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How teaching students with special needs makes me a better teacher for everyone

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

For some parents, the idea of having their child educated in the same classroom as a student with a disability can be off-putting. Parents may believe that meeting the needs of students with disabilities requires extra attention and support that detracts from their own child’s learning.

But educating children who don’t have special needs in the same classroom as those who do, which happens more and more because of recent special education reforms, can be an opportunity for greater learning for all students—if teachers get creative.

At my school, that became clear as I watched some of my sixth graders struggling with my school’s new curriculum at the start of this year. That prompted me to create a “student guide” for each lesson, in which I provided a student version of the talking points I used to guide me through the lesson. I hoped the guides would help students process the information I presented and participate more actively in discussions and activities.

At first, the guides didn’t work as well as I had hoped. I had to remind students to reference and use their guides, and students seemed to find them confusing and unhelpful. What’s more, in order to save paper, I only gave them to students who were struggling–which I began worry made the guides carry a stigma I didn’t intend for them to have.

Here’s an example of one of the guides I made at this initial stage. Notice that the formatting is confusing, and the lack of spacing makes it difficult to read (click image to zoom):

I knew I wanted to make the guides more effective. Ultimately, the changes that would make these guides more useful for my whole class came from closely considering the needs of one individual student.

After conducting a student work analysis for a student with autism, our sixth grade team discussed what kind of supports and strategies would benefit him, since it was clear from his work that he was not mastering much of the academic content we were teaching.

Students with autism typically benefit from structured environments and activities. Talking about this with my colleagues made me think of the student guides. I decided to redesign the guides in the hopes of helping the student stay on track throughout the lesson.

Rather than a confusing mess of columns and words, I tried turning the guide into a series of checkboxes. And I started distributing the guide to all students.

Once I started using the new guide format, I found that the changes I made for a student who required discrete and explicit steps actually made the guide more useful for other students–including students without special needs.

Many of my students take pleasure in ticking off the boxes as the lesson moves along. When students ask me to repeat a question or direction, I can simply redirect them to the guide, which they can reread on their own.

The guides also help me teach better. Preparing the guides for each lesson forces me to be more explicit about what I expect students to do during each and every part of the lesson. In fact, when I’m delivering a lesson, I often find the student guides more useful than my own talking points!

I still wanted to improve the guides, so I included a space for student feedback at the bottom of each one. I’ve already made several changes based on student feedback, including making the font bigger and including specific page numbers whenever I reference student workbooks and texts.

Right now, I’m experimenting with making the student guide more interactive. In addition to the checkboxes, I’ve started including sections with fill-in-the-blanks and written self-reflection or self-assessment. Here’s an example from a recent lesson:

Have student guides resulted in any demonstrable impact on my students’ academic outcomes? Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say. Designing a method of valid assessment of the impact of the supports and strategies we are undertaking is the next big step for my school.

Developing student guides is a lot of work on top of preparing the talking points and presentations I already use for each lesson.

But the quality of my lesson delivery has improved, and after making the adjustments described above, I feel like the guides are well worth the additional investment of my time—and they’re example of how concrete support for students who are struggling the most can also assist a much larger group of students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.