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Substitutes and Diverse Learners: How to Prepare

Katherine Koch

Special Educator, Parent, Advocate
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Teachers cannot avoid bringing in a substitute teacher. It's the rare teacher who can get through a career without needing someone to cover his or her classroom due to illness, emergencies, IEP meetings, or professional development. Preparing for a substitute can be difficult, and many teachers (myself included) would rather come to school ill than write sub plans. But sometimes it's unavoidable. While most districts are doing a better job at preparing their substitutes for the classroom, serving students with special needs remains a challenge.

Of course, you should leave detailed sub plans that include the schedule for the day and all materials needed for instruction, but writing sub plans when you're feeling miserable is never fun. Considering the variables before you have to write one of these will make it easier when you've succumbed to the latest plague to hit your building. During my years as a special educator, I worked with many teachers who were unsure about how to address their students with special needs in these plans, and with just as many substitutes who had no idea how to meet those students' needs.

Here are some sub plan suggestions if you are a classroom teacher with special education students.

Academic and Behavioral Help

When you're leaving plans, be as explicit as possible for the sub about who will need additional academic or behavioral help. Although you can't list confidential information, you can certainly note who needs a closer eye. You can also note which students are particularly helpful so that your sub can ask them for clarification. Be sure to identify who leaves for intervention groups or therapies and who will be picking them up. Subs can be anxious about letting children out of the classroom, and they need to know who goes where. (This is especially important when Max insists that, yes, he is absolutely supposed to go to speech therapy.)

If you have a student with a behavior plan, don't forget the instructions about how it works. Students who need behavior plans can be very unhappy and increase their negative behavior if events deviate from their expectations. I've seen many situations go south quickly because the sub didn't know how the behavior book worked.

If you have a student who has been so disruptive that your class has been evacuated, be sure to leave the evacuation plan easily accessible. And similarly, if you have a student who may leave (or actually bolt from) the classroom, be sure to note that possibility and outline the procedure to follow.

Finally, if you're going to IEP meetings and have arranged for a short-time sub, be prepared for the meetings to start behind schedule or run longer than expected, and plan accordingly. It's important to remind the sub not to leave when the schedule tells him or her to report to the next classroom, but to wait for your return. This will prevent your class from being left unattended. And, yes, this happened in my building once!

Collateral Duties and Classroom Help

If you are a special educator and need a sub, it's a completely different game. I found that many subs were baffled by my inconsistent and complex schedule, so be sure to leave very detailed plans. While you 'e used to changing locations every 30 minutes, this may be unfamiliar for the sub. Consider leaving a map of the school, highlighting and labeling the rooms where your students can be found, and including the teachers' names.

Don’t forget to note collateral duties (bus, lunch, recess, etc.), when and where the sub has to report, and who can answer his or her questions. Likewise, if you have duties that are only performed during an emergency or drill (fire, weather, intruder, etc.), don't forget to leave those instructions as well.

If you are a special education teacher in self-contained setting, share as much student information as you can with your sub, especially if this is the first time that he or she has subbed for you or in a self-contained classroom. If you have a regular paraeducator, that person can be an enormous help to your sub, but be clear about your expectations. Decide if you want him or her to take the lead teacher role or remain in the paraeducator role -- and make sure that you've discussed this prior to your absence.

Routines and Exceptions

Leave all special behavior plans, making sure they are clearly explained. Be particularly careful to note how the sub should avoid exacerbating certain behaviors. For example, if a student is unable to be touched or has other sensory issues, the sub should know this.

Note any significant student medical concerns like allergies, seizures, or high risk of falling, and have emergency medical plans accessible. If there are evacuation plans for students with mobility or sensory issues, be sure that the sub's responsibilities and expectations are clear.

Don't forget to include details about daily routines, such as arrival in the morning, lunch, bathroom breaks, snacks, transition, and dismissal. These details may be so familiar that you do them without thinking, but they are unfamiliar to the sub.

As teachers, we're protective of our students, especially those who need so much more of our help and protection. It can be hard to leave our kids in the care of somebody we may not know, but being prepared can help limit the potential problems and increase instructional time.

What suggestions do you have about effective sub plans that consider the needs of children who receive special education services? Share them in the comments section below.

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CAKosmo's picture

I sub every Friday at the school I retired from in June. The biggest advantage I have is that I worked as the library and IT teacher there for 20 years. I know the kids, the building, the culture, the routines. Unfortunately, I am in a unique position. For most subs this is not the case. It's a tough job coming in cold and trying to execute a productive day for all students. Hopefully, the detailed instructions you suggest will work, and I would suggest sitting down and creating these instructions when you are not sick. Then you can just fill in the academic piece for that day. I agree that I would rather come in and teach if possible because leaving plans is so much work.

Katherine Koch's picture
Katherine Koch
Special Educator, Parent, Advocate

I agree with the advanced planning. I created a sub plan template that I updated every month or so as my schedule changed so frequently. I also had a folder with the stuff that didn't change (lunch duty guidance, school map, etc.). It made it much easier then to just add the academic parts.

Elean P's picture

I enjoyed your article so much, because I have been subbing since the beginning of the school year and found myself in classrooms where some teachers abbreviated some parts of the lesson plan and other teachers across the hall couldn't explain it. I often wondered if it would help to have a sub template that could be updated, so its great to know you think the same way too.

Elean P's picture

It would also help to include a "heads up" on the sign up website (Aesop) for example, for the sub. Substitutes feel more prepared when they have an idea what situation they're walking into. Some teachers leave notes such as where to find the notes, or the name of a teacher the sub can contact for help, on the website. In a situation where there are students with behavior plans, the teacher can leave a note as to the number of students in the class with behavior plans etc.

Katherine Koch's picture
Katherine Koch
Special Educator, Parent, Advocate

Thank you for your comments! I'm glad you found the article helpful. Good luck with your subbing!

Jessica Sell's picture

This was a great post; I found this to be very informative. I realize that I need to provide more detailed plans on specific student behavior to provide the substitute with as much information on my students as possible. Since I teach in a self-contained environment I do have paraprofessionals in my classroom at all times. So on the rare occasions that I am out of the building there is always consistency with the adult support in the classroom that knows the classroom routine and the students. A struggle that I find is that when a substitute is in they do not provide them with enough support, as I would want them to. In the past, I have heard my paraprofessionals say that they are getting paid to be the teacher so they should do what I do. I understand their point but at the same time, it is frustrating because I expect since they know my students they will be able to control the environment like they do on days when I am in the classroom. Instead, when I return to school the following day I have notes from the substitute about my students behavior being off and the paraprofessional not being helpful. Does anyone have any suggestions I could use to make days when I am out of the building easier?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Jessica, I think you are correct, providing more information for the sub can help- just make sure you are somewhat concise with at least the most important parts of the behavior expectations and plan. I even name a handful of students in my lesson plans with short 1-2 sentence bits about how to best deal with them in particular. Just leaving these specific notes about the 3-6 student can change the day. When it comes to the paraprofessionals it is sad they don't see the end goal of helping children learn for the entire school year, not just when your there. I'm sure it makes you feel like you can't be absent very often. Perhaps you could pass along those substitute notes to our administrator. Depending on the political scene in your school the admin. could either address it directly, or at the very least make more appearances in your room those days you have to be absent. Another thought- if you find a substitute you have actually had success with in the past, can you try and assign that person to your absences when they are available? Good Luck

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