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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Support ‘Students With Diverse Learning Needs’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 13, 2018 23 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is the best advice you can offer to teachers who have students with special needs in their classes?

Many of us have students with special needs in our classes. And we may not be that familiar with the best strategies we can use to support them. This series will consider we should be doing....

You might also be interested in a previous post from this column and answered a similar question: Assisting Students With Special Needs

Today’s guests are Jason Flom, Mandi White, Tara Dale, Dr. Wendy Murawski, Cheryl Mizerny and Karen Baptiste. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jason, Mandi, Tara, and Wendy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Response From Jason Flom

Jason Flom is director of Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Florida, a whole child school focusing on diverse learning profiles, social justice, and problem based learning. At the heart of the school is a teacher leadership model built on collegial inquiry, collaboration, and shared responsibility. He also serves as a faculty member with ASCD’s Professional Learning Services:

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, vowing to do no harm. I have long felt we educators (and the policy makers who influence our work) should have a similar oath related to each student’s innate instinct to learn.

We may not teach some students as much as we like, but, at a minimum, we won’t do any harm to that innate instinct to learn.

Fortunately, most educators go into the field with some variation of this oath threaded in their DNA, but can find themselves stuck between their scope and sequence timelines and the developmental needs of students. So, what’s a teacher to do?

We work with our teachers to build their capacity on three levels:

  1. Pedagogical Knowledge. Use an inclusion model that balances differentiation with strategies from Universal Design of Learning. Not familiar with UDL? It is a great place to start, because accommodations that are good for one student are likely good for others as well.

  2. Advocacy. Be fierce advocates for those students. Advocate for their whole child well being -- their social, emotional, physical, and intellectual well being. What are their needs and what supports do they need in order to thrive? Advocate on their behalf with their parents, your school’s support services, school leaders, and their peers.

  3. Relationships. Build, protect, and nurture a loving, trusting, and caring relationship with each child with special needs. Shine light on their strengths, and put them as humans at the center of your work with them. Worry about their well being first and academic achievement second.

When it comes to neurodiverse students (and other students, colleagues, people in general) I’m reminded of the oft shared Maya Angelou quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And do no harm.

Response From Mandi White & Tara Dale

Mandi White earned a Master’s of Education in Special Education from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. In 2007, she moved across the country to begin her teaching career in Phoenix, Ariz., as a cross-categorical resource teacher for 7th and 8th grade students. Mandi began her new position as an Academic and Behavior Specialist in July of 2017.

Tara Dale is a high school science teacher in the Gilbert School District in Arizona. Previously she’s taught 7th grade science and U.S. history in Phoenix. She was recognized as Kyrene’s Educator of the Year at the end of her second year teaching and then two years later was honored with the Science Foundation Arizona’s Innovation Hero Award. In 2014 she was named Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. She travels the state advocating for Arizona’s teachers and students with her work at Educators for Higher Standards, Student Achievement Partners, and Arizona Educational Foundation:

Our previous school’s motto was, “High Standards, High Achievement, High Expectations For All.” This motto strikes such a match within us because of the “For All” aspect. Through our experiences teaching in both special education resource and general education settings, we have found that high expectations are vital for all students, even those with special needs. It is alarming how many times we heard teachers say that students would never be able to learn a concept or complete a task, no matter what the teacher did. These words only compelled us to prove them wrong.

Teachers who have students with special needs should never lower expectations. Instead, they need to work to determine what these students need in order to help them be successful. It is true that an equal education and an equitable education are not the same thing. Equal would be giving all students the same instruction and tools regardless of a student’s situation. But equitable is ensuring students are given what they need to be successful, meaning students receive various tools and strategies. It is our job as educators to ensure we are providing an equitable education, particularly for those students who need extra support.

There are many techniques that can be utilized to help students reach the bar set with high expectations.

One way is through utilizing the accommodations, which work for the particular students and giving them the resources they need. There is not a sure fire accommodation that will work for all students, so it is important to try a variety of strategies. Often times, their previous teachers will be able to provide valuable insight on this, so do not ever be afraid to ask them. Also, remember to get creative and think outside the box. Websites such as Intervention Central and PBIS World are excellent resources to turn to for effective intervention strategies based on various student needs.

Once they have these needs met, it is also important to not let them off the hook and keep those high expectations. A lot of students with special needs may have a learned helplessness that causes them to give up when they think something is too hard. Because this behavior may have been allowed to happen in the past, they may give up before even trying. As teachers, we must help them to see they can do it and giving up is not an option. Building up confidence is vital for this behavior to be eliminated, so we can start by helping them feel successful with smaller tasks and then continue to build on this. Once they start to have more confidence in their abilities, this learned helplessness will dissipate.

