Teaching Students How to Succeed Means Teaching Them How to Plan

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Sometimes the most obvious things in life are the things we forget to teach students.

I am from Utah, so I grew up in the heyday of the Franklin Quest planners, with every adult carrying a 3″ thick planner and their entire lives planned out to the 30 minutes. No one ever questioned this behavior. It was normal.

Today we keep this information on our phones and we set alarms. This awesome, except it is FAR too easy for us to get lazy with our planning. I personally have moved back to a paper and pencil solution, which is what inspired me to make these planners.


Based on experience and a surprisingly deep google search, here are the skills students need to learn to be successful in the modern economy (info from about 5 websites mashed together):

Adaptive Thinking: In the digital age, the economy is changing at an exponential rate. By the time employees learn the newest software or program, a better version is coming about. Future employers will need to continuously adapt to changing conditions as well as be able to learn new things quickly and efficiently. We need our students to learn how to learn.

Communication Skills: There continues to be an emphasis on the ability to communicate. In the digital age, however, we have access to a wide variety of new ways to communicate from video-conferencing to social media. Future employers need to be able to communicate with people within their team, as well as people outside of the team and organization.

Collaboration Skills: Most classrooms foster a culture of competition and independence rather than one of teamwork and collaboration. Future employers will need to quickly adapt to a culture of collaboration. They will need to collaborate with others within and outside of the organization, often using a number of new technologies.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills: There is a decreased emphasis on employers following directions and an increased emphasis on employers thinking critically and solving problems. In a rapidly changing world, employers need employees who can solve problems, provide ideas and help improve the organization.

Personal Management: This includes the ability for employees to independently plan, organize, create and execute, rather than wait for someone to do this for them.

Inquiry Skills: The large majority of academic assessments ask students for answers. Rarely do we assess students on how well they can ask questions. The ability to ask great questions, however, is a critical skill that is desperately needed in a culture which requires constant innovations.

Technology Skills: Employers will need to be skilled at using technology. In the digital age, technology is everywhere. Schools, however, have been slow to adapt to this change. Rarely are students required or taught to learn technology efficiently. This needs to be emphasized.

Creativity and Innovation: This skill correlates with the ability to ask good questions and the ability to problem solve. Employers will be looking to employees more and more for creative and innovative solutions to issues that exist.

Soft Skills: Schools rarely spend time teaching students soft skills, including skills such as time management skills, organizational skills, the ability to be confident when presenting information to others, or even using an appropriate handshake. Business leaders suggest that these skills seem to be disappearing.

Empathy and Perspective: Although this skill has always been important, it seems to be another one that is slowly disappearing. The ability for our students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand their feelings, and to help solve their problems.

I will focus on Personal Management and, to a lesser extent, Soft Skills as described above as pertaining to time management and organizational skills. More specifically, how appropriate use of a schedule / planner helps us achieve our goals.

How To Achieve the Six Ps

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. – US Army

At First, I Assumed My Students Knew How To Use Planners

In teaching a class of difficult students in a Small Group Autism classroom consisting mainly of students with standard intelligence and severe behavioral problems, my first goal was to teach them how to succeed if I sent them to a mainstream setting.

When I started planning my class procedures, the first thing I wanted to do was a daily planner. I wanted for each student every morning to copy the plan for the day from the board on to their own planning page. I felt passionate about this because I always felt it was cheating to give a student a picture schedule if they were able to make their own.

Well, it was a monumental failure. Students melted down. Tantrums erupted. Students feigned tremors and illness to get out of this task. Paraeducators were attacked. So I had to scrap it temporarily.


So where did I go wrong?

I forgot to teach the students why they wanted this. Why they needed it. How it would make them more comfortable in class. How it would give them security and control. Basically, I forgot to show them why they should care.

They fought me because it looked arbitrary since they were used to just doing what the teacher said. They did not keep track of the day. They just floated. They were always anxiously awaiting a command. Not a healthy situation for a class full of autistic kids.

No wonder this was a class notorious for being explosive and having poor transitions. They were stuck in a holding pattern, only to be broken by the word of a teacher.


My Second Attempt: This Time I Explicitly Taught Planning Skills

I set out to teach the students why they cared. I showed them my teacher planning book on my desk. I let them see that I had a time written down by each thing I planned to do. I was not arbitrary with when things began and when they ended. I had planned it.

I put the schedule up on the board and showed them that the schedule had times on it as well as what was happening (My whiteboard schedule can be found here on Teachers Pay Teachers). I showed that this matched my planning book. I challenged the kids to confront me if I strayed from the schedule by more than 5 minutes without apologizing first and justifying the delay.

After a week of being explicit with my scheduling, I started to ask the students to read the schedule in the morning. They would read what time the next task was going to happen. They liked this. Helped them organize their day and made school expectations more predictable and therefore more calming.

The next step was initiated by the students. They wanted their schedule like my book. So I made some different laminated schedules they could write on in the morning with EXPO markers. I made a different one from that used at the beginning of the year just to avoiding remembering of the trauma of the first few weeks of school. I would wash the schedules off after school in the sink so they could be used over and over again.

To teach how to use this schedule, I used explicit / direct instruction for each item. I read aloud the time. Had them write it down. Then went to the task. I spelled out everything for them. They were successful. The showed ownership and significant buy-in.

