If I Knew Then What I Know Now

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5 Educator Tips for Serving the Needs of Children with Autism

By Jamie Pagliaro
I got my first job working with a child on the autism spectrum back in 1995 when I was a sophomore in college (most people had not even heard of autism then). So according to my math, this marks my 20th year “in the field.”

Over the past two decades, I have been privileged to work as a home-based ABA therapist, paraprofessional in a public school, case manager in a behavior clinic, and program director at a residential school. I have also had opportunity to open the first public charter school for individuals with autism in New York City and co-found an educational technology company, which now impacts more than 10,000 individuals living with autism and related disabilities around the world.

Today in the United States, it is estimated that 1 in 68 kids has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I’ve put together a few simple pieces of advice that I would give to my “self” of 20 years ago. I hope that these tips might influence other special needs professionals – both veterans like myself as well as those just getting started.

1. Never assume you know what parents are going through.

I am now a parent of two typically developing children and can honestly say you just don’t “get it” unless you are one. When I think of how challenging and stressful parenting can sometimes be with typical kids, it gives me perspective to realize that I can never truly understand what it’s like to parent a child with autism or any other disability. As a professional, just remember: you always get to go home at the end of your workday… Parents do not have that luxury.

2. Keep it all in perspective and smile!

Being around kids with challenging behavior, parents who are dealing with a lot of stress, and co-workers who may be burned out can be overwhelming. Remember: you are a professional who chooses to be here. Your job is to empower those around you – the students you serve, their families, and your own colleagues. Your goal is to foster a positive environment for each of them. If you find you can no longer do this, it’s time to take a break, or possibly change jobs. Which leads to my next piece of advice…

3. Find your niche; there are many ways to have an impact.

Not everyone is meant to teach or work directly with kids all day long any more than they are meant to be an administrator, researcher, or policymaker. There are many different ways to impact the lives of individuals you care about at a micro and macro level. No single job is more important than another. Collectively we must keep teaching our kids, advocating for ways to fund services, pioneering new

research and innovative approaches, and leading schools and service organizations. When we all work together on these various needs, we succeed.

4. Never underestimate how challenging the future will be for the individuals you serve.

Life can be tough for all of us. Now imagine living it with a disability that may prevent you from communicating effectively, interacting with others, holding a job, living on your own, etc. Despite the incredible strides that have been made to raise awareness, our society still struggles to include individuals with disabilities in meaningful ways. Your empathy will go a long way toward helping them tackle these challenges.

5. Be an optimist, realist, and pessimist (when needed) all-in-one.

Sometimes you will be in a room with others who say “let’s be realistic,” “that’s not possible,” or even “he’s capable of more than we know.” These are all important perspectives to take when helping students with autism, their family members, and the professional teams who are making decisions that can have long-term implications on their lives. Don’t get caught always taking the same perspective, or forgetting to take on different perspectives when looking at the possibilities. Looking similar situations through different lenses will enable you to help your students in more meaningful ways.

In conclusion, take what you are doing seriously, because you are doing some of the most important work on earth. However, don’t take yourself too seriously! Make sure to keep having fun and be a source of humor and compassion for those around you.

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Inclusion: Making it Work

Story timeBy: Meredith Ouimette                                                           

What is inclusion?

According to the Council for Exceptional Children, “all children, youth, and young adults with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education and/or services that lead to an adult life characterized by satisfying relations with others, independent living, productive engagement in the community, and participation in society at large. To achieve such outcomes, there must exist for all children, youth, and young adults a rich variety of early intervention, education, and vocational program options and experiences.”

What are some strategies that work with effective inclusion programming?

With many schools that have district wide inclusion programming, the following have been strategies that have helped them make inclusion work!

  1. Collaboration, team work, and co-teaching with special education and general education teachers
  2. Use of evidence-based practices with all students in inclusion settings
  3. Strong leadership and administrative support at the school and district level
  4. Differentiated instruction for all students in classrooms
  5. Additional and ongoing teacher and paraprofessional support and professional development

In a classroom setting, Rethink can help teachers COLLABORATE and make inclusion successful!

