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5 Steps To Run An Effective Study Skills Class for Middle and High School Special Education Students

Updated: May 23

In this article, I will walk you through how to run an effective Study Skills class as a special educator, which in turn will improve the executive function skills of your students.

There is a lot of confusion in the world of teaching around what exactly should occur during this class, in addition to the fact that a Study Skills class can go by other names including:

  • Resource Period

  • Academic Workshop

  • Executive Function Skills Class

  • And more

If you are a special education teacher, administrator, or special needs parent, this guide is for you!

In this guide, I am going to lay out the 5 key elements for a successful Study Skills class, so that everyone benefits.

By implementing these tips:

  • Students will develop key executive function skills that will reward them for life

  • Special educators will have a clear agenda and vision for their Study Skills class

  • Administrators will worry less about what is happening during those periods

  • Parents will get more value from the special education process

  • School districts will incur fewer lawsuits and save taxpayers money

Most districts have no clear standards or expectations around what their Study Skills classes look like, and often leave it in the hands of the teacher to figure out.

However, because most Special Education training programs do not teach students the fundamentals of how to structure a Study Skills class, these special education teachers find themselves confused and overwhelmed by the open-ended nature of these classes.

This leads to:

  • Teacher burnout

  • Upset parents who become litigious about ineffective IEPs

  • Students spending time on YouTube or aimlessly browsing the internet

  • Administrators overwhelmed with trying to manage upset teachers and parents

I'll make it easy on you and share 5 steps you can take to ensure your Study Skills class provides lots of value to students and families, while adding a bit of fun to your day.

How to run a Study Skills class that your students never forget

Before we jump into the how-to guide, I've identified 4 main reasons why special education teachers struggle with the concept and implementation of the Study Skills period:

  • District administrators do not provide clear guidelines, frameworks and professional development opportunities for how Study Skills periods should be implemented.

  • Special Education teachers become overwhelmed and try to do TOO much, or give up, and make it a "free for all."

  • Special educators do not know how to leverage their para educators to delegate and prioritize based on student needs

  • Special educators do not use the time to track IEP goals, and thus do not make individualized progress with students

I'll show you how to get around these common pitfalls so you can design and implement a memorable Study Skills class that genuinelly fosters student growth.

Here's how, step by step:

Step 1: Start by "clearing the deck"

When students walk into your Study Skills class their are usually feeling:

  • Overwhelmed by their classes

  • Disengaged from the homework and assignments they are expected to manage

  • Unaware of the many competing demands on their time

To address this core issue, start by having students "clear the deck" when they enter your room. Here are a few ideas:

  • Have them brain dump into a journal what is on their mind

  • Draw mind maps of what they are thinking about

  • Group them into small-pods (3-4 students each), and share what is on their mind.

If you want to step your game up a bit, have a unique journal prompt of the board each day they walk in.

I use the App Day One which has a daily, open-ended prompt.

Perhaps, see if you can use some of your professional development budget to get the App!

Step 2: Have every student make a PLAN for the period

Often, the Study Skills period can be long -- up to 90 minutes. Because of this, it is important that students create a PLAN.

PLAN stands for the following:

  • Put it in the calendar

  • Leave room before and after each event (in case the time estimate is off)

  • Alarms to remind you of each event

  • Never move an event twice (this signals you need to break it into smaller steps).

As a teacher, it is not possible for you to sit with each student and create an individualized plan on most days.

However, you can float through the room while they all create their own plans and give bite sized feedback to keep them on track.

If one student is overwhelmed by the process, this is a good opportunity for you to use your para educator to provide some individualized support for that student, or a small group.

Additionally, If your students are not familiar with how to use a planner, or Google Calendar, you can teach a mini lesson to the class on how to use a planner or calendar effectively.

For a step by step guide on how to use Google Calendar, check out this article.

Remember, your power as a special educator teacher is not only in DOING, it is also in DELEGATING.

Research shows that one of the highest impact factors on student achievement is your ability to identify what the student needs to learn next, or "estimate" the skill deficit.

Use your para educators or highly-engaged students to your advantage and build a strong classroom culture, rather than DOING everything yourself.

Step 3: Have a dedicated work block

In order to get in the habit of using the classroom effectively, students also need to TAKE ACTION.

As Leonardo DaVinci said:

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

After students have planned out the period, the teacher and para educator should float around the room and scan for students who need additional support to complete a challenging assignment.

This is an opportunity for the teacher to identify common issues and then use the identification of these patters to:

  • Create mini-lesson to teach missing skills

  • Use knowledge about students to group them appropriately

Set a time on the board so that students know this "sprint" will end.

Additionally, make sure their is an opportunity after the work block that they look forward to.

Step 4: Build in unstructured time

Building in unstructured time to your Study Skills class is equally important as the work times.

Students with special needs require brain breaks in order to process information and gather their energy.

A recent study found the following:

A study reported by HR News revealed that  after a week without coffee breaks, almost 80% of subjects noticed a decrease in productivity. And that on average, they noticed a productivity decrease of around 23%.

In my Study Skills class, after a 30 minute "sprint", we would have 15 or 20 minutes of Game Time, where students could choose a game and play.

I used my classroom budget to purchase games and also allowed students to bring in their own. Games included:

  • Go Fish

  • Apples to Apples

  • Chess

  • Checkers

  • Set

Building in this unstructured and fun time is a great way to create a sustainable and engaging experience for students.

Step 5: Teach reflection before leaving

At the end of each class period, build in time for students to reflective.

This practice enhances executive function skills like:

  • Metacognition (thinking about your thinking)

  • Cognitive flexibility

It also happens to be one of the highest impact factors according to John Hattie's research on education.

Come up with some prompts to end the class period. Here are a few of my favorite:

  • What is your Rose, Thorn, and Bud for today's Study Skills class?

  • What is your Grow and Glow for today?

Some teachers like to use the GROW framework, which stands for the following:

  • Gratitude - What is one thing you are grateful for?

  • Regret - What is one thing you wish you had done?

  • Opportunity - What is an opportunity you have coming up?

  • Wonder - What is causing you wonder or joy in your life today?

You can mix it up, or stick to one approach. Allow your kids to riff on these ideas and you'll be amazed at what they create.

I had one student share a different Rose, Thorn and Bud each day saying things like:

  • Ferrari, Honda, and Mercedes

  • Steak, Spam, and Hot Dog

Other Activities and Mini-Lessons to incorporate

Throughout the year, you can also work in many other key activities to build executive function skills and get to know your students.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Have students take different self-assessment to understand their learning styles, then use this information to support them throughout the semester

  • Personal interviews to help you get to know my students and also fill in the skills and interests portion of the IEP

  • Teach students a goal setting system

  • Teach students how to take Cornell notes

  • Team building exercises

  • Role-play asking teachers for help/accommodations.

If you want more ideas on lesson you can teach your students that will have a huge impact on their executive function skills, check out my four part guide on how to have the best semester yet.

Don't Forget

Every week, take time to work on reviewing your students IEPs and building in activities to work on their goals.

If you do a bit each week, sending out those progress reports near the end of the semester will be a piece of cake.

  • Start by clearing the deck or doing a brain dump

  • All students must make a plan for the period

  • Have a "sprint" or focused work-block

  • Create unstructured time to reward the hard work

  • Ensure students self-reflect each period

If you put these principles into practice, you will have an amazing Study Skills class that will be easier to manage, provide value to students and families, and leave you feeling proud of the impact you are making.

Hope this helps!


Check out these helpful resources for more ideas

About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 

With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.

He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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About 👋

EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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