Data-Driven Family Engagement Tools for Head Start and State Preschools

Learning Genie is an app for ECE educators and family service workers for Distant Learning and Family Engagement including tracking in-kind. During the COVID-19 crisis, Learning Genie offers free tools till the end of 2020 under a grant (or in-kind) to support all ECE agencies for Distance Learning and track school readiness outcomes.


Learning Genie also provides a useful application for portfolio-building. The portfolio tracking and tagging systems could be readily applied to DRDP 2015, Florida VPK, Head Start (HS), Early Head Start (EHS), Montessori, and other state or private-backed assessment tools.

Make Inclusion Seamless

The purpose of this blog is to provide TK teachers and students support to make inclusion as seamless as possible. Of course it will require the team (parents, teachers, and administrators) to decide on the best placement for the child, but ultimately, once the child is put in a least restrictive environment, it is important to have support in place for the child’s academic and social goals to be met.

This blog will address how to support the students not only cognitively, but also emotionally, and socially. The major component of this blog will focus on using Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to support students in the classroom because social emotional learning is a big focal point of a TK classroom. I will also address the need for UDL (Universal Design for Learning) for all children, knowing that not all children are the same kind of learners. 


I’m excited for you to come alongside me on this journey. It is not an easy journey, but an important one to address and figure out.


Support to Make the Classroom Alive and Thrive: 

It is not uncommon to find that first year teachers report that their teacher-education programs did not adequately train them to identify and manage students’ behaviors and social-emotional needs. As a teacher in TK, I too have struggled with the constant needs that I feel bombarded by. I have a classroom of 24 students, but I have several children who have been identified or have yet to be identified as special needs. However, my personal take is that I do not like to “label” children. I think it is far more important to look at the needs and address those needs instead. 


Here are some resources that I found to be super helpful for me to have in place.

Noise Can Be a Problem 


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One thing that you may encounter is that children with special needs have sensory issues. Loud noises are terrifying to them and usually, that is something that has to be worked through in the classroom. 


Calming Corner or a calming cube is an important place for children who need a place to ease some of the overstimulation that may be going on. Some students may need headphones to help with the noise level. 


I had a student who would often cry when other students laugh or squeal with excitement. We had to have a classroom conversation about being sensitive to our friends who do not like loud noises. We incorporate social stories as much as possible to help our friends know what to expect in a certain situation. We basically prime them and give them a heads up on any special activity for the day.


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Fidgets Can Be Your Friend

There are four reasons that fidgets can be helpful. They help with focus and concentration; The Movement ( even fidgeting of the hands), can send signals to the brain to help it stay alert. It also helps to distract and occupy a child’s attention and reduce stress and anxiety. 


I also use beaded stuffed animals that weigh about 3-4 lbs. that I can have on my TK friends that need something calming for them during our Circle time/ small group lessons. These weighted animals can help a child calm down and do the necessary seat work to maintain their focus. 


I also use beaded stuffed animals that weigh about 3-4 lbs. that I can have on my TK friends that need something calming for them during our Circle time/ small group lessons. These weighted animals can help a child calm down and do the necessary seat work to maintain their focus. 


I currently have a student who does not like to go out for recess or lunch. In order to help reduce his anxiety and stress, and to keep him distracted during the transition of walking to recess or lunch, he carries a basket with some of the fidget toys inside. He chose what fidget toys he wanted in his basket.


Using Visuals in the Classroom

It is important to build routine! When children have a routine, then it helps them feel safe. Use a Daily Schedule. Go over the schedule and use a clip to show students where they are in the day. Sometimes we count how many things until the end of the day. As we review the schedule, I’ll ask the students is this a hard day? They respond by saying, “No! It’s easy, peezy, lemon squeezy.”



Use a lanyard and put your visuals for the child on it. I make one for myself and for my aide. So instead of always using words, I can go straight to the picture and show the child what he or she needs to do at the moment. This could be something as simple as Stop! Line Up! Snack! By showing the picture, it can be more effective for children, especially when they have a lot of sensory overload going on already.