They loved having their schedule and would actually look at their desks to see what they had to do next rather than the class schedule on the board. They took ownership of it. By the end they loved planning out their day. Some even took the initiative to keep track of their classroom points on their planner so they knew how good they needed to be to earn iPad time.

My Planners

My approach now is to explicitly teach how to use a scholastic planner. My first class needed to learn the gateway drug for planners, which was how to write their schedule. Now we move on to planning out our time and keeping track of things across days.

To accomplish this the way I feel is best, I developed a planning tool. There is one for elementary (K-5th grade) students (Teachers Pay Teachers Link), another for Middle School (6th-8th grade) students (Teachers Pay Teachers Link), and High School (9-12th grade) students – or even college students come to think of it (Teachers Pay Teachers Link).

Now, I will be talking about my planners I have available for sale, but the teaching methods I will discuss can be used with any planner. My methods apply to Panda Planners, Moleskine Planners, a K-Mart blue light special, one from May Designs (my last planner before I made my own), or the stripped down planner that many schools give out to all students (examples from a wholesaler here).

Pages available in all planners

All of these previews show two facing pages. This is to demonstrate that I have set up the margins so these planners can be placed in a three-ring binder, disc bound, spiral bound, or any other binding method.


The first page has a year in review section that can be used to orient the student in the school year:

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A Monthly View covering two pages for general info (holidays, school half days, birthdays, etc):

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There are planning pages for projects. In today’s environment of project-based learning (PBL; link), it is critical we teach our students at a young age how to break large projects down into smaller projects and complete each step in turn.

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Finally, there are pages to help students keep track of books they have read. This page can be useful for helping students understand how great of readers they are! Personally, I would have killed for this. I kept my list on a bunch of sheets of notebook paper in a plain easy to lose (and often lost for weeks at a time) binder.

Elementary (K-5 based on Common Core State Standards)

For Elementary Students it is a relatively simple planner. In addition to the calendar, project, and book pages, there is a homework tracker with a due date column and a checkbox for whether assignments were completed, as well as a good habit tracker. Each week fits across two facing pages. Students can keep track of every day they read at least 20 minutes, get at least 10 minutes of exercise, and there’s even room for students to set good habits they want to build:

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Intermediate/Middle School (Grades 6-8 based on CCSS)

For Intermediate/Middle School Students it is a slightly more complicated planner. In addition to the calendar, project, and book pages, there is a homework / study planner, as well as a week at a glance schedule to keep track of their school day. This helps the students to plan for multiple deadlines and other complications of an A-B schedule.

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The building good habits section is updated so students can keep track of every day they read at least 30 minutes, get at least 20 minutes of exercise, and there’s even room for students to set their own good habits they want to build.

There is an additional project planner that allows for group project planning to help keep groups organized and on task to complete their projects.

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High School (Grades 9-12 based on CCSS)

In High School, things get more freeform and modular for the needs of the student. The weekly Homework / Study Planner and Daily Schedule are the same as for the Middle School planner, except that the weekly schedule has more hours available for planning.

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Two daily tracker pages are added. Students can plan their classes, tasks, study needs, and celebrations (woohoo, I finished my math homework!). There is also a 30-day Habit Tracker to keep track of whatever good habits the student wants to create.

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Also for the High School planner, there are a bunch of note taking pages. They come in Cornell and the typical note-taking styles, as well as a bullet-journal format. These forms let the student create additional pages for taking notes or anything else they feel they need to organize their life.

I personally would teach the awesomeness that is checklists using these different forms – particularly the Cornell formatted graph pages.

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How to Use These Planners

Basics

  • Although I have separate planners for K-5th grade, Middle School, and High School aged students, you may find your needs different. Take that into consideration. Full previews are available on Teachers Pay Teachers as well as the example facing pages shown above
  • Formatting allows for a week over two two pages
    • You have full freedom to organize pages how you want since odd and even pages designs are provided
    • Using Adobe PDF reader or Apple Preview, you should be able to duplicate pages, move pages around, and adapt the pdf to your needs

Printing and Binding

  • Pages are intended to be printed two-sided
  • Pages are designed so a week covers facing pages
  • Margins have been adjusted to allow for multiple types of binding
    • Hole punch / 3-Ring Binder
    • Spiral bound
    • Wire bound
    • Disc bound
    • Send to a printer and get it bound any other way you like

Important note:  I am willing to make myself available to help tweak anything so the margins are correct in a PDF so each week is on two facing pages, so there is no need to worry about something not working. I am here to help you.

How to Teach Students to Effectively Plan

To teach students how to use planners, I will unpack my methods above and put them into the context of explicit instruction. The key to explicit instruction is that the task is broken down and taught point for point so no element is misunderstood or neglected.

Anita Archer, one of the originators and proponents of this method (videos of her methods can be viewed here), simplifies explicit instruction into three steps: I do, We do, You do. This means the teacher models the material / lesson, there is a guided practice wherein the teacher and class work together to complete the task to mastery, and finally (if and only if mastery has been obtained during guided practice) independent practice wherein the students complete tasks on there own with teacher support to ensure student success.


For teaching how to use a planner, the steps are as follows. I will focus on teaching elementary-aged students how to use the associated planner. The same procedure can be followed for the more complex planners, but it will be a more time-intensive process.