In the end, the bottom line is that all students can be successful, and it is up to us to create the high expectations and do what it takes to get them there.

Response From Dr. Wendy Murawski

Dr. Wendy Murawski is the Executive Director and Eisner Endowed Chair of the Center for Teaching & Learning at California State University, Northridge. She is the author of 9 books, to include “Collaborate, Communicate, and Differentiate: How to increase student learning in today’s diverse schools” with Corwin Press. Dr. Murawski is the CEO of the educational consulting company, 2 TEACH LLC (www.2TeachLLC.com):

My best advice is to collaborate and communicate! Teachers do not have to solve every classroom conundrum themselves. Ask the students what works with them and how they learn best. Reach out to families and share your desire to meet their child’s needs - but be willing to admit you don’t have all the answers. Invite special educators and instructional coaches into your room to consult, problem-solve or even co-teach! Go online and join groups like the Council for Exceptional Children (www.cec.sped.org) or read blogs like this one. The point is - you are not alone. The research and strategies are available to you but you don’t have to be the keeper of all the knowledge.

My next best advice is to universally design the learning in your room. UDL stands for “Universal Design for Learning” and it is about how teachers can universally design their instruction to provide more access to all students. By providing multiple means of representation, expression and engagement, teachers won’t need to worry as much about “retrofitting” their instruction after the fact for students with special needs. Dr. Katie Novak has a great book called “UDL Now!” published by CAST and in it, she describes specific ways for making your lessons more accessible for all.

Finally, be sure to view each student as an individual. Don’t let a label cause you to make assumptions about a child. Just because the student has an identified disability and an IEP, or is an English language learner, or has a 504 plan, or is highly gifted, doesn’t mean you know what that student needs. Once you have proactively designed your lessons to provide as much universal access as possible through UDL, you will need to do far less differentiation for specific needs - but you do still have to consider those individual needs as well. So once you’ve universally designed your instruction, you still need to be willing to go that next step to differentiate as needed. Want more strategies for what that might look like? You can also check out our book “What really works with exceptional learners” by Corwin Press (Murawski & Scott, 2017). Kids are kids. Just because one has a behavioral, academic or social difference shouldn’t stop us from trying to be the best teachers we can for that student.

Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience-primarily at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches sixth grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Her teaching is guided by her belief in reaching every student and teaching the whole child: socially, emotionally, and cognitively. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher:

For many years, I taught special education for students with emotional difficulties and learning differences. The best advice I can offer for teachers of inclusive classrooms is to stop underestimating what children with “disabilities” can do. The greatest injustice that I see in schools is students with a label spending their entire day separated from their peers and focusing solely on their academic deficits. Although there have been strides taken toward providing better instruction to students who may struggle with academics, the soul-crushing practice of drilling them on deficits is still all too common. Is it any wonder why so many special needs students are underachieving and disenfranchised?

One step forward is to remember, first and foremost, that we are teaching a child, not a label. Educators need to adjust their mindsets to the belief that all of their students can succeed if given the support they need to reach the goal. A report by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) states that the “majority of [special education] students can meet the same achievement standards as other students if they are given access to the same content as their typical peers and are provided specially designed instruction, supports, and accommodations when needed.”

I have witnessed students who were all but written off by their general education teachers because they could not memorize basic multiplication tables perform incredibly well on complex problem-solving tasks in algebra with some basic scaffolding. We do our most challenged learners a great disservice when we leave them mired in the depths of repeatedly failing at rote learning tasks. They may never be able to memorize those facts, but they are more than capable of rising to the challenge with proper support. By not providing critical thinking and problem solving opportunities for all students, we are holding them back and we may never discover their unique intellectual gifts.

There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones.

  • Maintain high expectations for all of your students. It does not serve any of the children in our class to lower our expectations and provide a mediocre, watered-down version of our content.

    Assume they can all learn what you are teaching and focus on their strengths in that content area.

  • Make their parents your partner. The first “homework” assignment I give every year is this writing prompt for my parents: In a million words or less, tell me about your child. I gain a wealth of information from these responses about what they see as their child’s strengths.

  • Utilize the expertise of your special education trained colleagues. As a former special education teacher consultant, I wanted nothing more than to partner with my general education colleagues to help students succeed.

  • Investigate Universal Design for Learning principles. The best resource for this I’ve found is from the Center for Applied Special Technology. (org

    ) They provide resources about methods of engaging your students, representing the material, and allowing for a variety of ways to express their knowledge.

