Big Things

When I accepted the job as a self-contained DD teacher three years ago, a dear friend of mine explained that this job was going to be about the “big things”.  I did not understand what she meant at first and I asked her to elaborate. She told me that I would be spending my time with the students focused on things that will have a direct impact on their ability to be happy, healthy and contributing members of society. Your impact will go beyond the walls of the school and even the walls of their homes. The lessons you teach them will be “bigger” than any math or social studies lessons you have ever taught in your career.

Three years have passed, and I can say with absolute certainty that my dear friend was right. These past three years have been all about the “big things”.  As I come to the end of my time with the best class a teacher could ever ask for, here are the “big” lessons that we have learned over the past three years.


  1. Sometimes things are not going to be about you. For many of my students, they have had a lot of attention as a child in school and at home because of their unique learning profile. It has been important for them to think about others in their class, family, and community and how they can contribute meaningfully to all three places.
  2. A healthy body contributes to a happy outlook on life. Having a healthy body provides so many opportunities to participate in activities with families and friends such as riding a bike, playing sports, and going on a hike. It also provides students with a lot of independence in their life as they have the coordination and strength to do things like walk up the stairs and get up from a chair. It opens so many positive doors.
  3. A positive tone in your communication builds relationships. Some of my students have speech impairments and when I first met them, they would speak very harshly to me and others in the class. We have learned to take our time and speak kindly to others and it has opened the door to many new friendships.
  4. Losing is a part of life. “Good game” is our catchphrase in class that we say at the end of every game. It reminds us that no matter whether you win or lose, you are thankful for the time that you had with your friend or family member today.
  5. Independence in daily living gives us pride and confidence. Being able to do many daily living tasks such as ordering in a restaurant independently or selecting items for cooking really develops a sense of confidence and pride.
  6. Take Two! This is my most common catch phrase in class. I probably say it about 5 times every day and my students use it just as often. We use this phrase as a reminder to let the small mistakes role off of our back and to give it another try.
  7. Exceeding our own expectations is the best feeling in the world!


My students have learned a lot of big lessons over their time at middle school, but I also learned one very “big lesson” as an educator.

The energy that you bring into your learning space sets the tone for all who enter your class.

Working with kids with exceptionalities means working with a whole community of people to provide the best learning opportunities for the students. This may include, Educational Assistants, SERTs, Occupational Therapists, outside agencies etc… It is imperative, as the leader in the space, that you set the tone for everyone who enters. You will be amazed at how quickly people adapt to the positive environment and your students will have a more positive experience at school as a result.

Physical Health in students with Developmental Disabilities

If you have a student in your class this year with a Developmental Disability, I’d like to share some statistics today to help you make some decisions about their programming. Students with a DD have a different set of needs than the rest of the students that goes beyond academic programming.

Here are a few statistics taken from the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research:

Adolescents with autism and Down syndrome are two to three times more likely to be obese than adolescents in the general population.

Secondary health condition are higher in obese adolescents with IDD including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, depression, fatigue and low self esteem.

Obesity presents a higher incidence of health problems including decreased social and physical functioning, reduced quality of life, difficulty forming peer relationships and increased likelihood of depression.

Clearly some of our students with Developmental Disabilities are more vulnerable to becoming overweight or obese. Much of the time they have so many things working against them like a disability that has obesity as a symptom, greater medication uses or altered eating habits related to their disability. However, that does not mean that as educators we cannot support students and families to manage their fitness levels.

As educators, we can:

  • Have an excellent relationship with the family of the student. You will NEED their help to ensure the wellness of their child.
  • Ensure that parents know how to access community programs that offer activities that include physical fitness. In addition, help connect parents with community supports that offer funding for these programs. (During Covid, many of these programs are not running as the requirements for physical distancing can’t be maintained with makes the next two points really important)
  • Talk about and model physical activity often. When we meet online, we speak almost every day about activities that we are doing at home.
  • Most importantly, include physical activity into the daily routine of your class. The government of Canada recommends 60 minutes of physical activity every day. During a pandemic, that is tough but encourage your student(s) with a Developmental Disability to move during class. You need to get their heartrate up and a good sweat going on!
  • When you go back to school, prioritize physical fitness for these students. Walking, running, biking, stairs, games, dancing. Put it ahead of many other programming goals to help get these students get back to daily activity.

Anecdotally, when some of my students returned to school in September their physical fitness had dropped significantly. As mentioned above, organized sports for these students did NOT open back up during the summer and my athletic group of students who used to run circles around me struggled to move for 5 minutes at a time. From September to December, I added a segmet of the daily routine that focused only on physical fitness and by December they were back to being very active for an hour at a time.