I do

The first step can take a number of forms. I showed my students my planner and explained that my planner was what determined our daily schedule.

More to the point would be to explicitly model a planner identical to the students. To do this, I would use some kind of a projection system to show the planner in front of class and I would talk out loud about why I am writing what I am. Also, I would write in the planner instead of use a computer to type. If the kids have to write, then I write.

So for the K-5th grade elementary planner, I would go through each subject and ask myself out loud if I had any homework assignments. If so, I would write them in the space as well as when they were due to be turned in. I would also state that I had not turned it in, so. would not check off the Done box.

The next day I would go through the previous day’s planner and ask myself out loud if I had turned in anything that was due. If so, I would check it off. If not, I would write it again on today’s planner. I also would go through the section involving habits, marking down if I read 20 minutes and / or got 10 minutes of exercise.

We do (We do, We do, We do, We do … )

After a few days of my showing the students how to use their planners by me directly showing them how I use their planners, we would start filling them out as a class. To do this step, I would start again by projecting my planner, but this time I would have all the students pull theirs out as well. If there are students that need adaptations, I would provide it, be it stickers that can be used instead of writing or a scribe to write for them.

Now, I would speak out loud the name of the first category and ask the students if there is any assigned homework. By raise of hand or random selection I would have them respond yes or no, and if yes tell me what it is. I would then write it down, verbally speaking it letter by letter so all students can get it written correctly. Same for the due date.

The next day we would go through the procedure described above as well. I would read off the category that there was homework in and I would have students check if they had turned it in or not. We also would fill out the 20 minutes of reading and 10 minutes of exercise portions.

I have to emphasize here and I would emphasize it to the students, this section is not for me  to grade and not for credit, it is for them to keep track of good habits so they can feel pride in their accomplishments.

I am not a proponent of making kids get planners signed as an assignment, I prefer to teach them that I trust them to motivate them to be truthful. 

Basically, we would go over our planner for 5 minutes as a class first thing in the morning at school as part of morning procedure and we would go over it again for 10-15 minutes within the last 30 minutes of the day as a class. Importantly, we will do this as a class as long as is necessary for students to be successful. If that means all year, then great.

You do

Students that do not need my support can move to this You do section and then read a book or draw a picture after they finish. They can use what the class comes up with as a check to their work on the planner.

In this step, I verify with the student that they feel they are able to perform all the tasks associated with filling out the planner on their own. I then remind them if they get stuck, they can look up at the board. I am there to help them and all I ask is they do they best.

How I have seen it done

I have seen these methods used explicitly in a school I worked in a few years ago. All the teachers in the school were tasked with making the school’s planners effective. The teachers banded together and came up with the following plan:

They would set apart a time in the early afternoon to dedicate 15 minutes to planners. The teachers projected the planners on the board using an Elmo (lower grades) or just wrote what to enter in the planner on the white board (for the upper grades). All homework due and assignments completed were written in the planners. Their planners had an hour by hour planner as well, so they wrote down at what time of day they did which academic tasks (including recesses and lunch). Students also write down if they received any disciplinary actions through the school wide PBiS system.

The result was that students started turning in their homework. This was ensured by asking parents to sign or initial the day’s planner page for the student to receive credit for reading for 20 minutes each day, which was worth class cash that could be used at school wide auctions for prizes and opportunities like extra recess. The parents incidentally saw there was necessary homework and ensured the kids did it and turned it in.

Broader Implications of Planners

I think there is a lot we can accomplish by teaching students how to plan. I will provide a few examples below, focusing on how I have used planners to help students achieve success.

Planners as a component of MTSS / PBiS / 504 Plans

The example I gave above for the school wide use of planners was an explicit part of their school wide PBiS system. The principal needed a unifying element to the school and decided that a planner that could be used by everyone and was universally applied could only help. Importantly, she left the implementation steps to the teachers to discuss and agree upon rather than dictating how it should be done. The teachers decided upon the explicit / direct instruction model.


I have also been a part of implementing the use of a daily planner as part of a 504 plan for a student with a severe anxiety disorder. She was not able to handle any insecurity in her day and was driving the teacher into a fury by asking about every single minute of the day what was going to happen next and was there going to be any homework. This girl was very highly accomplished academically, but she was unable to function in school because her anxiety was getting the better of her. She did not have a disability as defined by IDEA (2004), but she did qualify for a 504 plan under the American Disabilities Act.

My plan was simple. I gave her a cheap planner I found at Wal-Mart and showed her how to use it. I asked the teacher to simply scrawl on a piece of paper what the day was going to look like and hand it to this girl for her to do as her morning work. The teacher was resistant because of the annoyance of doing her planning and then copying it for a student. However, I explained 10 minutes of writing was a lot less frustrating than 6.5 hours of questions. As soon as I said this the teacher was on board. She photocopied her planning book each day and gave the page to this girl.

I gave the girl some nice gel pens for her planner and told her she had to keep track of her own day because I had told the teacher not to answer when she asked what was happening next. I wanted her to keep track instead. She agreed and started filling out the planner. I also instructed her to take the planner to the teacher to get a stamp to verify it was completed and correct and to get credit for her morning work.