  • Provide learning experiences that allow for all students to achieve. For example, my students with learning differences often excel as activities employing lateral thinking and manipulation.

A little bit of effort in these areas will have a huge, lasting impact on all of your students.

Response From Karen Baptiste

Karen Baptiste is an associate with CT3, an organization that provides professional development, coaching, and school culture planning to 350 schools across America. She is a recognized special education advocate with a commitment to serving disenfranchised youth. She was selected in 2013 as one of 24 Emerging Leaders by the 115,000-member ASCD, a worldwide professional educational alliance:

Supporting Diversity and Equity: 3 Simple Ways Teachers Can Support All Learning Needs

Almost 7 million children in the United States have a disability. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law in 1975, and has provided regulations for individuals with disabilities to have access to an equitable education with resources that address their individual needs. Unfortunately, the reauthorization of IDEA has been long overdue since 2010. Now, more than ever, students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) deserve an updated policy. Updating this policy can provide a blueprint for school districts and educators on utilizing the best resources to create an inclusive environment for all students. For years, I have witnessed educators develop learned helplessness and blame antiquated policies as the reason for schools struggling to teach students with diverse learning needs. However, even without an updated policy, there are various ways districts can empower schools to develop a blue print for teaching all students, not just students with an IEP.

I have become intrigued with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) because it provides a systematic approach that supports educators in holding high expectations while giving them the flexibility to meet the needs of all students, and not single out students identified as having a disability. UDL addresses the disabilities of schools and not students while focusing on Multiple Means of Representation, Multiple Means of Action and Expression, and Multiple Means of Engagement (CAST, 2014). Neuroscience shows us that everyone’s learning needs, skills, and interest are unique, just like our fingerprints and DNA (Salend, 2016). Universal Design for Learning originated from Universal Design, where the architectural design of buildings and products provide access to all individuals. For example, the most common Universal Design is a ramp. Ramps are not only used for people utilizing wheelchairs, but also used by people with bikes, strollers, or anyone who find the stairs compromising to their current ability.

The guiding principles of UDL provide a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that (A) provides flexibility in the curriculum, the way information is presented, the way students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and, in the way students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, while maintaining high achievement expectations for all students. These areas support educators to create materials, assessments, and curricular goals that are designed from the onset to address the various learning styles students come in with, rather than retrofitting accommodations afterward (CAST, 2014). The myth about UDL is that it is only for students receiving special education services, when in fact, using a repertoire of strategies suited to each brain network and reducing barriers in instruction are best practices for all students. In fact, approaching instruction through the lens of UDL is right in alignment with the No-Nonsense Nurturer four step model. For example, teachers may choose to chunk directions, write them on the board, or provide directions to common routines and procedures on an index card for individual students to keep at their desk. Teachers can also vary the way that students demonstrate knowledge of a subject by having students represent their cultural background or current hobbies, for instance. So, while educators are waiting for IDEA to be updated, we don’t have to wait on serving the needs of students because UDL is within an educator’s locust of control and can be done with low and high technological resources.

I remember one teacher I coached in a Jamaica, Queens middle school in New York City who felt that it was impossible for her to teach all students based on their learning needs. As her coach, I would support her on utilizing flexible media and diverse tools to support individualized learning. One strategy I used was having her analyze potential barriers in the curriculum and the materials that would prevent some students from having full access to the curriculum and the ability to complete tasks independently. Once she had a full understanding of what the barriers were, together, we worked on finding additional technological tools, and programs that provided text-to-speech and text-to-image to support differentiated teaching methods.

The three main principles of UDL, listed below, have checkpoints with examples for educators to use when implementing it in their classroom. Principle I will support activating prior knowledge to identify, organize, and assimilate new information. Principle II supports educators to devise strategies that optimize learning, and Principle III supports educators to regulate emotional reactions that impede a student’s learning (CAST, 2014).

Multiple Means of Representation (Recognition Network)

This is the “what” of learning - how people gather facts, data, and recognize what they see, hear, and read. Identifying letters, words, or an author’s style are recognition tasks (CAST, 2014). The Parietal Lobe in the brain is used to process information, so how information is presented to people is very important in how they will process it. For example, when I was a teacher, I would enable the caption on every video I played in class because it supported my students to hear and see the words simultaneously. Teachers who are No-Nonsense Nurturers have students go beyond simply finding the definition of a word---they engage them in a way that is meaningful to that individual student. They also have them find examples in a text, act out the meaning, draw pictures, and find synonyms for vocabulary words prior to engaging with those words in a text (note that these are all examples that require low technology). Engaging the audio, kinesthetic, and visual learner to understand the origin, prefixes, and suffixes to unfamiliar words makes information accessible and fun for all types of learners. Both of these examples can increase reading comprehension and fluency because it allows students to access the content at their pace and preferred learning style, without compromising high expectations.

