Showing posts with label freebie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label freebie. Show all posts

Why a Comprehensive Special Education Evaluation?

The Framework

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that special education evaluations be sufficiently comprehensive to make eligibility decisions and identify the student’s educational needs, whether or not commonly linked to the disability category in which the student has been classified (34 CFR 300.304). Comprehensive evaluations are conducted in a culturally and linguistically responsive manner; non-discriminatory for students of all cultural, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and other backgrounds. When conducting special education evaluations, IEP teams must follow all procedural and substantive evaluation requirements specified in IDEA. 

The BIG Ideas

  • Special education evaluations must be sufficiently comprehensive for IEP teams to determine special education eligibility or continuing eligibility and to identify the educational needs of the student, whether or not commonly linked to the student’s identified disability category(ies).
  • A comprehensive evaluation is a process, not an event. IEP team participants work together to explore, problem-solve, and make decisions about eligibility for special education services. If found eligible, the IEP team uses information gathered during the evaluation to collectively develop the content of the student’s IEP.
  • A comprehensive special education evaluation actively engages the family throughout the evaluation process.
  • Comprehensive evaluations are first and foremost “needs focused” on identifying academic and functional skill areas affected by the student’s disability, rather than “label focused” on identifying a disability category label which may or may not, accurately infer student need.
  • Developmentally and educationally relevant questions about instruction, curriculum, environment, as well as the student, guide the evaluation. Such questions are especially helpful during the review of existing data to determine what if any, additional information is needed. 
  • Asking clarifying questions throughout the evaluation helps the team explore educational concerns as well as student strengths and needs such as barriers to and conditions that support student learning, and important skills the student needs to develop or improve.
  • Culturally responsive problem-solving and data-based decision-making using current, valid, and reliable (i.e. accurate) assessment data and information is critical to conducting a comprehensive evaluation.
  • Assessment tools and strategies used to collect additional information must be linguistically and culturally sensitive and must provide accurate and useful data about the student’s academic, developmental, and functional skills.
  • Data and other information used during the evaluation process is collected through multiple means including review, interview, observation, and testing; as well as across domains of learning including instruction, curriculum, environment, and learner.
  • Individuals who collect and interpret assessment data and other information during an evaluation must be appropriately skilled in test administration and other data collection methods. This includes understanding how systemic, racial, and other types of bias may influence data collection and interpretation, and how individual student characteristics may influence results.
  • Assessment data and other information gathered over time and across environments help the team understand and make evaluation decisions about the nature and effects of a student’s disability on their education.
  • Comprehensive evaluations must provide information relevant to making decisions about how to educate the student. A comprehensive evaluation provides the foundation for developing an IEP that promotes student access, engagement, and progress in age or grade-level general education curriculum, instruction, and other activities, and environments.

The Balcony View

Comprehensive evaluations must provide information relevant to making decisions about how to educate the student so they can access, engage, and make meaningful progress toward meeting age and grade level standards. Assessment and collection of additional information play a central role during the evaluation and subsequently in IEP development and reviewing student progress. 

A comprehensive evaluation takes into account Career Readiness, a growing awareness of the relationship between evaluation and IEP development, and the need for information about how special education evaluations and reevaluations can be made more useful for IEP development.

The 2017 US Supreme Court Endrew F. case also brought renewed attention to the importance of knowing whether a student's IEP is sufficient to enable a student with a disability to make progress “appropriate in light of their circumstances.” Finally, updated guidance, including results of statewide procedural compliance self-assessment, IDEA complaints addressing whether evaluations are sufficiently comprehensive, and continuing disproportionate disability identification, placement, and discipline in student groups who traditionally are not equitably served.

A comprehensive evaluation responds to stakeholders’ requests for more information and reinforces that every public school student graduates ready for further education, the workplace, and the community.

It seeks to ensure a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for every student protected under IDEA. It guides IEP teams in planning and conducting special education evaluations that explicitly address state and federal requirements to conduct comprehensive evaluations that help IEP teams to determine eligibility, and thoroughly and clearly identify student needs. 

