Popping the New School Year Bubble

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

School started for us a week ago. It was a shock to my system after having taken three graduate classes over the summer as well as having a treasured month of fun with my second-oldest grandson. At eight years old, he is like every other boy in America-he wants to be on the go always, he wants to have fun always, and he wants Grammy to always say yes. Needless to say, it was a busy June, July, and week into August. During his stay, I also took 24 professional development hours at our regional education cooperative, totaling four days in a classroom on top of those delightful graduate credit hours.


Aren't teachers believed to have off three WHOLE months where we swim in our pools, live in our bathing suits, eat bon bons, and travel? Yeah, I don't do that, either mostly because I DON'T HAVE TIME.

Typically, like most teachers, I find that I am busier in the summer months than I am during the school year…I just don't have to report for official duty at school…but I DO have to report that I did meet all the requirements and expectations to make my state's Department of Education willing to deem me gainfully employable for the upcoming school year.

I wandered into my classroom two weeks prior to our official report date and saw that my room had been freshly painted and that the custodians had our building's floors gleaming like a placid lake on a sunny day. It smelled good to be back. After two weeks of unpacking, decorating, and preparing, the first day arrived and in walked my eight precious babies. I have the privilege of looping with my students, and so the first day of school is more like the kids' return from an extended trip. It is so fun to see how much taller they are than when they left, see observe some maturity in their habits, and to know that they are well aware we are not going to sit on our duffs on Day 1.

We hit the ground running with our literacy activities and moved into Math, Science, and finished the day with Social Studies. Their "specials" classes, lunch time, and recess were, of course, their favorite parts to the day.

All was rolling beautifully and then on Wednesday, in walked a new student. It happens. For whatever reason, their enrollment was delayed a few days, but here they stand.

As I met my new charge, the student made it crystal clear that school was NOT their desired outcome for this day nor for any other. Further informal assessment revealed learning gaps in all aspects of academics, but this is a Special Education classroom. We work to bridge those gaps. It's what we do. I issued assurances that all will be well, friends will be made, life will find its rhythm. The look in the student's eye told me to put a sock in it and to take a hike.

How about that?

Hey. It's going to happen. This is the world of teaching. If you have not been informed that meeting a new student at an awkward part of the year is a reality, let me be the one to burst your bubble. That set of 12 whatevers in one package will quickly turn into a need to buy ONE pack of 12 PLUS a second pack with 11 leftovers, left over to need you to buy another pack so you can use them next year because you know as well as I do that none of your teaching partners will buy the leftovers from you because your whatevers don't match your teaching partners' classroom décor.

I promise. It will be okay. Over time, you'll acquire what we veterans call a hodge podge. They'll become so old that your students will love them because they're retro.

Anyway, your year has started and you moved through the first few days of school, hitting your stride, getting your routine and schedule down pat. Your Special Education kids are comfortable in their stride and know what to expect next. And then, the new kid enters and throws everyone's proverbial planets completely out of alignment. Your merry little band of happy-go-luckies roll with the day, doing their deal, not complaining about assessments already starting (can I get a woot! Woot! for Brigancing during week 1? No? Leaving me hanging…? Thanks…), learning that you're serious about writing instruction this year even though they'd rather not, and then along comes Captain Behavior Issues, completely upsetting the balance of your day, telling you he is having none of what you're giving, and basically causing you to question why you checked the box for Education/Special Education on your college admissions application.

You checked the box because this kid MAKES YOUR HEART LEAP! It's one reason you do what you do. He's perfectly imperfect, a crazy-big challenge, a deliciously defiant opportunity to put to work all the things you have learned in your student teaching experiences, your course work, and in your early work as an Educator. In short, this kid is going to make you grow as much as you are going to help him to grow.

Oh, there will be long days ahead, my friend…I would never lie to you or shield this bitter truth, but here are some practical ideas for setting things straight as soon as he enters your classroom:

