Strategies for Classrooms Inclusive of Special Needs
In 2023, it’s become clearer than ever before that the concept of inclusive education is not just applicable to things like nationality or gender but also to differently-abled and special needs learners. The latest statewide data suggests that more than 12.8% of enrolled learners have special needs (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022). As such, it is important for TK programs and educators to create functioning “least restrictive environments” (LREs) that learners with special needs need to succeed. However, that’s easier said than done. How can we—as educators, administrators, and institutions—more easily create LREs so as not to disenfranchise any child in our classrooms?
A really significant part of being inclusive of special needs is recognizing the learner/child before their special needs. A key takeaway I had from my time working at the Organization for Special Needs Families (OSF) was that oftentimes, people tend to say phrases like “autistic children” rather than “children with autism.” While this might seem rather minor or even leaning into semantics, defining people by their special needs first before their humanity or identity as a learner can inherently lead to difficulties in dealing with those learners later on due to an interpreted lack of common ground. For this reason, I have found that this guideline for addressing students (even if it is just in your mind) really helps in the overall process of supporting all of your students.
Similarly, on the theme of fundamentals, educators often run into the issue where their observations of students who were not disclosed or entered into a program as special needs exhibit characteristics that indicate otherwise. In cases like these, as well as when learners with special needs are being enrolled in schools, it is important (but also mandated) to do an “individualized education plan” (IEP) meeting in which education professionals, teachers, administrators, and families get together to develop goals based on the assessments made of the learner (California Department of Education, 2013). It is incredibly important for teachers to follow the goals and strategies that get outlined in these IEP meetings because doing so ensures the best chance for children with special needs to achieve desirable. However, it is more important that those meetings take place. Too often, teachers fail to recognize signs that certain students might be special needs or, on the other side of the issue, rush to diagnose such students and subsequently treat them differently. Both of these are undesirable outcomes. As educators, it is not our job to diagnose students. Instead, we must simply make observations about students in our classrooms and record/report them appropriately as a portion of the overall Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) process.
With special needs learners, a key part of their overall experience in TK programs is how well their differentiated education is executed. I work at San Juan Batista Child Development, an institution in which there are no dedicated special education instructors. Due to this arrangement, learners with special needs primarily spend most of their time in least restrictive environments when enrolled in our programs rather than spending more time in a special education classroom. As a standard definition, a least restrictive environment generally refers to a guideline under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that states that children/students with special needs should have access to the general education curriculum and ideally spend as much time as possible in classrooms that are not exclusive to other special needs students (Division for Early Childhood, 2009). This makes differentiated education all the more important as it must be performed effectively in order for special needs children to thrive just as much as their peers. For example, in my class right now, there are three nonverbal learners. Communication has always been a large part of the preschool curriculum, but now more than ever, it seems like it ranks higher and higher on the priority list. Whether it be a singing, speaking, or reading activity, I have to get my nonverbal learners to participate, but how can I do so with alternative means? A strategy that my coworkers and I have developed for this particular scenario is allowing and encouraging alternative forms of communication, such as gesturing. Allowing these students to participate and be engaged in such activities by letting them hold up banners with the lyrics of a song written on them with the rest of the class also helps to stoke interest and motivation. The key to differentiated learning is not expecting the same outcome from every single child in the classroom, as that is unreasonable and places an unfair expectation of adaptation on the learners with special needs. Be flexible! Allow both you and your students time to grow with the strategies and lessons you use.
Modification is a large word alphabetically, but it’s also a large task. How do we modify lessons and environments for our special needs learners without great expense and time investment? We obviously cannot alter everything (metal equipment, for example), but an important thing to keep in mind is to try your best. In our classroom, we removed large toy crates due to the distraction that some of them posed to some of our learners with special needs. Although some would likely critique a move like this because the other children might be able to withhold their desire to play, that is an unfair expectation to place on all students evenly when you take into account special needs. Every student needs something different in their education, whether or not they are special needs.
An interesting conundrum that a lot of educators face, including myself, is the one in which you often end up learning more than your students sometimes. Much like a plant or a vine, children with special needs can certainly make teaching more strenuous at times, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I learned a long time ago that asking for advice from parents and other colleagues is a great way to better manage the needs of your special needs learners. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, sometimes, it can really feel like you are locked in a room with your classroom at midday in the middle of an apocalypse with no one to reach for help, but that should not be the case. I have found great success with asking parents of special needs children for advice on how to better serve their children. It is my belief that no special needs child is “difficult” but rather that the current strategy you might be using to handle them might just not be working. If you are struggling with a particular child, try reaching out to their parents for some quick advice at the end of the day! Most parents are happy to help you with their kids, even at the end of a busy workday. They’ve had more experience with their children than you have, and can often offer valuable insight into their behavior that can assist you with your job as an educator. Everyone has heard the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” from the Nigerian Igbo people. For special needs students, that statement rings all the more true.
If you ask any educators about any struggles they might have had with creating an inclusive classroom for special needs, the first thing they would probably tell you is time management. Time is important in whatever you do but for educators, it is all the more important. Generally, special needs students require more time and attention from their teachers in TK programs than other students might. The ratio of attention you can offer to students can vary widely depending on their needs. In lower-income areas, this issue is exacerbated due to lower numbers of staff and teacher shortages that hit them harder (Reilly, 2022). So how can we deal with this? If you can, ask for support from administration. Extra help is always appreciated, but it can often be a need for teachers dealing with special needs students. A school that fails to offer support for those students is doing nothing but disenfranchising them. Another struggle I’ve encountered personally is violence. Behavioral issues are not something exclusive to children with special needs but they do occur at higher rates within that demographic (Sarris, 2020). It is important to remember that violence or aggression from children with special needs is usually not them lashing out but simply out of discomfort with their environment. Oftentimes, the behavior manifests itself as scratching. In these cases, it is important to remember to stay calm and tell the child to stop rather than raising your voice or immediately jumping to speaking about consequences. That is obviously easier to write about than to execute in practice but there is another thing I have noticed that seems to work: modified “I-statements.” If a child is being overly aggressive or violent, say how that action is affecting you. For example, if one of my learners with autism is scratching or clawing my arm, I might remind him to stop by saying, “Hey, I feel hurt by your nails. Could you please stop?” rather than saying, “You’re hurting me.” Special needs children often do not mean to harm you, so I have found that this method is a good way to address the situation without placing an onus on anyone.
During my time as an educator, I have learned a lot more about children than they have probably learned from me, especially my special needs learners. As the world moves forward towards greater inclusivity, so too must our approaches on child development make similar strides.