3 ways gen ed teachers can support students with disabilities

Every school year is unique, but the 2021–22 school year will bring specific challenges to the art of teaching due to COVID-19. We are just now processing research that shows the effects of interrupted learning during the pandemic; gains in math and reading were lower than in a typical year, and BIPOC students and kids in high-poverty schools were affected the most. While interrupted learning can be due to a variety of factors, data is also pointing to another troubling trend: students in special education struggled to make academic proficiency gains more than same age/grade peers.

Setting up routines and procedures in the classroom will be as key as always this year. Here are three specific things to try this fall as you work to ensure the students with disabilities in your general education class receive the instruction they need.

Tip 1: See if there are overlapping accommodations and modifications

Each student in special education has an individual education plan (IEP) written by their special ed teacher, often referred to as a case manager, and developed in team meetings (which you can attend!). If a student in your class has an IEP, ask for access to that document and read through it. It may be available digitally, if your school uses a learning management system. If it’s not, ask their case manager for a hard copy. Regardless of how you get the IEP, think of it as your first opportunity to build a relationship with that case manager. It will be invaluable for you to able to consult about the needs of students you share throughout the year.

I’d like to point out three especially valuable sections in any IEP. While these documents vary a bit from state to state, all should include the following sections. (To take a look at a sample IEP, visit the Oregon Department of Education’s website for copies of the Oregon Standard IEP form in multiple languages.)

  • Present level of educational performance. This first section explains a student’s current level of performance. Sometimes referred to by the acronyms PLOP, PLAAFP, or PLP, it discusses the strengths, interests, preferences, and needs of a student. It usually breaks down by major academic area and details areas of skill, deficit, or strength in reading, writing, and math. In addition to the academic areas, this section also discusses areas including attendance, communication, and social-emotional, study, and motor skills.
  • Services. Later in an IEP, you’ll notice a section dedicated to documenting services a student receives. It lists both the service time and area a student in special education is legally entitled to and the location of those services. For example, you may have a student who needs reading services in the special education setting. Chances are they have resource-room time built into their schedule or pull-out services with a special education teacher during your class.
  • Supplementary aids and services. Here you’ll see what accommodations or modifications (they’re not the same thing!) a student needs to have equitable access to your general education classroom. These are supports like extended time, reduced problem sets, and access to math charts or tools, a calculator, and text-to-speech.

As part of your planning process, I recommend pulling all your students’ IEPs together and comparing and contrasting them, especially the sections noted above. Getting a complete picture of what all your students with disabilities will need this year can help you save time because, if there’s some overlap, you can make fewer plans for differentiating instruction. It can also help you ensure you’re meeting the needs of all the children in your class. You can sort the information into two groups.

  1. Common accommodations or modifications. If all or most of your students with disabilities have a certain accommodation or modification, you can start including that in all your lessons or on your assessments (more on that a little later) and making those supports available with your lesson materials. This approach will likely benefit all the students in your class, regardless of disability status, because plenty of kids who aren’t in special education can struggle in many of the same ways when learning math, reading, writing, behavior, and communication skills. Consider, for example, that reading instruction best practices for students with dyslexia tend to benefit all students in the room.
  2. Unique accommodations and modifications. Some students will have needs that are unique to them. They will require more planning from you, and it is critical you become familiar with them because they are federally required. They can be bigger pieces, such as break cards for kinesthetic learnings or emotional regulation deficits that allow students to exit the classroom. These cards allow kids to step outside so they can reregulate and use coping skills to deal with emotions, stress, or academic demands. In addition, their sensory needs can be met by moving or burning excess energy. Planning the best time for this is key so students do not miss key concepts. Students with fine or gross motor deficits may also need adaptive technology supports, so sharing PowerPoint slides, Kahoot! content, or other digital resources may require additional planning.

Tip 2: Increase guided practice

After you’ve studied all the IEPs for your students, your thinking will inevitably shift to, “Okay, well, how? And with what time?” These are important concerns.

While we cannot increase the length of the bell schedule, we can shift the structure of the lesson plans we use. Lesson plans that allow for a gradual release of responsibility can help. They rely on a larger guided practice section, which can help you create more opportunities to implement accommodations. Guided practice is a part of the gradual release model “I do. We do. You do.”

When tackling the “I do” section, limit how much time you spend speaking so the information you’re providing is in digestible chunks. The “We do” is a modeling collaboration between you and your students that solidifies concepts from the beginning of a lesson. Intervals of teacher guidance through modeling and formative questioning strategies, followed by independent student work (the “You do”), will allow you to move through the classroom and implement individual accommodations and/or modifications. In addition, you can provide individual or small-group modeling, do checks for understanding, or break tasks up in pieces for certain students. Proximity interventions can increase in longer guided practice sections, which enables more one-on-one check-ins. This is critical coming out of distance learning as advocacy skills may be low due to the difficulties of learning during COVID-19.

Tip 3: Plan for accessible assessment

Tip #1 deals with your daily lesson plans and the acquisition of knowledge students need to move up Bloom’s Taxonomy and develop content proficiency. Tip #2 targets what to focus on during instruction. Now let’s talk about assessment.

IEPs contain precise accommodations or modifications for assessment, and they can be different from lesson accommodations or modifications. These will likely be found in a different section of the IEP and will include things like end-of-year state summatives and even the SAT. Whether you proctor those kinds of tests or not, you can use this information when designing assessments for your students, including formative assessments, and when administering interim assessments like MAP® Growth™. (To learn more about specific features built into our assessments, visit NWEA.org/accommodations/accessibility.) This needn’t create significant extra prep! When gearing up for your first set of assessments, ask yourself the following questions, based on the process you followed earlier:

  1. What assessment accommodations or modifications are shared by my students, and how can I plan my assessments to allow for them?
  2. What assessment accommodations or modifications are unique to certain students? How far ahead do I need to plan—and what kinds of plans do I need to make—to meet their needs?

Lastly, reach out to your students’ case managers and ask them to review your assessments with you. They can provide further insight on how to fine-tune them. Sharing the prep can also save time and reduce reassessment or a high failure rate.

In closing

Students in special education are coming off one of the most difficult years of schooling. Each school year brings challenges and success, stresses and celebrations. With these pre-planning tips, you can cut down on the prep involved for the students with disabilities in your class—and timed saved while planning more effective instruction is always a win.

Rest assured that creating an environment of success early will impact the coming weeks and months. In time, this work will become more automatic, from lesson to lesson, unit to unit, and even year to year. Have a great 2021–22!

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