Home icon

Teaming in the PreK Classroom: Strategies to Help You Work Well Together

two women speaking

This podcast episode features prekindergarten teacher Mickey Gilbert, who shares tips for educators, specialists, and related service providers on teaming together.

More About Our Guest

Mickey Gilbert is a PreK teacher at Middletown Prairie Elementary in Mahomet, where she works with young children with and without disabilities. 



Intro: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.

Natalie Danner: Hello, and welcome to the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. Today, we’re talking about teaming in the PreK classroom and some strategies to help you work together well. We are joined by Mickey Gilbert. Mrs. Mickey, as she is known by her students, is a PreK teacher at Middletown Prairie Elementary in Mahomet, where she works with young children with and without disabilities. This will be her eighth year at Middletown, and her degree is in early childhood education with a special education endorsement from Millikin University. So welcome, Mickey.

Mickey Gilbert: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Natalie Danner: I’m excited to talk to you today about teaming and PreK. Let’s start out with a basic question here that gives us, sets the stage for this podcast, which is how would you describe teaming in early childhood?

Mickey Gilbert: Teaming in early childhood is actually essential to our program, as most of our kids come in either through early intervention or other places, like the doctors or hospitals, with requiring services in speech, OT [occupational therapy], PT [physical therapy], or even just some educational services. So, with that in mind, we will be working with a lot of specialists that come in and out of our classroom, working with our students, and with us. So, teaming involves working with all the different specialties to meet the needs of the students that we have in our classroom.

Natalie Danner: Great. Thanks for giving us that overview. What role do relationships in general play in teaming for you?

Mickey Gilbert: For me, relationships are very important because we are working together with those other, you know, support services that are helping these students. So I need to know what they’re doing, and they also need to know what I am doing to best meet the needs of the students. Because they’re coming in, you know, one of the things that we want to do is we have to be talking about what our schedule looks like. I don’t want them pulling the kids when we have something we’re doing important in the classroom. And they don’t to, um, and they want to be able to pull them when it’s best available for their schedules as well. So, we have to be very, from the get-go, open to communication, to making sure that our schedules are lining up, and then also, you know, making sure what they’re doing is stuff that’s gonna support us in the classroom. And then how we can support what they’re doing in their individual services in the classroom as well. And then for some kids we also have where they push in. So, they have to know that they’re comfortable and welcome in our classroom to do what they need to do best to meet the kid’s needs. So, it’s a constant discussion and give and take, and figuring it all out on how to work best together.

Natalie Danner: It sounds like communication is really key in that relationship between you and other specialists that work together in your team.

Mickey Gilbert: Yeah.

Natalie Danner: So, that is great. One of the things that you mentioned to me in our earlier conversation is that there’s a unique way that specialists and teachers work together in your school. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Mickey Gilbert: So, we are very lucky here at Middletown that we have a great working relationship with our specialists, to the point that almost all of them come in and do full group lessons with our students. So not only do they meet individually with the students who have needs, but once a week we have full class lessons with our OT, our PT, our speech, and our social worker come in and do group lessons.

Today, we even had our OT was in. They did a putting on gloves lesson, and talk about a skill that all PreKers need. My OT kids need it, but so do all my others that just takes a lot of time putting gloves on in the winter. And so, she came in, and they all practiced putting gloves on. She did a little song with all the kids. So, it’s just so beneficial to have these small lessons that all of the kids get to meet the specialists, and they get to work together, and then not only do the OT kids get some extra work time, but then the other kids feel like they’re part of it. So, when they’re in the room, they recognize them, and they know what they’re doing. So, we are very lucky that each of our specialists work with them in this way.

Natalie Danner: I am so excited to hear of a lesson that OT is teaching with putting on gloves. That is something that every child really needs to learn, and sometimes I have trouble with. Even if they’re not a child with a disability or a need for OT. But that’s a great thing.

Mickey Gilbert: Yeah, these kids don’t remember putting on gloves from winter to winter, because it was so long ago, and at these ages I mean gloves are a tricky skill, and it’s definitely helpful for us to have some support with putting them on and helping the kids figure it out.

Natalie Danner: Well, since you’ve told me a little bit about how that unique way that specialists and teachers work together in your school. Logistically, how does that arrangement work for you as a teacher? So how does that arrangement impact the relationship between you and each specialist, when you’re talking about PT or OT doing a whole group lesson in your classroom as well as individual therapy?

