Subbing in Special Education: How to Handle Any Situation

Swing EducationClassroom Management, Teaching Strategies9 Comments

Special education substitute teacher

This is the second blog in a three-part series on subbing in special education class. The first blog discussed strategies special education substitute teachers can use to prepare for the day. This piece explores different situations you may encounter as a special education substitute teacher, along with guidance on how to respond. The final blog will discuss what to do after the school day ends.

You’ve completed your preparation to succeed as a special education substitute teacher. You have all the materials ready to go, you’ve read the teacher’s notes, lesson plans, and IEPs, and you’ve communicated with other special educators in the building as well as the paraeducator/paraprofessional (if one is provided).

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Now what?  

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Once the school day starts and students arrive, first make sure to introduce yourself to the class, tell them a little bit about yourself, and share your goals and expectations. This will allow students to get to know you along with what is expected of them. At this point, you can move into the actual lesson.

A great way to teach a lesson (with the information provided from the teacher’s lesson plan) is to use a​ direct teachingapproach.

With this approach, you review with students what they learned the day before. Since you are subbing, you could ask, “What did you learn yesterday about _______?” Then, you could tell students what they will learn from the lesson, directly teach that concept by saying the steps out loud while modeling the skill/task, have them practice it with you, have them do it on their own, and then assess them. (It does not have to be an official assessment, but gives you an opportunity to see what they have learned.)

Of course, if the classroom teacher has instructed you to do something else (i.e. watch a movie, do an activity, etc.), you should always follow that direction.

What to Do When Things Don’t Go as Planned?

Although schools do their best to set special education substitute teachers up for success, there is a chance you will encounter some unexpected or challenging situations.

The chart below includes an overview of potential special education challenges as well as suggestions for how to respond.

Student refuses to complete task or follow directionsUse First/Then statements and a calm voice/tone when addressing students.

“First __________, then______.” Example: “First you complete the first five problems, then you can have some free time.”

The sub should make sure that the "then" part of the statement is something the student can actually do. It's best to refer to the student behavior plan because it usually gives sample statements.

If it does not exist, the "then" could be (all highly structured): games, stretch time, drawing a picture. Try to avoid the computer (unless noted in IEP).

If possible, walk away to let them think about it for a minute or so (if the student is not hurting themselves or others).

Continue repeating until the task or direction has been completed.
Student screams and/or says something inappropriate to peers and/or you"Manage your tell," meaning don't let your frustration show on your face or in your tone.

Continue to manage your tell and provide the verbal prompt, “Go to your desk.”
(If the student has a behavior plan, then they might go to a different area of the classroom. It may be a specific area of the room if stated in the behavior plan. It also should state what the student should be doing when they go to their special area.)

Once the student is to their desk or assigned area, let them cool off.

Talk to them face-to-face and say, “It looked like you were angry/upset/frustrated. Is this correct?”

If they say yes, then ask them what made them feel this way and help them problem solve.

If they yelled or said something negative to another peer, adult, or you in the classroom, then tell them that they need to apologize. If they are not ready to apologize (they may be embarrassed), give them the option to either apologize in several minutes and/or provide another way for the student to apologize (write a note, etc.)
Student throws or breaks a pencil, rips a piece of paper, throws a book, etc.Use the same strategy as you did for the screaming, yelling, and/or inappropriate language, but have the student go back and pick up the item that was thrown or broken.
Students do not seem that they are understanding the task or skill being taughtGo back to the section of direct teaching to model how to do the task or skill and then give them multiple opportunities to practice it with you.
Students are talking when you are talkingFor younger students,​ tell them to have eyes and ears on you. You can even develop a hand signal (at the beginning of class) to indicate that they need to have quiet mouths.

For older students​, stop what you are doing and wait until they stop talking. Then tell them that when one person is talking, everyone else listens. Explain that when two or more people are talking at the same time, it is hard to hear what is being said.
Two students are talking and constantly disrupting the classroomWalk over to the two students and stand near them while presenting the lesson to the class. The sub can also have the other students begin on the assignment while addressing the two students that were talking.

Separate them from one another. Speak with them in private about their behavior.
The student is shutting down (i.e. will not do anything, follow directions, becomes angry, etc.)Talk to the student about what happened, how the negative behavior(s) affect others, how they will make things better, and what they will do next time.
Student leaves the classroom (​runs out​), etc.Follow the behavior plan if the student has one, and contact the office as soon as possible.

Tell the student that they are wanted in the classroom, and give a verbal direction to come back.
Student is becoming self-injurious, throwing large items around the classroom (desks, chairs, etc.), or trying to physically hurt others in the classroomContact the office as soon as possible.

Get the rest of the students that are in the classroom out of the room and tell them to go to a neighboring class or the office.

Assign one student when they go to the new location to tell an adult that you need help.

If there is a paraeducator in the classroom (they are usually trained for this situation), tell them to assist if they are not already.

After everything has settled down, document everything that had happened and fill out necessary paperwork.

When subbing in a special education classroom, just as in any classroom, you never know what is going to happen. Think of the above information as something to put in your back pocket just in case you need to call upon it.

(Another helpful tip — do your best to be flexible, and communicate with the paraeducator frequently if one is assigned to your classroom.)

Stay tuned for part three of our series on succeeding as a special education substitute teacher!

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9 Comments on “Subbing in Special Education: How to Handle Any Situation”

  1. Some of the most vulnerable kids need the most grace. Having assurance from other teachers and the principal that you have support is helpful.

  2. I’ve used the technique of standing by talkative students while presenting the lesson to other students. It is usually effective. Sometimes I just stop talking and look at them. Often other students will effectively “shush” them.

  3. Directly stating the task followed by a “then” statement seems like a good way to motivate the child to accomplish the job in a positive manner.

  4. Be mindful of the antecedents! Also the physical space! This is a very helpful strategy.

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