(Please note that this article was written in 2010 or prior to that year and has not yet been updated.)
As a classroom teacher, I have worked with a large number of identified special-needs students. That has been difficult at times and, at other times, quite joyful. Students who have difficulty learning always present a challenge: What can I do to help this child reach his or her potential? How can I help this student succeed in school?
Although it might feel like it sometimes, we are not alone when dealing with special-needs students. Unlike the old one-room schoolhouse teacher, educators today have a number of support resources available through their schools and districts. Unfortunately, many teachers simply fail to utilize those resources.
The first resource is your special education department. Take advantage of the expertise and experience of the teachers and aides in your school who work full time with special-needs students. Those professionals have had extensive training working with children with learning and behavioral disabilities. Ask to meet with the special education coordinator/teacher in your school to discuss those students who provide an extra challenge. Ask about strategies that might be successful with that student.
When teaching a particular unit, don't rely on just your textbook; see if the experts in special education have any ideas to help your special-needs students better understand and process the information presented. Ask them for ideas for modifying activities and assessments. Most special education teachers are dedicated to their students and want to help them succeed in the regular classroom. They often feel frustrated that classroom teachers do not rely on their knowledge and experience with the children to help plan lessons and activities. Don't make that mistake. Set a date to meet with the special education teacher or coordinator at your school and pick his or her brain!
A second resource available to help you teach a special-needs student is the I.E.P. That individualized education plan usually is a list of very specific goals and objectives for the student -- and it often includes strategies to help the child succeed. Possible modifications are listed as well. The tool is designed to help the classroom teacher know how best to meet the needs of a particular child. You should have received a copy of each special-needs students I.E.P. in a confidential folder. If you did not, ask your special education department for a copy. Its amazing how many classroom teachers never set eyes on that important document so full of information about the student.
Another resource, believe it or not, is the gifted and talented department for your school or district. Many strategies implemented for gifted students also work very well with special-needs students. Both gifted and challenged students are in need of strategies that allow them to work at their own pace with high expectations of success. Those strategies encourage students to make connections in their learning, which in turn increases brain activity. Project-oriented work with student choice an integral component allows special-needs students to choose topics that interest and motivate them. Those strategies encourage students to strive for their best and to recognize both the effort and level of achievement reached.
Special-needs students need a great deal of encouragement. What often happens is that the student wants to achieve, but feels separated from other students when he or she is unable to complete certain tasks. That causes intense frustration. Without proper encouragement and reassurance, special-needs students often come to see themselves as dumb. Which can lead to apathy toward school. Why should I try when Ill just fail? I'm stupid anyway, so I don't need to do this activity. One way you can move a student from such a negative attitude is to focus on his or her strengths.
I once had a student who was identified as special needs. For week, I couldn't get him to do anything in the classroom. He had major anger issues and would not complete assignments. When I prodded and encouraged, he merely responded that he was dumb and couldn't do the work. After talking with his mom and the special education teacher, I learned that math was one of his favorite subjects, although he was performing poorly in that class as well. It was as though he had given up.
Then, I assigned a math problem-solving activity that also utilized drawing and coloring. That young man jumped at the opportunity to play, and created a beautiful --and mathematically correct -- paper. Instead of just saying good job and moving on, I gushed over his paper. I enthusiastically said over and over what a great job he had done and kept telling him how smart he was. That continued with every assignment over a period of several weeks, until I finally noticed that all his papers showed a vast improvement. He was participating in class. He had fewer fits of anger. He was making a passing grade or higher on all his assignments. Between lesson modifications and enthusiastic encouragement, that child went from being a quitter to being an achiever.
All special-needs students are capable of success. Each will succeed according to his or her individual ability -- but all can succeed. Keep that constantly in mind when working with a special-needs child in your class. In addition,
Focus on your students strengths and be supportive of their weaknesses. Let each student know that you believe in him or her. The rewards will be tremendous for both you and your students.