Mickey Gilbert: So, for us, thankfully, we have a co-plan that we do once a week with the specialists and just me during our collab time that we have. So, during that co-plan, we talk about what the lessons are going to look like that week, and then what we can do to kind of make sure. So they all have set times that they come in, that we know that they’re coming so that’s laid out in advance, it’s the beginning of the year. We know when each specialist is coming, how that works into our day, you know, because I have to work my day around when they’re coming to make sure that you know sometimes, I miss an activity that I would normally do, because they’re in the room. But we value those services just as much as we value what we’re doing too. So, we definitely want to give them that time.

So, we make sure that they have the time. So, we work during the co-labs to make sure that we’re meeting the right needs of the students. I’m prepared for what they’re bringing in, so they’ll tell us like, hey, we need glue this week, or we’re going to divide them into small groups this week, and then that way we know kind of what they’re doing with everybody. And then when it comes to taking them individually, you know, they have a set schedule with that, too, that I know when they’re leaving, and when they’re coming back. And so, we work with them on those schedules, too.

Natalie Danner: So, it sounds like you have a plan, you have a schedule, and you work together to kind of meet the needs of all of the children in the class.

Mickey Gilbert: Yes.

Natalie Danner: That sounds great. Now when we talk about referral and the special education assessment process and the identification process, how do the teachers and specialists work together in your school to notice those differences in perhaps a child who enters your school without an IEP or without a diagnosis for a potential referral for special education, assessment and identification?

Mickey Gilbert: So, most of the children come to our program via a screening process. So once a month our school does a screening, and then we give the DIAL-4 for that. And then that kind of gives us an idea of potential delays that we might be seeing and/or risk factors that come in. So, we use kind of that DIAL information to kind of bring them in what we call “overall potential delay.” We’re seeing things that we’re looking at, but we’re not quite ready to do anything yet because what we consider is that PreK is kind of that Tier 1 intervention.

So, bringing them in might be all we need to kind of bridge that gap between what typically developing peers are doing versus where they are. So, we always bring those kids in that were kind of highlighted at screenings, and we say, all right, these are the kids that we feel need to be in the program. We’re going to offer that support. And then again, that co-plan time is where we’re sitting there and we’re like, okay, this student’s now been here for four or five weeks. I’m not hearing a good raise in his language.

You know we’re still not saying many more words than we were saying when we came in, you know. And that’s when I can talk to my speech therapist. It’s like, hey, you come in on Fridays. Have you been hearing? You know, what about his language is concerning to you? Or are you thinking that we’re still age appropriate? Because I am not a speech therapist, so that I need to rely on her expertise to really help me understand like, is this age appropriate? Is this kind of I’m just overseeing it? Or if she thinks there’s a concern, too. And so that’s at the point where we can do that, and then say, all right, we’re both seeing some concerns.

So now let’s look into that next process. Let’s pay more, let’s pay closer attention. Let’s make sure that what we’re seeing is what’s happening, and now we have both of us kind of really listening, and then we can compare notes to that next co-plan, and then we discuss, okay, now it’s time to reach out to that parent to really see what they’re seeing, you know. Are they seeing the same concerns at home? Or is it just maybe they’re shy for us, and not wanting to share information.

So, then we bring that parent in once we’ve kind of both agreed that we’re seeing this. Now the parent’s in, and then we kind of move forward, the three of us with the parent, and then we kind of say, okay, now, it’s time to look into an eval. So, we take that screening, we bring them in for that kind of Tier 1 intervention of PreK, and then during that I’m taking notes. I’m not seeing language growing. I’m not, we’re kind of stalled out with this. Now, I need to bring the specialists in to make sure, you know. I’m not a specialist, and I’m kind of the general. I need their input to make sure that what I’ve seen is appropriate, and then we can kind of bring the parents in, and then we kind of move on from there for services beyond that.

Natalie Danner: So, what I’m hearing from you is this real emphasis on progress monitoring and observation within your classroom, but also reaching out when you know that there is a specialist in the building who has perhaps a greater repertoire of, you know, speech and language milestones, you know. If you have an SLP [speech-language pathologist] in the building, why not reach out to them? If you’re having concerns with the child who has maybe some indications of speech issues.

So, I think those two things coming together, thinking about how you’re gathering information yourself, how you’re reaching out and collaborating with other people, and how you’re bringing all of that information together to a parent, to work with a parent about, you know, that’s process of assessment and identification. It’s really important. Thanks for sharing your process.

So now we know that you have children with and without disabilities and delays in your classroom. It’s an inclusive classroom. So how do you collaborate to best provide that follow through for children with disabilities and IEPs in your classroom? So, for example, if you had a child who was getting occupational therapy, how do you know what to continue working on for those OT goals within the classroom after your occupational therapist leaves you, or after the occupational therapist provides services to the individual child?