For many of us beginning any kind of physical program can be tough and motivation can be VERY low. Make sure you have a solid reward program based on anything the student likes (that hopefully is not food). For some of my students it was stickers, for others it was hot wheel cars and my other student was obsessed with Baby Shark colouring pages. Find whatever works and reward them for movement. Start with a couple of minutes at a time and keep increasing from there.  As our students begin to return to learning at school, this is going to need to be a priority for these students to protect their long-term physical health as well as their mental health.

As Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod used to say “KEEP FIT AND HAVE FUN!”

A cartoon image of a bald person holding a finger to their lips to signal "shhhhhh."


My students with Developmental Disabilities have taught me so many things in the past year and a half. They are absolutely an incredible group of kids that are some of the most resilient, funny and committed students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. They come to school every day pumped up for school and even in the midst of deep, and I mean deep, puberty they manage to hold their hormones in check in order for us to accomplish our goals for the day.

One of the best things my students have taught me is to listen more than speak. As teachers we give instructions all day long. We give instructions on where to line up, which book to read, when to take out instruments and if you are a kindergarten teacher you have probably reminded a student to take their hand out of their pants or nose at least once this week. Most of my students understand the same instructions that many other students understand. I can tell them to line up, get their lunch and many, many other typical school instructions. The difference is that many of the students in my class have some difficulty communicating. Some have stutters, others have mouths that are formed in a way that it is difficult for them to form words and others can’t handle multiple instructions in rapid succession. I realized that in order to hear what they are trying to communicate with me I would have to be quiet a lot of the time and really listen.

My students use a multitude of communication strategies throughout the day to communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings.

They use:

Visuals- Wow, what would we do without pictures in the classroom? I have understood preferred choices and questions about assigned tasks from the visuals that the students present to me. My newest student quietly reminds me that her time on her bike is coming up next by making sure I notice the picture on her schedule.

Technology- It is a really great time to be a teacher in many ways. There are so many amazing aps and devices that can support student’s learning. My students have told me all about their weekend, favourite items and requests for upcoming events in the classroom using technology.

Gestures/Facial Expressions- My students use a lot of pointing and gestures to communicate in my class. For me as the teacher, the most important time that I use gestures or facial expression is when my students are in distress and escalated. A neutral face and body accompanied by simple one- or two-word instructions are the most important tools in deescalated the stress of my students. When my student’s emotions are heightened, it is very important that I don’t stress them further by asking them to take in a lot of spoken language.

I am so thankful for my students and all that they have taught me.


Listening is an art that requires attention over talents, spirit over ego, others over self” -Dean Jackson



Alternative Curriculum Programming

I am very fortunate that I am the teacher in a contained class for students with developmental disabilities. Every day is a unique experience with lots of laughter and learning. As my students would be unable to complete the expectations in the Ontario Curriculum, they all follow an Alternative Curriculum. In order to provide a successful alternative program, it requires regular input from parents,  daily assessment data and a thorough understanding of the student’s profile (which can be found in the OSR).

Recently, I was asked what my students do all day as they follow an alternative curriculum. Below are the parts of my program. For students who are going to school in an inclusion model or a contained model you could adapt part or all the pieces of a similar program to meet the needs of your student(s).

Morning Meeting- First thing in the morning, we run a meeting on our interactive whiteboard for the entire class that includes review of the date, weather, months and seasons. It also works on communication, social skills and independence as my students run the meeting with little to no staff intervention.

Hygiene- In the bathroom, we take groups of students to work on brushing their teeth, washing their face and putting on deodorant. Some of my students are close to being fully independent and others need full support and are  working on tolerating the feeling of a toothbrush.

Snack time- This is a great social time for my students. Everyone has a chance to chat while they are eating which is great for those working on communication goals. Others are working on finding their lunch bags and bringing them to their tables.

Gross Motor- We use equipment ordered for us by the Occupational Therapist and the students do a circuit through a hallway at school. It gives them time to move and build their coordination. It also teaches them how to wait their turn, do tasks in a sequence and listen to instructions.

Activity Time- This is a block of time in the day for students to work on reading, writing, mathematics or fine motor skills independently or with teacher support. In my class, a few students complete independent work, while others work with a staff member on fine motor skills, another group of students work on reading and writing and the fourth group at the interactive whiteboard playing math games. The students rotate throughout the week.

Bathroom- Some of my students require support with toileting. They are supported to become as independent as their cognitive and physical abilities will allow. We also use this time to do teaching about things like changing pads for menstrual cycles.

Art- Creating art pieces gives us lots of time to work on cutting with scissors, holding pencils or markers or being comfortable touching unusual textures.

