Instructing Special Education Students

Now that more than a decade has passed, I can admit to myself that I did not understand how to educate special education students when I was their principal. I am ashamed and regret that I did not show a deeper understanding and appreciation of the possibilities hidden within those students. I could see only the students’ deficits, not their potential. I had great faith in the special education teachers who were so very kind to the students, but naively, I had very low academic expectations for anyone in special education.

My thinking about special education students began to change when I started my doctoral program. I chose an emphasis in special education, rather than the traditional leadership route, because I knew so little about it. When I began to study the history of the labels we affix to students in special education, it wasn’t long before I realized the unjust decisions I had made on behalf of those who were struggling in school.

Today, I am 100 percent convinced that all special education students throughout the country could learn much more than principals and teachers think is possible. Now, having worked with principals and teachers in a number of middle schools and high schools, I know that almost everyone has the best interests of the students in mind. Administrators, faculty, and staff work hard to make school a place where students want to come every day. I have seen incredibly caring environments.

Foster Independence

However, I feel that the hidden, unspoken reality in those caring environments is that there are still low academic expectations for students who are working below grade level. Paraeducators, in an effort to help their assigned students, often create a dependence upon their help rather than fostering independence. Teachers trying to help the students through the coursework in high school often set the bar so low that students themselves would admit they are not learning much. Granted, this is all done in an environment of care and concern. Yet, we can do more.

Creating student independence in a general education classroom where students are working far below grade level (instead of segregating them into a special education environment) can be done by differentiating the curriculum with a modification process in three simple steps. Let me share with you a process I devised with a colleague, which could save teachers time while simultaneously creating greater achievement for students with special needs who are included in the general education classroom.

Having begun my teaching career with only a curriculum guide in my hand, I was somewhat elated when the standards-based curriculum was introduced. I thought to myself, “Now I have a specific road map of what to teach!” But even in this standards-based teaching era, there is still more information packed into state or Common Core State Standards than any one teacher could teach or students could learn in a course over a year (or even in their whole educational program). In the book The New Art and Science of Teaching, author Robert J. Marzano states that researchers estimated it would take 15,000 hours to teach all the standards in a K–12 curriculum, even though there are only 9,000 hours of instructional time available for students.

Three-Step Process

For students with special needs who read and process information more slowly, or those for whom writing is more laborious than other students, cramming a lot of information and “things to do” into assignments, activities, or assessments can be extremely overwhelming. What if we identified the most important information for all students to learn and made that information the achievement goal for the students with special needs? If students were accountable for only the essential information, with nice-to-know information as an option, feelings of discouragement or the need to act out in frustration would be significantly reduced. Some teachers have gotten a bit defensive at the suggestion that not everything they teach is of equal importance. However, after some deliberate reflection and experience with the curriculum, they soon recognize the basic concepts everyone should know. This is the first step in modifying the curriculum to create independence for students who are working below grade level.

The second step in the modification process is to slow the pace, giving students the time to learn the essential information identified in the first step. Rapid-fire assignments, one on top of the other, give rise to defeatist or belligerent attitudes. Students who are trying to save face would often rather be disruptive in class than appear incapable. A fast pace also fosters a common occurrence of assigning a paraeducator to help a student get assignments completed so they can earn points to pass. This can cause paraeducators to lead the students to answers or even complete some of the work for them. Eventually, a self-defeating dependence on such assistance can develop.

Teachers frequently ask, “How do I slow the pace of the class for some students and not others?” A general education teacher can do this by eliminating assignments, activities, and assessments that are related to the nice-to-know information. While other students are working on those tasks, the students with the modified curriculum may work independently on the materials they are being held accountable for, or they may participate in some of the classroom activities for the nice-to-know material, but not be held accountable for or graded on those activities. This decision is made by the classroom teacher and is dependent on a classroom environment that celebrates individuality and respect for one another.

The third step in creating independent learners by differentiating the curriculum through modification is to examine the format of what you are asking students to do. Sometimes the assignments, activities, and assessments teachers create for the general education population can stop students with special needs in their tracks because the vocabulary may be ambiguous or the specific format may be confusing. Special education teachers have expertise and are excellent resources when it comes to reformatting assignments, activities, or assessments that would be best for the student working with a modified curriculum. A simple illustration of a revision would be to replace “Describe the physical setting of the story” with “When and where does the story take place?” on a test. The student is still being tested on the essential information, but in a way that makes sense to him or her.

Formulating a Plan

Principals who have supported this three-step process of differentiating curriculum for students who are working below grade level—but are included in general education classrooms—note these advantages:

  • Greater achievement from students with special needs
  • A reduction or redistribution of paraprofessionals now that students can be more independent
  • Fewer IEP graduation diplomas due to the appropriate support for students in the general education curriculum
  • No additional purchases for curriculum materials because teachers will use their own curriculum to make modifications

If each content teacher (of courses frequently taken by students with special needs) would implement these three steps for each course they teach, they would have a basic plan for any student who is working below grade level to learn essential information during any semester. Not only would the basic plan be helpful for students with disabilities, but it could also be a way to differentiate the curriculum for students whose first language is not English.

During our pilot program in a large urban high school in the Midwest, numerous teachers created basic plans. They reported a true savings of time in the long run because of this proactive (versus reactive) approach to modifications. Some teachers indicated that this approach also made them better teachers for every student. The three steps forced teachers to ask themselves questions such as, “Why do I teach this? Should I be teaching it? What is the most important concept in this unit? Is that the best way to ask that question?”

Principals have found that paraeducators didn’t need to be hired for every student who was struggling with learning in the general education classroom. Most importantly, students gained a sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy when they realized they could learn the essential information in a classroom with their peers.

The Bottom Line

Let’s give our students with special needs the content and the time they need to learn. Let’s ask them to do their assignments, activities, and assessments in a way that they can understand and feel confident about completing. Let’s hold them accountable for essential information and allow them to complete their work at a pace that works for them. It is a way to differentiate the curriculum to make learning achievable for everyone.


Janine S. Wahl, EdD, is associate professor in the professional education department at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, MN.


To Learn More …

Check out this resource for ideas on how to differentiate your curriculum: The New Art and Science of Teaching: More Than Fifty New Instructional Strategies for Student Success by Robert J. Marzano.