Education Opinion

Collaborative Professional Development Is Essential to Teaching Students with Disabilities

By Matthew Lynch — July 19, 2016 4 min read
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By Will Gordillo

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has strong foundational tenets that emphasize providing a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities (SWDs). Among these tenets is that SWDs should learn in the least restrictive environment possible, with the supports and related services necessary to improve their educational outcomes.

National trends continue to reflect that SWDs are spending more of their day in the general education classroom with their non-disabled peers. This trend is also backed by research showing that inclusive practices, standards-based instruction, and evidenced-based interventions have a positive impact on students’ results. More than 26 years of research has consistently demonstrated that the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms results in favorable outcomes. Positive outcomes have been shown for both students with high-incidence disabilities (learning disabilities and other “mild” disabilities) and those with low-incidence disabilities (such as significant cognitive impairments). This body of research is summarized in the brief Inclusive Education Research & Practice, by Xuan Bui, Carol Quirk, Selene Almazan, and Michele Valenti.

As educators, we have a shared responsibility to actualize the promise of IDEA and do everything within our power to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education that prepares them for meaningful opportunities in post-secondary life. An important part of reaching this goal is for district leaders, school administrators, and educators to engage in collaborative efforts that result in thoughtfully designed, scheduled, and implemented professional development that supports building instructional skill sets for all educators working with SWDs. To give SWDs the best possible chance to succeed in core standards-based curriculum in the least restrictive environment, I recommend creating the desired foundations through sequentially planned professional development that builds both general and special educators’ skills and confidence to implement evidenced-based frameworks that support inclusive practices.

The following four school-wide, evidenced-based frameworks are key to providing the access and supports necessary for SWDs to be successful:

  1. Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  2. Positive Behavior Supports
  3. Social Emotional Learning
  4. Co-Teaching and Collaborative Practices

When implementing these frameworks, use a continuous improvement model to identify, study, and understand each of their inherent structures. Thoughtfully prepare for meaningful actions by clearly defining an implementation path that includes the methods for integrating each framework into the school’s culture. Determine the strategies that you will use to scale up school-wide, as well as methods to optimize the framework’s benefit for both educators and students. Using the continuous improvement model will allow for much-needed calibration to help you maintain fidelity throughout the implementation process.

In recent months, the Connecticut Department of Education has undertaken exactly this kind of effort. Their “Meeting the Challenge: Connecticut Core Standards Success for English Learners and Students with Disabilities” professional development series was designed to support inclusive practices and improve outcomes for English learners and SWDs. The series provides adult learning experiences to implement UDL when creating standards-based instruction that addresses the needs of diverse learners and is grounded in research-based methods.

Participants in the series were multidisciplinary teams comprised of district school administrators, educators, and other rising leaders from districts throughout Connecticut. The set of three distinct, full-day professional development modules strengthened educators’ confidence and skill to implement UDL.

During the past decades, there has been a growing recognition among educators and policymakers that all education leaders must also be instructional leaders. The implementation of evidenced-based practices and frameworks that provide the necessary supports for SWDs does not just happen. These practices and frameworks can only reach their potential if schools and districts dedicate time for both collaboration and professional growth on the master schedule for special education teachers, general education teachers, and the para-educators assigned to support the teaching of SWDs. All of these essential educators who triage the provision of instructional supports and access for SWDs will benefit from this dedicated time by strengthening their practices and implementing them with fidelity. But most importantly, so will the students they serve.

Will Gordillo is a former special education teacher, assistant principal, principal, and district administrator charged with overseeing special education in two large urban school districts. He is now a senior associate and subject matter expert in PCG Education’s consulting division.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.