When designing curriculum or planning lessons, No-Nonsense Nurturers ask themselves questions like:

How will I present the information in a new or different way that ensures that key information is equally perceptible by all students to successfully complete the task?

Multiple Means of Engagement (Affective Network)

This is the “why” of learning; feelings and emotions are connected to this principle. This is how learners get engaged, stay motivated, challenged, excited, or interested. It is the most important principle of the three because this is the hook to engage your students or any audience you are presenting to. Consider the popularity of video games - most people are enthralled with video games because they enjoy the challenge. They’re designed to keep you engaged; therefore, it starts you off with easy levels, so that you are successful, before gradually increasing the challenge. People are then determined to keep playing to beat the next level. Similarly, lesson plans should be designed for students with tasks or activities that are both engaging and challenging.

For example, in an English, co-taught class in Boston, both teachers were challenged with Making the Declaration of Independence Come Alive for their students. To hook their students into the lesson, one of the teachers read a fake break-up letter in the beginning of class, pretending it was written from one student to another. As students revved up with excitement, laughter, and curiosity about who the letter was from, the teacher ended the letter by signing it “Love, The Declaration of Independence” and then transitioned into their independent task, getting 100% of their scholars to participate. Research shows that people mostly remember the beginning (primacy) and the end of something (recency) (Nee & Jonides, 2011). This process may be captured best by the show “Law and Order”, which often starts off in the middle of a crime in order to hook the viewers. These teachers used the primacy effect by relating “boring” content to something the students found interesting. Chunking the information for students with engaging activities, relevant to their lives, to open and close a lesson is important for students to grasp pertinent information.

When designing curriculum and planning lessons, No-Nonsense Nurturers ask themselves questions like:

How does the task stimulate interest and motivation for learning?

How did I provide alternative ways to recruit student interest, ways that reflect inter-and-intra-individual differences among students---so that they will be able to complete the task successfully?

Multiple Means of Action and Expression (Strategic Network)

This is the “how” of learning - the planning and performance of tasks, or how we organize and express our ideas. Writing an essay or solving a math problem are examples of strategic tasks (CAST, 2014). The Frontal Lobe, located in front of both hemispheres of the brain, houses our conscious thought processes and is considered the “how” of learning. It’s centered on the various ways students can show you what they know and learned; where they problem solve and interpret the world around us. This part of the brain is not developed until 25, which is why teenagers often struggle with making good judgment before this age (Jensen, 2014). I remember walking into a classroom in Buffalo, NY where a teacher allowed students to step out of the traditional end-of-unit assessment of writing an essay, and provided them the space to either write a poem, essay, or create a television or radio advertisement that summarized and captured their best learning. She recalled that this was the first time in her classroom that student participation increased to 100% because she stepped out of her comfort zone and created a learning space for creativity that was best for students, not what was best for her.

When designing curricula and planning lessons, No-Nonsense Nurturers ask themselves questions like:

How will I differentiate the task to get students to successfully demonstrate what they know? How did I provide alternative modalities for expression, to level the playing field and allow all students the opportunity to express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment?

Educators must remember that designing curricula and lesson plans that provide support for multiple learning modalities does not dilute the learning process for any student in the room. Rather, it sends the class a message that learning differences are embraced and equally valued. No-Nonsense Nurturers always consider how they would support students to access content if they did not receive special education services. We can often subconsciously treat people the way we view them, and educators who see the disability before the person may inadvertently teach to the disability, feeling the need to “fix” what is wrong, instead of teaching to the student’s strengths.


Jensen, F.E. & Nutt, A.E. (2015). The Teenage Brain. A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Toronto, Ontario: Collins.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2014). The three principles of UDL. Retrieved from www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl/3principles.

Nee D. E., Jonides J. (2011). Dissociable contributions of prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus to short-term memory: evidence for a 3-state model of memory. Neuroimage 54, 1540-1548

Salend, S.J. (2016). Creating inclusive classrooms: Effective, differentiated and reflective practices (8th ed.). Columbus, OH: Pearson.

To learn more about Karen, click here.

For further reading on working with students of all abilities, click here.

Thanks to Jason, Mandi, Tara, Wendy, Cheryl and Karen for their contributions!

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