Token Chart

Token charts are a great way to help children. Some children who have a hard time with self-regulation, a token board is a tool to help them earn what they want. This will help them with redirection from a certain behavior. It is important to get buy-in during the beginning. As the child’s behavior improves, then you can slowly space out the tokens for a longer period of time.


Throwing Things

If your student is throwing things, it’s safe to assume he needs to throw. It could be something else, but that’s a good place to start. So you can say, “I cannot let you throw things…etc.” and then “Do you like throwing things? Because we can throw a ball together outside during recess. That is a safe time to throw. But we cannot throw things in the classroom. Let’s clean up everything you threw around. Next time you want to throw, you can tell me “Throw please.” 


As a teacher, you can say to the student, “It is my job to keep everyone safe, and that is not safe.” Keep your language simple but clear and at their level. Repeat your message a few times, and then try to understand the purpose behind his behavior so that you can teach a replacement behavior. This will take some figuring out, but kids in early childhood do have a need for certain physical experiences. 


It may be too hard for the student to wait until recess to throw, so you might consider keeping something soft like a yarn ball or similar in the classroom and teach him how to gently toss it up in the air and catch it by himself, or toss it gently back and forth with a friend or with an aide. If this will work, then you should allow him to do it as soon as he says “Throw please” for at least the first week, if at all possible. After a week has passed and he’s doing pretty well with it, you can start having him wait by saying something like, “Great job using your words to ask for what you want! Now is not a good time so I need you to wait 5 minutes. I’ll set a timer and then you can throw.” Now you are teaching him to use his words and wait. You can continue to lengthen the wait time over several weeks.



For tackling, the purpose of that behavior might be to connect/play with his peers, or it might be to get some large motor sensory input. If you think it’s socially driven, you can teach gentler replacement behaviors, like gentle hugs (teaching him to always ask for consent first), high fives/fist bumps, etc. Always praise heavily as soon as they use a replacement behavior even a little bit. You can also use more concrete reinforcers, like a hand stamp, sticker, or some kind of tangible reward. You can even start by rewarding other kids so that he can see exactly what you are looking for. Such as, “Wow, look at Aaron giving a gentle high five to his friend. How fun! That’s such a friendly thing to do! I’m going to give you a stamp on your hand for being a fun, safe friend.” You would say this in front of the student whose behavior you wish to change. 


If it’s more sensory, then you might provide a big pillow or stuffed animal, and show him how he can fall into it or give it a strong hug. 


These are not quick fixes. They can take weeks and some tweaking along the way as you learn more about the purpose behind the behavior and what he responds to. But it can be very effective.


You can also see if it would be possible if a district OT would be willing to come and give you a classroom consultation. I had that a couple of times in my kinder classroom, and it was very helpful for all the students, but especially my sensory-seekers.


Social-Emotional Support

Social-emotional learning is an ability for a person to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspective of others, make responsible decisions, and be able to work with others to solve problems constructively. Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a forefront leader in describing and defining the role of social and emotional skills. CASEL’s framework organizes SEL skills into five categories: Self-awareness is the ability to recognize one’s emotions and thoughts. Self-management is the ability to regulate one’s emotions and thoughts and move toward personal and academic goals. Social awareness is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with other people. Relationship skills is the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with different people and groups through communicating and listening. It is the ability to cooperate, negotiate, and to seek and offer help when needed. Finally, responsible decision-making is the ability to make respectful choices about personal behaviors and social interactions for the well-being of self and others 


In TK, we want to understand that these are strands that will lead to good social emotional learning, health, and well-being in the long haul. The first thing to keep in mind is that 4 and 5 year old children still have a lot of toddler in them. They are in-between toddlerhood and childhood, and it takes some kids longer than others to make the transition, developmentally speaking. This is not typically cause for concern, but they do need guidance, support, and explicit instruction to help them develop better self-control and pro-social behaviors. 


