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:


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


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.







How to Use These Planners


  • 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.


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!


To Help Students Succeed We Need to Collect the RIGHT Data

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

– US Army 7Ps

I will start this post with two fairly controversial assertions that I will defend later.

  1. In schools, we do not collect nearly enough data on student behavior
  2. When we do collect data, they are most likely the wrong data

You can take these points as the TL;DR of this post. We do not collect enough data on how students behave in school, and when we do we are more than likely to collect irrelevant data that do not help the student.

My solution is simple. In fact, spectacularly so: In education, we need to standardize our datasheets within the district, school, and team. I have a solution already available and am more than willing to work with anyone that wants to develop their own from scratch.

What are you talking about?

My illustrative example involves collecting data on every single instance of “out of seat” for a student I will call Robert rather than collecting data on the specific behaviors that disrupted the learning of others (e.g., touching other students).

The teacher was instructed to collect data on all “out of seats” for Robert. This was the full extent of instruction given to the teacher regarding the data collection. No data sheets were provided, no direct modeling, no behavioral topography, just the definition “out of seats“. The teacher repeated this instruction to the paraeducator.

During class, these data were almost always collected after instruction had ended and the data had to be recorded from “memory”, often on a lined paper on a clipboard that only had Robert’s name on the top and disorganized tic marks. The paraeducator, however, only recorded “out of seat” if it resulted in a classroom disruption as they determined that Robert moving up and down in their seat as a fidget rather than a behavior.

With those data, the interventionist programmed interventions designed to “fix” Robert’s getting out of their seat repeatedly. The plan did not, however, address the root problem of why Robert was touching his friends without permission. Based on the data, the interventionist also determined the teacher, but not the paraeducator, was a trigger for Robert’s behavior because the teacher had recorded a much greater quantity of “out of seats“.

I agree that if we keep Robert in his chair he will touch other students less, at least in the short term. But anyone who has experience with chronic friend-tappers knows that Robert will just start scooting his desk or looking for opportunities to be allowed to leave his seat and they increase the amplitude of the behavior when he has the chance (e.g., instead of gently touching he now smacks his friends in the head as he walks by or starts kicking his friends). Stopping “out of seat” behavior only served to make Robert’s behaviors worse!

At this point, I was called in and did what I describe in the Now for Solutions section to help restore order to the classroom and teach Robert how to behave in class.

In my experience watching students in class and watching those tasked with collecting data, I see a few trends that trouble me:

  • Teachers walk around with clipboards, but they do not collect the data as the behavior unfolds but rather they watch the behavior, wait for it to end, and only then they write down in a narrative form based on what they remember
  • Data are collected on lined paper by jotting down notes
  • Different members of the team collect different data on different students using different data sheets and then try to “compare notes”
  • Team members are not discussing the who, what, when, where, or why of data collection


Clipboards don’t mean data are collected in a timely manner

This is a matter of timing. When we are emotional or anxious, our memories of something that has happened can get corrupted or fade very rapidly. So rapidly, in fact, that if we wait as little as five minutes to document what happened we have difficulty remembering specifics and have to guess as to what we saw.

When we see a student misbehaving, I know the impulse is to intervene now and collect data and record it later. This is the wrong impulse unless you pass data collection to another person to take it on the fly. Optimally, we hand the clipboard to the nearest adult who is trained in taking data and they collect the data while we intervene. This is rarely the case. Teachers feel an obligation to be the one who collects all the data, does all the interventions, etc.

As described below, when we write our data we often add our emotions and interpretations into it, and we feel this is necessary as we are providing our judgment and expertise. Sadly, when we do this we are mistaken. We are contaminating our data.

When we take the data on the fly and rapidly, we often actually do a more accurate job because we do not have time to think, we only have time to focus on collecting data and observation. This is what we should strive for.

Data are collected on lined paper

This is not a bad idea, but unless a data sheet designed with the student and with the target behavior(s) in mind is attached to the clipboard, you might as well be scribbling notes on the back of your hand. My issue with anecdotal record keeping is it should only actually be done by trained professionals that know how to extemporaneously describe behavior in a dispassionate and unaffected manner.

Quick example:

Rhett ran up to Scarlet to scare her, angrily grabbed her face, wailed at her like a banshee, and intentionally yanked her hair as he bolted. When she yelled, he got angry and turned back to kick her as hard as he could in the shin. He then proudly laughed and ran away from the teachers.

Compare this to when I remove words that convey an interpretation

Rhett ran up to Scarlet in order to to scare her, angrily grabbed her face, wailed at her like a banshee, and intentionally yanked her hair as he bolted. When she yelled, he got angry and turned back to kick her as hard as he could in the shin. He then proudly laughed and ran away from the teachers.

Resulting in…

Rhett approached Scarlet, grabbed her face, yelled at her, and pulled her hair as he ran away. When Scarlet yelled, Rhett turned back, kicking her in the shin. He laughed, then ran to the other side of the classroom.

