…and Work Yourself Out of a Job!
I had a great talk with Jenn Adams of Teach Love Autism for today’s podcast interview on promoting student independence. She shares some fantastic tips about how we can encourage our students to become as independent as possible, in and out of the class. We talk about why this is important, how she sets up her room with independent stations, and how to train others (such as paraprofessionals) to buy-in to this method.
We also discuss TEACCH tasks and using visuals, helping parents with task analysis to build independence at home, and how Jenn is able to have staff training during the school day when she teaches them about prompt hierarchies and utilizes her staff competency checklists.
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Show Notes for Episode #17
Guest: Jenn Adams from Teach Love Autism
Jenn has been teaching in the field of education for over 10 years. She has taught grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Her time in education includes teaching elementary, early childhood education, alternative education, and as of late; special education. Jenn is certified to teach Elementary and Early Childhood Education along with Special Education. She is currently pursuing her Supervisors/Principal certification. For the last 6 years, Jenn has taught as an autistic support teacher in a public school district teaching students in middle school. Jenn works in a self-contained classroom trying to promote independence and advocating for acceptance. Jenn enjoys coaching her kids’ sports teams, going to the beach, and working on her teacher created materials and website.
Links and Resources
- For a written transcript of this episode, scroll down to the bottom of these Show Notes.
- TEACCH website
- Jenn’s blog post: 8 Questions about Independent Work Task Systems
- Jenn’s blog post: Differentiating Independent Work Stations
- Video showing Types of Prompts
- Available in Jenn’s TpT Store: Independent Work Starter Kit and Errorless File Folders
- Jenn’s website
- Jenn on Instagram: @teachloveautism
- Jenn on Facebook
- Jenn on Pinterest
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- Lisa’s TeacherPayTeacher Store
- Check out other podcast episodes
Disclaimer: The views expressed, and resources/links provided on this podcast are that of each guest and do not always represent the views of this podcast or the host. In addition, each listener is encouraged to research all strategies, lessons, curriculum, etc. before using them with students to be sure they are in line with their beliefs, their school district policies, etc.
Podcast Host: Lisa Goodell
Lisa Goodell, M.A., launched the “Help for Special Educators” Podcast on April 1, 2019. She has taught for over 24 years, including third grade, resource/inclusion (RSP), and mild/moderate self-contained (SDC). Currently, she is an itinerant orthopedic impairment (OI) specialist/teacher for students birth to 21 years old in all general ed and special ed settings.
Lisa has a master’s degree in special education and six special ed and general ed teaching credentials. She has been honored as “Teacher of the Year” at both the elementary (2014) and secondary level (1994). She lives in rural Central California with her family and a bunch of cats. Connect with Lisa here. You can also get more information by listening to the beginning of Episode 1.
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Transcript for Episode 17:
Tips to promote independence… And Work Yourself out of a Job!
NOTE: An artificial intelligence (AI) transcription service converted the audio file of this podcast episode into the written words below. The file is mostly accurate, however, be aware that spoken words and conversations are not the same as a conversation in a novel. This means that there will be some inaccuracies or accidental errors (i.e. missing punctuation and words, misspellings, etc.). Thank you for understanding.
Do you ever find yourself barely able to hold your head above water waves of IEP data collection assessments, parent conferences, not to mention lesson plans and seasonal activities are all crashing around you? You need help, but not just from anybody. Grab the lifeline that is the “Help for Special Educators” podcast. We will equip you with creative solutions and teacher-tested strategies so you can navigate the rewarding, but difficult job as a special ed teacher. This is Lisa Goodell, your host.
Welcome to today’s episode of the Help for Special Educators podcast. Today, I’m talking with Jen Adams, a special ed teacher, from Pennsylvania. She will be sharing some fantastic tips on how we can encourage our students to be as independent as possible. We talk about why this is so important, how we can set up our classes to make it easier to teach and how we can train others such as paraprofessionals to do this as well. It’s very important that we help our students to succeed in this area. So welcome to the show, Jen.
Yes. Thank you so much for having me.
So why don’t we have you start off by introducing yourself and let us know what you are teaching?
