Explicit Instruction

Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday

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I am an inclusive teacher. I believe in inclusion both philosophically and personally. That being said, as much as I believe that students learn best with their peers, I also understand the need for time where some students receive explicit and targeted instruction. Having additional opportunities, for example, for some students to address developmentally appropriate literacy and numeracy goals can compliment inclusive classroom learning and assist in students being more successful when working with peers. Some students may also have additional goals that are irrelevant, and sometimes inappropriate to be contextualized within the general education classroom. Students may have physical or speech therapy, or need instruction around toileting, where location needs to be considered for effectiveness, and to maintain the integrity of the students. Although inclusion is valued and philosophically strived for, having opportunities for explicit instruction in some areas can reinforce transfer and personalization when students come back into contextualized classrooms.

Regardless of where students are located when receiving inclusive instruction, the question becomes not where they are learning, but what are they doing within each context. The difficulty in any setting however, is how to match instruction to our students’ needs in general, let alone setting up programming for students who often are difficult to assess diagnostically to help set goals in the first place. I myself am guilty of attempting to provide explicit programming for my students in both classrooms and resource room settings, trying to appropriately match individual goals of 10 or more students, and feel at the end of the day, like nothing was meaningful at all.

When looking at research-based practices, it is supported and intuitive to conclude that the more opportunity a person has to practice skills in multiple settings, the more a learner retains it. In addition to this, however, activities that meet multiple goals at once are an efficient way to meet these needs when working with multiple students with diverse needs. This not only provides the time for deeper learning, but also addresses the assumption that teaching is simply ensuring coverage of a lot of content over short period of time. I struggled for this for years, and then I walked into another Kindergarten classroom. I love Kindergarten.

If you ever walk into a kindergarten room I guarantee you will find in the corner a wall covered with a calendar, a graph labeled with pictures of suns and clouds and if in Vancouver, a lot of rain. Counting sticks numbering 100 days of school, lyrics of songs for learning the days of the week, pictures of the classroom helper, the lucky recipient of this week’s show and tell, amongst many other morning routine activities.

Of all the different Kindergarten classrooms, isn’t it amazing how they all do these activities in some way or another? It is more than just educational standards and curriculum guiding these teachers through these routines. A major concern for any teachers is making sure they “cover” the curriculum. The beauty of kindergarten and this deeply established calendar and routine systems, is that these standards are planned in exactly the opposite way. When looking at the BC educational standards for kindergarten, for example, it doesn’t take long to see that many of the activities that students participate in during these morning routine systems cover more than one curricular standard at any given moment in time.Image

Taking a look at a matrix which cross-references the prescribed learning outcomes in the BC kindergarten curriculum, with activities in a morning routine, you can see how rich these activities are as they address multiple goals in cross curricular areas. It becomes clear, how inefficient teaching can become then, when it is planned as a linear sequential checking off standards. Working with students on one goal at a time, is not only boring, but also exhausting for teachers who are trying to keep up with students at different levels meeting goals at different paces within a given time frame. Kindergarten is such an excellent example of NOT doing this. These morning routine systems are worked on and practiced everyday, and because they are planned so effectively, these students are also being deeply embedded in these goals throughout the year. In addition to practice, having an activity meet multiple goals, it is much more manageable for teachers to increase complexity enough to challenge students who learn quickly, while at the same time still creating access and continuing to build on prior knowledge of students who need extra time and practice. A reminder of how all teachers should view curriculum and planning, the efficient and effective way of not only ensuring “coverage” of standards, but also the quality of understanding them.

my dog.

For example:

Working with the class on a calendar and guiding them through counting activities and identifying ‘today, tomorrow and yesterday’, addresses up to 15 separate prescribed learning outcomes, in 7 different curricular domains. For more example check out the matrix here.

This method, to me, was the exact solution I needed for my own classroom. Rather than planning multiple activities for individual students, I could plan one activity that met multiple goals. I could finally go home before the sunset and hang out with my dog!!

In reflecting on my own classroom, where my expectation was to provide this explicit instruction in a meaningful and appropriate way to students with developmental disabilities who ranged in age from 12-19, I moved to thinking about the content of these kindergarten routines and activities. It seemed the goals of these routines were just as relevant to my students, and a great context to embed literacy and numeracy skills as well. Thinking about my students’ own experience in kindergarten, I can imagine they simply were just not ready to learn these routines with their peers. At the time, many of my students’ program goals were behaviorally based because they were learning ‘how’ to go to school. It doesn’t make these skills, however, irrelevant. For many students, gone are the days of learning concepts of ‘today, tomorrow and yesterday’ (and other meaningful primary concepts), if the student with developmental disabilities is in a grade 8 science class.

Just because these concepts are no longer being taught in the current classrooms of students over the age of 10, it doesn’t mean the concepts should no longer be taught. These relevant skills are perfect examples of the life skill type goals that students could benefit from long beyond the years of their formal schooling.