This was all the girl needed. She was able to sit in class and do her work. She flipped to the day in her planner every 5 minutes or so at first, but after a month or so she would just check her planner when she finished her work so she knew how long she had until the next task would begin.


As a component of MTSS, a planner can be used as a Tier 2 intervention for students that cannot complete their work and turn in only incomplete assignments, if anything. The 20 minute small group instruction can be spent with a teacher, paraprofessional, or volunteer helping the student organize their work into folders and writing in the planner. Simple rewards can be set up for both turning in work as well as filling out the planner. In this case, I would have the teacher mark if something was turned in and the student as well. Every 10 checks for homework turned in or so I would set up a reward.

This is just a slightly more covert version of a daily contract, and that is how I want it. I want the student to internalize success being a result of good planning rather than because the teacher intervened.

How to Use Planners as a Component of an IEP

I have also used a simplified planner as a sort of contract in a Resource class. My students loved to come to my room, but they were scared to hand in their homework to their teacher. They did not want the attention of getting things wrong as they were accustomed. However, they were now getting everything correct on their work. This was my solution to that problem.

For 5 minutes of a 45 minute resource session we filled out our planners and the students got a stamp when they turned in their work. They got some 1:1 time with me during a recess period if they received 5 stamps (5 days of homework being turned in).

I followed the above steps for how to teach a planner precisely, simply limiting it to homework and handing it in. Worked like a charm.


I see picture schedules put into IEPs all the time. Sadly, I rarely see them appropriately administered. I see the student given a list of Velcro strips with icons, but no times or additional information provided. Often, I see the teachers just give a completed schedule to the student and never addressing it in class.

Can you tell me what any of this really means? 

As I said above, I am not a fan of giving a student a picture schedule if they can make their own. So here is how I would do it. I would have icons of clocks at the times things begin and icons for each subject. I would also provide stickers or templates for tracing any homework into a planner. As the class is filling out a planner, the student would put together their own picture schedule. They would also fill in any homework they have using whatever adaptations are necessary for them to be successful.

This way the teacher does not just hand out a schedule. The student has to make the schedule. Not only does this provide anxiety reduction by having a schedule, but also the student now knows when things are going to happen because they set it up themselves.

Applications for Autism

For autism, we can always do the last example I provided above if they need picture schedules. The vignette I provided to start this blog was in a class of autistic students. So I can say from experience,  planners work.

It is my personal opinion that we do not empower autistic students to have control in schools. In fact, we often teach them that they are wrong to want things highly organized and they are wrong to complain when schedules are ignored. This is wrong.

In the real world, schedules have to be followed. Work has to be completed as scheduled. Appointments cannot be missed. And no one will come to our houses to pick us up for meetings if we are busy.

For the autistic student, here is how I propose we use planners.

  • We teach them the importance of having a planner and explicitly inform them that the planner is a way to make the world predictable and stable.
  • We teach them how to fill out the planner with any adaptations they may need to be successful using explicit instruction as described above.
    • We provide incentives for the students filling out the planners a first to shape their behavior because, from experience, at first all kids hate filling out planners.
    • We also provide menial homework so the students can feel the success of checking off completed items
  • When students have their schedules, we can give them timers, watches, etc to empower them to keep track of time and transitions.
    • As a side note, I have found 99% of issues with transitions are not that the student does not want to transition, they only get a 1 minute warning and that is not long enough to change mindset to a new task
    • We give the students rewards or opportunities to engage in fun activities when they use their planners and have successful days
    • When students fail, we reteach and help them. This is a life skill after all and they need to learn how to take the reigns of their own lives and cut any dependence on teachers

The most important part of this plan when working with autism, is that the teachers have to be 100% compliant with their schedules If they are midway through a hard lesson, they need to stop the task to timetable and begin it again the next day. This is the only way we can help these students succeed.

Conclusion

If we want students to gain independence, we must teach them how to write things down. Checklists. Schedules. Planners.

 

If we teach them to plan for themselves, they will make it to job interviews on time. They will complete their projects on time. They will contribute to the economy. It is that simple. All that is required is that we teach them how to do it.


Please feel free to send me your comments, anecdotes, and ideas below!

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How to Decide Whether Behavioral Interventions Are Actually Necessary

An Educational Aside

Over the course of my life, I have been surrounded by autism. Autistic kids have been some of my favorite companions and my twin brother was always willing to be my partner in crime, or allow me to be his. This being the case, I have developed an eye for what behaviors are associated with autism and what behaviors are not.

I do not know if this is because of my brother or just a part of my own upbringing, but 95% of the time I see no problems with autistic behavior. I am okay with students behaving differently than what might be considered normal, so long as the student is happy. For example, when I see autistic kids on playgrounds and at school flapping their hands and jumping, I giggle to myself, smile, and say, “flappy hands are happy hands,” and think nothing more of it.

There are of course exceptions. I consider the following behaviors problematic: self-injury, coprophilia, and highly restrictive food preferences that often lead to a refusal to eat. In all instances, I try to teach alternatives to these behaviors as these behaviors truly prevent the student from accessing the outside world. It is important to note that the vast majority of students I have known with these above behaviors were not autistic–despite these behaviors being labeled as “associated with autism”.

Do You Really Care?