Mickey Gilbert: One thing that again we’re really fortunate with is our therapist really asks us what kind of skills we really want to focus on that will help them the most in the classroom. Nobody works in a bubble in our building, so they don’t take them out and do things that don’t relate to exactly what we’re going to need done in the classroom. So, when it comes to like one of the skills that they work on, is that routine goal of putting their folder on the table that we have, putting their backpack away, putting their coat away. You know they’re in there, on their day to visit, they practice that with them, and then obviously, it’s a routine goal that we work on every day with them, you know.

And so, because we work together with those skills, you know, we are building that student’s independence wanting them to do that skill that OT comes in and shows us, hey, this is the button I’ve added to their zipper to go help them zip their backpack. Or this is the checklist that I’ve put in their cubby to try to help them stay on task with the orders of what we’re doing for cubby, with folder on the table, backpack put away, coat put away, wash hands.

So, we use all of those things together to make sure that we’re all meeting those same goals, and then, when it comes to writing, we all use the same language. We all use handwriting without tiers as far as our writing instruction. So when they hear our instruction, it’s the same instruction they’re hearing from their OT. When we talk about scissors, we have a little thumbs up to cut, open and shut, that’s how we cut. We are using that same language that they’re using in OT with those students.

So, we’re making sure that they’re not hearing different ways. I mean there are lots of ways to do the same thing that are right or not. You know, none of them are wrong. They’re all right, but we want to make sure that that language they’re getting is the same. So, we really are working with those therapists on how they’re doing it.

Our PT, when we have a student that has PT, comes in and talks about how to sit on the carpet and what’s acceptable, and so we will let the other kids, you know. There you can sit crisscross, but some kids can’t. So, then there’s Mermaid sitting, or there’s you know, mountain sitting with your knees up, and we open it up so that all the kids can sit kind of their preferred way on the carpet.

But again, making sure that we’re accommodating what that student needs, and since she sits on the carpet, you know, a couple times a day, we want to make sure that we’re doing what’s safe, and what’s right for that student. And then also letting everybody else kind of match that so they don’t feel like they’re excluded, or they’re unique. You know everybody has an opportunity. Nobody is doing something that’s special over anybody else. We want to be as inclusive as possible with all of the students.

Natalie Danner: That makes so much sense. I mean, when you brought up the idea of cutting and an OT who might be helping a particular child with an IEP who struggles with some of those fine motor tasks. And thinking of the language that we use to teach cutting, which is such a big skill for 3- and 4-year-olds, and even 5-year-olds, and above sometimes, too, but having that carry over.

So, whatever the OT is doing to help teach that child and to help make improvements in their fine motor skills, to use that same language and that same process for instruction. I think that’s so helpful because that’s not separating therapy from education. It’s keeping it all in that continuum. And I think that’s so helpful for the child and for the family to see that everyone is on the same page, and I think that that’s also what can make a strong team. It sounds like it to me, anyway, that you have a strong team because you have that.

Mickey Gilbert: Yeah, we really do, and consistency and working with each other. And you know, the more we have, like my speech therapist is, we each have our own for our own classroom, so I work with the same speech therapist for all of my students. So I don’t have multiple that, you know we’re coordinating with. I have my one speech therapist. She tells me kind of what she’s working on. I’ll use that same kind of questioning. I’ll use when we read stories, you know I kind of use some of the tricks that she uses when she comes in and does her group.

I’ve been able to learn from her and what she’s using to kind of get those language pieces from both the IEP students and just the classroom in general at where we’re at, and use those to carry over when I’m doing, read alouds, and when I’m doing activities with them. So, you know we’re really learning from each other and trying really hard to make sure we’re giving the kids the same information across the board for all of our students.

Natalie Danner: So, here’s a question that always comes up with any teacher. So, if you’re struggling with supporting a particular child in your class, how do your colleagues and your partners and your team members support you?

Mickey Gilbert: So here we have, every teacher has an aide in the classroom. So, there’s always two adults in the classroom. So, the first person that I always go to try to figure out what’s going on is my aide in the classroom. And I’m like, what do you think we’re doing? What do you think we can change? So, I have a student right now who we’ve struggled with. He’s relatively new, but we have learned that you have to give him basically four reminders before he’s going to do what we need him to do.