  1. Determine what skills a student needs to be successful through Rethink’s Inclusion Assessment
  2. Determine what level of support is needed for success
  3. Select inclusion plans and videos for teachers and paraprofessionals to use when teaching students
  4. Provide support through teachers, paraprofessionals, and peers

lesson lin




Explore Rethink’s Inclusion Curriculum today!  Have other questions about effective strategies with inclusion programming? Leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

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Mind Your Ps and Qs: Teaching Social Skills to Reduce Challenging Behavior

Group of happy elementary friends togetherAbout this FREE Webinar

Challenging behavior in the classroom is one of the most highly discussed topics in public education. Teachers frequently report that disruptive behavior is their greatest concern and has a significant impact on their job satisfaction. This session will focus on what teachers do best – facilitate student learning and teach students new skills.  Direct instruction in social skills promotes skill development in pro-social behaviors and reduces challenging behavior. When students have social skills in their repertoire they don’t have to rely on challenging behavior.

Participants will leave the webinar with:
  • A better understanding of how social skill development can impact behavior
  • Specific teaching strategies to promote social skill development in their classrooms
  • Ideas for teaching social skills 1:1 and in groups

Tuesday, March 17th, 12pm EST  REGISTER

Tuesday, March 17th, 6pm EST  REGISTER


About Our Guest

Dr. Patricia Wright, is Rethink’s VP of Professional Services and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Prior to joining Rethink, she was the National Director for Autism Services at Easter Seals, one of the largest social service providers for individuals with autism. Dr. Wright has a passion for education and has dedicated her career to ensuring that individuals with disabilities are fully included in society.


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Spotlight Teacher of the Month: Shawn Briggs

5c6c5ff1-1149-43fd-b147-83e5bf7ca0ceSchool District: Norfolk Public Schools, Norfolk, VA
Classroom: Maury High School, Autism Inclusion Program
Position: Special Education Teacher

When Shawn Briggs started using Rethink in her classroom 2 years ago, many of her students required individualized lessons in the areas of group participation, peer interactions, and communication skills. She has found Rethink to be a great resource in helping her students become more independent in the general education classroom. Not only has Rethink given Shawn tons of great resources, but it has also led to improved student outcomes.

Shawn has used Rethink to move her students into LRE. Rethink’s Inclusion Curriculum has helped many of her student’s transition from participating for small periods of time in regular education classrooms with significant amounts of support to independent participation for large portions of their days in regular education classrooms. In addition, the specific lessons in Rethink have helped her students become more independent, and taught them how to self-advocate, converse with peers and teachers without assistance, and participate more fully.


“From assessment of skills to creating customized goals and lessons that can be applied to high school students, Rethink has so many benefits!”

1041Shawn has witnessed Rethink’s benefit to students first-hand. One of her students last year had limited social-communication skills, was not able to approach other peers or adults with his conversation skills, and needed to increase his self-confidence in social situations.  Shawn used the Joining an Ongoing Conversation, Raising Hand to Answer Questions, and Having a Conversation lessons from Rethink’s Abilities and Inclusion Curriculum with this student.  With the use of the lessons and videos, repetition, and practice, he is now successful with joining an ongoing conversation and his communication skills have increased significantly.  Currently, this student is now pairing with other peers that need help with academics and social-communication skills, and modeling how to self-advocate.

Keep up the great work, Shawn!

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What’s the Big Deal About Data?


by Angela Pagliaro

Well, he’s super helpful to Captain Picard and maintains his composure when under Klingon attack! Wait, not that kind of data??!!

Students in Special Education have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) to support their learning needs. IEPs can include both academic and functional annual goals to help students progress in the least restrictive setting. One of the requirements is that these goals be measurable. Teachers need to write goals that can be measured in an objective way. Data on IEP goals must be collected to concretely demonstrate progress.For some great information on how to measure IEP goals with user-friendly examples, click here!

Data is never a problem until it’s a PROBLEM! When data are not collected, not only is there a lack of evidence of students’ progress toward achieving their IEP goals, but evidence of the work done to help them progress also remains undocumented.

So, now that we have established the importance of collecting data to show measurable progress on IEP goals, how can this best be accomplished, especially with all of the challenges educators face?

Here are some common of the concerns I hear from teachers when it comes to collecting data, with some practical solution-oriented tips:

  • How can I show progress for goals that take students a long time to learn?

    • Try breaking down the student’s annual goal into smaller objectives throughout the year. For each objective, break skills into even smaller teachable parts using specific teaching targets. For example, if you have a student that is supposed to answer comprehension questions about a lesson but can’t yet answer a simple question, you can try breaking the goal down into simple targets, for instance, you might start with the target, “student answers ‘who’ questions about a simple sentence.”
  • How can I show individual student progress when working in a group instructional setting?

