What should teachers understand in order to address student diversity in their classrooms?
Page 5: Exceptionalities
The term exceptionalities in K–12 schooling refers to both disabilities and giftedness. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ’04 (IDEA ’04), the national law that guarantees an appropriate education to students with disabilities, recognizes fourteen disability categories. These are:
A provision of IDEA ensuring that students with disabilities receive necessary education and services without cost to the child or family.
least-restrictive environment (LRE)
One of the principles outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requiring that students with disabilities be educated with their non-disabled peers to the greatest appropriate extent.
A part of special education that includes services from professionals (e.g., occupational therapist [OT], physical therapist [PT], Speech-Language Pathologist [SLP]) from a wide range of disciplines typically outside of education, all designed to meet the learning needs of individual children with disabilities.
A service or support that allows a student to access the general education curriculum without changing the content or curricular expectations (e.g., audio books for students who have difficulty reading).
A service or support that allows a student to access the general education curriculum but that fundamentally alters the content or curricular expectations (e.g., a sixth-grade student is given a third-grade science text about the solar system that covers the same content but not at the same depth).
individualized education program (IEP)
A written plan used to delineate an individual student’s current level of development and his or her learning goals, as well as to specify any accommodations, modifications, and related services that a student might need to attend school and maximize his or her learning.
Almost every general education classroom includes students with exceptionalities. Students with disabilities (ages 6–17) make up 11% of the total school population. Of these students, three out of four spend all or part of their day in the general education classroom.
Why Exceptionalities Matter
Unfortunately, misperceptions about students with exceptionalities continue to exist. Consider Angela and Robert, two students in a general education classroom. Angela has a learning disability and Robert has autism. Their teacher is surprised at how well Angela and Robert contribute to class discussions. Because Angela had trouble reading, her teacher thought she would also struggle to understand the content. To the contrary, Angela learns quite well through other formats (e.g., through discussion, auditorily), and her difficulties primarily involve written material. Likewise, the teacher expected that Robert would be nonverbal and have excessive disruptive behaviors, such as rocking his body and flapping his hands. Instead, the only behaviors of concern are his social skills, which are somewhat awkward. Robert’s academic skills are at or above grade level.
As is often the case, Robert and Angela’s teacher focused on the stereotypical characteristics—particularly negative ones—frequently associated with their disability labels. In fact, no two students with the same exceptionality act or achieve in exactly the same ways. It is important for teachers to learn about all aspects (e.g., motivations, experiences, goals, strengths) of their students. Indeed, once Robert and Angela’s teacher started learning more about them, she discovered that—like most students—Angela and Robert have areas in which they succeed or excel as well as areas in which they need additional support. Understanding how a disability affects the student will allow teachers to make specific instructional adjustments.
Revisiting the Challenge
Some of Ms. Christie’s students appeared bored and uninterested; however, some of her students have disabilities which might contribute to their disengagement. Without the appropriate instructional adjustments or supports, these students are unable to fully participate.
What Teachers Can Do
Teachers are not alone in making specific instructional decisions for students with disabilities. A multidisciplinary team develops an IEP for every student who receives special education services. These IEPs outline needed supports and services. The teacher can turn to members of this team, many of whom have specific expertise (e.g., special education, occupational therapy, assistive technology), to help her implement appropriate instructional techniques, interventions, and supports.
General education teachers should be prepared to address their students’ wide range of ability levels and instructional needs. Two approaches for helping them to do so—Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction—are designed to meet the needs of the widest range of students (i.e., gifted, typically achieving, struggling learners, students with disabilities, ELLs). In the case of students with disabilities, their IEPs might outline more specific supports in the form of accommodations, modifications, or assistive technology. Click on the graphic for a brief description of each.
Any device or service that helps an individual with disabilities to access the general education curriculum; examples include index cards to help a student track the line of text on a page while he is reading (low-tech) and screen reading software that reads digital text aloud (high-tech).
accommodations or modifications
Accommodation: A service or support that allows a student to access the general education curriculum without changing the content or curricular expectations (e.g., audio books for students who have difficulty reading).
Modification: A service or support that allows a student with a disability to access the general education curriculum but that fundamentally alters the content or curricular expectations (e.g., a sixth-grade student is given a third-grade science text to learn about the solar system––covering the same content but not at the same depth).
An approach in which teachers vary and adapt instruction based on the individual needs of students in the classroom; examples of how to differentiate instruction include flexible grouping and immediate corrective feedback.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
A research-based framework for teachers to incorporate flexible materials, techniques, and strategies for delivering instruction and for students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways.
For additional information about these areas view the following IRIS Modules:
Individualized instruction is taking the goals and objectives that the team has identified as critical for a particular student and then putting them into play in the classroom. It may mean that a student has and needs certain modifications in either the materials or the content or the sequence of presentation, the way that the instruction is delivered, or the way that he or she demonstrates knowledge or competence. Individualized instruction may also mean changing some goals and objectives so that the student only learns part of what other peers are learning, or it may mean in some instances that students participate in a different curriculum that may parallel the general curriculum but that will get them closer to achieving the goals and objectives identified as critical for that particular student. So it means making changes to ensure that the kid doesn’t have a cookie-cutter approach. It means designing instruction, carrying it out, and assessing it all along the way to make sure that students are progressing and learning what is most essential for him or her to learn. And you always want to key that back to the general content standards and benchmarks that all peers are learning, but sometimes students need to also acquire additional or other skills.
Transcript: Ginger Blalock, PhD
Regarding the education of students with disabilities, their individual education program includes a statement of how the student will be supported in obtaining the annual goals that the team decides is important. Every individual education program has to also include a statement about how the child will be involved in the general curriculum and actually progress in that general curriculum, and also, related to LRE, how much the student will be educated and participate with students with and without disabilities. And this access to the general education curriculum is intended to be with appropriate modifications or supports or services that allow the student to be able to access the curriculum, to be able to learn from it, to be able to demonstrate what they know, and to be able to be a part of that curriculum with their peers.
The reason why this provision is so important is because historically many students with disabilities who were in the general ed. settings, classroom or school were still denied access to that general ed. curriculum. There was a tendency for educators to say, “The student cannot learn this, and therefore we’re not even going to bother. We’ll just provide them with their own curriculum, or we’ll unfortunately just kind of let them bide [their time] and not really progress.” And what this does is compel all the planners, all the folks on the team, to make sure that this student is participating as much as possible in what every other kid is learning. And so one of the greatest ways in which you see that facilitated is that now all planning that goes on for these students with disabilities must address the regular content standards and benchmarks that every child is learning at that grade level. And so it just forces us all to think about how can we help this kid at least achieve as much as possible, in the same content, and the same skills that his or her peers are learning.