Students with Special Needs - Substitute Teacher: Proactive Steps to Make it Work
Students with Special Needs – Substitute Teacher: Proactive Steps to Make it Work

Teaching in inclusive classrooms is very challenging. Being a substitute teacher  or supply teacher in one is even more difficult. The school administrator and regular teacher can do a lot to make the transition to a substitute teacher go more smoothly for students with special needs. Parents also can prepare their child with special needs so they can accept this change and work well with the relief teacher or casual teacher. What are the steps both the school and parents can take to make a substitute’s stay pleasant and productive for the students with different needs and a positive experience for the substitute teacher?

Substitute Teacher, Students with Special Needs: How to Prepare Both  was one of for my Coffee Klatch Tweetchat topics. With me that day was guest Lorrie Servati. Lorrie is a special education substitute teacher, mom of  four with one on the autism spectrum hence her blog Nathan’s Voice. We are both teachers and we wanted to  share what YOU, as parents, can do and what the schools could do better.

What Schools Can Do for Planned Teacher Absences

If the regular teacher’s absence is a planned one, the school and teacher herself can send notes home telling the parents about her leave, the substitute who will be taking her place, the length of the absence, and any change that this will cause. These notices could invite parents to reply with information about their child they wish the substitute to know. Often the parents are invited to a meeting to discuss this new arrangement and meet with the substitute teacher. Parents, this is your chance. GO! Write a message and open the lines of communication immediately.

The regular teacher should discuss with her students the role of a substitute and the cooperation she expects of her students when she is away. This “little talk” should be done at the beginning of the school year, a few times throughout the year, and then once more before each planned absence.  Substitutes have all the responsibilities of teachers, but often students think they have little authority. Moreover in each classroom there are students looking for ways to take advantage of the substitutes and test their limits. The students should be told the following:

  • The substitute IS their teacher and should be treated as all their other teachers.
  • The substitute will report to the regular teacher and collect their class work.
  • The classwork and assignments have the same importance as when the regular teacher is there.
  •  Classroom rules are in full effect and they have to be on their best behavior.
  • They should follow the instructions of a substitute even if they sometimes differ from the regular teacher’s.

When the regular teacher returns to class, she should discuss their behavior during her absence mentioning what the substitute said about her time spent in their class. Be sure the students know good behavior with a substitute is expected and required. Praise the class if all went well; reprimand those that did not do well.

Unplanned Teacher AbsencesWhat Schools Can Do for Unplanned Teacher Absences

If the regular teacher’s absence is an emergency that no one could plan for, this does not mean the substitute or teacher on call (T.O.C.)  has to “wing it”. Many schools have a policy that the regular teacher must have, at all times, a “substitute survival plan/kit”.  This guide for substitutes should be kept up-to-date and include:

  • A roster and the name each child uses if it differs from the given names (Elizabeth is now Liz)
  • A seating chart and seating routines for various activities
  • A list of class and school rules
  • Classroom procedures and routines during each day of the week
  • The daily class schedule
  • The location of teaching materials and supplies
  • The reward system the class uses
  • The names of students with medical concerns, academic, emotional, behavior problems, or any other special needs and strategies for dealing with them, the contact numbers and procedures for emergencies
  • The name of school personnel that can help you when the need arises during class time
  • The names of responsible students who can be called on for assistance
  • A request that you want to have a summary of the day(s) work and how the student were

Also the regular teacher usually must have a full day of lesson plans and class materials ready for a substitute at all times. These will be used for unexpected absences and can only be general in nature. These activities can be part of the program but can be taught any time of the year. Appealing activities that vary throughout the day could include brainteasers, a captivating story to read, fun math puzzles, arts and craft projects, an amusing written assignment, a ready-to-use music CD for classroom movement…  The students must not feel they are being “baby sat”. The sub and students should have a productive and problem-free day.

The guide kit will not be complete without engaging activities for the students who finish their work quickly. Moreover there should be fun, filler activities for unexpected things that can happen during a school day. This is the time when tired students can act up and ruin the day for everyone. Some substitute teachers bring their own “bag of tricks” crammed with ready-to-do educational, interesting, and fun activities. These are appropriate for multiple age/grade/ ability levels; however, they should not be used instead of the planned-by-regular-teacher activities… just used in an emergency when nothing has been left for the substitute.

Also the school administrator who looks for the substitutes can try and hire the same ones to place them in the same classes throughout the year. This is a great help because each time the replacement teacher will get to know the class routine and students better.  The “sub” is expected to pick up wherever the regular teacher has left off and having been in the classroom before or with this group of students before in a previous grade are all advantages.

-students-in-class-volunteering-for-teacher-77123365Tips for Substitute Teachers Working with a Child with Special Needs

A substitute teacher should assume that she will be in an inclusive classroom. Before ever being asked to go in for work, the sub should be familiar with the terms and acronyms used in regards to special education students. Also the subs should know about the usual accommodations or individual programs or support students with special needs might have.