So, between the two of us we’ve kind of been like, what is going on, and she’s like, well, I’ve noticed the more we tell him the more he’ll finally do it. And it’s like, okay, wait. So, then we kind of stood back and kind of watched that. And we’re like, okay, reminder one didn’t quite do it. Reminder two didn’t. Reminder three didn’t. But on the fourth ask, he actually just got up and did it. And we’re like, oh, so now we both know, we just need to ask and prep it multiple times before he’s willing to go. But then most of the time he will do it.

But that took both of us kind of having that conversation to be like, well, I’ve seen him do it sometimes, but then not other times. And she’s like, I think it’s more reminders to get it to happen. And so, we’ve kind of built that into our timing. Okay, if I want this done by this time, I need to start reminding pretty early in the process. We’re going to do this, and you know we use first-and-then language with him a lot. First this, then that. But we kind of have to give it that fourth time, and then he’s like finally ready to kind of do it.

But that’s who I go to first for most of our stuff in the classroom is that, with my aid. And then, honestly, there’s four teachers who do PreK here. So, my second step is usually our lunch meeting. We actually most of us eat lunch together, and so we sit in there and we’re like, I am not sure what to do. What do you guys think? And then we really collaborate with each other. We’ve all had kids that are, you know, every kid’s unique, like I still can’t believe, after eight years and all these kids, I still see a kid that I’ve never seen before in my life, and I don’t know what to do with, and so we’re really open about what do you guys think of this? What do you think of that? And they will offer a lot of great suggestions on how to handle what they’ve done to kind of support these kids.

And I mean, every kid is unique. So what tricks you’ve tried on one is just a trick to try on this one. But you’re never quite sure what it’s gonna be, and what that kind of in-between bridge to get your end goal is going to be with the student. And then beyond that, if we’re still struggling, you know, then we go to the support staff. Our building does have a behavior interventionist. We have admin that is specifically over PreK. So we have them to go to as well.

So we have a level in which we all seek out support. And everybody, thankfully, I’m lucky it to be in a situation where everybody is open and doesn’t judge. When you’re struggling with a kid, they are more than happy to help, and they want to help. And you don’t feel like you’re failing because you’re not helping this kid as you need to. It really does feel like a supportive environment, and they’re ready to kind of help you figure out all the things to get some of these kids. Because some kiddos just need a lot of different tricks thrown at them, and some, you know, a couple of suggestions, and you can figure it out.

Natalie Danner: It sounds like you have just a great community there, where you feel trusting enough that you can go to other people within your building when you’re struggling too. And I hope this podcast reaches many teachers to tell them that if you’re struggling, reach out, reach out to other people. You don’t have to know it all, and you can’t know it all actually. It’s not possible, and it’s not possible to know every particular child that will come in front of you throughout your years of teaching.

So fill those relationships with those other teachers in your building, with your classroom community of teachers, aids, assistants. Whoever you have together. I think that’s really, really important for when you’re talking about teaming and building your community. So I gave a little suggestion there. But what are your most important tips for other teachers when it comes to teaming with other professionals?

Mickey Gilbert: I think one of the most important ones, and one that kinda that it took me a minute to realize is there is no exact right way to do some of this. Your way, because somebody does it a different way. It’s not necessarily they’re the perfect way, and you’re the perfect way. It’s okay that your styles are a little different in how we meet kids’ needs. And you don’t have to be a certain way, you know, to meet their needs. You gotta be what you’re comfortable with, and who you are in your classroom.

And then, when you ask for support, you know, you can take it, and then kind of make it what is more comfortable for you. I know one of my colleagues, she is very strict on center times and switching centers and making sure things are kind of picked up before the kids move on. I am not that way. You know my room’s a little more free flowing, and that works for me, and that works for her. And it took me a little bit to accept the fact, like I kept thinking that maybe in my way wasn’t right, and I need to try this, and I think it’s important to understand that you can come across, you know, what you do is important, and how you’re comfortable doing it. And all the ways look different.

So if you have like a speech therapist who kind of handles it a little differently than you, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. It’s just you handle things a little bit differently, and I think it’s super important to be comfortable in yourself, to be open to new ideas, but at the same time like doing what works for you.

And if this idea that comes in is not working for you, it’s okay to kind of tweak it and to talk about that. It’s okay. I’m going to do it this way, too. It’s just important to be really comfortable in your classroom and be open with the people that are around you and how you envision this to look like.

Natalie Danner: Thank you. Those are some great ideas for teachers out there to think about how they can better do teaming and collaboration and being open to new ideas. I want to thank you, Mickey, for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. I’ve really enjoyed having you today.

Mickey Gilbert: Thank you so much.

Natalie Danner: And until next time, keep early learning at the forefront.

You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2023