Okay. So my name is Jenn Adams. I’m in my 11th year of teaching. I’ve taught regular ed, early childhood, alternative education, and now I’ve found my home in special education and I love it. I’m currently teaching in a middle school, autistic support classroom, working with individuals, mostly with autism, but also with intellectual disabilities. It’s a self-contained classroom setting. So my students are with me for a good portion of the day. Occasionally I will get a student that’s in an inclusion-type setting or has that need to go out for inclusion. But most of my students are with me for the entire day middle school in the district I’m at is seventh and eighth grade about how many students are on your caseload. The most that I can have on my caseload is eight because a lot of the students I work with are moderate to severe students every year. It kind of varies. I’ve had as low as three, and I’ve had that max of eight.
And do you have paraprofessionals full-time or part-time with you?
Yes, absolutely. I have had one full-time para that’s been with me every single year that I’ve been teaching in this type of setting, and she’s amazing.
And then I’ve had multiple other full-time paraprofessionals and some part-timers I’ve even had some nurses in my room. I’ve had other support staff that I’ve found out recently is something that I don’t know if every state has it’s called a therapeutic support staff or a T S S, which is almost like an extra behavior support type person that comes from an outside agency. So we can have some pretty crowded classrooms, even though the class isn’t high, but you add in all those adults and all that extra support and it can make your classroom fill up very fast.
I bet it is helpful when you have students that have lots of needs, then you have these people to support right around you every day, seeing what’s going on and making suggestions on how to help.
Absolutely. Absolutely. It is one of the best things to have all of that support, but it also can at times be tricky to figure out how to best use all of those adults in the room and how to still promote independence for those students. When you have all those adults in the room. Yeah.
As an adult in the classroom, sometimes they can be hard when you want to be involved doing something at every point during the day. And sometimes with this topic, you need to stand back and let the student try on their own.
Absolutely. I try to tell my paraprofessionals, your job is to make it so you don’t have a job. And they give me this funny look like, what are you talking about? I want to have a job. And I’m like, I know you want to have a job, but technically that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to help these students to become independent so that they don’t need you standing there. They don’t need you prompting them, which sometimes is hard to kind of like process that whole idea.
So how can we address people that might not understand why it is important to have our students be as independent as possible?
I think the best way to do this a lot of times, the way I like to go about it is explaining to my paraprofessionals or the staff that are working in my room, that we want to create a real world experience for these students. Every chance we have, we want to make our little classroom, the example of what the real world might be like for them one day, whether they’re in a job, whether they are at a day program, they’re in a group home, they are living at home with their family members, whatever that end all be all goal for that student is we want to create that environment within our classroom. And I think when I can kind of put it into real world terms for them, for those paraprofessionals in the classroom that are trying to help the students that helps them get an idea of why we’re doing it.
Absolutely. That’s really good. I have some family, friends who have a student with special needs. He’s now probably in his thirties or forties, but as he was growing up, that was when they were just starting to do mainstreaming with students that might have more moderate needs into general ed classrooms. And they thought that was very important for him to be in there for socialization purposes, which I agree with that too. However, they really missed the whole life skills part of really teaching him independence. And so they had to really go back once he was an adult out, of the school system after he was 22 and they had to really work on a lot of independent stuff. And they were like, boy, maybe it would have been good when he was in high school or a little bit older to have been in a program where he could have been taught some of this stuff.
I think you’ve got to find a balance between the two, but definitely I think it’s very important to have the students be able to do as much as they can. And then no matter what level they’re on cognitively.
New Speaker (06:02):
I think students know if someone else thinks that they can do it or if they can’t because any of us, no matter what level we’re at, if we feel like, Oh, they just want to do it for us a lot of times eventually we’ll just say, okay, you can do it for me. I’m not going to try anymore.
Sure. I mean, if my husband wants to, you know, unload the dishwasher every once in a while, I’ll sit back and watch for sure.
So are there any other reasons that we might want to share with other people about why independence is important?