When I have colleagues tell me that I need to make students stop doing something, I have a single question, “Do you REALLY care about that?” What amazes me is that most of the time, my co-workers have been trained explicitly that autistic behaviors are a huge deal and it is highly important that these behaviors be mitigated. This blows my mind.

Some concrete examples of behaviors I am okay with but others demanded I stop the child from doing immediately:

  • Taking their sandwich apart to eat items individually
  • Eating M&Ms in 3 bites rather than one
  • Quietly pacing in the back of the classroom when stressed out
  • Having a hitch in their left leg when they walk
  • Toe walking
  • Abnormal blinking pattern
  • Popping their knuckles/neck during the day
  • Rocking back and forth on their desk
  • Bouncing their foot on the ground all day
  • Running around making noises and flapping their hands at recess
  • Walking around like a T-Rex at recess
  • ONLY using the swings at recess
  • Telling others about restricted interests during free time
  • Drawing the same picture over and over
  • Facial or other tics
  • Looking at materials through one eye and cocking their head
  • Sitting “wrong” in their chair
  • Avoiding eye contact

…and so on

Some Behaviors DO Require Intervention

So to start off, I do not view behaviors as autistic or nonautistic. I believe that is a short-sighted and often toxic way to view a child and their behavior. My doctoral work and professional experience have shown me that anyone is capable of any behavior, because repetitive or odd behaviors arise when an individual is stressed or anxious. We all do it. I also do not simplify behavior as “wrong” or “right” as the same behavior may be wrong in one context and right in another.

I conceptualize behavior as adaptive or nonadaptive. I see behavior as expected or unexpected given the context.

Most importantly, I do not weigh any so-called social relevance in any way into my analysis of behavior. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) has a focus on behaviors that are socially relevant, but I feel this is too floppy a definition and can be molded to include anything an autistic child does. In my approach, if any behavior has become a problem, I need to help the student choose another behavior – regardless social relevance of the behavior or diagnosis of the kid.

So when I approach a student (I usually say “autistic student” on this blog but this also applies to the kids with Tourette’s, Angelman’s syndrome, Down’s syndrome, Cerebral palsy, Fragile X Syndrome/Premutation, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome or 22q11 duplications, 46-XXYY, Borderline Personality Disorder, and any other developmental disability I have worked with), I look at them and try to determine if they understand the impact of their behaviors on other people.

If so, great. If not, then I teach.

To prevent bias from my having researched the neuroanatomy and neurochemistry underlying a lot of behavioral disorders, I have a few simple questions I ask myself every time I see a behavior. These questions keep me honest and allow me to quickly explain to others why a behavior is or is not a big deal and worthy of intervention.

My approach to “weird” behavior is to ask myself these questions based on a 1-hour observation:

  1. Does the child know they are doing the behavior
  2. Does the child have control over the behavior
  3. Is the child rewarded by or for the behavior
  4. Is the child themselves hurt by the behavior
  5. Are others hurt by the behavior
  6. Does the behavior prevent the student from participating in X

To me, these questions are all I need. I do not appeal to social relevance or behavioral expectations like CBT or ABA therapists. I want to dispassionately assess the behavior. Is it a problem? Is it not a problem?


Let’s go over these questions/rules in turn by addressing some examples for each.

Does the child know they are doing the behavior

This sounds dumb, but that is why it needs to be asked. It is a basic, low level question. I have seen teachers and therapists try to extinguish a behavior that the student did not know they were doing. In this case, the autistic boy made a hyper-annoying hiccup/snorting sound every 30 seconds or so. It sounded like momentarily he was choking.

The assumption was made by the adults that this 1st-grade kid was trying to seek attention by being annoying since the annoying behavior was resulting in attention. So they put the behavior on extinction by not interacting with the student and nothing about the behavior changed. Absolutely nothing. No changes in amplitude, no changes in frequency. Nothing.

Well, be fair, something changed. The child thought he was in trouble because the teachers were avoiding him.

When I came in and looked at the kid, I did a very simple thing. I asked him if he knew he was making noise. He looked at me funny, so I assumed he did not. I did not shame him, I did not lecture him. I did not draw any attention to him other than when I was asking him a question. I sat down and collected data on the behavior.

My solution was to get parent permission to record this student in class and show him the video recording. I did not tell him why I was recording or what I was looking for. I recorded 10 minutes of footage and took the student to another room to watch the recording.

He asked me why he was bouncing in his seat and making a weird noise. He had no idea. He had always done this so it was so normal to him. He  really did not know he was doing it. He then asked a series of questions about how people treat him and if his noises were a problem. He had a realization.

In the end, this student actually needed to visit a pediatrician with a parent to elucidate the origin of the tic. With the pediatrician and a pediatric psychiatrist, the family developed a strategy to get these behaviors under control that involved some cognitive-behavioral-therapy  (CBT) and medication. As a result of this intervention, the student received an additional diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome and CBT-based interventions for this disorder helped him immensely.


Now, this student was being annoying and the behavior was a problem because it was disruptive. BUT, if the kid does not know they are doing something, no amount of intervention will stop it. The kid will just learn adults are jerks and unfair. Not the lesson we want to teach them.

Does the child have control over the behavior

This is a classic Tourette’s syndrome issue. In this particular case, there was a student I was working with that had rather extreme motor stereotypies. He made a high pitched, staccato squeaking noise, had head rotation tics, and at the most extreme his full trunk lowering to his knees and 90-degree rotation. When at rest his feet were always very active and stomping on the floor.

