George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Can You Sub For Me Tomorrow? Substitute Teaching with Students with Special Education Needs

July 5, 2016

Being a substitute can be a challenging job, even for the most experienced sub. When you are asked to sub in a classroom that has children with special education needs, whether it’s an inclusion class or a self-contained class, it can be even more challenging.  If you know the teacher for whom you are subbing and can have a conversation with him or her about the complexities and nuances of the class, you will have a better idea of what to expect. Many times, however, that is not possible. Many subs learn where they will be as they walk in the door.

When you find yourself as a sub for either the general education teacher who has kids with special education needs, the special education teacher who is in six different classrooms throughout the day, or in a self-contained classroom for kids with more severe disabilities, here are some suggestions for making your day go more smoothly.

General education substitute in an inclusion classroom

This is the most common type of substituting: covering one teacher’s class for the entire day.  Expect that you will have students with a wide variety of educational and social needs, including those with and without diagnosed disabilities.

  • Do not expect much in terms of being told who has a disability and who does not. If you spend a lot of time in a school or with one particular teacher, you will figure out very quickly who has additional needs and who does not.
  • Be prepared for special education support staff to come into the classroom and either stay to support students or take one or more students out for instruction. This happens regularly and the students typically expect to leave as scheduled.
  • Sometimes students are taken out to be tested by the special education teacher, speech/language pathologist or school psychologist. If they ask to take a student whom you were not expecting to leave, that’s fine. Make a note in the sub plans for the teacher to know that a student will have missed a portion of instruction unexpectedly.

General education substitute for IEP meeting days

These substitutes cover for the classroom teacher when he or she is expected at an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting for one of their students. They typically cover for many teachers throughout the days as they rotate in and out of meetings.

  • Be prepared to follow a schedule in 20-40 minute increments as you replace teachers throughout the day. But, also be prepared for them to get behind schedule. Do not leave the classroom until the teacher relieves you, even if it is past time for the next meeting.
  • Consider having a tote bag with a variety of age/grade level activities for that time when the teacher was supposed to be back but the meeting ran late and you ran out of work.

Special education substitute in general education/inclusion classroom

Special education teachers often support instruction inside the general education (inclusion) classroom; they work with small groups and/or individual students inside and outside of the classroom.

  • Expect to be in many places throughout the day and working in many different settings.  Be flexible!
  • Expect to be responsible for collateral duties such as lunch/recess duty, bus duty, emergency drill duty, etc. Look for something posted in the room or in your sub plans that explain the procedures for extra duties.
  • Be prepared to work with multiple teachers, in multiple subject areas and across multiple grade levels.
  • Take some time to familiarize yourself with the school layout so you don’t get lost as you race through the building on a tight schedule. If a school map is not included in the sub plans, ask in the main office for one.
  • You may be expected to implement a structured intervention plan in reading or math. If there is a teacher’s guide left in your materials, be sure to familiarize yourself with it before you meet the students. Don’t expect to be able to fake it just because it looks scripted!

Special education sub in a self-contained/special education classroom

These classrooms are specifically designed for children with more severe disabilities. There typically will be fewer students and more adults.

  • There may be a paraeducator/assistant there to support you. Some teachers prefer that the paraeducator take over the main teacher role due to their familiarity with the students, routine and content. Others will expect you to take the lead, leaving the paraeducator in their typical role. In any case, use the paraeductor’s knowledge and experience to your advantage with regards to the flow of the day.
  • Many (most) children in a self-contained setting will have various combinations of cognitive, learning, behavior, attention, self-care and/or communication needs, in varying levels of severity and combinations. You may find yourself providing support and assistance to children that you think is beyond their age (assisting with toileting, shoe tying, helping with coats and clothing, etc.).  Be prepared to assist as appropriate.
  • When working with students who have significant physical needs, remember that their cognitive and receptive abilities may be considerably better than their expressive communication and/or their motor skills, and they may appear to have lower cognitive functioning than they really do. Remember to speak to them at the appropriate age level unless you are told otherwise (don’t talk “down” to them).
  • Depending on the level of severity of student needs, there may be multiple adults in the room with different jobs, including the speech therapist, the occupational therapist, the physical therapist and others. Be prepared to work as a team with these providers, or, be prepared for them to want to do their “own thing” and work independently with their student(s).

Being a substitute can be a great way for learning about different types of instructional settings and for the opportunity to work with students with a variety of needs. Being prepared and considering those settings and needs can help the substitute provide the best experience possible, not only for the students, but also for themselves.

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