Lunch/Recess- Similar to snack time but with a 20 minute period outside with the rest of the school. Some of my students can play with other students quite successfully and others are supported to improve in this area.

Grade 8 Buddies- Our grade 8 buddies support us with playing games, completing art, cooking, playing basketball etc… My students absolutely love them! This activity supports students goals around communication and social skills.

Cooking/baking- Once a week we cook lunch. We take this time to work on food preparation and safety, tolerating new foods, cleaning and setting and clearing a table.

Coffee Cart- We run a business selling coffee and tea to the staff once a week. My students are fantastic at selling and are quite the entrepreneurs. This activity works on communication, following instructions, listening to others and completing simple tasks.

Music- My students have music every day. They enjoy playing with the musical instruments and are working on staying focused on a task for an extended period of time.

Life Skills- After lunch everyone has a job to do. They do the job for a full week to give them time to learn the skills necessary to do the job successfully. The jobs include watering the plants, doing the dishes, wiping the tables, tidying up, vacuuming and pushing in the chairs.

Afternoon Meeting- This time is spent focusing on skills we need to practice as a class such as distinguishing between milk and cream for our coffee cart. On Fridays, we do a wrap of the week where I share pictures and we reflect on all the awesome things we did.

Integration- Some of my students join other classes for gym. But ultimately, I am always on the lookout for school wide events that my students would enjoy such as staff/student dodgeball games or the Terry Fox Walk that we join in on.

Every portion of our day is focused on developing skills and learning. My students are incredibly capable and with the right supports and practice they can achieve the goals created in collaboration between school and home!

Examples of Alternative IEP Goals

Writing goals on an alternative IEP can be a daunting task for a teacher who has never done it before. That has been my experience this year as it is my first year teaching an amazing group of students with Developmental Disabilities.

I have written many modified IEPs over the course of my career. I am very comfortable increasing or decreasing the complexity and/or number of the Ontario Curriculum expectations. I know who to consult and what information I need to gather to make an informed decision about these types of goals for my students. However, writing Alternative Goals required a whole new set of skills this year.

Since Alternative expectations represent skills that are not represented in the Ontario curriculum it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin. For many students in Ontario, they will have Alternative expectations in addition to their modified expectations such as speech remediation or social skills. However, for some students their entire IEP will be Alternative.

So where do you begin?

If your students have been in school for a few years, the face place to find information is the OSR. In the Ontario Student Record, you can see what kind of services and goals have been recommended in the previous school years. You can also refer to previous IEPs to help get your started. If your OSRs arrived a messy blob of papers, take the time now to organize them. A friend of mine sat with me in September to walk me through organizing the hundreds of papers and it has saved my life. I am either filing or referring to an item in my OSRs at least once a week this year so they have to be organized.

The next place to turn is people. Consult with the families and Special Education colleagues. Families play an important role in helping set goals and can give you great ideas about IEP goals. For example, in December one of my parents contacted me and asked if we could work on fastening buttons during our fine motor skill development time as her son was starting to wear jeans to school and needed to learn the skill.

Finally, data collection will play an ongoing role in the creation and updating of goals throughout the year. I do assessments on my students consistently throughout the year. If you want some ideas about what to assess and how to assess things that are not curriculum based, I recommend using one of the two following resources.

The FISH (Functional Independence Skills Handbook)



The Carolina Curriculum (both the infant/toddler and preschooler resource)

Carolina Curriculum


They will help you gather the information you need.  Both are incredibly expensive to buy, so borrow them from your resource department or special education team.

Here are some examples of what your goals could look like. I am not an expert by any means but if you are like me, sometimes examples can be a really helpful place to get started.


_______ will attend to a self-selected activity without being distracted or losing interest for 10 minutes.

_______  will work on completing teacher directed tasks for 25 minutes.


_______ will count to 100 with 75% accuracy.

_______ will demonstrate one-to-one correspondence up to 10 between numbers and objects with 75% accuracy.

_______  will identify time that is personally relevant to her and use it to independently begin tasks.

Life Skills

_______ will wash her face and put the facecloth in the laundry bin daily after lunch.

_______ will use a visual guide to assist her with the steps necessary to establish routines regarding menstrual activities (e.g., bringing necessary items to school, changing pads, disposing of pads, washing hands)

_______ will brush her teeth and put on deodorant daily after lunch.

Personal and Social Development

______  will successfully participate in a turn taking game with a peer, 3 out of 5 opportunities

______  will orally express when someone is in her personal space.

______  will work on sharing the classroom materials with other students.


_______ will demonstrate a choice between two types of food for snack time by pointing to the item.

_______ will point to a picture when he wants to request a walk.

Learning about Menstruation for girls with Developmental Disabilities

A few weeks ago, I heard my student screaming in the bathroom. I mean really screaming. The bathroom is located right across the hall from our class and two of us bolted to the door to see what the problem was. 8,000,000 things went through my mind in the 4 seconds it took me to get to the door. Was she hurt? Did she cut herself? Had she broken her leg? We knocked frantically and went into the bathroom and breathed a deep sigh of relief. My student was having her first period. She was bawling and very upset because she did not understand what was happening to her. My student has a Developmental Disability that impairs her ability to process information so explaining this was normal was a very difficult thing for her to understand.