Planning and Conducting a Comprehensive Special Education Evaluation

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the key to addressing a student’s disability-related needs. It describes annual goals and the supports and services a student must receive so they can access, engage, and make progress in general education. 

A well-developed IEP is a vehicle to ensure that a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is provided to students protected under IDEA. A comprehensive special education evaluation provides the foundation for effective IEP development. 

A comprehensive special education evaluation is conducted by a student’s IEP team appointed by the district. The IEP team must include the parent as a required participant and essential partner in decision-making. Special Education evaluation is a collaborative IEP team responsibility. During the evaluation process, the team collectively gathers relevant information and uses it to make accurate and individualized decisions about a student’s eligibility or continuing eligibility, effects of disability, areas of strength, and academic and functional needs.

Data and other information used to make evaluation decisions come from a variety of sources and environments, often extending beyond the IEP team. Guided by educationally relevant questions, both existing and new information is compiled or collected, analyzed, integrated, and summarized by the IEP team to provide a comprehensive picture of the student’s educational strengths and needs.

A comprehensive special education evaluation is grounded in a culturally responsive problem-solving model in which potential systemic, racial, and other bias is addressed, and hypotheses about the nature and extent of the student’s disability are generated and explored.

Conducting a comprehensive special education evaluation requires planning. Each team has its own methods for planning and conducting comprehensive special education evaluations with guidance from the state and district.

Why RIOT/ICEL Matrix?

The RIOT/ICEL model comes from Jim Wright and is one way to look at RTI/MTSS.  RIOT is the top horizontal row of the table and includes four potential sources of student information: Review, Interview, Observation, and Test. Teams should attempt to collect information from a range of sources.

ICEL is the left column of the table that includes key areas of learning to be assessed: Instruction, Curriuclum, Environment, and Learner. A common mistake that teams often make is to assume that student learning problems exist in the learner and underestimate the degree to which what the classroom teacher is providing in class ie., accommodations, curriculum, and environmental influences that impact the student's academic performance. The model ensures no rock is left unturned. 

The matrix is an assessment guide to help teams efficiently to decide what relevant information to collect on student academic performance and behavior and also how to organize that information to identify probable reasons why the student is not experiencing academic or behavioral success.  

The matrix is not itself a data collection instrument. Instead, it is an organizing framework that increases teams' confidence both in the quality of the data that they collect and the findings that emerge from the data. 

An editable RIOT/ICEL form is below for you--just click the picture. Be on the lookout for a blog post sharing how I use this model with grade-level teams. The object of this model is to remove bias, it is a good way to look at multi-lingual students (ELL or ESL). It can be a great way to have collegial conversations about students.

Chat Soon-

What I use to help me make Data Driven Decisions

I was wrapping up my post-observation meeting with my principal and data came up. He asked, “How did I come to the decision to teach what I did?”

So, I pulled out a copy of my Assessment Data Analysis. I love LOVE using this form. {Catch the video to see how I fill it out and grab your own copy.}

The cool thing about this form is the power, control, and guidance it gives you over your data.  It is also open-ended enough to use any pre-assessment you want. Well, within reason. 

The data I used was from my Orton-Gillingham groups, their most recent pre-test from my Phonics Progress Monitoring. I assessed them using the Short Vowel Mixed Digraphs

This Phonogram Progress Monitoring can be used as a Pre and Post assessment.

Perfect for:
  • Teacher Evaluations
  • RTI/MTSS Body of Evidence
  • Monitoring Progress of Intervention groups
  • Mirco IEP Goal Progress

Assessment Data Analysis 

This Data Analysis is perfect for RTI/MTSS interventions and Special Education groups or if you have to provide data as part of the teacher evaluation–like me. Bonus administrators love it as you have your thinking right there on paper.

I use this ALL the time. I keep it in each group's binder. This doesn't replace IEP goal progress monitoring but it gets me out of the weeds. I think most of us in Special Education we get caught up in the microdata a little too much and forget to come up for air.

This form allows me to see the group data from a balcony view. Just like my Phonic Progress Monitoring--I can break down where a student is struggling and differentiate my lesson to target more nonsense words or more sentence fluency work or more controlled contented text.