These goals were perfect for my students. The problem was that the commercial resources available for teaching these skills look like this:


There is a HUGE hole in age appropriate resources for students whose cognitive challenges are greater than their peers. Plastering a high school classroom, in a pull out resource room or otherwise, with a giant pink and purple calendars covered in bumble bees, are far from desirable to grade 9 boys. Cognitively disabled or not, I have heard on numerous occasions from my students, “this is for babies.”

The frustrating part for me was, when viewed within an age appropriate context, classroom routine systems could be an excellent way to expose students with special needs to information and interests of their peers. In addition, exposing my students to new ideas and topics is something critical in helping them evolve past interests typically associated with younger children (e.g. blues clues, Barbie, fisher price pianos etc.).

In addition, my goal when designing these age appropriate and cognitively appropriate activities was not only such that the stigma attached to them is gone, but to try to make them appealing to age appropriate peers as well. I know that an activity is successful when my students with special needs have not only engaged in it, but the rest of the class also wants to participate.


A great example was when we introduced a hockey playoff pool to group of students with developmental disabilities in a high school. Regardless of whether this was a familiar sport, we realized that the students could engage in many aspects of this topic; locations of the teams, mascots, colours, uniforms, players etc. Some students chose their teams based on statistics, others chose teams based on the proximity to Disneyland. We were also able to embed numeracy goals such as more/less, counting and values of numbers 1-5 using the scores; as well as address some literacy goals using team name, player names, logos etc. as the vehicle. The success in meeting goals didn’t just end there, every morning when we gathered to find out which teams had won, the 4 classes surrounding our resource room, all gathered as well. We quickly drafted up pcs symbols and voting charts and within days, we had over 50 members of our pool voting daily in this age appropriate AND cognitively appropriate activity. A highlight was when a parent called chuckling, sharing how the night before, his son with autism, walked into the living room and for the first time asked, “hey dad, what’s the score?”

Creating these activities with both peer and cognitive factors in mind, student’s motivation and confidence are built in both domains. Many challenges I faced early in my career, was a barrier in either one or both of these factors. If an activity was designed based on the students’ level of cognitive ability, but did not consider the students’ interests and the interests of their peers, students would quickly display a lack of motivation, confidence and/or agreement of the task. A similar scenario would exist when the interests were considered, but the task was not designed to address the students’ zone of proximal development.

The big question evolved to: How could I design tasks which addressed cognitively appropriate goals while at the same time embedding age appropriate interests of the students AND their peers?

Routine systems can be implemented in many different ways in schools of every grade. I have seen these systems in pull out resource rooms, in inclusive classes, and built up as strategic social grouping with a combination of students with and without disabilities. The older the student is in age the more age appropriate considerations need to be taken.

When designing these activities then, the names, the look, the content, the resources and thesupplies all need to be presented in a way that would be considered appropriate for the students as well as their peers. The first step we decided in making these changes was to streamline the traditional commercial materials, looking at these products minus the pastel colours and cartoon animals, and viewing them as what the essential core goal would be. We bought rolls of electrical tape from the dollar store and went to work on the white board. To our luck, all of the whiteboards in our district are also magnetic, so this became the backdrop of our routine system and on it we used the electrical tape to organize the space for the variety of activities that could be created.

ImageRecently, I have been working in a resource room, program planning for 3 students with developmental disabilities in grade 8 and 9. Although we are working towards them being included into classes with their peers, because most of the students’ schooling careers were in isolation with an educational assistant, their immediate goals were addressing the initial steps of working first in a small group instructional setting.

They were a perfect example of a group of students who could benefit from the goals and
activities of morning routines established in a primary setting, but who needed the age appropriate context of a high school.Image

As a part of their program, we designed their day with a ‘class meeting’ (instead of ‘carpet time’) setting the stage for their day. An ‘agenda of the day’ (instead of ‘shape of the day’) and within this structure, we planned a variety of activities that we aimed to meet multiple cognitively appropriate goals as well as address age appropriate interests and topics relevant to their peers.

You will see many similarities between these activities to those in primary classrooms, but notice how the names and look have been changed to make them appropriate for high school settings.

When looking specifically at students with developmental disabilities, we all know how the cognitive gap for these students increase exponentially as their grade level increases with their peers. Closing this gap is the job of teachers, support staff and families. Routine systems are an example of how we can do that, but commercial products alone cannot be depended on to meet our students’ needs.

For more information about calendar systems and routines, check out:

Koralek, D. (2008). Teaching and Learning through Routines and Transitions. YC Young Children. 63(3). 10.

Squires, J. (2009). Use of Embedded Learning Opportunities within Daily Routines by Early Learning Teachers. International Journal of Apecial Education 24(2).

Tunde Szecsi , Joohi Lee , Joo Ok Lee & Jill Fox (2009): Teaching Strategies: Time Here, Time There, Time Everywhere: Teaching Young Children Time through Daily Routine, Childhood Education, 85:3, 191-192.