How can teachers best plan for and teach students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive classrooms?
Page 5: Collaborative Practices
Educating students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive settings requires teamwork and collaboration. As the student’s teacher, you are not alone! All educators involved in planning, implementing, and evaluating an IEP should be prepared to work together to help students succeed. Collaborative practices improve academic, communicative, and social outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
As you learned earlier, IEP team members (e.g., special educators, general educators, related service providers, family members) work collaboratively to determine appropriate goals, services, and supports for a student’s education. They also collaborate throughout the school year to implement the IEP in a way that ensures a student’s adequate access to and progress in the general education curriculum.
Although the IEP team plays a vital role in the student’s education, they are not the only professionals who should work collaboratively to help the student succeed. There are often many other individuals involved in the day-to-day life of the student. For example, a student may have multiple teachers across different content areas or specialty/elective classes (e.g., art, music). Or, a student may receive support from a paraeducator in the general education classroom. These educators all need to communicate and collaborate regularly to plan their instruction, deliver services and supports, and monitor the student’s progress.
Collaborating with Paraeducators
As noted above, students with significant cognitive disabilities are often supported by paraeducators—sometimes referred to as paraprofessionals or teacher assistants—in inclusive classrooms. Under the supervision of a general and/or special education teacher, paraeducators may take on responsibilities such as adapting materials, offering behavioral support, or facilitating peer interactions.
In these situations, the student’s teachers must collaborate closely with the paraeducator. For example, general educators can share materials in advance of a lesson to help the paraeducator prepare, and special educators can identify the key concepts for the paraeducator to support during instruction. Paraeducators may also require specialized training, such as that provided by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) on how to use a student’s communication system.
Paraeducators must be careful to provide the appropriate amount of support to enable the student to access the general education classroom. For example, a paraeducator who is always right beside the student or who provides excessive assistance may unintentionally limit the student’s ability to interact with peers or fully participate in class. The IEP team should work together to plan ways that the paraeducator can offer support while maximizing the student’s independence.
When planning instruction and support, the most effective collaborative teams develop strong working relationships and meet regularly. Collaborative teams are most successful when they:
- Include interdisciplinary professionals to support all facets of a student’s experience in the general education setting. For example:
- General educator(s) to support grade-level academic content and skills
- Special educator(s) to support foundational skills and specially designed instruction
- Related service provider(s) (e.g., speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, school counselor) to support areas such as communication, physical access, or social-emotional needs
- Establish a shared understanding of goals and objectives for the student’s education
- Focus on the student’s individual strengths and needs
- Agree on ground rules for meetings (e.g., no phones, be on time)
- Create an agenda to guide the meeting and assign specific action items for follow-up
In this interview, Shawnee Wakeman describes some examples of interdisciplinary collaborative teams.
Shawnee Wakeman, Ph.D.
TIES Center, Co-Principal Investigator
University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Whether you have 5, 15, or 45 minutes to collaborate on lesson planning, this tool provides action items to transform a standards-based lesson into more inclusive instruction for all students. Additional resources are provided to help educators advocate for common planning time and set team rules and meeting protocols.
The video below illustrates how a special education teacher and a general education teacher use the 5-15-45 Tool during a collaborative meeting (time: 3:09).
This document includes high-quality paraprofessional facilitation strategies that reduce student reliance on adults and increase student engagement with peers. A Planning Sheet and Initial Training Checklist are also available to support educators who supervise paraprofessionals.
Collaborative practices for inclusion in individual classrooms and schools rely on systemic supports from school and district leaders. This module offers a general overview of the concepts that principals should consider when creating inclusive schools.