Super Successful vs. Legendarily Unsuccessful Lesson Plans


Rocket science seems a walk in the park compared to developing lesson plans that can captivate 25 brains inside of 25 children for 6 hours a day, but it must be done. My research plus 35 years of working with children has helped me understand why some lesson plans culminate with a classroom full of busily engaged students while others culminate with glue in the pencil sharpener.

When you get right down to it, the shenanigans kids are legendary for most often occur because poorly designed lesson plans just can’t hold their attention. Conversely, well-designed lesson plans have the muscle to keep students engaged, on task, out of mischief, and on target with their learning goals.

If you want to keep your pencil sharpener free of foreign objects, your hair free of spitballs, and your ceiling tiles free of Snack Pack Pudding, then keep reading. Maybe the main go-to lesson plan strategy I have developed for creating super successful lesson plans will help you keep your students enthusiastically on task and out of mischief (mostly).

I developed my main go-to strategy after transitioning late in my career from teaching and volunteering in elementary and preschools to teaching adapted physical education. I taught adapted P.E. to our district’s students with special needs in grades K-12 and our young adult learners ages 18–21.

Students were recommended for my class when they could not be successful in general P.E. for cognitive and/or physical reasons. Some of my students learned so uniquely they had trouble being successful in any kind of group learning situation. Therefore, I was tasked with helping students develop not only physical skills but group participation skills as well.

Take my 2nd/3rd grade class. Jennifer (not her real name) rarely spoke. Nathaniel never stopped talking. He was the king of conversational tangents. Amy never stopped moving and fidgeting. Jeremy did everything in his power never to move. Isaac wanted to spend the whole class hiding in the supply closet. And Joey was a runner.

Of my 50 give or take students each year, some were quite coordinated and physically able. All were quite capable in their own ways yet some could barely walk. Many had low muscle tone, poor balance, poor eye-hand coordination, poor depth perception, weak short and long term memories, slow processing speeds, and/or difficulty generalizing information from one context to another.

Given how diverse and complex my learners were, not having the ‘just right’ lesson plan was simply not an option for me. I had no wiggle room. For example, the first class I taught, day one on the job, was with one of my kindergarten classes. I began with a warm-up activity, a series of movements I had perfected over 20 years of moonlighting as a creative movement teacher. Well, after a couple minutes into my super spectacular, fail-proof, warm-up series, my kindergarteners scattered around the room like billiard balls after the break shot. My ‘perfect’ warm-up series did not go well in my middle or upper-grades either.

What I learned on my smashingly unsuccessful first day was this. When faced with a seemingly unteachable concept or skill, break down what you are trying to teach into the simplest sensory, cognitive, and physical components. And when I say break it down, I mean break it down. Think about the skill(s) in simpler terms than you ever have before.

I always begin my lesson plans with this question for any skill or developmental level: What are the most basic sensory requirements, physical skills, and cognitive skills required to be successful at the activities in this lesson plan? In this example, I asked the question in relation to my warm-up activity. After a long think I realized the basic skill required to do a group warm-up would be standing in a specific spot with one’s body, eyes, and ears consistently facing the teacher in order to see and hear the teacher’s visual and verbal cues.

No big deal, right? Well actually, standing in one spot is a big deal in this case. Many of my students did not have a good sense of their bodies in space and therefore would become intermittently disoriented and confused during a group fitness activity. How could I get my students to remain facing me to receive my verbal and physical cues if they were not physically capable of sustaining a consistent body position?

With my huge budget (haha) I got 8 and a half by 11-inch card stock, drew a pair of feet onto each sheet, laminated them, and stuck velcro on the backs so they would stick to the floor. My students now had pictures of feet on which to put their feet so they knew exactly how and where to position themselves in space during warm-ups.

It just so happens I taught all of my younger students in the OT/PT room at each school. If you’ve been in one, you know OT/PT rooms are overflowing with irresistibly enticing playthings. Picture my students and I warming up. Three minutes in Angelo, through no fault of his own, loses his balance while touching his toes, stumbles, then stands back up to find himself facing the bin of legos along the side wall. Angelo’s new body orientation causes him to completely forget what the rest of the class is doing and compels him to begin constructing a lego Stormtrooper because, Star Wars.

Because I have given each child an actual tool for aligning their bodies properly in space, I can say in a non-threatening voice, Angelo, put the legos away for now and put your feet back on the feet. By lining his feet up with the pictured feet, Anglelo’s eyes, ears, and body will again face me and he can quickly get back on task.