He was moved at my behest from a self-contained academic classroom to a general education classroom since he had the highest reading scores in the school and was only two chapters behind in math and would never catch up in the special education classroom. I figured his “weird” behaviors could only be helped by challenging him academically as he was bored and becoming intentionally disruptive in the special education classroom.

Within a week, I was getting reports of his “disruptive” behavior in the classroom. I was being told he was getting up without permission, making peers laugh at him, and not following directions. Now, knowing this student, all three of these were totally possible. He well could have been disrupting the class on purpose for attention, so I went in to observe.

He was working as hard as possible to stay in place during class. He was trying to hold in his noises. He was trying to keep his feet still. After 10-15 minutes, all his tics would almost simultaneously overtake him and he “went a little bit crazy” as he called it for 10 seconds and then went back to control himself.

He told me he was working hard to not look weird in class and wanted to stop his “going crazy” episodes. However, little did he know that fighting tics rarely works. With lots of work, they can be redirected, but not suppressed. This did not stop this student. He kept trying to mind-over-matter his tics. It was at this time he started talking to his mom more about school and she took him to a neuropsychologist that diagnosed him with Tourette’s syndrome.

I worked with him and his teacher to develop a system whereby he could stand up and walk to the back of the classroom to get a drink of water when he needed to get his “wiggles out”. He also would leave the room to use the restroom when he felt a “big one” coming. He joked with me that his teacher had given him permission to break dance in the hallways. I told him she had, but he could not abuse that privilege.

He struggled the rest of that year with the teacher as his tics worsened with stress, but they both survived (if only barely). He went to his neighborhood school the next year and having to walk to school rather than take a bus helped him greatly. His mother also put him in Tae Kwon Do after school to help him learn how to direct his movements.

Last I heard he still has to break dance in the hall, but he is a straight-A student. The only time he annoys the teachers now is when he is being a little snot and is trying to get their goat by playing practical jokes or being intentionally disruptive.

Is the child rewarded by or for the behavior

For self-rewarding behaviors, I tend to focus on behaviors that are directly rewarding. In elementary schools. the most common behavior is stimming-related behaviors, which involves the student dangling their fingers in front of their eyes or else moving their fingers in and out of their field of vision. As a person who does not use visual stimming, I find this highly distracting and annoying. It makes me feel dizzy when I watch kids do this for an extended amount of time. My solution is that I do not watch them stim for a long amount of time.

When I see a student stimming or engaging in any other behavior that self-reinforces, but does not impact other students, I try to figure out how the behavior is reinforcing and if the student can still do work despite the stim.

Sometimes young autistics can develop a tendency to stim too often (meaning stimming gets in the way of daily functions of life), but this is most often not the case. When stimming gets in the way of schoolwork I come up with two options. First, set up a system that asks the student to work for 10 minutes and then go to a special place where they can actively stim for 5 minutes. Then increase work and fade active stim times until the student can use recess as the time to stim. This does not always work. If a student needs a sensory diet, they cannot control the stim. So I move to option two.

Secondly, I try to help the student develop a new stim that is less disruptive to their academic progress. Often times this involves trying to switch a visual stim to a tactile one that requires only one hand. In no cases do I ever try to extinguish “stimming” by suppressing it without a replacement behavior that fulfills the same need. I consider that mean.

My brother Kyle was an avid stimmer right up until the end. He had a string he would twirl and he would blur his eyes and focus beyond the point that the string hit his fingers and fluttered. He would also hum rhythmically while doing this. With time in school, my mother shaped his behavior so he would work and then go to a “stimming” square to stim and then return to work. With time Kyle stopped taking a string to school. He left it in a specific place in the house before he left for school. When we would get home, he would immediately go to his spot, pick up his string, and stim. He needed to stim, but he learned how to regulate himself to only engage in stimming behaviors at certain times and places.

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For situations when behaviors are rewarded by attention, escape, or any kind of external stimulus the child finds pleasing, the behavior will continue and increase in both frequency and intensity. When this is present I do an A-B-C analysis and program the adults in the room to stop rewarding the student. I do this because if the adults are providing accidental rewards for problem behavior, the “naughty” behavior from the student is the adult’s fault.

Is the child hurt by the behavior


If the child is hurt by their own behavior, call your behavioral specialist and the parents immediately and work on a plan to stop the behavior. Hurting one’s self is never a good thing and we do not want any self-injury to increase in intensity. When in doubt, call someone with expertise. 

On the internet, you will find numerous ABA plans using aversive stimuli to curb the self-injurious behavior. Do not use these methods,. They are abusive and only drive behaviors underground. Please discuss self-injury with a medical professional or therapist prior to intervening using plans found on the internet 


There are ZERO appropriate planned ignore protocols for self-injury. Doing so can be extremely dangerous and irresponsible. The only thing to look out for is pseudo-injurious behavior. I had a student that I worked with that would throw himself on the ground and bang his head. However, when I observed closely, he always seemed to be banging his head on soft things. His backpack, a stuffed animal, etc. He also would hit his head with closed fists, but never hard enough to leave even a red mark.