  • Consider meeting with the Special Education Director and your building administrator to discuss the student, their IEP, and identified/observed behaviors noted to-date. Create a support plan in case things run amok while you're working on teaching new behavior strategies.
  • Connect with the family. If they're open to discussion (reality check: some families leave it all to you while other families are right there with you, then there are all those families who reside somewhere between the two), ask them to give you their observations, what works, ask what their child is great at, what their child enjoys, what may trigger behaviors, what strategies are used at home to redirect behaviors.
  • Get into the IEP and see what's going on. Are there identified Adaptive Behavior Goals already written?
  • If you have a paraprofessional and/or a classroom aid, sit down with them and apprise them of how things will roll to best meet the needs of the child. Inform them of how you want information to be given to you for you to document. I keep a daily behavior log in a Word.doc. While it can be a pain to take daily notes, it has also saved my bacon over the years. Kids are not always forthcoming with information when things happen, but if you keep concise, clear, objective notes which document the events, you will have a good reminder right at your fingertips. For example, "During Reading, Johnny was on the floor, kicking the table. When told to change his behavior and return to the chair or stand beside the table during instruction, he opted to stand. Instruction carried on." It is easy for teachers to want to say things like, "Johnny was kicking my table while I was trying to teach and it really hurt my feelings because I thought we had a better rapport than that. If he doesn't stop doing that, it's going to …" See the difference?
  • Set high expectations for behavior in your classroom, but consider the needs which are part of the child's disability. Do they fare better when they're standing? Then let them stand. Do they need to wear headphones or wear a weighted blanket? Do they need a fidget in their non-writing hand to squirsh around while they're working?
  • Create a happy classroom. For reals. Not just pretty stuff decorating your walls or a Pinterest-gone-right center of activity, but a TRUE place of joy. YOU are happy and your kids know that YOU love THEM. If you have that, they could give a rip about your silver buckets with black tags and chalk writing on them. Kids just want to be LOVED.
  • Routine! Routine! Routine!! The new student may not have come from a classroom with routine and quite possibly could be all discombobulated because of your routine. Help the newbie to understand that everything will be okay but that the expectation is they will participate in the routine happily and will come to understand it just like everyone else because you-and the class-will be there to support him/her in learning the routine.
  • Teach organization. I read somewhere that the condition of one's closet is the condition of their heart, so if their closet is cluttered and dirty, so, too, is their heart. True or not, I don't know, but what I DO know is that being organized makes EVERY kiddo feel a lot better about their day, but organization is not an innate skill for the majority of kids, and so if you spend time front-loading this skill and teaching it as part of your procedures (Hello, Harry Wong!), then you're giving the child a wonderful gift.
  • Don't argue. You're the adult. Remind the child that you value what they have to say, but remember this phrase: "I love you and respect you very much and would hope you feel the same about me, but if you do or don't, I need you to understand that the expectation is that you will be kind to the students in our classroom. Kicking people is not kind. That behavior is unacceptable." It doesn't require a raised voice. I really can honestly say that it has been many years since I've raised my voice in anger at school-and that time was when a parent was being abusive to a student in the hallway. Yes, I raise my voice when my kids are getting ready to do something unsafe. No, I do not engage in yelling at my kids because they're off-track behaviorally. That makes it much, much worse and in my opinion, gets no one anywhere.
  • Remember that kids with disabilities often do not have the skills sets to segregate out the "whys" of why they do what they do. We know that some kids don't or can't neurologically process things quickly enough to stop themselves from responding or reacting in particular ways.
  • Keeping in mind, you're a Special Education Teacher. Our kids do life a bit differently than neurotypical kids. Kids on the spectrum see life from a very concrete point of view. No, it's not socially acceptable to say, "Johnny's fat," while Johnny is crying because someone called him a name. However, to the child on the Spectrum, they're just sharing what they observe. Teaching social skills is a huge part of teaching kids on the Spectrum. Teaching the other children in class to understand that their peer "calls it like they see it" can be a sticky wicket, but in my experience, eventually they will receive it with grace.
  • Keep your students engaged. For FOREVER, I have told new teachers that the key to great behavior management is a well-planned day. If you leave too much down-time or think the kids need free time, you're fooling yourself. Kids LOVE to be engaged while they're at school. KEEP them engaged-it's why they are at SCHOOL-to LEARN!!
  • You are the teacher. This classroom was entrusted to you. If something goes wrong, it's YOUR license on the line. The parents call YOU to compliment or complain. Administration holds YOU responsible for many things…so why aren't you taking charge in your classroom? Why are you being mousy? You know how kids say, "You're not the boss of me?" Well, yeah. You are. Be kind, Be firm, Be loving. Be direct. Be gracious. Be great at teaching. Be flexible. Be a great team member. But in your classroom, be the BOSS. Kids look to you for leadership…
  • When a new student enters your doors, assign a buddy to help ease them into the way things are done, to show them how to do things, to each lunch with them, to play on the playground with them. Everyone needs a friend to show them the ropes. Here's another Mary Morsel for you: everyone has a first day at something-a new school, a new job, driving, riding a bike, whatever. Don't worry about, just dive in. I know. I really am good at sharing wisdom. I'm humble, too.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever be afraid to ask a colleague for suggestions, wisdom, guidance or support. With that said, I have, over the years, worked in scenarios where the sheer act of asking for coaching would have been viewed differently than one might hope. If you feel that is the case for you, PLEASE email me or reach out on social media. I'm always happy to offer suggestions. My advice is free so take it for what its worth.

You have entered a field chock full o'pressure but you have also entered a field rich with non-paycheck-driven rewards. You'd better love kids. You'd better love paperwork. You'd better love helping to guide a child from a place of frustration and being ticked off at life to a place of faring well in school. You'd better be able to hear sad stories about students' lives in the office then walk back into your classroom with a smile on your face, no evidence of tears running down your cheeks, ready to dig right back in as if nothing is wrong.

You'd better be ready to love watching kids enter your room with a negative attitude and leaving-after some dedicated hard work and effort on the part of many-with a happy heart and love for you and for school.

The new students will come at times which may feel inconvenient, and we know that it's not their fault and probably not even their choice to enter an already-established class. But you will make the transition seamless and happy, working to help them meet their IEP goals, grow, and succeed throughout the course of the school year.


Mary McLaughlin