Whether you’re a special education teacher or not, you likely teach students who are on the autism spectrum or who have learning disabilities, dyslexia, ADHD, anxiety disorders, or emotional disabilities.
Differentiating instruction for such students can be challenging. But as an urban middle school teacher with more than 30 years of experience, I’ve identified some strategies that increase the chances that we’re meeting all students’ needs on a daily basis.
Collaborate with colleagues. I currently work with a teacher team that is well-synchronized when it comes to serving diverse learners.
As a learning disabilities teacher, I ensure that, from day one, all teachers are familiar with our 6th grade students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) and necessary modifications.
Two sections of students in our grade are co-taught by special education faculty and content-specific teachers. Our paraprofessional and I alternate each day between the two sections. We move from class to class alongside our students, carrying binders with copies of all student materials so that we can co-teach alongside our colleagues.
Throughout the year, I co-plan with teachers, discussing tests, quizzes, projects and just day-to-day routines. We work on progress reports, reflect on our teaching strategies, and share concerns about students who may be struggling.
Cultivate consistency. For some of our 6th grade students, the shift to middle school is their first experience with “changing classes” throughout the day. Some consistency across classes can be helpful for students who have IEPs and those who simply need familiar routines and structure.
In each class, the general education teacher posts an agenda for the day on the board. And all classes begin with some kind of opportunity for students to review material or make the bridge to a new topic. A “science starter,” for example, might require students to describe what phase of the moon occurs during a solar eclipse, or math class may begin with a quick problem that asks students to translate fractions into decimals. This provides all students with the opportunity to connect the class with previous learning.
The homework, posted on the board, is always explained verbally and accompanied by reminders to “take out your agendas and copy this down.” Co-teachers circulate the classroom to ensure each student is copying information correctly.
We use common policies and procedures across classes. For example, if students forget to turn in major projects or take tests when they are absent, they’ll find an “IOU” task listed on the blackboard.
Develop a student-centered mindset. Our efforts to boost learning are most effective when we share the same philosophy: It’s about the kids, not us.
From the English/language arts teacher to the art teacher, all of us know about students’ modifications: “who needs what” for tests, quizzes, classwork, and homework. Most students with learning disabilities (along with many of our English-language learners) use word banks when completing homework, classwork, and tests. For students who have difficulty copying, teachers provide printed copies of all notes, although they expect the students to try note-taking (often a goal in their IEPs). Some readers have access to novels on CDs. In math class, some use math reference sheets, a multiplication chart, and calculator—even on tests.
But a “student-centered mindset” goes beyond initial modifications: We pay close attention to individual students’ progress and adjust our approaches throughout the year. If a student is struggling, our response isn’t, “Well, that doesn’t surprise me!” or “I’ve done my part—oh well.” Instead, it’s, “Why is this student struggling and what can we do to help?”
For example, sometimes it turns out that a student hasn’t done her work because she needs a less distracting environment or additional guidance in understanding the project. We respond by offering opportunities for her to get an early start on projects and long-term assignments, both during and after school.
Our 6th grade team also made this decision: If any student performs poorly on a test, we analyze the data, then work with him or her individually or in a small group to re-teach the skills and concepts. Then students have the opportunity to retake the test after school or at lunchtime.
Set aside time to focus on study skills and extra support. Most students with IEPs attend a class that focuses on development of organizational and study skills. We also use this time to review concepts and guide students in understanding homework assignments. Because our paraprofessional and I have been observing and supporting students in all of their classes, we can make strategic decisions about how to structure this time.
Use multiple forms of assessment. Tests are never more than 35 to 40 percent of a child’s grade (which also includes consideration of classwork, homework, participation/preparation, and projects). This ensures multiple opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways.
Draw on other professionals’ expertise. Serving all students effectively requires us to pull in others promptly when students need specialized assistance. We have to be aware of when it’s time to do so—and whom to contact. Our team regularly calls on our speech and language therapist, reading teachers, occupational therapist, school psychologist, and guidance counselors to advise us or to work with students on specific issues.
Partner with families. Last, but certainly not least, it’s critical to involve families in the process of reaching all students, as some of my Teacher Leaders Network colleagues have been discussing this month at Teaching Ahead. Our 6th grade team’s weekly common planning time provides an opportunity for families to meet with us as a group. We’re flexible—if a parent or guardian is unable to come into the school, we set up phone meetings, check-ins with the team over email, and/or weekly progress reports.
I work with a great team this year—and I shudder to think that some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Yeah, this would be useful, if I had different (fill in the blank: administrators, colleagues, support staff, planning time).”
I know what you mean—I’ve been there—but I also think that you can, as Gandhi put it, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Be the one to push for common planning time (and to use it well). Be a dissenting voice when others say a particular student is a failure. Be the one who inspires colleagues to think outside the box about how to support that student. Be a teacher who is committed to helping all students succeed. You are not alone.