As soon as the school day begins and the substitute teacher identifies the child/children with special needs because of the student seating chart and the teacher’s notes, she should speak in a calm, kind voice directly to the child/each child and reassure him/them she is ready, willing and able to help them have a good day. A substitute is disorienting to all students; therefore, a pleasant greeting and a short get-to-know- each-other session paves the way to a better day.

When addressing her student with different needs, when possible, the sub should speak directly to the child by moving closer and trying to build a rapport with him. The first step is to make the child feel safe and comfortable with the new situation. Sometimes by just showing the note the parents wrote or the regular teacher left and telling the child you know his contact information and schedule  is enough to appease this anxious child.

Substitute Teacher, Students with Special Needs: How to Prepare Both doneParents Must be Positive and Supportive  

The best thing parents can do is be positive and supportive about their child’s teacher’s upcoming absence from work. Listen to your child for hints of unease or anxiety about having a substitute teacher. Assure your child you will send a message to the sub to make sure she knows about his special needs, his accommodations, his special interests, and how to contact you. With this note, include a brief list of strategies that work best with your child and invite the sub to contact you if her stay is extended and she wants more information.

When discussing the substitute teacher with your child, remain calm, confident, and show that a substitute can be a new, fun experience.  Use this event as a good practice for learning transitions skills and on becoming more flexible with changes in routines.

Write or find a Social Story about substitute teachers. This Social Story should explain why a regular teacher may be absent.  What is the role of the substitute teacher.  How sometimes the substitute teacher may do things differently or change the schedule. How it feels to have a sub and how the sub feels. Words of assurance the regular teacher will return.

Communication between parents and the school is key during the whole school year.  It is the same when a substitute teacher is there. Parents must make every effort to help the substitute teacher understand the needs and learning differences of their child. Sometimes it just takes a bit of your time to make such a huge difference in your child’s education.


  • Roberta Posted February 25, 2013 12:47 pm

    I like the helpful information you provide in your articles.
    I will bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently.
    I am quite certain I will learn plenty of new stuff right here!
    Good luck for the next!

    • Lorna dEntremont Posted February 25, 2013 2:06 pm

      Hello Roberta, Happy to read you find my posts helpful. Hope you will return often. We try to post new articles each week.

  • Jayme Posted January 8, 2014 5:57 am

    My partner and I stumbled over here by a different website
    and thought I may as well check things out.

    I like what I see so now i’m following you. Look forward to looking
    over your web page repeatedly.

    • Lorna dEntremont Posted January 8, 2014 1:16 pm

      Pleased to read, Jayme, that you like our Special Needs Blog. Thanks for commenting!

  • Trackback: Neutralizing Negative Messaging about Children with Autism by Lorrie Servati
  • Elena Posted April 7, 2016 12:46 pm

    Thank you! Very helpful infotmation! I’m a sub and I’m beginner….I’m looking for some practical materials I can use with autism students.Can you,please tell me something about!?Thanks again for your helpful information. Elena.

  • Stacey Posted April 9, 2016 7:43 am

    I find this article incredibly frustrating. Our district would never allow a parent to contact a substitute. Yesterday my son had a sub and the note the regular teacher left for her said, “Watch Johnny, he’s a troublemaker.” The reason I know what the note said is because the substitute read it out loud to the entire class before sending my son — with special needs — to the office. Your article is a fairy tale. The reality is that parents have absolutely no input or control over what happens and it almost always goes horribly wrong.

    • Lorna dEntremont Posted April 11, 2016 9:29 am

      Hello Stacey, It saddens me to read your message and see how “the system” where you live is not more helpful to families with children with special needs. I taught school for 30 years in our French elementary classrooms and I am appalled at the note the teacher left for the substitute…and worst yet that it was read out loud to the class. In our school system, parents who advocate through proper channels and in a respectful way are listened to and usually make things happen for their child. Hope the end of the school year goes better for your son. Lorna

  • Hope Hopkins Posted May 10, 2019 1:12 pm

    Is it mandatory that a teacher informs the substitute teacher of a ADHD child In the class room prior to the substitute teaching the class?

    • Lorna dEntremont Posted May 13, 2019 1:42 pm

      Hello Hope Hopkins, Unfortunately I cannot give you an answer because each school board has their own policies regarding their schools. Furthermore policies change often so the best option is for parents to speak with the classroom teacher or the principal of their child’s school. Hope you can find a solution for your problems, Lorna

  • Hope Hopkins Posted May 10, 2019 1:15 pm

    I was told it was legally wrong to inform a substitute teacher that their is a child in the classroom with ADHD/ disability. Is this true?

    • Lorna dEntremont Posted May 13, 2019 1:43 pm

      Please read our first comment to you just above this one. Lorna

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