A funny thing about knowledge is that the more you learn, the more you begin to realize how much you have left to learn. The same idea applies to our understanding of special education in the United States, which has changed dramatically even during the last decade. Educators are developing new teaching strategies for engaging students with special educational needs. Others are taking it a step further, revisiting and reimagining the fundamental ways we think about reaching exceptional students.
At Eastern Michigan University, a Master of Arts in Teaching in Special Education online program gives graduates the skills required to tailor learning environments to accommodate K-12 students with special needs.
Practice Principles of Universal Design for Learning
Many of these strategies build on Universal Design for Learning principles, a set of guidelines that provide concrete suggestions for educators on ways to make their lessons more inclusive and accessible for all learners. In an essay for Education Week, associate editor Christian Samuels suggests that one of the most important ways future educators can create meaningful learning experiences is by understanding and implementing the principles of universal learning design.
Offer Alternative Learning Materials
One way to implement the principles of universal design for learning is by including additional and assistive learning materials. Reading Rockets contributor Kathleen Bulloch lays out a long list of adaptive strategies that educators can utilize when trying to adapt their lessons for a variety of different learners, including younger students.
For example, students who have difficulty learning by listening could benefit from a shortened listening time, flashcards, a script of a film or presentation, or additional written directions. Students who struggle to write legibly could use a tape recorder or try pages with wider rules. Additional reading time or alternative presentations can help students who have trouble reading. Assistive technologies cater to students with physical disadvantages. Providing large-type materials for students with visual impairments is an example. By making these accommodations a foundational part of instruction, teachers can help to create more inclusive classrooms for students with special needs.
Reinforce Positive Learning
Positive behavioral techniques are another option for teachers to support students with special needs. The method uses data-backed practices to help students develop communication, social and critical-thinking skills in ways that foster intrinsic motivation and lead to better performance. The subjects are not usually directly addressed by teachers but instead taught using alternative methods such as role-playing, group activities and journaling. Particularly in lower grades, when social skills are still developing, these practices can offer critical outlets for exceptional students to express themselves more freely.
To some extent, all of these techniques result from evidence-based practices, an approach that attempts to document proof of what’s working in order to identify the most effective programs for students. As researchers learn more about the roots of special needs and learning disabilities, we can use that understanding to continue honing special needs education practices for students of all ages.