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Strategies to support honors students with IEPs

New York Teacher
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Many New York City schools, including the city’s specialized high schools, don’t offer an Integrated Co-Teaching model in honors and Advanced Placement classes because of a misguided belief that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and accelerated education are mutually exclusive. But I’m a special education teacher in a top-rated high school, and I know that with proper support, students with disabilities can learn in an accelerated academic environment because our students do it every day.

Here are some suggestions for supporting high school students with IEPs in honors and AP classes:

Be thoughtful and deliberate about assessment.

Many of our students with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities work hard all day to stay regulated on a sensory level, participate in high-level academic work and meet social demands. Many of them take medications that are no longer in their systems in the evening, which makes it difficult to focus late at night. They need significant down time at the end of the day to regroup and recharge. Time-consuming, repetitive homework is often punitive drudgery. Shorter, targeted homework assignments are often a better option, and you can provide additional optional work for those students who want the practice.

Test anxiety is real. I once had a student who didn’t do well on a unit test in ICT honors physics. After the exam, he explained the thought process he used for several of the problems in a way that demonstrated his deep understanding of the material. The general education teacher and I opted to raise the student’s score because he showed us that he understood the material well, even if he couldn’t get that down on a traditional exam due to his anxiety.

Project-based learning can be a valuable way to engage students with disabilities in high-level academic learning while also giving them a chance to demonstrate their talents and gifts. Just make certain that group-based projects require high-level work from all participants.

Carefully consider accommodations.

Technology can be game-changing. Assistive technology, like FM units for students with hearing loss and word processors with predictive text, can enable students to access content. Seek assistive tech evaluations for students who might benefit, but don’t forget to use tech-based accessibility features that work for many students. A simple click to enable live captioning on your Google Slides makes your lesson more accessible for students with hearing loss or language-processing difficulties, English language learners and others.

Many IEPs list preferential seating as an accommodation, but be thoughtful about what this actually means. Some students may benefit from sitting close to the teacher or the board, while others may actually need a spot farther away and free from distraction in order to concentrate best.

Believe in your team.

Your team includes:

  • Students. Trust that your students are able to work at high levels and empower them to communicate their needs and goals.
  • Student families. These are the people who know your student the best. Communicate with family members and seek their input and insight.
  • Your administrators. Our principal often says, “When a student walks through our doors, it is our responsibility to teach them, and we know how to do that well.” The entire administration team at your school should make certain you have the materials, time and structures you need to support all students.
  • Your co-teacher. I am fortunate to have co-teachers who are experts in their content areas. We don’t view students as “my kids” who have IEPs and “your kids” who are general education students. We teach and plan together to educate all our students.

With careful planning and thoughtful collaboration, students with disabilities can thrive in accelerated education.

Jennifer Johnson is a special education teacher at Townsend Harris HS in Queens.