Building Confident Learners in the Special Education Classroom

Six years ago, Perla Dionicio walked into a classroom of students with autism and was blown away by how they were learning to use pictures to communicate their feelings.

The mother of a child with special needs, Perla understood the difficulties children with autism have when trying to express themselves and communicate their wants and needs - many cannot use verbal communication. After that classroom visit, Perla knew she wanted to make a difference at a much more personal level.

With her experience as a school computer lab technician for many years, Perla applied to be a teacher assistant, but was rejected. Instead of giving up, Perla exhibited persistence and committed to going to college full-time to get a degree in psychology and become a special education teacher. All this despite being a single mother and supporting her children at the same time.

A first-year teacher, Perla is now interning at Madison Elementary in Santa Ana, CA. But when Perla arrived at her classroom to prepare for her incoming TK-2nd grade students, she was again discouraged. It would take time for the school to gather resources and furniture for her classroom, and most public schools can only provide the basics: desks and chairs.


Neighboring teachers gave what they could, contributing a carpet square and a couple of pieces of worn furniture. But Perla envisioned an interactive environment to support her high-needs students.

The Benefits of Play for Students with Autism

Students with autism can become overwhelmed with emotion. If they don’t have anything sensory to help work out their feelings, then they express themselves through negative behavior.

- Perla Dionicio

Through our community, we heard about Perla’s story of perseverance, and her struggle to meet the needs of her students. MIND colleagues in the art departments banded together to create limited edition and one-of-a-kind art pieces to raise money. They sold these pieces during an organizational retreat this past summer, giving their fellow MIND colleagues an opportunity to be a part of the fundraising effort.


Paco Bazaar raised $1100 to purchase classroom items, including: puzzles, games, rug, cubbie cabinet, mini fridge, and a $300 amazon gift card for other items. They also put together a package of JiJi swag for the students, who use the ST Math program created by MIND Research Institute. Colleagues visited the classroom during the students’ lunch hour to put together and set up the goods.


The students’ reactions were great!

When I opened the door and the students ran in, I got this overwhelming feeling of happiness. I saw all the things I wanted my students to have but couldn’t afford. I cannot explain the difference you guys made to students and myself.

- Perla Dionicio


"When we started Paco Bazaar, we wanted to find a way to utilize our artists’ creativity to give back to the community," said Jo Zafra, visual designer at MIND Research Institute. "I personally have found so much joy when we go into the classroom and get to see firsthand how thankful the teacher is and how much the kids faces light up when they see the gifts that JiJi brought for them. It is such a rewarding experience to be a part of."

The games offer more than a sensory break and way to manage emotions. Play has many benefits for all early learners, helping them develop skills like communication, listening, collaboration, problem solving and more.

My goal with my students is to help them develop the skills to have closer to a normal life experience. Teaching them how to play, interact and communicate with others...they are learning lifelong skills for interacting in the real world.

-Perla Dionicio

Students Learn More than Academics at School

Perla lets parents and students know that "in my classroom their children will learn more than academics, they will learn about caring and loving each other, about being respectful. Just loving themselves and having the confidence to face the rest of the world."

Perla’s approach appears to be working. Three weeks into the school year she asked for feedback from parents and the support was overwhelming. They mentioned how their children are now excited to go to school now, and how students are able to demonstrate what they are learning in class.


The highlight of my day is walking up to their school bus in the morning and hearing the students calling my name, and wiggling in their seats because they are so excited to be at school.

- Perla Dionicio

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Perla, and for being an awesome teacher making a difference in the lives of your students!

Interested in working with an amazing group of colleagues who give back to the community? Learn more about life at MIND:

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Calli Wright

About the Author

Calli Wright was the Marketing Manager at MIND Research Institute. She loves playing and designing board games, which she often talks about on twitter @CalliWrights.


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