    • Try teaching the group lesson, but taking data on individual student learning needs. For example, if you are teaching a math lesson, one student might be adding two digit numbers but another might only be working on recognizing numbers. You can use Rethink’s new small and large group data sheets to support taking data in a group.
    • You can also take group data during times when data is not often collected like circle time, lunch, recess, specials, etc. Important social data such as responding to peers, making play related comments, taking turns, etc. can be collected during these times. This data is important when parents or team members request to know what students are “learning “ during these times.Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 2.49.01 PM
  • What if my student is working on higher-level skills such as spelling words, math worksheets, etc.?

    • You can use your data sheets as a “gradebook” in which you record the scores of the student’s tests or permanent product work on a worksheet. This formative data is important because it allows you to show ongoing progress on these skills that can support more subjective coding like “making progress” when you come to the end of a grading period.

Have other questions about best-practices for data collection and/or practical tips for making data collection easy and efficient in the classroom? Leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

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Spotlight Teacher of the Month: Maria DiMatteo


School District: District 75, New York City
Classroom: Self-Contained Special Education Classroom
Position:  Special Education Teacher

In the fall of 2013, Maria DiMatteo was a part of a group of teachers selected to pilot Rethink at P352X, a group of five schools in the Bronx, NY for students with autism and other disabilities. She has found Rethink to be an invaluable tool, both enhancing her own instructional practice and helping to improve student outcomes.

“In my classroom it has been most valuable in terms of tracking data and seeing/showing a child’s progress,” Maria explained. “It has helped me to make adjustments in my approach to teaching.  When you are constantly looking at the data, and when a student’s progress has flat-lined, you really start to think about how to break a skill down into more teachable steps that a child can master, and then building on that.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 1.46.53 PM“Rethink is multifaceted … There is something for everyone working with a child who has autism.”

One of Maria’s most rewarding experiences was using Rethink to help one of her students and his mom with toilet training. Once she began looking at the lessons and resources for toilet training, she realized she was missing a lot of opportunities to help the student. “Even though you think you know it, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simple things that we forget,” Maria explained.


After watching the Rethink lesson video for toilet training, Maria downloaded data tracking sheets, started using pictures and motivation boards from the Rethink site, and tailored a specific plan for her student. Het is now trained on a time schedule to use the toilet and is working on responding yes or no to pictures. “With this child, using Rethink made a world of difference,” said Maria.

Keep up the great work, Maria!

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New Year, New Beginnings

iStock_000044277722_Large 2

Getting (and staying!) organized in 2015!

The start of a new year means new beginnings ­– a time to get organized and tackle new challenges. Many of us begin each year with ideas about amazing organizational systems we are going to try, which go right out the window once our students arrive. As I’m sure you all know, organization can make or break a classroom – especially in special education, and is even more crucial after a holiday break! In keeping with the theme of the New Year, I thought it might be fun to review some of my favorite organization systems I’ve both used and seen others use.

  1. Schedules, schedules, schedules!
  2. Schedules are pivotal for everyone – including students enrolled in special education. Not only do they keep a classroom running smoothly, but they teach students a truly valuable skill! Learning to follow a schedule (be it a simple first then visual schedule or a detailed written schedule) will help students gain independence and learn valuable life skills (schedules are required for many skills in life including using public transportation to being successful at work). Knowing what to expect during the day (or knowing about any changes in routine) might also decrease the occurrence of problem behavior in the classroom.

    • A Special Sparkle has a wonderful post full of examples of schedules and visual supports to support organization for students with special needs. Check out the Autism Classroom News post on setting up classrooms to learn about collecting data on IEP goals. The blog is geared towards working with students with autism, but the strategies can easily be applied to students with a variety of needs and abilities.

  3. Plastic Shoe Boxes, for the win!
  4. This is an inexpensive way to get organized & condense teaching materials! I have used these handy boxes to organize classroom materials; they are an excellent way to keep all of those loose crayons or markers in one place, and also prevent losing so many of them. Just tape a colored index card with the name of the item on the front of the box to clearly label each one. Students who cannot read can still easily learn the red box is for crayons and the blue box is for pencils. If they need an item, they can get up & retrieve the item from the correct box – increasing their independence, which is fantastic! It also helps students learn to sort items into the correct boxes. This is a great organizational skill to teach our students from a very young age.