I love that I can catch any misconceptions right from the beginning and not later as I address vowel confusions.

This year part of my professional goal has been to find a way to track growth/mastery using Orton-Gillingham to make having grade-level skill carry-over conversations easier.  I don't know about you but my classroom teachers they like to see the data before they make decisions. [I love this as this has been a HUGE RTI and intervention push!!]

I used my Phonics Progress Monitoring Tool.

A couple of important things about my Phonics Progress Monitoring tool 

  1. Yes–I use an Orton-Gillingham scope & sequence to provide explicit phonics instruction to my student education goals but it’s TOTALLY OKAY if you don’t. It will still HELP you determine if students have mastered the phonics phonogram in question. 
  2. It will work with ANY phonics scope and sequence--from Core to Special Education
  3. This product is bottomless and growing--grab your before it grows

(click on the picture to get your free copy)

How to Fill out the Assessment Data Analysis

This video will show you how I filled out the form using my Phonics Progress Monitoring Tool but it can be used with any assessment.

Pick an assessment that can be used as a pre-test or baseline and something that is short-lived. Like your next math unit on double-digit addition or subtraction, or next grammar unit or your next phonics unit. Unit quizzes work–just pull something towards the end of the unit or subject. This will help you establish a baseline on most if not all of the standard you will be teaching. (I try to keep mine to either a page or less than 10 questions.)

To use this form you don’t need to have multiple teachers using it.

Give the assessment and grade.

Establish and define Mastery. AKA: what’s that score that tells you the student’s “got it.” (Most of the time I go with 80% but it depends on the skill. For my phonics work, I establish mastery at 90%.) Write down whatever you decide. It will not change for this round.

Starting on the Pre-Assessment side: fill out the date, Unit and Standard(s), Length of the unit (I have found making this less than 5 days sets everyone up.), and Big Ideas.

Moving down the form: add teacher(s) name, the total number of students who took the assessment, the number and percent of students proficient and higher, and the number and percent of students not proficient. 

The last three boxes will have student names. This is where you need to know your students and the material that is going to be taught.

First of the last three: write down the names of the student(s) who will likely be proficient by the end of the instructional time meaning those students who are close to proficient. 

In the second to last box write the names of the student(s) likely to be proficient by the end of instructional time but who have far to go. 

In the last box, write the names of students who will likely not be proficient by the end of the instructional time. These students will need extensive support. 

Let me show you how I make this work with a group of students I provide explicit phonics instruction too. 

Using this form to make data decisions will help you move your students. Remember: Data doesn't judge. It is what it is. Yes, even my data sucks but it is also a place to start. When I do progress monitoring, I always have someone who asks if it's a test. My answer is always the same. "No. It tells me what we need to work on. What do I need to do to help you." 

This is one way to look at data. I'd love to hear how you look at your data.

Chat soon,

PS. Make sure to grab a FREE sample.


POW: Readers Needing More Support--Adapted Books with High Frequency Words

How do I get my readers more exposure to high-frequency or Red Words???


I love adapted books. My students LOVE them too! They are one of my favorite tools in my classroom. When it comes to building language skills or more experience with text--adapted books are a great way to effectively target specific skills in a way that is engaging for students. 

What is an Adapted Book?

Adapted books are books that have been modified in some way and often make it easier for students with disabilities to use but I also find adapted books are more engaging for all students to read and target so many critical language skills.  I create and use adapted books all the time because they are interactive, motivating, and target various language skills.  Many allow the students to feel successful and part of the book because they have to add or move pieces within the book.

Why You Need Adapted Books?

Research tells us kids with severe and profound disabilities often get sub-par literacy instruction. Part of that is based on people’s assumptions about the abilities of students with complex disabilities, the idea that instructional materials should only focus on functional or sight word instruction, and fact that language skills are generally lacking for students in this population. The other part of that is a feeling that instructional materials are just not made for these students in a way that is accessible.

There are a couple of big targets you are trying to hit when you add adapted books or novels to your classroom and lessons. One of them is to increase a student’s access to literature. You would be amazed at how many classrooms have NO appropriate reading materials in their classrooms. Because our students take longer to learn new skills, available literature tends to be juvenile or fully functional.