I primarily see the former in the anecdotal data that I receive. Especially when hair pulling, kicking, biting, or spitting are concerned. There are a lot of words describing how a behavior was done or why a behavior was done (motivation), and a dearth of information regarding the topography of the behavior or how the behavioral episode unfolded.

Words like: abrasive, abusive, angry, anxious, belligerent, boorish, cowardly, crazy, creepy, cruel, chucked, dangerous, defiant, erratic, finicky, flashy, flippant, foolish, furtive, guarded, intentionally, jittery, malicious, mysterious, obnoxious, outrageous, panicky, proudly, revenge, secretive, strange, threatening, unsuitable, vengeful, and wary get placed within descriptions of behavior (See a more comprehensive list here or here)

The reason I find the use of any interpretations laden with adjectives or adverbs troubling is that I can no longer trust the anecdotal data. Is the teacher watching what is happening or telling them self a story to explain the behavior and, in doing so, missing the critical subtle details? A good description of behavior involves only nouns, pronouns (though preferably not), and verbs. Nothing else is relevant. These type of data contain only the who, what, when, where, and how of a behavior. There are no “why” to the behavior at this point.

Different members of the team collect different data on different students using different data sheets

This is the part of the post where I start to rag on interventionists and behavior specialists that come in to work with or observe our students (and I do this as someone who has held that position so I am totally mocking myself as well). We in the district offices often demand that teachers seek out and use data sheets for their data collection; we then leave the teachers to their own devices to hunt on Teachers Pay Teachers or Google for available options.

The district personnel, however, walk in with a legal pad, sit down and write anecdotal notes of what a student is doing based on what they have prejudged as important. Then often they (we) make broad interpretations and sweeping conclusions based upon that cursory observation and incomplete data, often neglecting to debrief the teacher on the data collected (and we have just finished discussing the weakness of this approach).

My concern with this approach is that anecdotal sheets or lined paper do not define the behavior or how to collect the data. A lined paper will not help you determine if you want to collect frequency, latency, duration, the amplitude of behavior, etc. It is blank and unhelpful.

How on Earth do I collect data using this?

Even in the hands of a trained professional, lined paper is at best a useless, if not harmful, tool for data collection. I know I miss things when I have to write notes down on a lined paper. In fact, I have been told that I have a really irritating habit of drawing my own data sheets on lined paper or raiding the teacher’s stash of colored paper and a hunting down a ruler to guide my data collection. I abhor writing tic marks on a line without a clear label above it, and I loathe writing longhand something that can be represented by an extremely simple alpha-numeric code.

Furthermore, since the teacher and the specialist are using different forms, it is virtually impossible for them to collect the same data from the same student at the same time. The data sheets will always influence data collection. That is why I took the time a few years back to make my own data sheets that help me collect exactly the data I want to collect for a given behavior (We will get to those in a bit, they are really the point of this post).

Team members are not discussing the who, what, when, where, or why of data collection

This goes hand in hand with the above. Everyone on the team needs to be precisely on the same page regarding student behavior. I know it is vogue to use the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence  (A-B-C) model to describe behavior (here), but I think that is not specifically useful for teachers. I like “Five Ws” questions better (cf., https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Ws). In evaluating student behavior I recommend omitting the Why when still in the data collection phase since anticipating the function of behavior may lead us to miss more obvious reasons underlying behavior:

Who was involved?

What happened?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did that happen?

 . . .

How did it happen?

Each question should have a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.

Let’s think about this for a moment, compare the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence model to the Five Ws.

On an intuitive level, the Five Ws are easier for a non-ABA trained behaviorist to understand. When we are in a hurry, we as behaviorist often forget that not everyone is trained the same way we are. And teachers usually are left confused and struggling to keep up with us as we talk about their students. So we think that because the A-B-C model has fewer questions it has to correct because it is faster.

An additional issue that follows from this approach is that behaviorists and interventionists tell the teacher and parents that (for example), “This is an attention maintained behavior, so collect data on the behavior and do not give them attention”.

We make these mistakes to the peril of the student.

Now imagine trying to keep data on a behavior we do not understand and struggle to describe. Not fun.

Now for Solutions

Always the advocate of simple solutions here is mine. I have blogged about it before (here and here). I named it a “Behavioral First Aid Kit” because it helps the classroom to heal when there are challenging or difficult behaviors in the classroom. I am an avid believer that if we collect the correct data the behavioral interventions that are necessary to help the student become apparent and it is on us as teachers and professionals to guide the student on whatever remediation is supported by the data.

I have it available at Teachers Pay Teachers, and I have provided a full watermarked preview available for you to test drive before you spend any money. I am also willing to work with anyone who needs a solution but lacks experience/resources to design what they need on their own, just send me an email from my contact page.

To address the above issues, I will describe my approach to helping teachers when I am called in to help intervene with a student. I suggest this or a similar approach be adopted.