I think building independence is important for our students to be able to feel that sense of ownership for themselves, that they are capable of doing things. You kind of touched on it a little bit and making sure others understand that they are capable of things I believe in having high expectations, but then providing the support when the students need it to try and build them up to that expectation. I never want to have a student come into my classroom and just assume that they can’t do something without trying to adapt it or find a way to help them be successful in doing it. So I think if you come from that standpoint, when you’re trying to build independence for your students, so you’re looking for that ability to give them that real world experience, but do it at their level. And hopefully one day the goal is that they can do it on their own.
That’s excellent. I know you have a bunch of tips for us about how we can do this in our classrooms. So why don’t you go ahead and dig in deeper, right on this topic
Sure like we just talked about having that balance. Every classroom is different, but especially in a secondary classroom, I feel like teachers get a little bit more leniency in being able to do what you were talking about, which is getting some of those life skills into the classroom. But in elementary we’re heavy more on those academic skills. In my classroom we try to find that balance. I have part of the day where we’re working on academics and then part of the day where we’re working on those life skills, but either way, whatever you’re working on, you can always work on building independence. One way I set that up is I have multiple stations in my classroom and my students rotate in these stations throughout the day, roughly about 15 minutes in each station, whether it’s working one-on-one with me or with a paraprofessional or in an independent workstation.
And in that independent workstation, they are going to be doing some kind of a task that is independent for them. And when I say it’s independent for them, it means I don’t have to come over and tell them, keep working. I don’t have to tell them to move a piece over to another side. I don’t have to tell them to put the box away. Independent means completely on their own. They can do it. And we set up three stations like that in my classroom. One is most people have probably heard of it if an independent workstation through using work tasks, which most people are used to seeing like the shoe boxes with the materials inside. You take them out and the student follows a schedule of completing different types of shoe box tasks. A very big name in this is “Teacch,” T E A C C H… is very well known.
You can look that up for, if you’re looking for some research to kind of back this up, they have come up with this method and model for how to have this in your classroom. And then I’ve taken that and put it into also doing life skills. So I have a separate life skill station in my classroom that students do independent work in. And then I also have another workstation in my classroom that is more like a file folder, binder materials type station that I have students do as well. So I’m trying to give them three different experiences in doing work independently and trying to mix it up throughout the day so that it’s not all in one chunk, but it’s also giving them different opportunities to work on their own.
That’s awesome. When you first are starting off with your students, whether it’s the very beginning of the school year, or you get a new student in during the middle of the year, how do you begin with them? Do you start by making the task super, super easy, or do you have visuals steps in front of them modeling? How do you go about introducing that to a student?
Just like anything you’re starting in your classroom. Most of us in the beginning of the school year, we’re teaching the routines. We’re teaching the schedule, we’re teaching the expectations. So this is no different. When I get a new student that I’ve never had before in my class, whether it’s year or the beginning of the year, we do explicit instruction. So at this point it’s not independent, but we’re feeling the student out. I try different tasks with them. And of course we do want to try to go for easy tasks. And usually I will read their IEP ahead of time. I might talk to their previous teacher. If I can get an idea of maybe what kind of skills they already can do. And we will actually do a trial where my students will practice different skills. We’ll just get a bunch of the bins out or a bunch of the binder tasks or whatever it is. And we try them. And if it’s too hard, we take it away. We make a note and then we’d try something else. And we’ll do that for the first couple of weeks of school, just to get an idea of what the students can do independently. And most of the time, yes, they’re easy tasks.
They are errorless tasks, which means that they can’t get the answer wrong. So it might be a file folder that just has red boxes on the entire page. And all you’re doing is putting items that are red, like a fire hydrant and an Apple on that page. They can’t get it wrong just so we can build the independence of them sitting at a table, completing work with no one having to prompt them. Because the whole point of doing that is to generalize the skill one day. And maybe they can do that at a job. They can fold silverware and put it away in a cafeteria. They can collate papers in an office. And a lot of people sometimes I think miss that part of it, they think, Oh, it’s just busy work that we’re doing with the kids, but actually it is building independence. So that one day they can sit over somewhere, be given a direction on how to complete a task at a job site and maybe be able to do it completely on thier own.
That is correct. And you can start off with, like you said, the super easy things that maybe it’s just one or two steps, but hopefully you’re getting to the point where yeah, they can get the materials out by themselves. They can follow the visual directions perhaps on completing the whole task and then putting it away. And by the time you’re done with it, they could be doing 12 or 13 tasks right in a row as a part of this one big thing.