It is imperative students with severe disabilities are exposed to developed ideas and advanced concepts as a means of improving overall literacy and adapted books are the perfect vehicle to do that.

Adapted books can vary in skill level and be used for a wide variety of students with different skill sets and literacy skills.  Many times there are pictures associated with the vocabulary terms so it provides those extra visual supports to help with understanding and comprehension of the verbal message.  As the books become more challenging students rely less on pictures and more on written words.

What is a High-Frequency Adapted Book?

Predictable texts are a specific type of book used in the earliest stages of reading instruction. It provides students with more frequent exposure to the targeted word. The texts have a repeated sentence or phrase on each page, typically with one variable word. A picture accompanies each sentence that allows the student to guess the variable word using the picture. 

Errorless teaching is an instructional strategy that ensures children always respond correctly. Each page has only one answer--the target word.  This means students are getting more frequent correct exposure to the word than reading authentic text where they can guess at the word.

Why Have Visuals Tied to Text?

Visuals are consistent. Visuals allow time for language processing. Visual prompts can offer a visual image and written word to meet the needs of a variety of students’ abilities.  Visuals help students see what a word means. Visuals help to build independence.

So What Should I Do?

The first thing you should do is get this FREE adapted book by clicking here! Yeah. I love my readers… a lot. This is a very simple book. 

Are you wanting more???? This bundle has 7 more to help you build your student's high-frequency reading knowledge.

Chat Soon-

PS--Bundle 2 coming soon 

3 Fan Favoriate Phonemic Awareness Ideas (that are free)


What is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemic Awareness (PA) is:

  • the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds
  • essential to learning to read in an alphabetic writing system, because letters represent sounds or phonemes. Without phonemic awareness, phonics makes little sense
  • fundamental to mapping speech to print. If a child cannot hear that "man" and "moon" begin with the same sound or cannot blend the sounds /rrrrrruuuuuunnnnn/ into the word "run", he or she may have great difficulty connecting sounds with their written symbols or blending sounds to make a word
  • essential to learning to read in an alphabetic writing system
  • a strong predictor of children who experience early reading success

Why is it important?

  • It requires readers to notice how letters represent sounds. It primes readers for print
  • It gives readers a way to approach sounding out and reading new words
  • It helps readers understand the alphabetic principle (that the letters in words are systematically represented by sounds)

...but difficult:

  • Although there are 26 letters in the English language, there are approximately 40 phonemes, or sound units, in the English language
  • Sounds are represented in 250 different spellings (e.g., /f/ as in ph, f, gh, ff)
  • The sound units (phonemes) are not inherently obvious and must be taught. The sounds that make up words are "coarticulated;" that is, they are not distinctly separate from each other

What Does the Lack of Phonemic Awareness Look Like?

Children lacking phonemic awareness skills cannot:

  • group words with similar and dissimilar sounds (mat, mug, sun)
  • blend and split syllables (f oot)
  • blend sounds into words (m_a_n)
  • segment a word as a sequence of sounds (e.g., fish is made up of three phonemes, /f/ , /i/, /sh/)
  • detect and manipulate sounds within words (change r in run to s)

My students love everything I bring them from Make, Take and Teach, these are great to add to your guided reading toolbox.


This cheat sheet from Clever Classroom is a great help when planning what direction I need to move in or if I'll looking for an idea on how to make a PA just a little bit more challanging.

This year I can't seem to find enough rhyming tasks. Be it for my second graders or my kindergartens who just need more, these have been a great addition to my toolbox and a great jumping-off to change it up a bit.

I hope your students find these as Fan Favorites as mine do!!!

Chat Soon-


I came across Orton-Gillingham during a field placement as an undergrad. The special education teacher was using Wilson with her small groups to help them build reading skills. Mind you--this was not something taught in my program but she opened my eyes to something I would keep in my teaching bag. 

The Orton-Gillingham approach is a multi-sensory way of teaching reading, spelling, and writing skills to students who struggle with language-based learning difficulties, including dyslexia. Lessons focus on mastery of the smallest units of language first, including phonemes and graphemes, and then build to whole word, phrase and sentence level instruction. 

