Modifying Lessons for Students with More Severe Disabilities


As I’ve said before in previous posts, one of the challenges with a Co-Teaching model is what to do with your students in Special Education who have such severe disabilities that it becomes necessary to modify their curriculum. Because of the nature of their disabilities, these students can’t perform on grade level standards and therefore teachers must adapt to their individual needs. Some teachers see this as a daunting and difficult task and typically rely on those students to be pulled out of the classroom and instructed in a Special Education class. The problem with this is that these students gain nothing from this model and wind up further and further behind their peers. 

When exposed to grade-level learning in their natural setting, these students pick up on more material, and have a higher success rate than students who are removed from the classroom. Many are under the false assumption that a smaller environment with more intensive instruction is effective for these students. The reality is that this isn’t the case. Students learn best from their peers. When students are removed from the classroom, they understand that the expectations are different for them and most often live up to those reduced expectations. When students remain in the classroom they understand that, while we don’t expect them to do everything the other students are doing, we do expect them to have a basic understanding of what’s being presented. Many students may only get the gist of what’s being taught, but because of the exposure and interactions with other students, that gist is more comprehensive than the basic skills taught in a resource room. This has been shown time and time again in research on inclusion practices.

So now the big question comes: How do we ensure that students receive the right amount of instruction and the right amount of modifications to measure what they are learning?

First Co-Teachers must determine the nature of the student’s disability and how it affects their ability to participate in the classroom. Even more students with more severe disabilities can participate in group activities and whole-class instruction and benefit greatly from hands-on learning. In order to assess a student’s ability to participate in the classroom, the Co-Teachers must review the student’s Full and Individual Evaluation (FIE). This document outlines the cognitive and academic assessments done by an assessment professional and clearly defines the areas where the student is going to need academic support in the classroom. From here, teachers can make decisions on how to modify assignments and assessments to meet the student’s needs. If a student is multiple-years below grade level, it is often necessary to incorporate remedial skills into the instruction presented to meet those needs without taking away from the grade-level skills the student needs as well. This can be tricky at times and is the reason for two teachers to be present in the classroom and why a Co-Teaching environment is so effective. Lessons can be broken down to provide both remedial and grade-level instruction.

When it comes to modifying assignments, lessons, and assessments, the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) is your guide. In a true Co-Teaching setting, both teachers would be involved in the process of developing the student’s IEP and would consider the nature of the disabilities and how the student will access grade-level instruction. A student whose disabilities affect their participation in the classroom may need a range of modifications. For example, a student whose reading ability is below grade level would not normally be able to read the grade level text and comprehend it at a level of their peers. However, if the student is given access to the material in an audio format and the Co-Teacher reinforces their remedial skills in a small group setting, the student is both able to participate in grade-level comprehension while still striving to build their reading skills. This is just one example of how to ensure participation. There are many programs available to help with remedial reading, but often I find it most effective to bring the remedial aspects of reading into the grade-level lesson. Taking grade level text and breaking it down into word studies and analyzing phonological structure helps students to understand words while still working on the same text as their peers. Taking remediation out of the grade-level curriculum often requires sacrificing something else that’s equally important. Granted, this process takes a greater understanding of the subject you are teaching in order to do this effectively, but the benefits far outweigh the alternatives.

In future posts, we will analyze more specific techniques for taking grade-level text and strategies for breaking down words and how to teach phonological analyzation. There are also other techniques I’ve found quite effective, but are more time consuming and not ideal. As I enter into this year of Co-Teaching, I will be exploring more of these options and finding ways to make them more efficient.

If you have strategies that you’ve used that you’d like to share, please do. The hardest part of a Co-Teaching classroom is organizing all of the things students need and adding those in without taking away from the expectations of the classroom. We’ll talk more about specific ways to modify assignments and tests and talk about technology and tools that can help dramatically improve your ability to accommodate and modify for students with disabilities. I’ll show you how to take tools such as an iPad, iPod touch, or computer and use tools that are already a part of those devices to help students succeed in the classroom. We are on a cusp of incredible opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in ways never before possible. 

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