had big crocodile tears running down his face and then he started being a really bad sport about the whole game. It just ruined it for everyone else, so we took him out in the hall. He really needs to learn to take turns…he’s old enough to know how to play a game!


Our class played a game of Simon Says after the Bible story. Another student was chosen to be the first leader. Eric appeared frustrated and started to cry. During the game, he began to yell while the other students were playing. After three minutes, his buddy took him into the hallway. He calmed down after two minutes, and chose to draw a picture instead of playing. I can’t wait to see him again next week; he adds so much to our class’s community!”

Can you see the difference? Same “ingredients” but a much healthier description.

Here’s another example:

Instead of THIS…

Jillian showed up for tonight’s youth event in a foul mood. During our break-out session, she kept sassing me as I led the discussion. Every time one of the other girls made a comment, she totally trashed what they said. I had to make her leave the group. We really like Jillian, but she can’t keep ruining the discussions for everyone else.”


“When Jillian arrived at youth group, I noticed the expression on her face immediately; it appeared that she had been crying, and her brows were furrowed. During our discussion, she rolled her eyes when other girls made comments, and she also used phrases like “Yeah…I see how you treat people in real life…” or “Seriously?” four times. When I asked her to please be quiet, she said that she doesn’t like following our rules and she doesn’t like church. I asked that she take a walk with one of our other volunteers, which she did. I wonder how we can work together to help Jillian feel more comfortable in our group; she has a tremendous sense of fairness, and that is something some of the other girls need very much.”

The emphasis is on working together, and using the student’s strengths for the Body.

Okay…now YOU give it a try…and win a fabulous prize!

Here’s how to play:

  1. Read the “Instead of THIS” quote below
  2. Create your own “Say THIS” revision
  3. Email it to me at by THURSDAY, JANUARY 26 at 6 pm EST

I will review all entries…those that meet the criteria for Body-building communication will be entered in a drawing…and the winner will receive a $10 gift card to Panera or Starbuck’s (winner’s choice!)

SO…instead of THIS…

” Robert showed up at our respite event in a really bratty mood. He totally didn’t want to be here, and he was using the nastiest language I’ve ever heard…right in the church building! He got away from his buddy and ran around trying to make everybody really mad. Then he went in the games room and knocked over everyone’s board games just to make them mad. We just can’t have that kind of behavior here…he knows better than to do that! My volunteers are completely frustrated.”

Okay…give me your “Say THIS…” entries!

Looking for words that build a healthy Body…

Stay tuned: Confidentiality and Communication that honors parents of kids with special needs.

Teaching Tips: How can a teacher get a group of kids to settle down?

Anyone who has taught kids knows how hard it can be to help them transition to a time of learning. Whether they’re returning from recess or PE, bouncing after a rowdy worship session, or just plain excited because it’s snowing outside, kids sometimes need help settling down!

About 10 years ago, I had a class of ALL boys…the energy level was high almost all of the time, and transitions were particularly difficult. This was a self-contained class for kids with special needs, and at least half of my students struggled with maintaining attention. I often felt that I spent the majority of the day directing them (okay, nagging and pleading…) to settle down so that we could get some work done. I used to periodically tape-record our class so I could listen to my interactions with the kids and analyze my teaching.** When I listened to those tapes, I was appalled at how much “nagging” I was doing. No wonder the boys were tuning me out!

During that same year, I became interested in football. The Washington Redskins  were doing quite well, and I got caught up in the excitement. My husband and I, along with our friends, spent Sunday afternoons in front of the TV during game time. I didn’t know a lot about football, so I spent a good deal of time whispering, “What’s that signal for?” or “Why did the ref do that?” My newfound love of football gave me the opportunity to bond with the boys in my classroom, too, as most of them were fans. Many of our math problems and bonus spelling words revolved around the Redskins that year!

I wondered if, somehow, football might be able to help us with our transition problems. As football season continued, I had become quite savvy with the football signals, and took great pride in learning the meaning of even the most obscure motions. One day after the boys returned from recess in super-high-energy mode, I decided to give it a try. Instead of nagging or yelling for them to sit down, I stood silently at the front of the room and began going through some of the football signals. One by one, they noticed what I was doing and began piping up, “Safety! Holding! Touchdown!” This activity became a great transition tool. The students learned that when I started doing football signals, I needed their attention: eyes up front, bodies seated and ready to learn. For this group of kids, it was effective–and fun! (much better than nagging…)


Tell me what transition strategies work for your class!

** If you plan to tape record a class you are teaching, please consult with your organization’s legal  or leadership team to be certain that you are following policies that are respectful, with the primary goal of protecting students.