One time I intervened to see what it would take to manually stop this behavior. The student only banged their head as hard as I resisted. If I used a feather touch they would scream and barely push into my hand. If I held his head rigidly they would push into my hand with their forehead quite hard. Same went for the fists toward his head.

In working with him, I extinguished his “self-injury” by ignoring him. One time (with parent permission) I tried to motivate him to hit harder. As I predicted, he stopped and looked at me very confusedly, as this was opposite to the nurturing behaviors he was seeking. This student was using fake self-injury to get teachers that did not like him to nurture him. It also got him trips to McDonald’s to soothe him.

Are others hurt by the behavior


If other children are hurt by a student’s behavior, call your behavioral specialist and the parents and work on a plan to stop the behavior. Hurting others never a good thing and we do not want any harm to others to increase in intensity. When in doubt, call someone with expertise.

Physical restraint may seem like the right call because it protects others, but you risk hurting yourself and the child you are restraining. Don’t do it. 


I put this above similar to the self-injury section as I feel far too often as special educators we forget that all the students in a classroom have to be programmed for, not just the student with the aggressive behavior.  I have been in situations where a student punches peers or kicks them to be rewarded by hearing the scream. The teachers correctly developed a plan to reward behaviors that are mutually exclusive to hurting others. However, they did not provide any kind of a consequence for hurting others.

While the teachers were rewarding the student for not attacking others, any attacks on other students were ignored/not rewarded. This was a major problem because all of these other students had a right to not be hurt in school. Yes, we should teach kids how to behave and not punish them unless necessary, but do not ever let a student hurt others.

Recently I had a student that would throw items at other students to get a response from the teachers. So the student would chuck a toy train at another student and the teacher would intervene. Like clockwork.  The initial plan was to have the teacher engage in a planned ignore for the throwing behavior. They were not going to give attention to the student for being naughty.

See the problem yet?

As one would predict, throwing behaviors went up 10-fold and larger things were being thrown; all because the kid was not getting rewarded. I was brought in to stop the behavior. So I just did something much easier than the other interventionist had done. I did not let the student play with items that could be thrown. I explained to him why the ban was in place and that he could earn the right to other toys by being good and not throwing anything. I also had the teacher work 1:1 with this student during play time so long as he was not throwing items or engaging in maladaptive behaviors, so he got the rewarding attention without the behavior. After a week the student would just grab the teacher to play and get attention rather than using negative behaviors to get attention.

I instructed the teacher to assign someone to play in the group with this student so that he never felt the need to throw things at other students to get the attention of the adults.

Does the behavior prevent the student from participating in X

The biggie. This is the question most people fail to answer when working with students with ADHD and autistic kids. Teachers are taught to always assume the behaviors that appear off task are competing with task completion. Many times they aren’t. They just annoy the teacher because they look inattentive.

I will be my own first example here. I have a fidget that can drive people nuts. If I am required to stay put, I twiddle pens and markers in my right hand. I can do this all day. I also move around in my chair…a lot. Chairs are uncomfortable and I just cannot conform to the chair. So I wiggle. Teacher trainers have commented I do not look like I am paying attention because of it, until I answer their questions insightfully because I was, in fact, listening and engaged. In actuality, I was much more engaged than I would have been had I been forced to stay still.

Well, one time, the reading coaches made the mistake of gave everyone a slinky to visualize “stretching words” in reading. Well, I love slinkies because they let me get my fidget on. I was playing with that stupid thing all day long. But I was always 100% on task and participating.  I just needed to keep my body busy, so I used what they gave me to fulfill that need.


I had a student that was always drawing sharks or dinosaurs in class while the teacher was talking. It did look like he was not paying attention. He was drawing and coloring inside his own lines and his art was quite good.

I did an experiment with him. I prevented him from drawing while the teacher was talking. The first day I had a desk flipped on me and a waste paper basket thrown at me. A chair was lobbed my way the next day. Then he just sat and listened for the rest of the week without fighting.

After this part of the experiment, I let him draw freely during class, in fact, as an apology for our fighting the week before, I had given him a sketchbook and a few fun pens he could use.

Guess during which part of the experiment he retained information. When he sat and listened to the teacher without drawing, his memory was terrible. Importantly, by the end of the week, the student and I were no longer fighting. He just was not retaining what the teacher was saying. When he was drawing, however, he had a memory like a steel trap. Drawing let him focus in such a way he was able to listen and remember.

When I debriefed him he said that it is hard to listen because it is stressful. But then he draws he can hear and remember stuff.

“Autistic Behaviors” – Interventions are NOT Necessary

Lack of Eye Contact

In line with my last point above, I will use an example of eye contact. Many people consider the fact that autistics (and many other nonautistic disabled people by the way) have a difficult time maintaining eye contact. Adult autistics describe this difficulty as eye contact being too salient and drowning out everything else, overwhelming, or stressful.

I have never taught or even suggested to a student to make eye contact. Frankly, I do not care where you are looking so long as you can do the task I give you. This drives other people in the room bonkers. Adults perseverate on the fact that that see a student looking around while I am talking. They forget to notice if the student is completing their work correctly-most often they are. I do require the student look in the general direction of my side of the table or room. If they are looking a full 90-degrees off to the right or left or me the likelihood of distraction is too great.

