Teaching Opinion

Response: Assisting Students With Special Needs

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 11, 2012 7 min read
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Last week’s question was:

How can teachers best assist students with special needs?

It’s a question facing many of us daily.

Earlier this year, my colleague Katie Hull-Sypnieski and I wrote an article for Education Week Teacher titled The Five-by-Five Approach to Differentiation Success. Instead of repeating our advice again here, I’ll just suggest you click on that link.

In addition, three experienced educators -- Michael Thornton, Gloria Lodato Wilson, and Ira David Socol -- are offering their thoughts on the topic today, and I’ve also included a reader’s response.

Response From Michael Thornton

Michael Thornton has been teaching primary grades for 7 years in and around the Charlottesville, Virginia area. He also write a blog on education and can be found on Twitter at @mthornton78:

I believe the best way to promote equity for all learners is by allowing every student a voice in the classroom. Also, integrating choice will help students become more invested in their learning and will lead to self-motivation. In my opinion, these are the foundations that will help students with special needs be successful.

Students with learning disabilities need a platform to express their needs. Their voice is vital in helping them feel safe and confident. My students, no matter their academic ability or need, are creators. I want every student to drive his or her learning. Whether they are developing lessons for the class, creating presentations, or building their own textbooks, all my students are gaining confidence in their academic ability. In addition, each learner is working on a level that is appropriate to him or her because they are driving their own learning.

Students with attention differences need the opportunity to move in the classroom. Instead of trying to contain their energy, why not take advantage of it? Design lessons that keep the students active throughout the room. Allow them to choose a learning space so that they are comfortable and ready to learn. If movement is limited in the classroom; it is entirely possible that we are limiting learning potential.

The goal of the educator is to provide all learners with the greatest opportunity to succeed regardless of task or level of learner. Success is growth in academics, self-motivation, and relationship skills and all happen when responsibility is shared between the teacher and the learner.

Response From Gloria Lodato Wilson

Gloria Lodato Wilson, co-author of Teaching in Tandem: Effective Co-Teaching in the Inclusive Classroom. She is associate professor and director of special education programs in the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation, Special Education, and Research at Hofstra:

TEST! TEST! And TEST some more!

Surprised that I’d be advocating to TEST students with special needs in your classroom? The TEST I’m talking about is attention to four essential variables in teaching: Teacher; Environment; Student; Task.

Teacher. Onerous as it might be, the first variable to look at is you, the teacher. Always easy to explain away poor student performance on other causes but teachers are the principle and most important component for student learning. In my decades of teaching, from preschool to grad school, with typical and atypical students, when I reflected and adjusted my teaching, students learned more. Reflect, learn and be open to change and try new techniques and strategies.

Environment. I’m primarily talking about the teaching and learning environment but being respectful of diverse home environments is of course important. The only environment that you can control is your classroom. Besides making it safe, accepting and inclusive, adhere to the tenants of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Devise multiple means of presenting information, multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge and multiple ways to engage students so they know that learning is worth the effort. Give students choices.

Students. Get to really know your students. Typically, atypical students are defined by their disabilities, difficulties and differences. But if you tap into your students strengths and know their interests you will discover astounding capabilities. In addition, investigate how your students learn and what impedes their learning. Are short term memory deficits interfering with reading recognition skills? Are poor metacognitive skills interfering with written expression skills? Are organization difficulties interfering with solving math word problems? This knowledge will help guide you to strategic teaching and learning activities.

Task. Be mindful of the tasks you assign. Often task difficulty level is overlooked. Examine the task or assignment and ask yourself how difficult will this be for a student with difficulties in reading recognition, reading comprehension, math computation, math applications, organization, attention? You’ll be surprised at how differently you will create tasks when you heighten your awareness of task difficulties with certain students in mind.

Response From Ira David Socol

Ira David Socol is a “Senior Provocateur” with Band of Educators, consulting with schools who seek to re-imagine education. He has a blog and is the author of two books:

As I observe classrooms, around the United States, around the world, I find that they fall into one of two categories: “Training Places” or “Learning Spaces.”

“Training Places” work against all kids out of the mythical-defined “average.” “Learning Spaces” create room for all children. It is really that simple.

A Learning Space is a conceptual and physical space which works to remove the barriers which a Training Place builds. Breaking those barriers goes far beyond those Special Education typically concerns itself with, reading strategies and technologies, those for writing or arithmetic, and includes removing the fixed elements of time, furniture, walls, curriculum and content, as well as those of information and communications technologies.

In order to be successful citizens in a democratic society, and successful people on this earth, all of our students must learn to master choice and the building of their “toolbelt.” Kids with “Special Needs” especially need to understand how to use their strengths as leverage to get around their weaknesses, they do not need to learn to be like others or to do things like others, rather they need to figure out their own ways, and then how to negotiate how their solutions meet with the solutions of others.

Learning Spaces encourage this, and by doing it for all students, they eliminate the biggest barrier to “Special Needs” success - the social barrier. When I first began using a computer for reading and writing support, and was the only student in my university with a laptop in class, I was separated. When I returned to graduate school and all students had computers I was part of the group, and my choices included the choice to “not disclose.”

So break down the barriers. All of the barriers. It will create success for all.

Reader Response

Lisa Allen:

My daughter was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease six years ago.

The difficulty that chronically ill kids experience with keeping up with their peers in the classroom is an issue that is almost never discussed, but affects more families than I would have ever imagined. I have talked to so many families similar to mine who are wrangling with the problem of educating a sick child.

We all have similar struggles: how do we educate our kids when they spend so much time in a hospital bed, at the doctors office, or home sick from side effects of medications-and when they miss so much school?

The answer for teachers to help? Embrace technology!! Kids in hospital beds can be hooked up to their IVs and listen to your classroom discussions via webcam. Delivery of homework via a teacher website is easy. There are so many out of the box solutions to help these students, but unfortunately, these kids are languishing more often than not. Most families we have talked to over the years have given up. Parents of these kids are juggling full time jobs and part time homeschooling. Some like mine are financially burdened with trying to pay medical bills and private tutors.

Kids who have illnesses already have hurdles in their lives. Should getting access to an education be another?

Thanks to Michael, Gloria, Ira and Lisa for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.