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What Are the Rewards of Working With Special-Needs Children?

EducationWorld wanted to know about the challenges and triumphs of teaching special-needs children. So we went right to the experts! Below are the great thoughts and stories they shared.

Meghan G. Graham, M.S., CCCSLP, speech language pathologist and blogger at

Working with children is challenging. That is just a fact. Whether they have special needs or not, seems irrelevant to me. Having patience, being creative, maintaining energy and staying current with educational trends are consistent themes that are necessary when working with children. I think those challenges are all present and important to consider; however, in my mind, these pale in comparison to the triumphs. I can’t think of anything more important and rewarding than helping individuals with their communication skills. It is the essence of who we are, how we share ideas, connect and learn. My most memorable moments are plentiful—for example, when a parent tells me his/her child joined a group of kids on the playground for the first time, was able to finally say his own name to introduce himself, had a meaningful conversation with a grandparent, or could do reading homework without tears. When I reflect on these moments, I have little to say of the challenges. It’s all about perspective.


Penny Woods, a 15-year veteran elementary school media specialist and technology specialist who started Penniless Teacher, a blog that compiles freebies for educators

As an elementary librarian, I worked with all teachers and all students in the school.  A team effort was required to foster learning, especially with Exceptional Education students with behavioral issues. Here’s my favorite “triumph” story:

In addition to my duties as the librarian, I was also tasked with all of the technology in the school.  Testing a computer in the primary ExEd classroom remotely, (meaning the computer was in the classroom), I was logged into the computer to perform a task. Suddenly, the assistant from the classroom came running into the library, telling me the kids thought the computer was ALIVE!  She proceeded to tell me about the behavior issues and accomplishments of each student, which I typed into the computer as if it was talking to the students. The students were talking to the computer as the classroom teacher typed in their responses. All of this was made possible by the computer’s ever-present “Notepad” feature.

After school, the classroom teacher and I discussed this amazing behavior tool we had discovered. Our plans begin to hatch. Either the teacher or the assistant would call or drop in to inform me of late-breaking behavior issues or accomplishments.

Daily, I logged on to the computer and clicked the sound button, alerting the students that the computer was “awake.” The students were super-excited to “tell” the computer their activities in the classroom and at home. The computer was becoming human by telling the students he needed eyes so he could see them. Eyes become the class project (blue eyes, with the most amazing long lashes you can imagine made out of paper, were taped to the top frame around the monitor).  Next, the students decided the computer must have hair and asked him what color he would like. The next day, the computer had a full monitor of red yarn hair. I even got the students to hold up a mirror so the computer could see himself. 

By the end of the week, teachers and administrators in the school were completely shocked at the physical transformation of “Red,” the computer in this primary special education classroom. The most shocking part was the positivity the students were experiencing and sharing with everyone. Trying to keep this secret from the other hundreds of students in the school was a difficult task. We didn’t want anyone to spoil our new-found tool!

Upon arrival each morning, students were found standing in front of Red, telling him of lost teeth, a boat ride, a visit to the beach, and other monumental daily experiences of students ages 5-8.  They waited patiently for Red to make his morning appearance with so much excitement, they couldn’t stand still.

One day, I was informed that a student had had a particularly bad day in the art classroom. Red alerted the classroom as the students returned from art class. The students could not believe that Red and Art, the computers, had talked to each other! Red informed them of his complete disappointment in the actions of the student, resulting in tearful apologies to Red, Art and the art teacher.

Our “accidental” behavior management system worked as if we had spent hours detailing a workable plan. Accidents that work are fantastic! Students in this particular class had been under the observation of behavior analysts from the district. As the classroom teacher explained to the behavior specialists what we had been doing with the computer, they were in disbelief, especially with the visible improvement in student behavior and accomplishments in the classroom in the month between observations.

Keep in mind that this was at least 10 years ago, before computers had built-in cameras. We were on the forefront of using technology in the classroom as a behavior modification tool!


Tricia Fuglestad, NBCT, Dryden Elementary K-5 art teacher and 2013 Western Region Elementary Art Teacher of the Year

I've been teaching K-5 art for many years now and work with the same population of children for up to six years in a row, from their first day in my school until their last. I constantly see children move from struggling to thriving over the years, but one story stands out to me since I witnessed her breakthrough day.

One female student came to Dryden as an ELL student in kindergarten. She was very shy, introverted, and selectively mute in school. She didn’t participate in her classroom verbally and had trouble succeeding. However, she was an amazing artist. She understood everything when it was explained clearly with visuals. She was a silent leader in my art room from the very beginning.

This student always seemed happy in art class, though I had never heard a single word from her. One day toward the end of second grade, she received the day’s “Enthusiastic Artist Award” at the end of class. Her teacher was at the door to pick up the students, and she turned to him and burst out with, “I won the Enthusiastic Artist Award, and it’s my turn for Student of the Week, too!” The teacher and I looked at each other with surprised expressions as she lunged at us for hugs.

After this breakthrough, when she felt special, secure and acknowledged for her talents, the student began speaking in school. 

In fact, she not only spoke, but also sang and acted in a few of our “Fugleflick” videos. I love her line in Art-iculation (she chose the part about “growing in self-esteem”). I still have her portfolio of artwork in our online gallery. The piece that makes me smile the most is this one from her fifth-grade year.


California Special Needs Law Group, from a blog post

Successes in working with [special-needs] children are measured in inches, not feet. Even the smallest achievements of a special-needs child are cause for celebration; the road to that achievement has likely been longer and rougher than for those without disabilities.

Setbacks, time spent coming up with more creative approaches to the material and even physically violent episodes might litter the road to that “Eureka!” moment when a special-needs child grasps the concept being taught.

Working with special-needs children can be difficult…but the [rewards] could last the rest of your life. You just might come away with more of an appreciation of all people and how they develop, not just your students, but your own children as well. You might learn patience, yes; and tolerance, and acceptance and empathy.


Do you teach special-needs students? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


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