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Winning the Battle with Complex Learners

 When I first started as a teacher at The Wolf School I was certain my students would enjoy each lesson, gain confidence, and learn. But from the very first forty-minute math class I found the majority of time was spent redirecting and correcting behaviors.

Turn around in your seat, pick your pencil up off the floor, it’s not time for talking, you just went to the bathroom, keep your hands to yourself, look at the board, get back to your seat, put your lunchbox away, it’s not time for talking…

I spent so much time trying to get my students to focus that I couldn’t get through all the math concepts my forty-minute lesson required. But it turns out there was an important lesson that I needed to learn, one that my teacher training didn’t cover. For students who are dysregulated, taking the time to give them movement and sensory strategies is just as important as teaching the math lesson itself. Instead of 40 minutes of torture, I could spend twenty minutes on stretching, chair pushups, jumping jacks, and other directed movements that then allowed for twenty minutes of focused, successful learning.

It took me awhile to believe this, but after repeatedly seeing the Occupational Therapist (OT) in my classroom use movement strategies to get our fidgety students ready to learn, I was converted.

The OT also showed me how important it was to have lessons that gave Complex Learners more than one way to learn something. I might teach how to write numbers by singing a fun song but the OT might bring in shaving cream or cotton balls so students could write numbers in a tactile way. We were working on the same skill but through a different lens, giving students more access to the concepts being taught.

Not everyone has an OT in the classroom alongside her, but having a bag of tricks from strategies your school OT suggests can be invaluable when working with Complex Learners (e.g., have students do a quick burst of movement like chair push-ups before introducing a new concept, warm up hands before writing by pinching clothespins open and closed). If your students are pulled out of the classroom for OT, they don’t always bring the strategies back to you. Check in with their OT and use their ideas and supports as much as you can. Integrating the knowledge of the classroom teacher and OT is a powerful approach to educating Complex Learners and any child with attention and distractibility issues.

April is National OT Month


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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

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