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Teaching Social Skills with Hangman: A day in the life of a special education teacher.

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I want to give you a little taste of what it is like to be a special education teacher. I was having a really big problem in my resource classroom. My students were just simply not getting along (to put it nicely).

My students always on each other’s cases. It could start with the smallest thing. If one student was absent-mindedly tapping their pencil, another would tell them to knock it off. Then the first student would point out "you can't t tell me what to do". This would quickly escalate with raised voices and distracted learners.

On good days, I would spend 10 minutes putting out fires, reminding students to let me do the disciplining. On bad days, more than half my students would need to go outside for a “cooling-off period” at one point during class.

All this was distracting from learning. And I can’t have that. So I put my foot down. My students were going to LIKE each other, goshdarnit! All it took was one 55-minute class period to get the students and my students were treating each other with respect.


By the end of the day I had students complimenting each other, waiting their turn, and working together towards a common goal. The steps were simple and easy to do. I want to share my tips with you to get your kids to work together so you can stop playing referee and enjoy your children’s company.

Step in to my classroom for a moment, and let me share with you a typical scenario.

Scenario One (Not their real names)

Evelyn (across the classroom): “Johnny, stop looking at me!”

Me: “Evelyn, if you’re having a problem with another student, please let me know so I can solve your problem. I don’t want you shouting across the room. Ok?”

Evelyn: “Ok”

Me: (turning to Johnny): “Johnny, please keep your eyes on your own-”

Johnny: “But I wasn’t looking at her!”

Me: “Johnny, I saw you turn your body around to look at Evelyn in the back of the class. It’s distracting other students, and you need --”

Evelyn: “Haha, yeah, stop distracting me, Johnny!”

Me: (turning to Evelyn): “Evelyn, I just got Johnny back on track and now you’re distracting--”

Johnny: (across the classroom): “Besides, I wasn’t even looking at you anyway! I was looking behind you...”

And so on and so forth.

Sound familiar?

If you have more than one child, chances are good you’ve dealt with the same endless back-and-forth. I know, because I had siblings.

Kids with disabilities socialize differently from their peers. Your child may have issues with impulse control or a heightened sense of justice. They may have difficulty seeing things from other people’s point of view, or they may simply lack flexibility (the ability to stay calm and cool when things don’t go their way).

My class has all of these challenges.

Enough is enough!

When one of my students crossed a line and got himself sent to the principal’s office, I had finally had enough. The next day, I lined them up outside my classroom and quietly told them, “We are going to end this bickering and fighting once and for all.”

They were silent, waiting for the wrath of Mr. Street to start raining down.

“You have a choice. You can choose to work quietly on a math review, or you can choose to play hangman as a class.”

The students raised their hands in the air and shouted in unison, “Hangman!”

“Fine,” I replied, restoring calm and order. “But if you’re going to play, you have to follow the rules. If you cannot follow the rules, you won't be allowed to play. You will work on the math review worksheet instead.”

The rules of the game.

I wrote each student’s initials at the top of the board. Under each set of initials, I drew two lines.

Me: “Each time I have to remind you to follow a particular rule, I will erase one of these lines. When you have no more lines, you are no longer allowed to play.”


  1. Wait for your turn. (Do not call out answers or suggestions)

  2. You may only offer help if a teammate asks you for help.

  3. When it is another teammate’s turn, the only words you are allowed to say are words of encouragement. (Build each other up, not bring each other down).

  4. If you have a problem with another student’s behavior, you let me solve it.

  5. Whispering is allowed, as long as it is not loud enough for other people to hear.

Me: “If you are being a good teammate, following the rules, and building each other up, I MAY decide to give you an extra point. But that is my decision, and you may not ask for another point.”

WHY I chose these rules:

They don’t know it, but I’m teaching them skills that I want them to have in my classroom. When teaching these skills in the context of a game, students are motivated to follow the rules.

Each rule teaches my students a skill I need them to have for better classroom environment.

  1. This is a skill that is necessary for group instruction. When I call on a particular student for an answer, I want that student to get an opportunity to think and respond without feeling rushed by other students.

  2. I want students to view each other as resources. Some of the most powerful learning comes from teaching another person how to do something. However, I want students to understand that “helping” each other does not involve telling them the answer. Students deserve the reward that comes from working through a problem, and this rule reinforces that idea.

  3. This rule is simply to get them some practice saying nice things to each other. We had very few positive words going between students. I really wanted to encourage them to get in the habit. (I gave a lot of points back to students after someone said something nice to a teammate).

  4. This has been a long-standing rule in my classroom. Some students have gotten very good at respecting this rule. I always solve their problems quickly. The reason this is a rule is because they have not demonstrated to me that they are mature enough to solve their own problems productively. Eventually I will start to give them that responsibility again. But first, I must make sure that everyone is treating each other with respect.

  5. School is social. You should be friends with your classmates. I want my students to understand that they are allowed to enjoy each other’s company. Whispering is allowed during independent work, but my students have volume control issues. We need to continue practicing whispering, but this rule gave us a chance to directly address it.


They did so well the first day. My impulsive students waited for longer than I had even thought possible. Nobody called each other out for rule violations. When things weren’t going well, they took a deep breath. And everybody was encouraging each other and asking for help from their teammates. It worked so well, we played it for three days straight.

Your turn!

You can use this same strategy at home to turn frenemmies into besties.

The first thing you need to do is identify your problem behaviors.

  • What do your kids do that drive you crazy on a day to day basis?

  • Make a list, and rank them in order of frustration.

Look at each problem behavior on that list and think to yourself,

“What do I want my child to do instead?”

Have you ever found yourself playing referee? Try this simple trick!

Just create a game that your kids are motivated to participate in.

Then, pick some things you wish your children would do to work better together.

Turn them into rules, and explain them thoroughly. Give examples and non-examples.

Then, have fun!

TIP: Make sure to tell your kids when they’re doing well. By praising your kids when they are following the rules, you are encouraging them to practice the behaviors you want them to learn. Make sure you explicitly mention the behaviors you want to see them do more often. This makes it easier for the kids to attribute your praise to the exact behavior for which they are being praised.

For example:

“Wow, Michael, you are doing a great job of waiting your turn. I'm sure your sister really appreciates your patience.”

“You’re being a really good teammate right now by sharing your tokens with your brother.”

I want to hear from you!

Share your successful stories in the comments below ----

  • What kinds of social challenges do your kids face?

  • What strategies do you find work for your child??

  • Have you taught social skills through games?

Share in the comments below.

As always, happy learning!

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