6 Strategies for Working With Diverse-Needs Students

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Co-teaching is a powerful model for both regular education and special education teachers. This partnership can set the stage for a variety of scenarios that meet the needs of diverse-needs learners in a classroom.

However, in many schools, regular education teachers face a roster of students with Individualized Education Programs and don't have the benefit of a co-teacher. Having some strategies to meet the needs of these students can make the process less scary for teachers—and more successful for students.

IEP students have a variety of disabilities and needs. Here are several strategies applicable to many learners:

Carefully consider seating assignments. Teachers use a variety of strategies to plan seating charts, from alphabetical order to complex arrangements based on ability. When considering the needs of IEP students—in particular those with behavior issues—choosing neighbors who will be positive role models is often the best strategy.

Children want to fit in and want to please, as a general rule. They’re just not always sure what the appropriate way to blend into the class is. Seating them near students who will model appropriate actions can help them understand simple tasks such as note-taking, being on the right page in the text, or even raising their hand and waiting to be called upon. Just be careful to not burn out your role models; take care to switch the seating chart often.

Use project checklists. If you are assigning a long-term project, develop a game plan with your students. Agree on interim due dates for each part of the project/paper so students are not overwhelmed with the magnitude of finishing it all. Then make it a point to check in often to see that these dates are being met, offering assistance to help students stay on track. Assessing students’ work as they progress can give them an additional sense of accomplishment.

Establish behavior cues early on. Work with students to create a plan for when things, well, don’t go according to plan. Here are a few cues to try:

  • Keep a special pass to hand to the student, or one that they can easily grab, when an immediate timeout to cool down is needed.
  • Identify an item that you can discretely drop on the student’s desk when they are working productively and appropriately, which can be redeemed for a “prize” at a later time.
  • Identify an item that you can discretely drop on the student’s desk when they are NOT working productively or appropriately, as a subtle private reminder. A simple red chip to indicate “STOP” can work wonders.

Give alternative presentation options. The thought of presenting in front of a classroom of students can be overwhelming to any student—but if that student has an anxiety issue, a phobia of crowds, a speech impediment, or even ADHD, the process may be simply too much. Some alternative presentation options could include:

  • Presenting to only the classroom teacher, or the classroom teacher and another willing adult (such as a special education teacher, a paraprofessional, a secretary—anyone to make it a more authentic presentation experience).
  • Creating a podcast or video of their presentation to be played for the class.
  • Co-presenting with another student.

Provide alternative testing options. Your IEP students may test poorly, resulting in your believing they are learning little in your classroom. However, implementing alternative testing options can help students demonstrate what they have learned. Some options include:

  • Giving answers orally, allowing students to explain what they do know, instead of just taking a standardized test with multiple choice questions.
  • Testing with the special education teacher in an alternate setting with fewer distractions. Just being away from other students (and not seeing the early finishers turn in their papers) can ease the stress level of students with test anxiety.
  • Drawing pictures:
    • Creating a comic strip to show the sequence of an event.
    • Drawing a diagram to explain a word problem in math.
  • Shortened tests or answer choices. To a student with attention problems, having three possible choices instead of four can make a world of difference. Giving the test during several sessions, with just one page per session, can also lead to less overwhelmed students.
  • Allow the use of notes during tests. While some teachers feel this option does not allow students to show mastery, for a struggling student with a cognitive impairment, the use of notes helps level the playing field.

Provide organizational tools. Regardless of their disability, many IEP students benefit from visual aids to help them organize information. Study tools help students prioritize their learning and focus their efforts. Here are some tools to try:

  • A teacher-created fill-in-the-blank for notes. By providing a template for students to complete as the teacher gives notes—either orally or in a presentation—struggling students are better able to accurately record important information, instead of trying to guess what material is most important in the lecture.
  • A color-coded study guide for tests highlighting what types of questions students can expect (for example, essay answers might be orange, while questions in multiple-choice format are pink). This strategy can help students focus on areas they may need to plan ahead for (such as organizing their thoughts into coherent essay answers) and determine which parts will be more simple recall.
  • Graphic organizers help students see the relationship between ideas and new concepts (such as Venn diagrams for large connected concepts, T-charts for compare/contrast, etc.). Searching Pinterest for graphic organizers will give you many great ideas for every grade level and subject. You may also want to explore Education Place, Enchanted Learning, or Education Oasis for additional ideas.
  • Foldables or cheat sheets are great to use in math class for new formulas, vocabulary, or geometric shapes. In social studies class, they can help students organize new ideas such as different religions, cultural regions, or historical events. Students enjoy making foldables and find them useful for studying. Allowing your IEP students to use them during assessments adds an additional purpose for their creation. For many useful ideas, check out Dinah Zike’s website.

The most important strategy to ensure IEP students’ success is to view them as individuals who have unique learning styles and needs, and work with them to create a learning plan that both you and they can be comfortable with. Implementing some of the above strategies will help you better meet the needs of your IEP students, as well as other students who may be struggling in your classroom.

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