Teacher to teacher

Supporting students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms

With the special education reform in full swing, many of us teachers — especially general education teachers — will find ourselves teaching students with disabilities and possibly collaborating with special education teachers. It is almost certain that more students with disabilities will be included in classrooms with their nondisabled peers, and we need to understand how we can support them.

First, examine your own beliefs and assumptions about inclusion. Before true inclusion can take place, we must first understand our own beliefs and assumptions about it and acknowledge where we stand on the issue. In order for us to truly support students with disabilities in the inclusion classroom, we must determine the potential benefits of inclusivity.

To that end, I recommend reviewing the questionnaire for SHARE, which stands for Sharing Hopes, Attitudes, Responsibilities and Expectations. You can find it in the publication TEACHING Exceptional Children on the Council for Exceptional Children website in the article “Tips and Strategies for Co-Teaching at the Secondary Level.” I use it with my co-teacher to discuss expectations about co-teaching and supporting students with disabilities.

Next, tap in to the experts. Special education teachers, related service providers and paraprofessionals are great resources on how to work with students with disabilities. They are experts in their field and can help us understand what is needed to support these students. Each has a unique role and can provide information that will help us understand how to teach students in an inclusive setting.

For example, paraprofessionals can be a great resource for providing academic and behavioral supports by observing students, collecting data regarding students’ progress toward Individualized Education Program goals and identifying behavioral issues. Speech therapists understand students with expressive and receptive language issues and can help students with and without disabilities with classroom activities that support effective communication. Occupational therapists can help students develop their fine motor skills (for those with difficulty with handwriting or dysgraphia) and physical therapists can help students improve their gross motor developmental skills (such as navigating stairs). Don’t forget your school counselors and psychologists, especially when you have students with behavioral or social issues.

Also consult physical education and art teachers because students may demonstrate physical and artistic skills in these classes that may be transferable to your class. For example, in English language arts, a student with disabilities might not be able to write elaborate responses to an assignment, but given the option to demonstrate understanding graphically or artistically, he or she might perform well.

Conference with students often. While it is great to tap in to the experts, just remember that the person at the center of all this is the student. Students, especially those who are old enough to understand their disabilities, can be the best source of understanding how to support them.

Consider, for example, a secondary school student with ADD/ADHD. This child may know what triggers his or her distractions, inability to focus, or anxiety. Talking to the student about something as simple as preferential seating may provide helpful information about why the student acts out while sitting at the back of the classroom, becomes unfocused while sitting too close to the window or gets anxious while sitting up front.

I teach high school and, at the beginning of every school year, I conference with my students about what their needs are and how to advocate for themselves. I also ask them about the type of support they expect in the inclusion classroom. Also, who understands a child’s needs — academically, socially and emotionally — more than the parents and family members?

I use the vocational 1 interview form for students and parents as well as a student preference survey or student learning survey. You can find vocational 1 interview forms on the Special Education Student Information System or other forms on the Internet.

The IEP is your bible. Most general education teachers are probably now using SESIS to access students’ IEPs. Examine the IEPs of your students with disabilities early in the year so you know what services they are mandated to receive.

In my school, we created a document called the “IEP at a glance.” It provides basic but pertinent information about the student, such as disability classification, management needs, recommendations and accommodations, and any related services the child might be receiving. At least twice a year in my teacher team, I present each teacher with a copy for the students with disabilities in their classes and help them understand what’s in the IEP.

They love it. It not only helps them better understand their students’ needs but also helps them plan their instruction around the IEP goals.

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