    • Breezy Special Ed has great ideas on using shoe boxes to create Work Task Boxes. These boxes are a fun, creative way to organize lesson materials while increasing independence in your students. Each box contains specific items related to a skill. The students can pull a box from the shelf and work on a skill independently. My favorite has to be the french fry counting activity! Using yellow pipe cleaners to create the fries, you can obtain some french fry bags from a local fast food establishment, and viola! The goal is to place five fries in each bag. Simple and engaging! You can check out this (and other awesome Work Task Box ideas) in this post.

  5. Binge on Bins (and Folders)!
  6. Bins & folders are something you can start using right away! Simply place all lesson materials (and data sheets!) in the folder or bin. Use different colors, images, or words to differentiate each bin. Assign a bin to each student or to each lesson (i.e. a math bin or reading bin). Many of the teachers we work with here at Rethink use bins on a consistent basis. Our November and December posts highlight two teachers who have had great success using this system. Check out the articles to see these teachers in action!

  7. Let’s Not Forget Technology!
  8. Ok, we all know paperwork in special education is overwhelming. I remember sitting in my office one day and my shelves collapsing under the weight of my data and goal books. The sight of all of those papers flying everywhere still makes me shudder! The tremendous weight of that paper, physical AND emotional, can be eliminated with technology. Simplify your lives by collecting electronic data. Eliminate the clutter in your classroom; you will never need to panic again about losing a piece of paper!

    The calendar or schedule feature on tablets can also support your students. This skill is easily transferred to cell phones outside of school (great skill to share with mom and dad!). This teaches your student to stay organized, but is also less stigmatizing than a paper schedule for older students (especially when outside of the classroom). Teaching Special Thinkers provides several ways to use tablets to keep students organized. Even the use of a simple timer on the tablet can help students stay on task and know what to expect.

To learn more about things you can do to organize your classroom for success in 2015, join us for a FREE webinar on January 21st, Setting Up for Success: Best Practices for the Instructional Environment.

I can’t wait to get organized for the New Year! How about all of you? Use the comments section to tell us how you manage to stay organized throughout the year – we’d love to hear about it!

Jennifer Bessette is the Director of Professional Services for Rethink’s Small School Support Program. She has the pleasure of serving small and rural school districts across the United States. Jen has 15 years of experience in special education providing direct services, professional development, and research. She is excited to present at the national ACRES conference this March!


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Setting Up for Success: Best Practices for the Instructional Environment

Schoolchildren and their teacher reading books in class

Free webinar offering strategies for creating a classroom environment that is condusive to learning

The places in which we live, eat, work, and especially in which we learn matter-they shape us, and we shape them.  With limited resources in schools and spaces we don’t always get to choose, creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning can be a challenge for any teacher. In this FREE 60 minute webinar, Rethink’s Jennifer Wilkens, MA, BCBA, offers best practices for setting up an instructional environment that is safe, fun, and optimal for student success.

Attendees will:
  • Understand more about how the physical environment affects learning
  • Learn strategies for the meaningful arrangement of space, furniture and materials in the classroom to support behavior and learning objectives
  • Get ideas for visual supports that can help set expectations and provide vibrancy and structure to your classroom

Wednesday, Janurary 21, 12pm EDT register

Wednesday, Janurary 21, 6pm EDT register

About Our Guest

IMG_0914Jennifer Wilkens, MA, BCBA, currently serves as a Director of Professional Services for Rethink.  She has worked in a variety of settings such as public schools and special day schools, as well as with healthcare service providers implementing home-based and community services. Her career began as a special educator where she worked as a resource room and inclusion teacher, as well as a classroom teacher for individuals on the autism spectrum. Jennifer has a passion for education and advocacy and has dedicated her career to ensuring that individuals with disabilities are fully-included in society and receiving comprehensive, effective, research-based services.


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Spotlight Teacher of the Month: Tamara Jackson


School District: Ozark R-VI School District, Ozark MO
Classroom: 8:1:1 Self Contained Junior High School
Position:  Functional Life Skills Teacher

Tamara Jackson has been using Rethink in her junior high school classroom for 4 years now. She began by watching the Rethink lesson videos with her paraprofessional, Judy Dewitt, and has worked over the years to fully incorporate Rethink into her classroom routines. Each of her students has their own Rethink box with their Rethink activities and accompanying materials.  They work on any skills that they have mastered independently, with support from the classroom paraprofessionals, and work in stations that Tamara has set up to learn new skills.

