Teaching in today's classrooms can be a daunting experience. The responsibilities of teachers seem to be increasing at the same time as resources for education are diminishing. In recent years, teachers increasingly are expected to deal with a wide range of problems -- from students with severe academic deficiencies, to students whose first language is not English, to students who are suffering the effects of parental substance abuse. With the current trend toward inclusion -- placing special-education students in regular classes -- educators often find themselves teaching students with problems they have little preparation for dealing with.
The strategies below will help regular-education teachers ease special-education students' transition to regular classes.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Connect with the student. Try to gain the student's trust by listening attentively to what he says and showing respect for his thoughts and concerns. Find a few minutes every so often to talk with him about his interests and hobbies. Help him start the day out on a positive note by giving him a high five or making an upbeat comment when he walks in the door. The student will feel more comfortable in your classroom, and make better choices, if he feels supported and accepted by you.
Catch the student being good. The most basic application of behavior modification principles is to praise students when they are displaying appropriate behavior. Because of their frequent experience with frustration and failure in school, special-education students have a particular need for a pat on the back. Your challenge with this kind of student, especially if you have a large class, is to identify areas of deficiency, catch him when he is performing well in those areas, and praise him immediately and genuinely.
Give the student clear and simple directions. State directions with a minimum of words. If you go over every detail, he might miss key points. You might have the student repeat directions so you are confident he understands them. If you are explaining a complex task, give him one or two instructions at a time. You also might demonstrate directions and then have the student follow them while you observe him.
Provide the student with a classroom buddy. The buddy should be a mature, responsible classmate who can help the student with classroom tasks when you are unavailable. A variation of this strategy is to group students at tables, with students expected to help one another when questions or problems arise.
Adapt homework to the student's needs. If an assignment appears overwhelming for the student, consider shortening it. For example, you might have him do only odd numbered problems, or have him write a two-paragraph rather than a four-paragraph composition. As his confidence and skills improve, you can increase the length of the assignment. If the student's skills are well below the level of his classmates, consider giving him a different assignment altogether. If the act of writing is especially hard for the student, allow him to do the assignment on a computer. If motivation is a factor, design assignments to reflect his interests and strengths.
Break a task into smaller, more doable parts. Special-needs students might be overwhelmed by large or complex tasks. Feeling there is little chance they can finish the task, they might give up quickly or not even attempt it. Breaking tasks into more manageable parts might give the student more confidence that he can complete them successfully. As an example, rather than giving him a whole page of math problems to do at once, assign two or three problems, check his performance, and then assign a few more.
Develop a signaling system to help keep the student on task. If the student has difficulty staying on task, you might want to find some way to signal him that he needs to pay attention or get back to work. That might be as simple as walking by his desk, making eye contact with him, or pausing while you are speaking. Or it might be a private signal that you work out with him such as scratching your head, raising your eyebrows, tugging on your ear, or winking.
Seek parental support. Invite the student's parents in for a meeting to apprise them of his progress and obtain their perspective. Find out what strategies they have found successful with their child and what suggestions they have for dealing with him in class. That also is a good opportunity to develop a daily or weekly communication system so you can inform parents of their child's performance, and so they can keep you posted about any concerns.
If the student exhibits behavioral problems, try to determine the reason for his behavior through careful observation. Note the circumstances of his behavior, including what happens right before and after the incidents, when they usually occur, where the student is when he engages in the unacceptable behavior, and whether his behavior is directed towards a particular student. Use that information to figure out what is triggering and reinforcing the behavior. It might be that he is trying to get your attention or the attention of other students, to get back at another student or get the other student in trouble, or to divert attention from his academic problems. If you can identify the underlying reason for his behavior, you've got a better chance of eliminating it.
Develop a behavior modification system to improve an inappropriate or negative behavior. Provide the student with classroom privileges or material rewards if he shows evidence of progress in the identified area. Let's say the concern is with the student calling out: Divide a 3 x 5 card into ten boxes and tape it to the student's desk. Set a timer for 30 minutes at the beginning of the day. If the student does not call out within the 30-minute period, put your initials in a box and reset the timer. If he does call out, reset the timer immediately but do not initial the card. When all ten boxes are initialed, provide the student with an agreed-upon reward or privilege. Adjust the length of the period and the number of boxes needed to obtain a reward according to the age of the student and the severity of the problem.