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Helping Special Needs Teachers and Parents Find the Answers They Seek

Updated: Apr 7

By Karen Kaplan, MS

Do you know the old phrase, “As one door closes, another one opens?” Yes, when one solution does not resolve the challenge, do not keep trying to unlock that door or find a way through. Instead, try to understand the situation better and find another door.

I constantly see the same questions on the Facebook pages of teachers and parents:

  1. What do I do when a child refuses to do the task?

  2. What do I do when a child keeps leaving the room?

  3. How do I teach a child to remember their personal contact information?

  4. Should teachers tell parents they are going to be absent?

  5. What can I do about stims?

  6. I am unsure how to prepare or engage in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting.

  7. When should I use individual visual schedules?

  8. What can I do when a child slams their chair and might flip it over?

  9. How can I prepare students or my child for fire drills?

  10. How do I help a child who loses a family member during the school year?

  11. Should I use floor cushions for students to sit on?

  12. Can three- or four-year-olds learn to color, and how?

  13. What can I do for indoor recess on a rainy day?

  14. How do I stop someone from biting or scratching when they do not want to do something?

The questions continue, and I wonder how we are letting these teachers down by not helping them as they earnestly obtain their teaching credentials. I wonder what kind of practicums they are receiving. Who is teaching them to set up their classrooms? Who is teaching them how to deliver the curriculum and how to engage students? Who teaches them to find the first way and then another door when resolving a behavior challenge?

It seems they use group Facebook pages as a resource since their current resources are not helping them. Why aren’t they getting help at their school sites? Is there not a mentoring team available? Are they not supported by a supervisor or team of therapists?

I wonder how we can be letting parents down by not making sure they have the knowledge and training they need to support a child with special needs. Why are people afraid to ask for help? Why do doctors and therapists avoid offering ideas and resources?

Well, here are some tips. I would share these tips with teachers or parents to help them find another way when something does not work.

  1. When someone refuses to do a task, it is either not understood, not interesting, they do not know where or how to start, it is too long, they are tired, ill, or confused, or they lack the skill needed to complete it.

  2. Why would an individual keep wanting to escape? Perhaps they cannot tell you they are tired, hungry, need to use the bathroom, are anxious, or don’t know how to stay seated or participate in a group. What skills are they lacking to keep focused? What communication system is not in place to help them ask for help, tell someone they are hurt, need something, or do not understand what is being asked of them?

  3. There are several ways to teach personal contact information.  You can have them hear the information, memorize it, and repeat it several times. You can have them write it out, read it, type it on the computer, or type it into their phone. You could put it on sandpaper, and they might trace it, understanding through tactile or touch. You could have them finger-paint it or make letters and numbers with playdough. You could have them speak it on the phone. You might just have them keep a card in their purse or wallet with that information on it. You could have the information sewn into clothing items (jacket, pants, shirt collar). Do not just try one way, one door. Try many.

  4. Stimming could have several purposes (releasing anxiety, calming oneself, organizing, or centering). We need to observe it. When does it occur? What is occurring? How long? When does it not happen? How would you address fear, anxiety, concern, frustration, and confusion? Some recommend making sure sleep is adequate. Some would ensure exercise or movement like walking or dancing was added daily. Is an effective communication system in place for them to ask for help, express their needs, or express their feelings? The speech therapist or assistive technology specialist needs to be involved. Are there any medical issues the person is facing? Address those. Has an occupational therapist assessed sensory needs and developed a sensory diet? Lastly, ask yourself, is there a need to stop the stim? Is it hurting anyone? Or could it be worked into a more acceptable regulation action (wearing a wristband to pull on, keeping a fidget close by, or chewing on something appropriate)?

  5. Every parent, including the teacher, must be ready to participate in the individual education meeting. Everyone needs to be aware of strengths as well as learning differences. Everyone needs to be mindful of the progress towards goals. Make sure you read all of them and are prepared to know why any are not met and what will change to achieve progress. The entire team needs to stay focused on the individual. Perhaps a picture of the individual could be at the meeting. Teachers bring samples of the individual’s work. Be ready to identify what is working, the successes, and how the learning differences will be supported. Parents, you should visit the classroom and therapy sessions before the IEP meeting. Teachers, hopefully, you are communicating with parents regularly so there is less fear of connecting at the IEP meeting.