The first thing I do is I come into the class and I use a data sheet available (here). I use this as a first pass datasheet that collects a large array of data about the entire environment surrounding the student. These data range from student time on task to teacher positive to negative comment ratios. This sheet describes the environment the student is in as well as how they interact with the environment. The datasheet also has a section for assessing if the student Has the necessary skills to behave appropriately and chooses not to or whether the student lacks the necessary skills to behave appropriately (Original survey comes from the book Lost At School by Ross Greene, which I have discussed at length here). It also involves a full teacher debrief and plan for data collection and further intervention planning.

The second day (or first day in the afternoon if I did the above step in the morning), I trade places with the teacher. I will work with the student in a small group or one-on-one and give them the datasheet I used and I let them collect data on the student as well as on me. This lets the teacher step back and observe the behavior without the stress of having to deal with it or intervene. Then I let the teacher debrief me and we work together on a plan for data collection. This always ends the same way, I break out my pack of data sheets and we select which datasheets to use for the student and I explain exactly how to use them.

The third day, I supervise and help the teacher to properly use the datasheet and to properly identify/characterize the behavior. This way we are on the same page and we know we are talking about the same thing when we discuss the behavior. At that time I will also meet with the teacher and the paraeducators and support the teacher as they explain the plan to their team.

Explicit Data Collection Training

Another critical aspect of data collection is that everyone is explicitly trained in how to use the datasheet.

A few examples of why training is important:

How would you collect data on this data sheet?

Come to think of it, how do we define the labels?

How about this one?

Good luck figuring this one out without a cheat sheet

Without training and a number of definitions, I would not assume anyone has the pre-requisite skills to know how to use these data sheets. They might intuitively understand what I am asking for, but the datasheet itself is unclear.

Now, as part of my approach, I have two separate solutions for this problem. Firstly, I always include a narrative description of why each datasheet is to be used and why I chose it, along with what type of data should be collected on it. I also hand everyone I work with a quick data collection guide that helps to determine what type of data needs to be collected and what purpose data collection serves.

I also go into classrooms and, as mentioned earlier, specifically model and demonstrate how to use the datasheet, how we define the behavior (with inclusion and exclusion criteria), and how we can quickly mark notes for something we are not collecting data on but might want to know (i.e.,  a new behavior cropping up).

I developed this strategy after spending the better part of 15 years of my life as an academic scientist teaching high school and undergraduate students how to properly and fastidiously collect data on rodent and primate behavior. I learned during this time that it was up to me to explicitly teach (via direct instruction) how to collect data and how to see behavior the same way I do. Assuming this from even the most bright and intuitive students always led to lost time and incomplete data. However, all students, even those that struggled at first, could be trained to be experts in data collection and behavioral analysis if I allocated the necessary time to train them.

Applying the solution

For a teacher seeking to improve their data collection in class, here is my basic flowchart with images of datasheets from my Behavioral First Aid Kit.

  1. Identify the behavior of interest using a classroom observation sheet where you can identify any and all behaviors seen during the day:

    This looks complicated, but it is easy to use once you get used to it, especially when you need to define your own behaviors and keep track
  2. Characterize the frequency of the behavior if there is a discrete onset and offset of the behavior using a frequency data sheet.

    This is useful for any type of time sampling you need to do
  3. Characterize the duration of the behavior if there is a discrete onset and offset (this can be done by recording the onset and offset times in the step above.

    This is useful for ascertaining both duration and frequency of behaviors
  4. If there is an element of trying to postpone a task, quantify how long it takes for the student to start working from the time the task was presented (this is “latency to start task”, I call it procrastination).

    This is for our chronic pencil sharpeners, arguers, and complainers
  5. If there is a clear trigger, then a simple checklist A-B-C chart or else a fill in the blank A-B-C chart can help to characterize the trigger.
    This type of checklist is great when it is necessary to mark data quickly

    This is an example of a guided A-B-C chart that follows the “Five W’s” described earlier
  6. When a trigger is identified, talk to the parents and fill out a survey on student preferences and behaviors to help guide intervention (Greg Hanley calls this an IISCA – available here – top section under Assessments and my blog on the IISC method is here)
  7. Design an intervention with the ENTIRE team, principal or school director, behavior specialists if necessary, student themselves, and parents. If everyone is on the same page as to the Five Ws of behavior and why the behavior needs to stop there is a much higher probability of intervention success

I often let the student provide the definitions of what their behavior is…usually by watching a video of their behavior.

Helpful tip: Always include the student in the planning step of an intervention. That way they know what you are doing and they cannot accuse you of manipulating them if they designed the plan in the first place. I have even laminated the plan and given them a copy – laminated because they will often try to tear it up in a moment of frustration


In my experience, the biggest problem we see in special education (and general education classrooms) is either a lack of data collection or data collection on the wrong behaviors. Often these data appear useful, but they are reporting on at best ancillary behaviors.


In general, if we can get on the same page with each other regarding a student’s behavior and share data sheets, both our lives and the student’s life will be made easier. We will know precisely what is going on and have the correct data to design an intervention supported by data and not just supposition.