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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: high needs

The helpless feeling you get when nothing you do seems to work with that one class can be absolutely horrible. Over the years I've had classes that leave me in tears, fill me with dread, make me want to take a sick day, or just leave me feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. It's disconcerting at best, and can leave you completely miserable if you let it get the best of you. In this series I'm sharing some strategies that have helped me improve my ability to work with some challenging classes with various difficulties- I hope they help you if you find yourself in the same situation! Today I'm focusing on classes that have a high percentage of students with high needs.

At the beginning of this series I shared my advice to keep those challenging groups from making you miserable- if you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post by clicking here. Hopefully the solutions I'm sharing today will help you improve your relationship with your tough class, but that process is going to take time and you need to make sure you keep the situation manageable (for you and your students) in the meantime.

One of the points I shared in that post is to be prepared with a plan B, C, D, and E. There's a good chance the first strategy you try won't work! Remember that this is a process, and a very important one at that. Don't give up.

High Needs

Classes with a high percentage of students with high academic, social/ emotional, and other needs can be a particular struggle for music teachers because often these students are being given a lot of support from additional staffing, pull-outs, and other individualized supports in the homeroom but those same supports are not given in their other classes, including music. It's also difficult because we're teaching so many students, that staying on top of the individual needs and plans for each student is nearly impossible and certainly unreasonable. On top of that, the music class environment is different from their other classes, so many students respond differently to our class environment, and those challenges are not usually addressed in individualized plans for these students. So dealing with these classes appropriately can be a monumental task for us. 

tip #1: consolidate important information

The first hurdle with these classes as music teachers is sorting through, processing, and keeping track of all the important information we need to know about individual student needs, whether that's medical information, home life situations/ background that affects behavior, IEP's, or any other information we receive formally and informally about all our students. Once we've made sure we have as much information as we can get about our students (more on that later), we need to find a way to use that information to inform our teaching. I have found it most helpful to go through all of the information I have and, for the students that I know I need to be mindful of, consolidate the information into one form. I use these IEP and medical information sheets to write down the most important information about those students that need any type of specific support in my classroom and keep them in my planner. Just the act of processing the information enough to consolidate it and then handwriting it helps tremendously with my own ability to stay on top of everything, and it's really helpful to have as a reference whenever I find myself running into problems.

tip #2: integrate individual plans

Often one of the frustrations with classes with high needs is that individual students will have plans in place to support them academically, behaviorally, or otherwise but a) those plans aren't shared with us, b) those plans don't include their time outside their homeroom, or c) the plans are too difficult to implement in the music room and manage alongside our hundreds of students. As frustrating as it is to take these extra steps to do so, it's in our best interest (not to mention the best interest of the students, obviously) to find ways to tap into those individual support plans. For most of us that means:
  • continuously advocating for the need to keep us non-homeroom teachers in the loop when individualized plans are created,
  • talking to staff members creating and implementing individual plans about how to make it work in the music room, and
  • creating reminders for ourselves to stay on top of all these different plans.
Often integrating an individual plan into our classes is as simple as including a spot for specials on any chart that is being filled out to monitor how students are doing and either making sure the chart is brought to specials for you to fill out or reporting to the homeroom teacher with how students did at the end of each class (if it's not a simple piece of paper that they can carry around). If they're earning some type of points/ rewards to reinforce specific behaviors, they should be able to earn them in your room as well and add it to their total. I find the easiest way for me to track things like how many "points" they earn in class or progress monitoring on a specific behavior is using rubber bands on my wrist, and I tell the student that the rubber band is the equivalent of their token/ dollar/ star/ whatever they're earning in their homeroom. You can read about how to do this in this post.

If there are academic support tools they're using, like using a specific tool on an iPad for writing, grips for pencils, glasses, visual reminders, translation apps, etc, make sure they're bringing them to music class as well. And if they have one-on-one support staff working with them in the homeroom, advocate for the importance of having that same staffing available for music and other non-homeroom classes! Often this is a harder sell for administration but if you can document the difficulties the student is having in your class you can make a case for the importance of having them there.

If there is something I need to track or equipment I need to have available to be able to bring these individual plans into my teaching, post-it note reminders directly on the seating chart for their class help me remember before they walk in the door. I use bright orange page flags with a note like "Aniya- bands" or "Jaden- chart" so that I remember to stay on top of using whatever system I have in place for them.

tip #3: collaborate and communicate

It's a lot of work and it's frustrating that the onus of responsibility falls on us, but the only way for us to be included as part of the team effort to support individual students, in most schools, is for us to take the initiative to include ourselves in as many meetings and conversations as we can and be proactive about staying involved in them throughout the year. Attending every single IEP meeting for the entire student population is certainly out of the question but I have asked to be added to emails so I am notified when meetings are happening so that I can give my input for others to take to the meeting, or ask to join if a student is a particular concern of mine as well.

Beyond formal meetings, though, keeping the lines of communication open with colleagues is so important! Any time I notice a certain recurring behavior, or a sudden change in a student, I try to have a quick conversation with the homeroom teacher. Often they have either started noticing the same thing and my thoughts reinforce their thinking and lead to a plan, or they have a plan already to address it and I learn about it because I asked. The same goes the other way too- if I find success with a particular strategy, I try to share it with the other teachers. 

tip #4: prioritize procedures and structure

One of the best things we can do for all of our students with behavioral and academic needs is to make our classes more predictable and structured. If your classroom isn't normally highly structured, this is probably the best place to start to help students be more successful in class! Explain and practice procedures for everything until students are all comfortable with the process, whether it's getting out pencils and paper, moving from chairs to carpet, or lining up at the end of class. Think through how to streamline each of those processes as well to make everything as straight-forward as possible. I've been freshly reminded this year that, as much as I feel like I'm repeating myself over and over again with these procedures, the students need those reminders WAY longer than I think because they're only coming into my room twice a week! For students who take longer to process things or don't instinctively do things the same way other kids their age might, these kinds of procedures have to be explicitly practiced.

tip #5: provide opportunities for student collaboration

For students who might be more defiant listening to a teacher or who struggle to understand a concept in the way we explain it, sometimes the best learning happens with their peers. I'm always surprised at the one thing that finally helps them understand something! Pairing up or putting students into small groups also allows me to work with students in the specific way that works best for them instead of interacting with the whole class at once, and many students learn better in a small group anyway. It's hard in elementary music where we're so used to working primarily with whole class activities, but for classes with high needs it's good to step back and give students time to process. Even just 2 minutes to share ideas or practice a part with a partner can help, doing a composition with a small group, or centers (here are lots of ideas about how to run centers, and my favorite center activities).

I hope these suggestions help you better address the needs of your students in these types of classes! I'm not saying it will be easy, but these strategies have certainly made it more manageable for me to meet my students' needs as best as I can within my classroom setting.

If you have any suggestions of your own or questions you'd like to ask about this topic, please leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to read more about how I handle "behavior management" as a whole, here are all my top posts on the topic.

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