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Let’s pretend for a minute that next year your campus will no longer provide pull out services for students with unique instructional needs. Neither the SPED teacher nor the ELL teacher will be taking students from your room to provide “special” services.

How in the world is that going to work?

Meetings are scheduled with specialists for technical assistance in classroom management and instructional strategies. There’s a short presentation and a few minutes to ask questions and then you’re sent on your way with the following “tips”.

  • Space short work periods with breaks.
  • Provide additional time to complete assignment.
  • Start the lesson with visuals and real objects that give clues about the instructional content.
  • Allow students to share in small groups so reluctant students can “rehearse” their answers to challenging questions.
  • Break assignments into segments of shorter tasks.
  • Provide a model of the end product.
  • Frontload important vocabulary with visuals.
  • Play games to strengthen students’ language and concept attainment.
  • Provide written and verbal direction with visuals if possible.
  • Break long assignments into small sequential steps, monitoring each step.
  • Highlight key points within the written directions of the assignment.
  • Present content in small chunks, provide thinking/talking/writing time to reflect on new learning.
  • Stop frequently and check for understanding. Clear up confusion and clarify.
  • Number and sequence steps in a task.
  • Provide outlines, study guides, copies of teacher’s notes.
  • Explain learning expectations to the student before beginning a lesson.
  • Limit the number of concepts presented at one time.
  • Provide incentives for beginning and completing assignments.

Seriously? The one-pager you’ve been given is really going to help meet the needs of students that really should be taken out of your class for their specialized instruction? This is it? This is going to support students who require additional support for learning challenging concepts?

I’ve been accused on occasion of over-simplifying. And I know it seems much more complicated meeting the needs of SPED and ELL students than the list provided above would seem to indicate.

It’s not.

The secret to meeting individual needs for our students lies in thoughtful planning. It turns out that most of the strategies that support our fragile learners also support all students.

If we’re required to allow extra time for a particular student whose IEP states we must provide that as an accommodation, that same extra time benefits a student who just returned to school after a lengthy hospital stay. Or the student who receives treatment for ADHD. Or the students who need additional support with organizational strategies (and don’t have an IEP). Or the refugee student who entered your school in late November. Or the attention-seeking student who disrupts learning often. Or…Or…Or…

When gen ed teachers plan they are required to include individualized instruction for their students who need specific accommodations. What if many of those accommodations (revisit the list above) were just an ordinary part of the classroom environment and then all students could benefit if/when needed?

Angela Watson gets it. She clearly understands the pressure, frustration and general “hassled” feeling teachers experience daily. In her book, Awakening; Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching she gently reminds the reader:

Replacing extreme terms is a really important strategy if you’re prone to assuming the worst case scenario. If you pay close attention to your word choice, you’ll notice how influential it is on how you feel and what you think later on. If you think something is really awful, you’ll probably waste a lot of time thinking about how awful it is rather than expending your energy on problem solving.

It’s so easy to worry endlessly about which students are getting what they need and how much work is required to fulfill all the requirements for our students who need specialized support. “So finding negative stories to tell ourselves is easy; the stories are ripe for the picking. The challenge is recognizing them as stories, rather than realities.” (Angela Watson, Unshakeable 2015)

Can I be bold enough for a minute to suggest we take Angela’s advice and simply reframe our thinking? What if we spent as much time thoughtfully planning as we do worrying about how it’s all going to get done? What if we collaborated with others to design instruction that included all, or most, of the suggestions from the list of “tips”?

I’m not saying it’s easy.

I am saying it’s possible. The process of intentional planning to meet the needs of all our students and its daily application won’t happen without some degree of agitation and it won’t happen quickly. So often educators feel powerless. We’re not. And we can effect change. Sometimes simply realizing that is, in itself, inspiring enough to make the change.


 If any of this has resonated at all, don’t miss the guest post Angela Watson did over at Cult of Pedagogy.