This sounds very similar to my class when I did a mild moderate class, but it was more, a little more academic probably, but having those independent work tasks… When I started those… That really saved my life. Especially when I ended up the last year I taught that I had 15 to 20 kids in my class.
Is there anything else that you want to address?
Something I really like to point out about using some kind of an independent work test system in your classroom is that yes, we are trying to build those independent skills for our students. We want them to be able to work on their own, but the other plus side to this as a teacher is if you have other students in the room that can work independently, that frees you up. It frees your paraprofessionals up to be able to work with other students one-on-one. And that’s a lot of the time for me in the day where I’m able to work with my students on their IEP goals and be able to target some of those skills. Sometimes it’s a one-on-one setting I can work with students. Sometimes I can do a small group because I have those other students that are able to work independently at another station. So I have the freedom to work with peers that need more of a one-on-one type setting for learning.
And then the other thing that I really like about doing these independent workstations is I create IEP goals that are centered around building independence. And usually, I call the goals, some kind of functional independence goal, I think is like the main phrase that I like to call the goal. And then we will set up something where it’s like the student will be able to work independently. And I might be more specific about what the setting looks like. So that, that helps that teacher too. That’s getting the student the following year, but I will say we’re hoping that they will work independently for a certain period of time with maybe a certain number of prompts and we’ll work up to it being zero prompts. And those are some of the IEP goals that I like to use for the independent work to kind of make it so there is a purpose behind it because there are times where somebody comes into your classroom and they’ll say, well, why are they doing that work? And I always like to be able to back it up and say, well, this is our functional independence IEP goal that we’re working on.
And I think parents would appreciate having IEP goals that address being independent as well.
Sure, Absolutely. I always have parents that are saying to me, how do I get them to do this at home? How do I get them to get ready for school in the morning by themselves? And I always say to them, well, first I try to suggest to them to use a task analysis, which is basically taking whatever the skills are that you want the student to do, or the task you want them to do and breaking it into the smallest pieces. And that’s one way for them to build independence, but also just the ability to be able to go in the bathroom, brush your teeth by themselves. That could almost be a life skills task that we practice in the classroom.
Yeah. Do you find in your classroom when students can be independent, does that affect their behavior in a positive or negative way?
I feel when students are able to be independent in the classroom, it definitely varies between students, but for the most part, I feel like students get this sense of ownership. If you provide the reinforcement after they complete the tasks that you have set before them, they are more likely to succeed. We all are more likely to succeed. If we know we have something cool coming after we’ve done our work and that’s one way that I help keep the behaviors under control in the classroom, especially when you have multiple students doing independent work, because I’m sure a lot of teachers are gonna say, well, this is all great and dandy that you’ve come up with this way that you get your classroom to work, but I’ve got five kids over here that are going to be jumping out of their seats and running away. And a lot of that is built into your classroom management system as well.
And also finding what works for that student in terms of reinforcement and reinforcement is anything that motivates a student or a person to behave in a certain way. I usually set up my tasks for my students as you complete tasks, A, B and C. And I even put it on a visual strip right at the station where they’re working and it’s almost like a first then type situation. First, you do your work. Then you get iPad. Then you get a snack. Then you get maybe a favorite book that they like to read, but that’s really individualized for each student. And I feel like that definitely helps with maintaining behavior in the classroom.
I love that. Thank you for sharing that. Why don’t we move into a little bit about what you said at the beginning about how you address this with your paraprofessionals. Do you do any specific type of training or do you have some kind of manual that you give them?
Yes. So one way that I work with the paraprofessionals or the staff as a whole in my classroom is I’ve actually instituted in the past few years doing staff meetings. I know that my first thing about having a staff meeting was when am I going to find the time, what are the kids going to be doing while we’re having the staff meeting? I was thankful to have the support of my administration when I said to them, I’d like to start having the staff meetings because I need my paraprofessionals to understand why we’re supporting the students the way we are. Why are we trying to back off on giving a lot of prompts and why are we working on building an independence? And my administration was very supportive and said, absolutely. So we instituted staff meetings during the school day because I didn’t have a time before or after school to do it.