Important to note: Orton-Gillingham refers to an instructional approach, not any particular program or curriculum.

A Quick History Lesson

The term “dyslexia” first appeared in texts in the early 1870s. The Orton-Gillingham approach has been in use for the past 80 years and is the oldest dyslexia-specific approach to remedial reading instruction. It was developed in the 1930s by neuro-psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Orton based on his work with children who struggled with language processing issues but were of normal intelligence.

Dr. Orton proposed a neurological basis for the problem and developed a series of activities that combined right and left brain functions, predicting it would positively impact the ability to read and spell.

Dr. Anna Gillingham focused her efforts on training teachers in the approach, creating materials and expanding the instruction to include essential features of the English language, such as prefixes, suffixes, and even spelling rules.

Encouraged by Dr. Orton, she compiled and published instructional materials as early as the 1930s which provided the foundation for student instruction and teacher training. This collaboration became known as the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

What is Orton Gillingham?

This is where there seems to be a communication gap between parents and schools. OG is not a program, course or curriculum. There is no official “Orton Gillingham certification” for teachers. Your child does not get pulled out of their classroom an hour a day and taken someplace else to learn OG.

So what is OG then? First, it’s usually called the Orton Gillingham Approach.

And that’s what it is–an approach or way of teaching.

Orton-Gillingham places an important emphasis on multi-sensory approaches to learning. But it is more than that.

Orton-Gillingham is a highly structured approach, that breaks down reading and spelling into letters and sounds, and then building on these skills over time. OG was the first approach to use multi-sensory teaching strategies to teach reading.

This means that educators use sight, sound, touch, and motor movement to help students connect and learn the concepts being taught.

This multi-sensory approach helps students understand the relationship between letters, sounds, and words.

For example, an OG teacher a student to learn a letter by:

  • seeing it
  • saying it out loud
  • sounding it out
  • singing it
  • writing it with pen or pencil
  • writing it with fingers in shaving cream or sand
  • forming it with clay or play-doh
  • making the letter with your body or blocks

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is the most commonly diagnosed reading disorder. Dyslexia is also found on a continuum of severity, ranging from mild characteristics of dyslexia to profound difficulty with reading and writing. In its most severe forms, it is a learning disability. In its mildest form, it may be a source of puzzlement, frustration or mild inconvenience. 

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.

As a result of this span of difficulty, the exact prevalence of dyslexia has yet to be definitively determined. It has been suggested that perhaps as many as 15% to 20% of the population as a whole have some of the symptoms of dyslexia (IDA, 2017).

Orton-Gillingham works because it enhances phonemic awareness in dyslexic individuals by examining common language patterns. Learners experiment with blending sounds, looking at letters and word parts in isolation and in various configurations, and studying language features, including diphthongs and silent letters.

The goal of Orton-Gillingham based instruction is to enable learners to decode words on their own and improve literacy skills in order to achieve their full potential at school.

Every state has its own special education legislation for the identification and special education support for students with a specific learning disability.

In Colorado, during the special education evaluation process, the team must document any characteristics of dyslexia. Be sure to look at your Department of Education--Special Education for what the team must do.

What the Orton-Gillingham Approach Can Teach Reading

The OG Approach can teach:

  • Decoding: break words into their syllables and phonemes (the smallest unit of sound) to be able to read the word. Develops automaticity and fluency at the word level.
  • Encoding: break down words orally into their syllables and phonemes to be able to spell the word.

However, an OG program requires supplemental programming to teach fluency and composition.

Can a Parent Teach Orton Gillingham?

Well, in the loosest form of OG, anyone can teach OG. All you need is a multi-sensory approach and you can say you’re OG. But just like too many behaviorists say they are using ABA (when they’re really not), OG is not for everyone either. This is where you have to be careful.

I’m not a BCBA, but I can reinforce ABA principles and activities at home with my son. I would say for most parents, you can reinforce tasks and lessons from school or at private tutoring. But unless you are a teacher or reading specialist, I would leave it to the experts.

