Bridging The Worlds of Special Education and General Education

When I started college I felt confident in my decision to become an elementary teacher. There were the obvious signs of pretending to be a teacher to my siblings when I was growing up and being so inspired by my own teachers.  I remember my 3rd grade teacher giving me a hug almost every morning because school make my stomach ache. Her hugs helped decide my future career. I wanted to make that kind of an impact on other children.

My major was Elementary Education until I went to my first practicum. There were students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Specific Learning Disabilities. These students were included in the general education classroom, which I thought made sense and yet it scared me! How was I suppose to teach all the students in my classroom if I wasn’t also trained in Special Education? So I added Special Education as a major with the intention of being a elementary general education teacher that would feel confident having students with IEPs in my class.

I have yet to be a classroom teacher. I’ve actually only taught Special Education, which I’ve loved! One of the biggest things I’ve learned, teaching in Special Education with a General Education mindset, is that these 2 worlds don’t always understand each other. There are complicated assessments and labels for everything in Special Education. On the general education side, inclusion isn’t always accepted so there can be misunderstandings and hard feelings about sharing students and teaching.

When I was an Elementary Resource Teacher (I’m now teaching high school resource), I often got similar questions from different General Education Teachers. Questions like:

  • “How do I get this student to pay attention?”
  • “What can I do meet the needs of my students with special needs in my classroom?”
  • “This student is so far behind, what can I do?”
  • “I’m worried about this student who isn’t in special education. What should I do?”

This post is my attempt to bridge the worlds of Special Education and General Education.

In college I remember my professors preparing us, as special educators, that we may not be welcomed in many general education classrooms. Thankfully, the opposite has always been true. I’ve taught in 3 different schools and each class I have walked into, I have been welcomed with open arms. I hope this is the norm but I know it likely is not. The education system has been pushing for inclusion, which isn’t easy when for so long special education was seperated. Thankfully, from my experiences, special education is being accepted and included.

Back to the questions…

One thing I have learned about being a special educator who teaches in general education classes is that the strategies that work for students with disabilities, help all students, not just the ones who are struggling! If a student with ADHD needs movement breaks (taking breaks, dancing, stretches, brain breaks, and more…) than include the whole class. Every student needs breaks even if they aren’t sliding out of their chairs every minute.

“How do I get this student to pay attention?”

I answered this question in my post about 15 strategies to help students focus. I also came up with a simple resource for you to keep in your teacher binder or somewhere to easily access as a reminder. Here are those 15 strategies summarized from my earlier post:

  1. Give a cue at the beginning of lessons.
  2. Use visual directions and pictures.
  3. Provide immediate feedback.
  4. Break up long assignments.
  5. Use graphic organizers.
  6. Give simple directions.
  7. Write the agenda for the lesson on the board.
  8. Have materials ready.
  9. Provide breaks.
  10. Restate the most important information.
  11. Use fidgets when appropriate.
  12. Use nonverbal cues to redirect.
  13. Help with organization.
  14. Have a quiet classroom environment for independent work.
  15. Include highly engaging activities.

At the beginning of the week, look over the strategies and see where you can include them in your lessons. Pick 1 or 2 that you aren’t already doing. After you are comfortable with those, add another strategy. Keep going until your lessons are including as many of these strategies as possible. Of course, there are many more ideas out there! Ask your special education teacher and other teachers what has worked for them and try that out. What works one day might not work the next day so be ready with a handful of tricks to try!

“What can I do meet the needs of my students with disabilities in my classroom?”

Follow their IEPs. This is such a special education teacher answer so maybe that doesn’t feel helpful. The IEP isn’t just there for the special educator, it’s a resource for all the student’s teachers and their parents. If we are all following the accommodations and working towards meeting the goals in the IEP, the student has a better chance of being successful.  Collaborate with the resource teachers in your school. Reading teachers, special education teachers, and the student’s teachers from last year can likely give you ideas of things to try!

If I had to give a simple and straight forward answer to this question it would be, “Don’t give up on them.” As long as you are always trying to figure out how to help them better, you are doing it right!
In addition, keep the student’s progress in perspective. I often get down on myself if a student isn’t making exceptional progress. I have to remind myself that they are up against really big obstacles that do not go away with 1 great strategy. It may take reteaching addition every week for 3 months before it clicks. It may take reminding them to add a period at the end of their sentences 200 times before they do it independently. This is okay. This is not failure. I share more about this and my confessions of a resource teacher here.

“This student is so far behind, what can I do?”

Progress is progress no matter how far behind a student is. I remember sitting in a 3rd grade meeting when I was an elementary resource teacher and our administrator said, “Our district has a goal to get every student reading on grade level by 3rd grade, even students who are 2 years behind.” That meant if a student entered 3rd grade reading at a 1st grade level, they had to make 2 years growth in 1 year. This felt like a huge burden. I was up against students who had documented reading disabilities! It was a great goal but felt like we were being set up for failure. I had to decide not to let this define their process.  Any progress the student made was a success!

What can we do?

  • Keep at it.
  • Reteach, review, reteach, review.
  • Provide immediate feedback all the time. Don’t let students who are struggling practice things incorrectly. Catch their mistakes before they keep doing them.
  • Reteach, review, reteach, review.
  • Help them find what they are successful at! Students who struggle with learning also struggle with being motivated because learning is so hard. It is much easier to give up then to show up everyday being motivated only to feel like a failure again. Help them stop feeling like a failure.
  • Reteach, review, retreach, review.
  • Make sure their independent work is actually at their independent level! If you are giving them the same work as your average or above average children, they simply can’t do it so it’s really not independent work. Here is one resource I use to differentiate work for students on any level.
  • One of the best ways to think about teaching students who struggle is “I do, we do, you do.” First, you show them what to do and how to do it. Next, do it with them. If it’s a math problem, go through the steps together. Provide lots of support and feedback. Finally, after you’ve done it together enough that they are showing independence, let them be independent! If they start to struggle, do it together again. Here is a template for a lesson plan based on this model.
  • Did I mention reteaching and reviewing?

“I’m worried about this student who isn’t in special education. What should I do?”

Your school should have a system in place that tracks students who are struggling. This resource is a helpful visual to know how students can get specialized instruction. It’s not all on you! Seek out the help from the team of people who are experienced in helping students who struggle.
Happy teaching!

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