And I actually did, yes. Do trainings with them. We learned about prompt hierarchies. So you know, the different stages of prompts that you can give and the levels of prompting that you can provide to someone as they’re completing a task. We talked about them. I showed video examples. If you just literally Google or go on YouTube and put, I think prompt, hierarchy, examples. There’s some videos of people showing what a verbal prompt looks like. What does a gesture prompt look like when you’re pointing at something? So those are all things that I actually taught and taught the terms to my paraprofessionals. So they understood they were providing support. I could say to them, did you just realize you gave Johnny a gestural prompt to the page in his book? And my one per professional would look at me and go, Oh my gosh, I didn’t even realize I just did that.
And I said, yes. So are we promoting independence? If we know Johnny knows how to turn the page, but then you’re prompting by pointing to his book. And we would talk about those things. And I thankfully had a staff that understood how we all wanted the students to succeed. So nobody really got offended by it. We were very open with one another and said, look, if our overall goal is for the students to succeed, then we’re going to have to maybe talk to each other and point some things out so we can all get better. So having those staff meetings really helped, and it was really helpful to give like a said before those real world experiences. So I can’t teach Sarah how to tie her shoes if I don’t actually put her in that situation. And sometimes it’s okay to let her fail because maybe if I let her fail at tying her shoes, once she’s going to realize she needs my help and then I can step in and I can also teach her how to ask for help, which is another independent skill that we want all of our students to have.
Oh, definitely. Is there ever a place for data collection in any of this, whether it’s with the students or like say you have a paraprofessional that doesn’t want to follow the system?
The best way to help your para-professionals understand why you’re doing what you’re doing is to educate them. So when you have those staff meetings explaining the why we all want to know when we’re learning something, why do I need to know this? How is this going to help me? How is this going to help the student that I’m trying to help in the end? All I will say there has been times I’ve had people that maybe have not been quite on board, but after showing them, if we’re consistent with having those same expectations with the student, the progress that they can make, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a paraprofessional say to me, I didn’t think Johnny could tie his shoes, but you know what, look, we’ve all been working on this. We’ve all been trying to do this for weeks now and now we can do it. How cool is that? And it’s just those little wins that you get out of working together as a team. I feel like make all the difference.
That is so correct. So teachers just really need to stay the course and focus on the goal. Show them little by little and they can get there.
Yes. And the other thing that I will do is kind of like a competency check for my staff. So like I might list the things that I want them to do. Maybe it’s not the things I want the student to do, but is it the things that the staff did? So in say a work session where they’re teaching a student a skill, they might have a checklist that says, did you show the student the first then board so that they know first I do my work. Then I get my reinforcement item. Did you work with the students on the materials? Did you try to limit the number of prompts and kind of almost like a checklist for the staff person? Cause sometimes there’s a lot of steps to the way that we set up systems with working with students. So I try to almost write out just a little checklist to remind them, did you give them the reinforcement at the end of your work session, things like that that can help them make their job easier.
I think I would someone that would need That list as well.
Sure. Yeah. In terms of working with paraprofessionals as well, one thing I really like to do is I like to take data collection and put that into part of what we’re working on and what my staff is working on with students. So whether it’s building independence, like I was talking about earlier, you create that IEP goal of the student will work independently with a certain number of prompts or no prompts. I incorporate my parents taking data on that goal to give them that reason for why we’re working on this. And also that end result, because if they can see the scores for the data going in, the direction that we wanted to that also is going to be reinforcing for them to see, look, we’re making a difference. We are helping the student reach their goals and by making them responsible for taking some of the data that can also help them take some ownership in it and feel like they are really part of the process.
Yeah. I agree that that’s an excellent way to use data collection beyond just with what the students are doing.
Yeah. I love a great graph that shows progress going up.
