Precision is critical when teaching children with developmental disorders.

A Teaching Aside

I have now been teaching a little over a month and have recently had a great experience that I feel taught me an important lesson. I learned that it is not only important, but rather it is critical that I use as precise of language and as precise of models as possible when teaching students with developmental disabilities.

What I mean by this statement is that I have to be both explicit and fastidious in explaining steps of a process or lesson to my students. Now, I have always been rather precise in my language as I think words are fun and I love finding reasons to use new ones, but sometimes I will accidentally make assumptions about what is being understood. In an earlier post I described a former student of mine that demanded I give every single little teensy weensy itty bitty persnickety step to everything I asked her to do. This is what I need to do with my students now. Fortunately, this earlier student taught me how to do this years ago.


So a great example of what I am talking about is to imagine a process that has 10 steps to completion. If one really thinks hard about this task the next few steps can be predicted, but some guidance is required if the task is to be completed without errors. My personal approach to problems is to see step 1 and immediately intuit steps 2-5, listen for step 5 (or bull through it until I figure it out myself) and then jump to the final step. My students, however, need to be led through each step sequentially and carefully so that they can understand the process to complete the task. If I give them my way of doing it (of which I shall provide a concrete example shortly), then they will simply do steps 1,5,10, forego 2-4 and 6-9 and move on to the next activity.

Below I will give an example of a lesson gone horribly awry and an example of a very similar lesson gone virtually perfect.

Oops, I dropped the ball on this one!

So this first lesson, my whoopsie as it were, involved writing a how-to guide for carving a Jack-O-Lantern. First, with the help of my students I wrote a list of transition words (e.g., first, then, last, finally) on the board that they could use to write their how-to. I then told them (not wrote on the board, just told them) how to go about writing the list of what needed to be done to carve a Jack-O-Lantern. Finally, I let them get to their writing assignment. It was a disaster!

The disaster was not the results of their writing by any means, it was that the kids clearly had no idea what I was expecting from them. I was expecting the clear use of transition words in the writing, a clear order or sequence of steps, and a coherent paragraph. By and large I saw a list of steps, but they were out of order, there were no transitions words, except maybe “first”. And sadly, all the assignments came back very generic. All the kids wrote almost the exact same thing, despite not copying. There was no real work on the assignment…and it was all my fault.

At least I learned from my mistakes!

This second lesson conveniently started 24 hours (to the minute) after my first attempt at teaching transition words to help sequencing in writing. Instead of diving right in to a list of transition words, I took a step back and went over precisely what my behavioral expectations (“Keys to Success” in my classroom) as well as the learning objectives for the lesson were. I let the kids know they were going to give me a list of transition words, then I was going to write up a model of what I expected (with their help), and finally I was then going to put them into groups with paraeducators at the back of the room for a guided practice.

I proceeded with an attention signal to mark the beginning of the lesson and I asked for a list of transition words. I next probed the students to extend this to a list of 12-15 transition words. I used these transition words and the student’s feedback to write an 8 step how-to for making a pizza using a thinking out loud type of process. At each step, I ask the students which of the transition words would they prefer I used, always being careful to give logical choices to emphasize errorless learning. When I had 3-4 steps written, one of the students reminded me I had forgotten to add the cheese. I thanked him profusely and modified an early sentence to add cheese at the correct step. Next, I took that opportunity to walk through the steps in order, making it clear the transition words made it clear in what order the steps happened.

I also asked the students what would happen if I omitted a certain step (like adding sauce before rolling out the dough). They answered loudly and emphatically in a choral response that I would have a mess and my mom would be angry at me, showing me they really understood. At this point I sent them back into small groups to work as learning teams to write their own four-step how-to for making pizza.

The students not only did well on this assignment, they knocked it out of the park. They all used transition words at every opportunity. They also used different transition words that were in line with how they each typically spoke. This tells me they understood what these words were and why to use them. They all made beautifully weird pizzas (one made a “powdered donut pizza” and another made a “yummy pizza with no yucky cheese”), and they all followed the plan. The assignment was a resounding success!


What was intriguing with these two assignments was that the students completed their writing much faster with the Jack-O-Lantern assignment than the pizza assignment. The work handed in was also very homogeneous across students, like they were just going through the general motions. I find this interesting because when the kids knew what to do, they worked harder on it, made more erasures to correct errors, and thought a lot deeper as they worked. I interpret this as meaning during the first assignment they were just completing an assignment. The second assignment they made their own and worked that much harder.

My overall feelings about the later assignment and how it was better than the first was in my teaching. I gave an explicit model using the same assignment that I later gave the students. I showed them clearly, and in an explicit step-by-step manner I let them know precisely what I wanted them to accomplish. In other words, I gave them the skeleton or scaffold on which they could drape their ideas. I saw a diversity of ideas in the how-to make a pizza assignment. This made me very happy since to me creativity means that by giving the students a precise step-by-step, they were able to let out their own personal style and innermost thoughts and have fun with the assignment. Additionally, they all completed their work correctly and had a look of definite pride when handing it in to me.

What I learned is thus: I need to work hard to give the students the confidence they need to complete each assignment to the best of their abilities. I also need to work hard to make sure I have not skipped any steps or made any assumptions about what they can and cannot do. It is not about that. It is about how well I model the assignments and how clearly I describe the process. I guess my job is now scaffold builder…and I get to lean into that role!

Note: I am starting a lesson plan section on this blog, feel free to head over there and look at my explicit lesson plan for the how-to make a pizza assignment. I am more than happy to answer any questions you may have in the comments!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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