I have been teaching self-management by playing a game with my students. I will put some rhythm sticks (or musical instrument such as a bell or egg shaker) in front of each child. They are not to touch the instrument until the song starts and it’s usually a movement song. Below is the song that they love! I use this song to teach them to freeze prior to any clean up and we also use this beloved song to teach them impulse control.


SEL Books



I teach my TK students how to identify their emotions. We look at pictures and discuss what happiness looks like. What would make someone happy and the situations that can make someone happy. We go through this with each emotion. We also sing songs about different emotions. Here’s an example: 


Little Folk Visuals Emotions Precut Flannel Board (24 Pieces) for $22.95


Teaching TK children to wait for Centers – Waitlist for Centers (Sign in Sheet) HmomHREyevX3H5BEqZPnxvUE/edit?usp=sharing 


How to Manage Anger – Calming strategies to help when you are angry. OvIEYh5K42gsLAIhhaRZzB0/edit?usp=sharing

Universal Design for Learning

When it comes to curriculum, the general rule of thumb is to give the students multiple opportunities of engagement; multiple means of representation; and multiple means of expression. This just means giving them lots of different ways to learn the concepts. If it’s their ABC’s, maybe they can play with magnetic ABCs, they can paint ABCs with cotton balls, they can find the letter around the room, etc… They will need direct instruction and indirect instruction, and plenty of opportunities to learn through play. Please keep in mind that the child’s IEP goals are what you are held accountable to. If the child has a fine motor as a goal, plan your activities with a fine motor perspective. Know that you can modify the activity for the child but all the students can still work on the same activity. (The end product doesn’t have to all look the same.)


It is true that there are varied learners (kinesthetic, visual, and auditory learners). But the majority of people are visual learners. All children respond well to repetition, music, and concrete, hands-on learning. Whenever you approach a thematic unit, or a concept, think about these approaches. So in the example of Community Helpers, it’s important to integrate this theme into your lessons as much as possible. So during the morning routine, you might want to consider adding some community helper songs into the Circle Time. During your ELA time, focus on a main book about community helpers and read it everyday for that week. The Art Center can be a great time to focus on an art project that represents each community helper. 



Dramatic Play can be incorporated with students pretending to be different community helpers such as doctor, fireman, clerk, librarian, postal worker, etc.. They can wear different community helper outfits. It’s also important to frontload vocabulary (words that they will be using associated with the theme: uniform, badge, siren, ambulance, dentist, nurse, teacher, store clerk, etc… As a teacher, many of your community helpers would be happy to come in for a visit. You can teach your students to practice saying “Hi” to them and ask questions. ( K9 officers, Fire Dept., Police Dept., make great visitors.) 


You can incorporate writing about what the students want to be. Making hats before the writing, so students get to pick their job, make the hat, and then get their picture taken with that hat, are great motivators for them to be excited about their writing too. For students with fine motor challenges, they can trace the words with highlighter, or use letter stamps. A writing example might be, “I want to be a _______ because ______.” There are different approaches to writing. Some may have the children dictate the sentence and the teacher writes it, or you can do an interactive writing approach where the child may sound out the first letter or letters of what they hear in the word.


Here’s an example of a math activity: 

Whatever concept you are teaching, approach the lesson from a multisensory approach- Incorporate songs, visuals, and hands-on activities. When I teach students number concepts, I bring out the counting bears; we sing songs about the number we write, and then we practice writing the number in the air, write on a dry erase board, and use different mediums to practice number writing. We can use crayons, markers, shaving cream, etc..



Rainbow Lanyard Visual Cue from TPT 

Visuals from Google Image 

SEL Books from Pocket of Preschool (Jackie Kopps) 

Little Folk Visuals Emotions Precut Flannel Board (24 Pieces) from Amazon 

Community Helpers chart ( 


Thank you to Dr. Tiffany Rowe (CSUF Professor); Rachel Cardinal for their feedback on ideas to implement when working with special needs children), and Anna Chen (IUSD Mild/Moderate Classroom Teacher).

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