Getting Orton Gillingham on your IEP

Want OG added to your IEP??? Ask the Team. 

Ok, here’s where the troubles are, right? You asked for OG on your IEP, because it helps kids with dyslexia learn to read.

They said no. Ask for the progress monitoring data. So, what about trialing a change and getting back together in 30 days with data? 

Have data??

Questions to ask:

  • What is the data looking at? spelling (Encoding), reading (decoding)
  • Is there improvement? How big?
  • Ask the classroom teacher, what do they see? 
  • Ask the team, who is trained in which program? (Programs Accredited by IDA)

Fact is, many reading programs designed for students with dyslexia are based on the Orton Gillingham Approach. But the OG approach alone may not be enough to get them there.

Learning OG has been a wonderful and overwhelming journey but I have had students who are very successful with this approach and others who need a different approach to help them learn to read. It always comes back to the data. 

Parents, always ask for it if the team doesn't bring it! Don't be afraid to push back on the team if they don't have it and ask questions about it and what it means for your child.

Chat soon,

PSSS.... Parents here's a freebie for your next IEP meeting. Need IEP Help CLICK HERE!!

How I use WHY to Find Root Cause

This year as my building redoes their RTI process, they put WHY at the forefront of the process.


How else are you going to figure out what the student’s needs really are!

The Root Cause is so much more than just the test scores or the informal assessment scores you get. Getting to the bottom or root cause of why a student struggles takes a team, an open mind, and time. It's hard finding the one or two things that if you provide interventions or strategies for the student takes off.

My team most works on IEP goals. With the way building schedules have come together, it is all the time we have to work on. We work as a team to find the root cause behind their struggles. This is the process we use to find a student's Root Cause. When we work through a Root Cause Analysis we follow the same steps--make sure you bring an open mind and your data.

Problem Statement: The student struggles with decoding.

Formal Reading Assessment

  • Alphabet: 63%ile
  • Meaning: 2nd%ile
  • Reading Quotient: 16th%ile

Based on formal testing the student doesn’t have any decoding concerns but his Reading Comprehension score is significantly below the 12th%ile.


I need more information.

DIBLES Scores for a 2nd grader

  • Nonsense Word Fluency: 32 sounds; Benchmark 54 sounds in a minute; Gap 1.68
  • Phoneme Segmentation Fluency: 47 sounds; Benchmark 40 sounds in a minute; Gap .85
  • Oral Reading Fluency: 11 words; Benchmark 52 words in a minute; Gap 4.7

DIBELS shows the student knows their sounds and letters but there is something up with the oral reading fluency. There is a significant gap greater than 2.0.



  • Error Analysis of ORF passage
  • Assess sight words
  • Does Phonological Processing need to be assessed?

Oral Reading Fluency error analysis shows 68% accuracy with 16 words read.
Assessing sight words show they know 41 of the first 100.
The decision was made based on what looks like a decoding weakness Phonological Processing was assessed--scores were in the average range.

What do I know now?
The student has a decoding weakness. He would benefit from a phonics highly structured phonics program.


This time I only needed three WHYS to figure out what the true problem is for the student. Sometimes you need more. On average it tends to run closer to five.

This process was completed with my team not during RTI. The decision to target phonics could have been reached without the formal testing and just with DIBELS and Sight Words.

My team uses this approach to help each other when we get stuck and need to take a step back and need more voices to look at the data.

As a special education team, we target only IEP goals and scaffold the student's skills up to access the grade-level curriculum. So the more specific we can be the better--we don’t want to waste time messing around with large messy goals that don’t end up helping the student close achievement gaps.

Go back to RTI.

How could this process be used during an RTI meeting?

Questions and dialogue are key concepts here. Talk about what the numbers tell you. Start with strengths and needs. Just the facts! Don’t interpret anything.  Work through the data dialogue process as I outlined in the E-workbook: RTI Data Clarity freebie. I also included several worksheets to help teams work towards finding a student’s root cause.

Working to find the root cause of why a student is struggling is hard work. The dialogue with your team is a great way to bring in more voices. This in turns brings in more ideas that may help the student. Make sure you bring the Data Clarity e-workbook to help.