That’s right. Okay. How do you approach this whole independence when you’re outside of the classroom, maybe you’re at recess or in the cafeteria. I had a student recently who, when he goes into the cafeteria, he is supposed to get his food on his own. And I should say, this is a, this is a student in high school, spinal cord injury. So he was quite adept at doing anything he wanted before his car accident. And so now he’s come back into the school and the team is trying to get him to be as independent as possible. However, the cafeteria staff want to help him. They want to baby him. So the special ed teacher is trying to work with these other adults on campus to try to help them understand why it’s important for him to be able to do some stuff on his own. Do you have any examples or any ideas or tips?
Sure, absolutely. Cafeteria time is a struggle. I actually started to notice this at the end of the school year as I was kind of popping into the cafeteria to try and have lunch with my students more often because I wanted to spend time with them before the year ended. And I started to notice similar things that you were talking about, cafeteria staff, helping the students, and they’re not in our rooms every day. They are not part of the staff meetings that I like to have with my staff. So it can be hard at times. And I’m sure parents have this struggle too out in the community. They want to promote their child, being able to tie their shoe and a random stranger comes over because they see their child struggling and they go, Oh, I’ll tie your shoe for you. And you’re like, but wait a sec. I wanted him to do it on his own. Right? So in that case, I don’t see anything wrong and I’ve done it before. Just kind of pulling either that person or group of individuals aside and saying, I love how much you love our students and want to help them. However, this is something we’re really trying to get them to do on their own. And especially in the case, you were talking about where it’s a student that is capable and is definitely understanding that he’s getting maybe more support than he should be is something that you want to address. And it can be hard to go to someone and say, thanks, but no, thanks and say it nicely, right? Because you don’t want to offend anybody that is offering support to your students, but then you also want to make sure that your students understand that they need to take some ownership and the things that they’re doing.
I agree completely well, this has been fantastic, Jen. I really appreciate how we were able to get into so many details and scenarios about how we can help our students be more independent. I am guessing that there would be some listeners that might want to follow up with you online. And I know you have resources available and you do definitely have an online presence. So why don’t you share all of that with us?
Sure. So if you’re looking to reach out and learn more about building independence in your classroom or anything that I’ve been sharing about, I can be reached through my website, which is www.teachloveautism.com. I also have a Teachers Pay Teachers store that has plenty of resources that are very much focused on building independence in the classroom. And that TPT store is Teach Love Autism. For social media you can find me on both Instagram and Facebook. I am pretty active on both of those accounts, Instagram, almost daily sharing ideas and tips from my classroom and Facebook. I also like to share information and blog posts that I’ve been recently putting out. And both of those handles are @teachloveautism as well.
Well, this has definitely been a really amazing episode, Jen, I just want to thank you so much for sharing all of your expertise and ideas with us.
Yes, Lisa, thank you. This was so much fun. I love being able to share more information about building independence in the classroom.
The show notes for this episode can be found at Lisagoodell.com/podcast. That’s L I S A G O O D E L L. I want to give a shout out to one of our listeners, David from Anaheim, California, who sent in an email to me, which said, “I really can’t express how much of a lifesaver you have been through your podcast and the resources you’ve provided. I’m really confident and looking forward to the start of my school year. Thank you, David.”
You totally made my day. And I also want to thank anyone else who is still listening to this episode. I appreciate that you’ve made it this far and I just want to thank you for your time. Please let other educators know about this podcast as well. You can just tell your friends or post about it on social media. On Instagram, tag me at @Lisagoodellequip, and you can also tag Jen as well at @teachloveautism or pin it to your Pinterest page. Anything that you do will really help. Thank you.
Now, when I start to get stressed or overwhelmed about school stuff, I find it helps to take a moment to slow down, stop and focus on my breathing. Sometimes I also might say the Serenity Prayer aloud or in my head. Here it is: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I might also add a few of my own words. Here’s a sample for us special educators: Help us to listen and truly understand our students. Please give us words, actions, and solutions, which will help in difficult situations. May our classrooms be peaceful places where teachers, staff, and students learn and thrive. After that, I try to go out and find someone else to help because helping others keeps me from selfishly dwelling on my own problems. Thank you so much for listening. And I hope you’ve heard something helpful during this episode that you can implement in your teaching. Remember, you are amazing! What you do makes a difference, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Go find someone else to encourage because they probably need to be reminded that they are amazing, too!