Techniques for Teachers – from folks who have been there!

Starting your career in teaching is exhilarating – and scary. For the first time, you'll be responsible for guiding the progress for a class full of young minds. Working with children with learning disabilities or ADHD can be particularly daunting. To help new teachers avoid feeling overwhelmed, we've put together this 'cheat sheet' of techniques from veteran teachers. Consider this article as your portable teaching mentor.

Techniques for Kids with LD or ADHD

Focus on strengths.

I make a real effort to focus on a student's strengths. In class we build on strengths and self-esteem by creating a lot of "hands on" projects. For example, when I am teaching fractions we use visual building concepts of blocks and pictures to help students understand. We try different strategies. If one does not work, another will. I have a very strong background in the Slingerland adaptations of the Orton-Gillingham simultaneous multi-sensory approach for children with specific language difficulties.
–John Osner

Structure class time for children with ADHD.

Children with ADHD are often distractible and impulsive. Although initially they might want to use lots of materials at the same time or to mark up a series of sheets of paper, quickly dismissing each in turn, we help them to focus upon a single project at a time. This might involve reviewing with the child what he wishes to accomplish that day. Once the priority is set by the child, an art therapist can help him to maintain focus on that project. We might begin with short sessions, especially for younger children, and lengthen the time as they develop their ability to attend to a task. Projects usually become more complex as the children begin to feel more secure about using art to express their feelings.

In my work, I have found that children who have learning disabilities often respond best to three-dimensional materials that allow them to "construct" art in a very hands-on manner. So, in my art therapy room, I have a range of building materials such as large chunks of Styrofoam, wood, spools, cardboard tubes, sheets of foam core, and, of course, clay.
–Audrey DiMaria, art teacher

Make the classroom safe and productive for students with emotional disorders.

Teachers need to know how to juggle! It is essential that special educators working with emotionally disabled students learn to take into account each child's personality, each child's history, and each child's potential every day. Academic expectations and behavioral expectations do not always run neck and neck – sometimes the Social Studies textbook must be book-marked, closed and we must ask, 'Are we bickering? It's important to address this now,' or 'OK, you are unhappy about something. Let's figure out if this is a good time to talk about it.'

Some of the procedures at the center where I work are markedly different from those in general education. For example, in my county special education teachers who work with emotionally disabled students are professionally trained to escort and/or restrain children to prevent them from injuring themselves and others. In addition to being prepared to teach a wide range of academic levels, teachers who instruct children with emotional disorders must have a great deal of background knowledge regarding mental health issues and medications.

Some tips on how to include children with emotional disabilities in general education:

  • Teachers need to establish a bond with students. This important tip is first on my list, but it certainly doesn't happen right away. Teachers sometimes form opinions of students they have never met after reading their files or talking with previous teachers. Like most kids, children with emotional disabilities love pizza, play too many video games, and wonder if people like them. Keep your voice low, pat an arm, and nod your head. Give them the right to their emotions by saying, 'Yes, you are mad. I might be too if that happened to me. Let figure out how to handle this.' Praise and encourage class members when they are understanding and supportive.
  • Teachers need to model acceptable behavior during cooperative learning activities. Sit with a small group of five at a table and ask, 'I purposely gave this team two bottles of glue. Can anyone tell me why? What if you had this feeling that you just had to have the glue right now?' Children with learning disabilities, just as students with emotionally disabilities often experience interpersonal problems and need to anticipate and practice appropriate voice volume, facial and body gestures, and verbal responses.
  • Carefully consider the physical environment of your classroom throughout the year. Sit in each seat. What or who can the student see? Who is he sitting next to? Do you want him to be able to have a sweeping view of the classroom or do you want him to have a seat that limits where he can look?
  • Do you plan to offer tangible reinforcements, such as stickers, pencils, or candy? Although consequences should generally be delivered without delay, rewards can be immediate, short-term, and long-term depending on the age level and dynamics of your classroom. For example: Place an index card on each desk and offer an immediate reward. (e.g. 'Great job not calling out, Diane and Joseph! Put two stickers on your index card. Finish the rest of the lesson and you can have five minutes at the Talk Table!'). Make room for some extra time on Friday and offer a short-term reward. (e.g. 'Those of you who earned 60 bonus marks by keeping their desks organized may have 10 minutes to play outside.') Talk with other teachers and plan some long-term rewards. (e.g. 'Class, our pizza party is next week. Students who have turned in 35 out of 42 assignments may attend.') Be sure to model how to handle both praise and disappointment. Hold morning or afternoon meetings that praise behavior and remind your students of upcoming events.
  • Did your class have a horrible day on Monday? On Tuesday, greet your students at the door with open palms and a smile. The student who was banging his chair, crumpling his class-work, crying, and calling his classmates bad names on Monday is really hoping that you can find it in your heart to start over Tuesday morning. However, make sure to follow through on your consequences, even at the risk of a little more upset. Your students will appreciate and find comfort in your strong guidance.

–Lauren Ebel

Make kids feel special.

Give them opportunities to develop a balance between working on their weaknesses and expanding their strengths. Take the example of a student who writes a report and cuts a music CD on the computer to go along with it. That student, whose learning disability impacts his writing, starts to feel secure. He starts to take risks academically and feels more brave about other areas of his life.
–Becky Arlin

Build literacy skills for teens with dyslexia.

Find books with high interest topics and consider where the kids came from. My students are sophisticated urban kids. Our challenge is to suggest or give them books with subject matter they can relate to.

Although abstract thinking is stressed at these ages, start with the concrete and relate it to their lives. Then guide them to the semiabstract, then the abstract. Choose from a variety of reading comprehension strategies and encourage book discussions.
–Becky Arlin

Use a research-based method for teaching reading.

What special teaching styles do you use with children who have difficulty reading? Do you use pictures or a special method of instruction? Are there activities that you use to help a child's self esteem?

I use the Texas Scottish Rite Dyslexia Training Program. This is a multi-sensory, systematic, structured language based approach to teaching reading, writing, and spelling, based on Orton Gillingham techniques. When students experience reading success, it boosts their self-esteem. Our classroom is a very positive place for these children and we share plenty of smiles and very few problems.
–Bobbi Barrows

Catch them doing well.

I am strong supporter of positive, cooperative discipline using corrective, preventive and supportive strategies. I believe that students may not always remember what you teach them, but they do remember how you treat them.

I have developed reward systems to encourage positive behavior. I use both group and individual plans.
–Carol-Ann Kinane

Have your students quiz you.

Play 'Stump the Teacher!' Occasionally, give the students a chance to test you on a particular lesson. You can make it an individual assignment or a team assignment. If they can make up a question or a small quiz and you can work it, it shows that they understand the process of analysis and can create a problem to test it.