Do you similar to help your team find a student’s root cause? Feel free to brag about your success in the comments!

Are you wondering how you can use this idea with your team? Check out my free E-Workbook: RTI Data Clarity.

Chat soon,

Why I use STEM and STEAM {freebie}

STEM Power! STEM education, driven by learner-centered instruction, provides a powerful learning program for kids. I love seeing my student’s eyes light up when we do STEM. Why? Because its active, hands-on, and most importantly focuses on everything they can do!

STEM is more about integrating science and math into the curriculum with real-world, problem-based activities. STEM in education is NOT about adding something new to my day. Instead, it is teaching science and math in creative and hands-on ways. Often, you will find STEM projects synonymous with engineering projects. You will also see the acronym STEAM which is STEM with “A” added. The A stands for arts and encourages an integration of all of the arts, language arts–reading, writing, drama, as well as visual arts and design.

Why I teach STEM?

Here are my Top 10 reasons for focusing on STEM in my Elementary Resource Room:
  1. Real world many times do your students ask you, “Why are we learning this?” STEM projects help answer that question by encouraging students to use math and science to solve real-world problems. Perhaps they are using area and perimeter to design a zoo blueprint or planning a vacation using math and critical thinking. Many STEM projects offer the skills in a real-world context.
  2. Problem solving. Students practice solving problems that don’t necessarily have a single “right” answer. They practice trial and error and how to come up with creative solutions. (the big word PERSEVERANCE)  They get to practice divergent thinking and adaptability. These are all skills that can be applied in all areas of life.
  3. Hands-On. Students learn by doing, and with many STEM projects, students are using tools and science materials. They are solving problems or constructing structures, not just reading about them or answering questions. (Need I mention--my students LOVE hands on anything)
  4. Differentiated Instruction at its finest. Since there can be any number of possible solutions, most STEM activities are naturally differentiated. Everyone can solve the problem to the best of his or her own ability. Sometimes I find students who are not the best traditional students thrive with STEM projects. There is truly a place for everyone. (think behaviorally challenged)
  5. Cooperative Learning.STEM projects give students practice working as a team. They learn and solve together, often playing different roles on the team. Teamwork skills are important not just in the school setting but in the “real world,” as well. 
  6. Access creativity. STEM activities give my students a chance to show off their creative side. They will get a chance to think outside of the box and sometimes even use art and design. My creative students will get a chance to shine.
  7. Failure. STEM projects give students the opportunity to try a design or solution that may or may not work. With STEM projects, they can fail in a safe and supportive environment and learn from their mistakes. After all, many great inventions were made from failures or mistakes. (multiple iterations with reflections and feedback)
  8. Higher Level Thinking. Students must be able to apply and use their knowledge to solve problems and complete projects. (An easy win on my teacher rubric--YEAH!)
  9. Active Engagement. Students are actively engaged when participating in STEM projects. They are not daydreaming or doodling, they are participating, solving, measuring, and doing.
  10. STEM is the future. As new technologies develop, so do new STEM careers. It’s not just doctors and engineers but architects, graphic design, video game programmers, and more. Think of all the ‘soft skills’ (as my dad would call them) are taught or guided through STEM activities. I reflect on my most challenging student or the one who struggles with reading excel through STEM activities and build those impossibly difficult ‘soft skills.’ 

Teaching Strategies

How can Classroom teachers prepare for and teach students with exceptional needs with STEM activities? 
  • Assume competency. Believe that students with exceptional needs can learn at higher levels and that you can create an environment to help them do that.
  • Build on students’ strengths and interests. Leverage their strong points to increase their comfort and excitement about learning.
  • Use a “flow learning” approach. Clearly define the purpose of their STEM challenge. Set the challenge level high and make sure your students with exceptional needs will have opportunities to be successful with that challenge. Provide clear and immediate feedback so they can change and adapt as needed.
  • Make use of assistive technology tools when needed. Technology can support students with special needs, especially if they have hearing or visual losses. Provide handouts and written materials in a digital format for these students.
  • Focus on safety consideration Be especially alert for safety issues when students are working with equipment to design devices for solving their problem.
  • Model persistence, communication, creativity, and collaboration. These qualities are especially useful to kids with exceptional needs who may need help with social skills.
  • Establish collaborative student teams. That’s a tall order but stick with it all year. Be intentional. Help students understand that respect and inclusiveness are non-negotiable behaviors for all teams. Teammates honor one another’s strengths and accept each other’s differences. Give them specific strategies for showing respect through speech and actions. Teamwork allows ALL students to practice social skills they will need throughout life.
  • Enlist help. Ask for help. Your specialists are there to support you. Use them.  