Tamara's student's Rethink boxes

Tamara’s Rethink boxes

“When you get these kids, especially at older ages, it sometimes seems like they aren’t capable,” she told us, “then you have Rethink, it shows you how you can teach these kids, you start to see success, and it makes you believe in them.”

“I’ve seen improvements in my students I never thought possible”

One of Tamara’s most inspiring teaching stories of her career was teaching a 7th grade student to zip up his coat with the help of a Rethink lesson video.  When she met with the student’s mother at the beginning of the school year and asked what goals she had for her son that year, she just said that she wanted to see him zip up his coat.  No one thought he could do it, Tamara explained, the OT, other teachers–they had tried without success.

icon-teacherspotlightSo at the beginning of the school year Tamara watched the Rethink lesson video demonstrating how to teach the skill and started working on it.  “I never would have thought to break it down like that,” she said.  After about 2-3 months of working on the skill, he got it.  “Everyone told me it wasn’t in his capability, and then he did it!”

It was the student’s idea to film himself zipping up his coat as a Christmas present for his mom! When she watched the video, she cried.


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Autism in the United States. Can We Afford It?

Photo Courtesy of the US Department of Health and Human Services

Photo Courtesy of the US Department of Health and Human Services CDC

1 and 68 children in the US are now diagnosed with autism. Where did these staggering numbers come from? How will this affect us and our families?

By Roz Prescott

In 2001 we were starting to adjust to new innovations such as iTunes and Wikipedia and we were all shocked to hear that 1 in 150 children in the US were diagnosed with autism; but just 6 years later, in 2007, as we were reading our news on a new item called an iPhone, we discovered that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 child in every 110 in the US. Fast forward another 7 years to 2014, where flying robots may soon be delivering our groceries, and the rate is now an astounding 1 child in every 68!

Yes, but this doesn’t affect me, does it?

The rise of autism affects everyone. One of the greatest impacts is that of the financial cost. Autism services cost U.S. citizens between $236-262 billion annually. A majority of costs in the U.S. support adults living with autism– $175-196 billion, compared to $61-66 billion for children. It is estimated by the Autism Society of America that in 10 years, the annual cost of providing services to individuals with Autism will be between $200-400 billion. It is impossible to imagine that this enormous and growing cost will not have an impact on the county and its citizens, whether it be higher taxes, an increase in government spending, or budget-slashing in other government departments to cover this pressing need.

How can we lessen the impact of Autism?

Simply put, early intervention! Getting children enrolled in quality early intervention programs at an early age when, developmentally, there is more of a chance for growth, and when there are more family and educational support systems in place can have an enormous impact.

The cost of lifelong care can be reduced by up to 2/3 with early diagnosis and intervention. It seems so simple, so why are we not all doing it? Perhaps it’s because we don’t know what questions to ask or where to get help. Most people also do not realize the financial impact autism will have on the country.

How can we learn more?

There are lots of programs and initiatives out there that provide great education and resources to help with early diagnosis so that treatment can begin as soon as possible.

  • The CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” program has joined with others across the federal government to promote developmental and behavioral screening through the “Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive” campaign.
  • Easter Seals, the leading provider of autism services in the US, has an initiative called “Making the First Five Count,” an advocacy and awareness campaign focused on helping children with disabilities get the treatment and supports they need in the first 5 years of their lives.

Call to action!

A united voice is necessary to ensure the provision of funds for early intervention services to all people in the US. If we succeed, we can help reduce the long-term costs of care that this country currently faces and will continue to face in coming years.

  • Easter Seals, has a petition you can sign to show your support for this critical need and they are gathering signatures from people all over the country. Sign the petition!
  • Autism Speaks offers advocacy links so that you can get more involved in supporting children with disabilities. Learn more!

Who will take a step to help the country meet this growing need? It seems to me that this is everyone’s responsibility. So please: reach out, learn more, get involved and let’s help ourselves out, by helping others out, and offer our support to the 1 in 68 children in the US who are diagnosed with autism.


roz_profileAbout Roz Prescott, MA,BCBA

Roz Prescott is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and one of Rethink’s Directors of Professional Services living and working in Florida.  She is originally from Wales, UK and has spent over 17 years working with children and adults with disabilities in diverse settings, including intensive psychiatric residential, educational, child welfare, and home and community.  She formerly served as the Senior VP of Programs for Easter Seals, Florida.

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