Tips for Educators, Aides or Instructional Assistants

Nadia Shanab | autism, general advice, parenting
18 Jun 2010

Here are 31 tips for teachers, aides and instructional assistants to work more effectively with autistic children.

General tips

  • Think SAFETY, SAFETY, SAFETY! This is the number one priority when working with children, especially special education kids.
  • Greet the student by saying her/his name first when she/he comes in. “Johnny! Good morning!” instead of just letting all the kinds run into the classroom.
  • Always make sure to mention the student’s name at the beginning of your statement when you address them, in order to grab their attention.
  • Body language is important in the communication process: face the student, and make sure she is attending to you before you start giving directions.
  • Every day is a new day. Start afresh from a blank slate. Begin with greeting the student and ask how she/he is doing.
  • Use five words maximum (The Rule of 5). The shorter, the better. “Johnny, put your backpack away.”
  • Be positive and work on strengths rather than weaknesses. TRY to avoid the word “don’t”, sometimes children-especially with ADHD-process this word as “do”!!!! Use positive sentences instead of negative ones (for example: instead of “don’t shout” use “be quiet” — you tell the kid what to do as opposed to what not to do).
  • Keep a handicap perspective in your mind at all times. Set up your expectations according to each child’s capacity to perform or achieve, it will save you and the child a lot of frustration.
  • If you choose to use timeout system, remember that timeout goes by age (a 5 year old gets 5 minutes) in neurotypical children; so for special needs children it is  more or less 2 (3 or 7 minutes) depending on the case. They do have a different notion of time.
  • The tone of your voice should match/serve the purpose. A soft voice cannot imply firmness. Don’t expect to be listened to. Please, don’t save your voice when it is needed, especially on the playground.
  • On the other hand if a student is too loud whisper to her/him. Somehow, when you lower your voice it is very likely that the child would calm down and would imitate you. This technique proved to be very efficient with many children I worked with (both regular ed and special ed). Model the behavior you wish to see in your student.

Desk Work

  • Make sure that the child’s posture is proper before you start instructing and throughout the instruction session. I have talked about posture in more detail in my article on handwriting.
  • Hands should stay on the desk at all times and the worksheet slightly turned for a better view/vision. One hand is for writing the other should stay flat on the paper to hold it down. There is no need to hold an object in the other hand like an eraser if not needed (some tend to hold an object in the hand not used for writing).
  • For less distraction, only keep the strict necessary objects on the desk.
  • Write down the steps of the given assignment, it helps organize the work and keeps the student on track.
  • When giving instructions, please allow some processing (thinking) time before you repeat. Be flexible. If a student doesn’t get the directions as given, modify, tailor or customize it to get an understandable version. Keep adapting, tweaking according to the need.
  • Give the child the assignment and wait to see what she/he can do independently, before you step in for help.
  • Give the child the choice between two options (2 different worksheets) if you feel that the child is not willing to cooperate.
  • The best way to learn is by observing, model and have the student watch you doing the required task. A small white board is handy for that purpose. If still not ready to do it tell her/him “I’ll start, you finish” for writing, cutting, coloring, copying… You’ll be surprised by the result.
  • For kids who have difficulty drawing, I use a little white board to show the student how to draw one step at time. Allow the student enough time to copy on his own paper. If help is needed keep repeating the steps until the drawing is successfully done. This technique never failed with me.
  • Praising and encouraging have a magical positive effect on the kids. Be generous.
  • For kids who space out or have difficulty focusing on their work, use a desk type separator or create a mini cubical to eliminate or minimize distraction. A cost-effective way to do it is to use a cardboard box to make it.
  • If the student cannot focus on a specific part of the worksheet she is working on, use a blank paper to cover everything except the part she is working on. I personally like to use a card board for this purpose. Another way to do it is to fold the paper in a way to show only the part she needs to work on and hide all the rest. For severe cases use a floor type separator/dividers, that provides more privacy and blocks out the distracting environment. You can still make them from card boards.


  • No need to be on the “save energy mode”. You cannot just stand still and watch. Recess, lunch, field trip, etc., are golden opportunities to teach. It is a valuable learning time for the kids. Do your best to keep their bodies moving even if that requires some extra physical effort on your part. Verbal prompts are not enough. Remember it is a break for the kids and not for the adults. Again, modeling is ideal.
  • Communicate with the kids and answer their questions to the best of your ability, or ask somebody for an answer. Watching the kids is essential but not enough.
  • Remind the kids that school is fun and help them look forward to come the following day with some enthusiasm. At the end of the day ask them how their day went, and what they’ve enjoyed most.

Team work

  • Aides/instructional assistants need to keep scanning the kids for proper posture, attention and performance, and prompt the kids in a way that doesn’t interfere with the instructor’s or therapist’s instructions.
  • Teachers and aides need to constantly synchronize to provide immediate help to the kids.
  • There is nothing wrong with asking for help from another team member if you don’t know the answer to a question. Use the key (answers) books, usually kept in the classroom, if you choose not to interrupt anybody.
  • It is important to choose the right moment to ask for help. The teacher/instructor is monitoring the whole class. It can be overwhelming to interrupt her/him. Don’t delay to report to the teacher any suspicious behavior, incident or accident. She/ he is supposed to take actions swiftly.
  • Aides: be transparent about mainstream, or any other setting where the teacher is not present. Keep in mind she/he is the main communicator: teacher-parents, teacher-staff, teacher-child.

Mrs. A

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Newer Comments »
  1. CR says:

    I noticed that you discouraged the child from holding onto another object with their non-writing hand (you used the example of an eraser).

    How do you feel about “fidget items” These are items that a child can manipulate to help keep their concentration. These items are not “toys” although they may look like toys (e.g. a squishy tactile toy).

    The Occupational Therapist at our school district uses fidget items as part of a child’s “sensory diet” in many cases. The fidget item actually helps increase the child’s concentration rather than being a distraction.

    Any thoughts or experience with this?

  2. Mrs. A says:

    Dear CR,
    Short answer: it depends on the child’s needs.
    Long answer: Fidget items are great for kids with sensory integration issues who are either hypersensitive or hyposensitive to their environment. Occupational therapy helps them tremendously if the right sensory diet is applied. It is simple to distinguish whether the fidget items are a source of distraction or a source of relief. Take your clues from your child. If you notice that, while holding the item, he/she is performing properly and maintaining a calm disposition, then let him/her enjoy this fidget item. That means that this sensory diet works well for him/her. If this fidget item turns out to be disruptive to his/her activities, it should be removed. Replace it with another convenient item.
    However, some children luckily do not have tactile sensory integration issues, and in this case they do not need to hold on to any object. To them, holding a fidget item would be a source of distraction.
    Mrs. A

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