  6. Why would teachers be afraid to tell their parents they will be out for a few days? You have planned appropriate lessons, right? A suitable substitute is being hired, right? You have left tips about challenging students, right? You are entitled to the days off, right? I would think the parents would appreciate knowing you will be out. They could prepare their child for a change. You could even prepare your students. Let them know that you will be out for two days ahead of time. Show them what they look like. Let them know the schedule for the next two days. Prepare them.

  7. Slamming or knocking things over could be the physical action of frustration, confusion, or fear. Once again, take a closer look at the how and why. Was the task too complex or too confusing? What skill or skills could be lacking that caused the anger or frustration? Do they have an effective communication system to let their feelings be known or, more importantly, their needs? You might acknowledge a feeling you think they are having (I see that you are angry, I think you are not feeling well, I see you are confused), then ask how you can help them. You could offer a short break. You could re-direct them into something more preferred and then find out what caused the anger or frustration. There are several doors to open. 

  8. Just know that many individuals are not auditorily strong—their visual system may be much stronger. Visuals help organize and structure. Visuals let the individual know what will happen, what has happened, and what is happening. Many with autism have executive functioning challenges and do not always problem-solve well or organize well. Why not always use visuals, no matter what? Why not teach through multi-modalities? Think of pictures (real or icons), words, objects on your schedules, or whatever cognitive level your individual is at.

  9. Fire drills. Use a Social Story Home - Carol Gray - Social Stories ( with pictures and words to prime them for what a fire drill is, why it happens, and how everyone will be responding. Then, practice all the steps. Maybe download the sounds of a fire alarm going off so they can prepare themselves. Perhaps parents could send earphones to wear when one occurs to lessen auditory overstimulation. Ear plugs could be kept on desks for use. 

  10. When someone loses a family member, checking in with the family is good. How much contact did the individual have with the member who is now gone? What did they use to do with that person? What were their happy memories? What does the family believe? Has the individual gone to heaven? Is that their belief? Are they comfortable letting the individual know this is where their family went? Then, use the Social Story Home - Carol Gray - Social Stories ( method and tell the story of their good times with the lost person. Use pictures if they exist.  Tell them they have gone to heaven but will always have the story or book of photos to remember the good times.

  11. Sitting on the floor is not always for everyone, especially those with a low tone. But I suggest using various sitting options (ball chair, pillows, rocking chair, thick carpet square, regular chair). Why do they sit on the floor if it does not keep them engaged? Be flexible. Keep more doors open.

  12. Coloring. I always say, why wait? Some kids do not show developmental milestones. Coloring can start with big, thick crayons or chalk on the wall, floor, or paper. Coloring within the lines can be supported with sandpaper. Use thick sandpaper within the outline to show the end of the outline, then use thinner and thinner sandpaper. Pencil grips can be helpful with slimmer crayons or colored pencils. Slant boards help with positioning when coloring. Use natural objects they like on the paper to color. Motivation might be there. Do hand exercises before coloring. Some use playdough and have kids press each finger in the playdough to increase finger awareness.

  13. The weather limits outdoor time, so what can you do? Buy indoor games. Have a dance party. This is the time for art. This is a time for music. Read a story. Watch a positive film. Teach card games. Play twister. At home, make some cookies. At school, head to the library. How about chair yoga? Get out the Legos, blocks, or other building supplies and encourage everyone to build something. Set up a treasure hunt at school or home. Get out the puzzles.

  14. Scratching and biting are, again, physical ways of communicating. First, create structure and predictability.  Use visual schedules to show what will happen all day long. Connect with parents about medical issues, eating, and sleep. Does this person have an effective way to communicate their needs and feelings and a way to ask for help? Have the occupational therapist (OT) develop a sensory diet. Look at the skills that are lacking to engage in activities. What is causing the frustrations?

For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.

Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech pathology and audiology at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. She minored in special education and obtained her speech therapist and special education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges.


Karen founded a non-profit, Offerings, which helps cultures globally to understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an annual Autism Awesomeness event. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. Karen has authored three books: Reach Me Teach Me: A Public School Program for the Autistic Child; A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators, On the Yellow Brick Road: My Search for Home and Hope for the Child with Autism, and Typewriting to Heaven… and Back: Conversations with My Dad on Death, Afterlife and Living  (which is not about autism but about having meaningful conversations with those we love).


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