We got her cleaned up, assisted her with some materials and brought her back to class to relax. (My other students who also heard her screaming were freaked out and needed to see that she was okay)

I called mom to let her know what had happened and supported the student through the remainder of the day until it was time to go home. I explained to the student multiple times that it was part of growing up and that all women experience this but she still seemed incredibly confused by the whole thing.

I went home that night and decided it was time for my 5 girls to learn about their menstrual cycles. However, I have never tried to teach students with Developmental Delays about what happens during puberty. I thought about what I needed to do to explain this effectively.

The next day I spoke with the parents of the other four girls and told them that we would be speaking about this in class. I wanted to prepare them in case they came home and had questions. Some of my student’s ability to communicate is quite impaired so when they come home talking about blood with no context there could be some confusion.

I also prepared visuals for us to use in class and visuals with a dialogue for home. It is really helpful for my students to hear things repetitively so having the same message at home and school is very helpful. I used visuals from Boardmaker online. Here is what an example of that looked like:


I made a time in our schedule over the next 6 weeks for the girls and boys to do a separate activity. The girls stayed in the classroom and the boys went for a walk. During that time, I used visuals to explain when a woman grows up, she gets a period. I explained what a period was to my girls using the most basic language and pictures I could think of. It has taken some time but my girls are starting to understand. For my group, I have had to reassure them consistently that it is healthy. The word healthy was something that they all understood. They knew if you ate vegetables it was good for your body and it made you healthy. It is a word that obviously resonated and made sense for them. After using that word, they all stopped looking so horrified about the concept of becoming a woman.

Privacy has also been a real challenge for some of my students. The day after our first big talk, my student walked into school and was so excited to tell me that she explained everything to her mom and dad last night about periods. She said it so loudly that an entire class of grade eight students next door to us heard it and burst out laughing. My other student walked in and loudly asked my other student “how’s your period going?”. My girls have had to be reminded multiple times that periods are private and not something we talk about in public.

Throughout the past few weeks, we have also purchased pads from the grocery store and practiced putting them on underwear correctly.

We will continue learning about puberty and menstruation until all of my girls develop the skills to manage their monthly cycle independently.


Shopping List For a New Class Designed for Students with Developmental Disabilities

Shopping, shopping, shopping! This week has been all about shopping. I was given the large task of ordering all the furniture/items for my brand-new classroom that will be providing a program for 10 amazing kids with developmental disabilities. As this was my first time setting up this kind of program, I visited multiple classrooms and reached out to many people for advice and suggestions. I also used my new students’ IEPs and transition meetings to guide my purchases, which is a mandatory part of the process. For those of you out there trying to make decisions without my amazing network of colleagues to rely on, below is the list of items that I purchased this week for the upcoming school year:

List of things to buy for new DD class

  1. Printer with colour ink
  2. Laminator
  3. Velcro
  4. Microwave
  5. Fridge
  6. Plates
  7. Cups
  8. Cutlery
  9. 3-seater couch
  10. Bean bag chairs
  11. Glider rocking chair
  12. Carpet
  13. Independent work stations
  14. Shelf for books
  15. Trampoline/active movement in the school?
  16. Bikes
  17. Washer/dryer
  18. Tables
  19. Independent work station desk
  20. Sensory bins
  21. Peg board
  22. Chewlery
  23. Cause and effect toys
  24. Slant board
  25. Writing tool grips
  26. Triangular tools
  27. Multi-sensory materials
  28. Math manipulatives
  29. Calendar
  30. Bob books/Pattern books
  31. Reading A to Z
  32. Site word activities
  33. Number games
  34. Timers
  35. Alphabet books
  36. Playdough
  37. Picture books
  38. Matching activities
  39. Thera-putty
  40. Paint/art materials

This is by no means exhaustive and was designed to meet the needs of my particular students. Also, some of the items will come through referrals by Occupational Therapists and Speech and Language Therapists.  But if you were like me last week and had no idea where to start, hopefully, this will give you a staring point! Happy shopping.