How to prepare for a substitute teacher when a child has special needs
Written by Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler
“Today We Had a Substitute….”
Having a substitute teacher can be welcome news for some students. For those students, it can be a chance to try to break the rules and hopefully do less work. For other students—especially children with special needs—having a substitute teacher can be a source of uncertainly, anxiety, frustration, and fear. In addition, when having a substitute means that special needs kids miss out on receiving needed supports or accommodations, a substitute can mean a difficult day, missed opportunities for learning, and even getting in trouble.
It’s not easy to be a substitute teacher. Substitutes have the very difficult job of learning a new classroom routine, teaching new material, and interacting with unfamiliar students in a difficult and sometimes tense temporary situation. As the parent of a child with special needs, you can help the teacher and the class by helping the substitute communicate better with your child. How? Parents might consider whether any of the following steps would be useful for their child in light of his or her unique needs:
1) Meet with the regular teacher at the start of the school year to set up a “sub-plan.” (This can also be a great time to double-check that your child’s teacher has read your child’s IEP, by asking if he or she has any questions.) A sub-plan can consist of the teacher agreeing to leave a permanent note for any substitute about your special needs child. Parents can ask for advance notification of planned absences. Even if the teacher does not plan to be absent, she can leave a folder in the office with a note to be given to the sub, or on her desk clearly labeled. The note can advise the substitute of your child’s name, disability, how it manifests, accommodations the teacher must make, and any strategies that work or do not work. The parent can offer to prepare this note with the teacher. The teacher can leave a space for the substitute to date and initial that she has read the instructions.
For children who have behavior issues in particular, it is important that parents convey to teachers the expectation that substitutes will know of a child’s behavior triggers, and of any behavior intervention plan or strategies for managing challenging behaviors. Any safe persons or other resources for the child in cases of difficulties should be identified.
Ask for a written copy of your child’s sub-plan. Parents can also ask the teacher to include for the substitute the parent’s contact information in case any questions arise.
2) Prepare your child at the start of the school year for what will happen if there’s a sub. Especially for children who have difficulty with transitions, it may be helpful for them to know that classroom rules still apply when there’s a substitute. For students who have difficulty following social cues, it may also be helpful to explain that the substitute teacher is the teacher and the one who is in charge of the day. Some students may need you to tell them that they should follow the substitute’s directions, even if she or he does things a little differently than the regular teacher. Social stories and role-playing may help some students feel more prepared for the surprise of a substitute teacher.
3) For older students, parents can help their children by encouraging them to self-advocate. A child may need help. You know your child best. One mother places her son’s IEP accommodations on an index card. She gives her child this card to keep on his desk and he hands it to any substitute.
Older children can list their own accommodations. They may be able to explain to the substitute when they need to use required modifications and accommodations, such as extended time on assignments or tests.
Self-advocacy, while a crucial skill, takes time to develop. Do not be afraid to step in, especially for younger children, to advocate as a parent for the accommodations to which your child with special needs is entitled by law. These accommodations apply even when the regular teacher is out. They may be even more crucial, in order for the child with special needs to access his or her education on those days when a sub is in.
4) Follow up. Speak to your verbal children about how the day went when a substitute was in class for the day. You might start with the following questions: What went well? Did anyone get in trouble? How did the sub run the class differently? What could you do differently next time? Parents can problem-solve with their children, and develop strategies for the next time the teacher is out. Then, parents can speak to the teacher about any fears or difficulties the child experienced during a day when a substitute was present so that the teacher can revise any instructions she leaves for the next sub.
5) Embrace the possibility of having a substitute teacher. Speak to your child about having a substitute, not as a frightening event, but an exciting one. It can be a chance for your child to show someone new how well they know the rules, as well as a chance to meet a new teacher who might turn out to be a great fit for your child. Your attitude just might rub off on your child.