With or without the tool, it is a fact Angelo intermittently becomes physically disoriented in space. Once physically disoriented he becomes cognitively confused. Confusion wreaks havoc upon a child’s ability to stick with the task at hand because most children rarely know why they are confused or what to do about it. If they did, they wouldn’t be confused. With the tool of the paper feet, Angelo has a reliable method of re-orienting himself.

Confusion with no way to resolve it is extremely uncomfortable for the human brain and it causes the brain to cue for anxiety. Anxiety often causes students to behave erratically. Instead of modifying behaviors, we should be modifying confusion.

Intermittent confusion during academic subjects happens in an infinite number of ways to all kinds of learners. You know when you go upstairs to get something, then once upstairs totally forget what the heck it was? Information processing is slippery and imperfect. Information can slip out of our brains for a whole host of reasons, leaving us in puzzling states of confusion.

Confusion while managing information happens often when managing new or complex information, but it also happens with old and familiar information. Being developmentally appropriate means constantly being on the lookout for ways to keep a student’s brain and body appropriately engaged on the task at hand. Erratic behaviors are a huge red flag we are not presenting concepts and/or materials to the erratically behaving child in a developmentally appropriate way for him or her.

We teachers are taught to modify behaviors when we should be modifying confusion.

It is often hard for us as adults to understand what it feels like to be physically and cognitively disoriented for skills we mastered as children without knowing we mastered them, such as maintaining a consistent body position. It is also hard for us to imagine what it feels like to have an extremely slow processing speed, an inefficient working memory, or to have a very hard time processing multiple directions. Even some of our brightest students have sensory idiosyncrasies, cognitive weaknesses, and/or physical weaknesses that cause them to go into intermittent confusion.

Teaching adapted P.E. made me realize there are sensory, physical, and cognitive requirements for performing any task, whether sitting at a desk, writing the letter B, kicking a soccer ball, or calculating the square root of 49. Ensuring student success means helping students execute the physical and cognitive requirements for a task most efficiently. It might mean showing students the best way to position their arms and hands while writing to maximize comfort and minimize fatigue. It might mean telling students it is OK to say, “I am confused right now but I do not know why.” A student cannot problem solve if he cannot identify the problem. But more often than not it means you, the teacher, must become a super sleuth.

The more detailed and specific I got about every single sensory need and cognitive and physical skill required in a task, the better I got at providing each one of my unique learners with the best possible concepts, prompts, and/or tools he or she needed to stay on task or to get back on task after becoming confused.

Modifying confusion instead of modifying behaviors is my first go-to lesson plan strategy for both creating and carrying out lesson plans. Our psychological theories of child development and classroom management that fixate on modifying and/or managing student behaviors have never made logical sense to me. Talk about confusion! I never had the concepts or language to articulate why I believed discussing behaviors was such a degrading enterprise.

If you have a student who is displaying erratic behaviors like unraveling his sweater vest, performing his latest stand-up routine, making a bee-line for the supply closet, asking to use the restroom every 5 minutes, nomadically roaming around your room, refusing to participate in a class activity, withdrawing, crying a lot, or becoming angry or aggressive, think about how that student might be stuck in confusion with no way out. Clearing up confusion with verbal or physical prompts or sensory supports gives students comfort and security. Students quickly learn to trust you if you help them problem solve so they can be successful at a task instead of embarrassing them by talking about their behavior.

My experience has shown me that if I am a helpful problem solver instead of a behavior monitor, my students are happy in my class and conflict resolution becomes unbelievably easier. My experience has also shown me that helping students to know exactly what to do and how to do it when they are behaving questionably resolves their questionable behavior far, far better than focusing on their questionable behavior. Besides, telling students to behave differently than they are serves mainly to add to their confusion and discomfort.

Before I became an adapted physical education instructor, the concepts and language in my teacher toolbox for keeping students on task consisted mainly of constantly monitoring and managing student behaviors. In college, grad school, and continuing ed, accommodating different cognitive styles are given air time for sure, but strategies for how to realistically accommodate different cognitive styles is often vague. And all the strategies I ever learned about were equally dependent upon behavior modification as the default backup plan should they fail.

Furthermore, after three decades in the field of education, once a lesson plan has been rolled out in real time, I have only ever observed other teachers making one modification, two at most, before turning their focus from modifying their lesson plan to fit the learner to modifying the learner’s behavior to fit their lesson plan. I have learned to develop as many modifications to my lesson plans as needed until I find the just right modification for each and every learner.

I have yet to meet a human being with only cognitive and physical strengths and zero deficits. If we are human, we will all need accommodations when managing the kinds of information that correspond to our deficits.

In my next essay about lesson planning, I will discuss the lessons my wonderful adapted P.E. students taught me about how to problem solve in real time by focusing on information management rather than behaviors.

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