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Accommodating Multiple Special Education Needs in One Classroom

Roberta Tevlin, teacher Danforth CTI, Editor OAPT Newsletter

Recently, I and all of the other teachers at my school spent an afternoon learning how to access the IEP’s (Individual Education Plans) of our students with special education needs. We were supposed to make notes from these extremely wordy documents and figure out how to implement the required accommodations in our classrooms. Half of our students have IEP’s and all around me, I heard teachers getting frustrated. How are you supposed to address all of these individual needs at the same time?

It isn’t as impossible as it may seem. Much can be accomplished by using the principal of Universal Design and by implementing teaching techniques from Physics Education Research.

Universal Design
Universal design is the recognition that ideas implemented for a specific need often have unintended benefits for other reasons. One of the clearest examples is the curb-cut. People in wheelchairs have been fighting for these slopes at intersections for over half a century. They are now a standard design and they improve mobility for people with strollers, walkers, shopping buggies and as well as those using wheel chairs.

In a similar way, many special education accommodations will help all students — not just those with IEP’s. They will especially help students with unidentified learning needs. One accommodation that comes up for many of my students is “Extra time for processing”. One way to deal with this is to give the students extra time to complete a test. This can be problematic. Many students don’t want to take the extra time because they don’t want to stand out. The students that do want the extra time, may miss the first part of their next class and you may have trouble finding a place for them to continue to write. Perhaps a second common accommodation can provide a solution: “Reduced number of tasks used to assess a concept/skill”.

If you make your tests shorter, then fewer students will need extra time. If you use this shorter test for the whole class, then you will be testing all of them on their abilities and not their speed. This approach also has the happy effect of giving you less work to mark! The only problem is that now you will have more students fidgeting once they have finished the test. There are many possible solutions for this. At the end of the test, you could provide an optional, open-ended, challenging, ‘bonus’ question. Alternatively, you could allow them to play games on their phone, work on other courses, chat quietly in the hall, draw or take a nap.

Physics Education Research (PER)
provides many different pedagogical strategies, but the basic message of PER is that teachers should spend less time lecturing and more time providing students with opportunities to build their knowledge through active-learning in small groups. If you are already doing this in your class, then you are already addressing these two accommodations: “Buddy/peer tutoring” and “Cooperative group work”. Having the students working in small groups also helps address the accommodations of “Proximity to instructor” and “Strategic seating”. If you are usually found at the front of the classroom, then there are only a few seats near you. However, if the students are working in small groups, then you can be near most of them at different times. The middle seat of a group of three is harder for me to reach, so I place students that tend to need less individual attention there. I also change the seating arrangement frequently by using name cards and I avoid combinations of students who don’t work well together.

Talking the Walk
You are probably already doing many of the things that you are required to do to meet your students’ special education needs. However, you may not be ready to explicitly describe how you are doing this to parents and administrators. To help out, I have provided a short glossary of some accommodation terms and what this might look like in your classroom.

  • Alternative work space: Have a desk or two at the back or in the hallway — possibly a carrel — where a student can work on their own.
  • Buddy/peer tutoring: Have students working in groups of two or three as much as possible. Try mixed grouping sometimes and grouping by abilities at other times.
  • Computer options: Each classroom should have several computers that students can use during the lesson and during tests. Students should be encouraged to bring and use laptops, phones etc.
  • Cooperative group work: All students should be working in small groups as much as possible. Provide questions that require them to use multiple-choice cards and white boards to stimulate focussed discussion and allow you to monitor their effort and understanding.
  • Direct instruction: This should involve both visual and auditory instruction. Provide this for the whole class before an activity and then repeat as needed for individuals that seem confused as you roam around.
  • Extra time for processing: Make class work and tests cover fewer items to encourage more comprehension. Include some challenging, open-ended work at the end to keep the fast processors engaged.
  • Extended time limits: Keep tests and worksheets short. Go for quality not quantity.
  • Manipulatives/Hands-On: Provide concrete materials as much as possible. Tap into all the senses. Include tableaux and dramatizations to get them out of their seats.
  • More frequent breaks: A change is as good as a rest and all students can benefit from this. Switch from the concrete to abstract. Switch from group work to individual work.
  • Preparation for assessment: On the review day(s) provide material that is very similar in format as well as content. Keep the format of each test the same. Provide some exact word-for-word test questions that they can prepare for.
  • Prompts to return student's attention to task: Reduce the need for prompts by making the work more varied and student-centered. Reduce the time you spend talking to the whole class. Seat students who have trouble focussing with students who don’t. While they are working in groups, privately prompt the individuals who need this.
  • Proximity to instructor: This suggestion shows up for many students. If you are usually at the front, it is impossible to do. However, if you move around the class, then almost any seat can be near the instructor.
  • Reduced/uncluttered format: Provide more white space on worksheets and tests and use a larger font. Avoid unnecessary information like Knowledge/Understanding, Communication, Thinking/Inquiry, or Application.
  • Reduced number of tasks used to assess a concept/skill: Do this for all students. They should not be evaluated on how fast they are. Many students should be finishing the tests early and you need to provide an outlet so they don’t fidget and disturb the other students. Depending on the class, this could be a bonus challenge question, allowing them to play games on their phones (with the sound off), allowing them to chat quietly in the hall etc.
  • Reference/formulae document: Allow students to have notes, cheat sheets, prepared study guides etc. as aids during tests. This means that you are testing their understanding not their memory. It also encourages them to prepare for the test.
  • Repetition of information: Organize the lessons so that the skills and concepts are repeated but still appear fresh because they use different materials, contexts, approaches etc.
  • Rewording/rephrasing of information: While group work is going on it is much easier to notice and address individual needs like this.
  • Rich culminating tasks/projects: These projects can challenge and motivate the strong students and provide time for the other students to catch up.
  • Strategic seating: Change your seating arrangements frequently. Who wants to sit beside the same person every day? I use large file cards folded to form a tent with their name. Seat the noisy, disruptive students so that they are far apart and where you can easily stand next to them. Make sure that female and anxious students are seated next to supportive students.
  • Use of head phones: Allow students to listen to music during individual work as long as they do not spend too much time selecting music or start texting, surfing, or playing games. During a test, require that they set the music at the start so that the phone never comes out of their pocket during the test.
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