Running preschool special education circle time or any ECSE or preschool small group can be SUPER challenging, I know! Students with support needs, well, we're talking like 10-second attention spans, right? Well, here are some tips and some great books that may help you along the journey.
1. Keep them as close as possible
I sit on a small stool and have them preferably in cube chairs like these and try to keep everyone as knee-to-knee as possible (barring challenging behavior, of course). If I have support staff, I have them sit directly behind students so they can step in to prompt or help as needed but not be in the way of the students interacting.
2. Provide lots of opportunity to interact
This age group and skill level means that they are NOT going to just sit there and listen. You will need to provide manipulatives (e.g., fidgets, song prompts) and give them frequent opportunities to interact with the materials. Depending on the student's needs, I bring materials to them or have them up and out of their seat and return to their seat.
3. Catch them being "good!"
I use that term very tongue-in-cheek because all my babies are good, even when they have a bad day, but what I mean is to try to give them what they're looking for when they are engaged in the behavior that will help them be most successful in life. They don't want to be in the group? Wait until they have a calm body and/or ask to leave, and then LET THEM leave! They can go do a quiet activity (not a preferred one, but something different) until group is done. They want to hold the spider? Wait until they are sitting nicely and THEN give them a spider to hold. They want to be the song picker? It's not their turn today, but show them WHEN they get to do it. You get it.
4. Keep is short, sweetie (KISS)
Each group will be different, of course, but you know your population and know what they can and can't handle. Do NOT try to force your group dynamic to fit into what you think is right for the age or population. As a general rule, though, I find that shorter is better. You want group to end before any challenging behavior arises due to wanting to “be done.” Here's an example of the circle time agenda I have used most often with the special education preschool population:
Special education circle time schedule ideas:
Hello song (2 minutes). I have each child's face on a popsicle stick, and I show one and have everyone say “Hello, Mark!” and then sing a quick diddy to that person. When possible, I have have them stand up when their face is shown.
Quick calendar (2 minutes). We do not spend a lot of time on calendar at this age/skill set, but we do add a number to the calendar, count them, and sing the days of the week song. We love doing Weather Bear! There are lots of versions out there, but HERE is a simple digital one.
Question of the day (2 minutes). I use big pictures of items and put them up on the board. Questions are simple like…. [pictures of snack foods] Who likes chocolate? Do you like crackers? I put the names of who likes what near the pictures, and then we look at what item is liked the most. I have used sports, food items, animals, pets, toys, etc. I throw in some that I know they WON'T like or don't recognize so we have those options. I have also used this digital Boom Cards version “What I Like.” Really good for early language learners.
Book of the day (5-10 minutes). I choose books that are simple but have an interactive element (or I create my own interaction!). I make sure to sit directly in sight of all students, and I move the book around to make sure all students can see each page and as up close as possible. I try to gauge their interest and move quicker/slower depending on how they are responding. I love these 7 books for my earliest learners.
Here are a couple of my favorite books for the very young!
Go Away, Big Green Monster is an excellent book for first choral responding (everyone saying the same thing together). The pages have a predictable pattern, simple visuals, and everyone can chime in by saying, “Go away!” together. I also have the Lakeshore Learning puppets that go with it that are AWESOME.
Tickle the Duck is one in my favorite genre of “don't do this” silliness. I know, I know. Is it really a good idea to teach students to do what we tell them NOT to do? Actually, this is a really good way to teach that! Some things are silly and fun, and we can be flexible thinkers, and some things are important “rules” that we must follow for our own safety. Regardless, it's fun book that gets lots of giggles. I like to bring a page to each student and let them interact when it's their turn. Even the most beginner learner can participate in the story!
Song choice (5 minutes). I use well-known songs, songs that can have manipulatives, anything interactive. I like to use a choice board and do maybe three songs a day. If the song has manipulatives to hand out, I like to have a student hand them out to other students or even give every other student TWO, and that student has to share with the friend next to them. Sometimes, if students are wiggly, we like to use movement songs like Go Noodle or Laurie Berkner (her We Are the Dinosaurs song is the best!!!). Then we run back to our places to say goodbye.
Good-bye song. Short and sweet with an instruction about what is next on the agenda. If we are doing circle time at the end of the day, it's getting coats and backpacks for the bus. If next is choice time or line up for recess or whatever, I give that direction there. Then, off we go!
The whole circle time takes no more than 15-20 minutes TOPS.
5. Supplement with digital media if appropriate
It's a different generation than it was when I grew up a bajillion years ago, and I have tried to grow with it. I use lots of digital media in my teaching now, be it digital task cards (aka Boom Cards™) or movement breaks on the smart board or Google Slides™. I can capture or re-capture students' attention using these digital means quick seamlessly. However, I do not want to overuse them. I don't want my kiddos fixated on a screen when they are with me. I want them fixated on me! But I do not resist the pull of the digital monster when I need it, when it serves my purpose in helping my students move forward in life. I mean, really, who's to say they won't be the next Bill Gates?
Most important tip! Have fun! Don't be afraid to be silly and animated. These are littles! That's what they connect with. Embrace your inner-child, and your students will thank you for it.