  • By now you know that teaching any group of students is both rewarding and challenging. Approach your students with exceptional needs with high expectations, but don’t adopt a Pollyanna mindset. You’ll encounter plenty of challenges. For some students, the science and math content may be beyond their current learning level. The pace of the lesson may be difficult for some to keep up. Some students will want to work alone instead of in teams.
  • Noise levels in the class may distract and annoy some students. Busy visual stimulation on classroom walls may distract others. Social expectations may frustrate students with exceptional needs. So what do you do?
  • Get to know your students with exceptional needs. Work together with their specialists and learn as much as you can about their strengths and difficulties. You’ll find many ways to make reasonable accommodations.
  • You might use images and graphics to make handouts clearer, headphones for those distracted by noise, a break zone or a quiet space, and technology that enlarges print. Your specialists will be your most valuable resource as you plan for and include these students in your STEM lessons.
  • The unique design of STEM lessons allows students, regardless of disability, access to the real-life learning experiences. Give these students with exceptional needs STEM experiences to help them get ready for a future society where all types of people live and work together seamlessly.

My Framework

I have adapted John Spencer’s and AJ Julian’s "Design Thinking: LAUNCH". Design thinking is a flexible framework for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, and in social and civic spaces. It can use in every subject with every age group. You can read how I use their model with my students here. You can learn more about John Spencer’s and AJ Julian's Design Thinking LAUNCH hereClick here grab a copy of LAUNCH.

Teacher Rubric Impact

I have to tell you when I was challenged (by Principal) to provide more meaningful feedback to score better on the teacher rubric I was at a loss as to what to do. The challenge--students grades 1 to 3 come to me for 30 minutes 4 days a week for reading and math. I need to add more feedback. HOW? The same time this conversation happened, I was talking with a 1st-grade teacher who I knew was going to have my students in her room mentioned LAUNCH and the district was offering a book study as well. As she went on, she continued to tell me AJ Julian was coming to the district summer professional development and would be a good intro to his work.  So my journey began.

One year later

  • I read both books--LAUNCH and EMPOWER. Both are easy reads; filled with information that can be used the same day in your classroom.
  • With district supported group, I was encouraged to use, play with, and make the LAUNCH cycle my own--aka make it work for my students. 
  • STEM and STEAM were not special days or earned days. It was just something we did once a month. Sometimes I would need to carve out more time but I never let it be more than a day. (Why? 1-limited time and 2-attention span). I built Design Sprints. Students loved them and lead to having other professionals visit~engineers or scientists. (A first in my teaching career.)
  • Teacher Rubric. STEM and STEAM days forced me to build in both feedback and higher order thinking. BOTH are weighed heavily on my rubric. Sometimes the feedback was written and sometimes it was shared whole group, or every videotaped in small groups. I found the key was making sure students had enough time for 2 iterations of what they were building.  
  • I built in feedback. Feedback is more than telling students what is wrong but having them reflect on what they doing. This was painful and sometime madding but they each got there in time. I know on my rubric--I had to have both. Having work samples was even better. You can grab them below. These provided a jumping off point to do any videotaping we did. (This was not always me. Using SeeSaw made it super easy for students either to tape themselves or a friend could do it.)  You can grab what I used below.
To read more about how I used Design Thinking visit:

Until Next Time,


About Me

Welcome to my all thing special education blog. I empower busy elementary special education teachers to use best practice strategies to achieve a data and evidence driven classroom community by sharing easy to use, engaging, unique approaches to small group reading and math. Thanks for Hopping By.
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