What I see in classrooms is hard for me to watch. Kids are required to look a teacher in the eye while the teacher talks. Not the mouth. The eyes. I have seen student’s faces grabbed and turned to look the teacher in the eye. When teachers are punishing students they want eye contact. Any time there is an interaction the teacher demands eye contact. From the autistic kid. The nonautistic kid has no such expectations.

An autistic kid once asked me why nationalistic want them to look in the eyes instead of the mouth. Since the mouth is doing the talking he wanted to focus there. I agreed. He was rather angry that he had to look in eyes because if he was looking in eyes then learning was harder than if he was looking at his desk

Now, if a student has their head constantly looking and they are scanning the room while the teacher is talking, I redirect that. Having difficulty with eye contact does not mean I am giving them carte blanche to read the chart on the back wall while I am talking. It just means I do not care if you look right at me or just in the general vicinity of the teacher. My redirection usually involves teaching them to look within 45-degrees of the teacher but never at the teacher’s or face unless they want to. I tell them why I am teaching them this and I tend to be overabundant with rewards to help them understand I really want them to learn what I am teaching.

Deconstructed Sandwiches

Sandwiches. I see this all the time. Kids deconstruct sandwiches to eat them. They carefully eat the meat, then the cheese, put lettuce off to the side (eew, green food), and then enjoy a Mayo and bread sandwich. They pull a PB&J apart and gnaw at the peanut butter off one side and lick the jelly off the other. Then eat the bread.

Kyle did this with pizza. He would eat all the toppings off the pizza item by item. Meat first, then mushrooms and pineapple if there was any. Then he would eat the bread, leaving the crusty edge for me.

Who does this hurt?

I blame parents for this one. If they cannot stand their child destroying a sandwich, send them a Lunchable or just meat, cheese, and crackers. Spare them the empty carbs associated with Wonderbread.

Flappy Hands are Happy Hands

This one is a bit more nuanced. I can understand that parents do not want their child to be the only one stop-start running while humming and flapping their hands. It looks weird and no one else is doing it.

However, other than looking weird there is literally nothing wrong with this behavior. If a student chooses to pace the playground and stim/flap, who does it involve? If the student has goals to play with other students at recess then I would give them time for both.

The one exception is a story from my mother and I have done the same thing. She had a student that really wanted friends, but at recess, he would walk around the field flapping and stimming. So mom asked him if he knew that he looked a bit weird doing that and that maybe if he played with other kids at recess instead he might have friends.

Now at no point does my mother care if a kid flaps. The student’s flapping was getting in the way of a goal he had – friends. So HE made a change and started to play with other kids.

I have had the same experience but when I asked the student if he knew what he looked like and others may think he was being a bit weird, he had a different answer. He said (honestly), “I don’t care” and flapped with more intensity and glee than I had ever seen. So I let him. I just reminded him whenever he complained of not having friends that he needed to play with people at recess if he wanted friends.

Restricted Interests

Student ONLY swinging or hanging upside down from monkey bars at recess

This is brilliant vestibular stimulation and often serves to calm anxiety. Let them do it. Forcing them to do something else is just mean, but also is depriving them of a calming input, so redirecting them is a punishment. Stop that. Also, nonautistic kids do this.

Student telling others about restricted interests during free time

Honestly, I hear more about firetrucks and dinosaurs from nonautistic kids than autistic ones. We just get annoyed by the autistic ones because their autism gives us an excuse to shut them down.  My solution is that I actually demand the students learn new facts and information about the topic before they can tell me about it again. That gets them learning and that is all I want in the end.

I do not care if the kid has 1 or 57 interests. So long as the interests are appropriate I leverage it for their educational benefit. I cannot describe how many times a T-Rex has participated in my math worksheets.

Student drawing the same picture over and over

If it is an assignment to draw one thing they draw their interest, correct them and make them do what they are told. Otherwise, if it is their free time, stop intervening. Let them practice.


Sitting wrong

This one is hard because the behavior of one student will influence all the others. But overall, my guiding question for kids and chairs is: Can they learn/work sitting like that? If the answer is yes, I leave them be. If no, I ask them to put themselves in a position they can work from.

My office chair is the one in the image below. This is because neither myself nor my wife sits correctly in chairs (and neither of us is autistic).

HowToSit

 

I also love seeing this youtube video of Commander Riker on Star Trek the Next Generation sitting oddly. Funny enough people think it is cool rather than inappropriate given his context as second in command on the show.

And one last piece of information. Many kids cannot sit cross-legged (criss-cross applesauce) on the floor. Forcing them to causes pain and is not going to end well. My brother Kyle was one of these. Even as a small boy cross-legged was not a position he was able to accomplish.

He would gladly sit, just not criss-cross applesauce. No amount of coaxing or punishing was going to make that happen.

My solution is to simply side step the problem by getting rid of chairs (I explain it here)

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 7.58.38 PM

 

Conclusions

Most often we judge behavior from a student or child based on a biased perspective. Any behavior other than raw perfection from an autistic is a behavior that must be fixed. The same thing from a nonautistic kid is just a quirk. A tic from a Tourette’s kid has to be medicated, but am identical tic from a neurotypical kid is ignored and met with compassion.

We need to ask ourselves about all behaviors, not just those related to autism, Does it matter? Do I really care enough to do something about it? Should I? Would I want someone to stop me if I did that?