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Creating a Welcoming Class Environment for Special-Needs Students

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by Brian P. GatensTeacher Assists Special Needs Student

I make no secret of the fact that I love the concept of the American public school. As a nation, we promise to educate everybody regardless of ability, background or socioeconomic status. Making good on that promise is a complex endeavor, but the will to make it happen gives us an incredibly strong motivation to do what is right for our children. This entire idea is brought to life by our commitment to students with special needs.

Over the past 20 years, our society’s shift in how we educate special-needs children has become so complete that today nearly every teacher, regardless of grade level or assignment, will have these children in their classes. Working closely with special-needs children, their parents and their teachers can be incredibly rewarding and deeply challenging. These tips should help you meet those challenges in your classroom:

Keep a Positive Attitude

Yes, this expression is overused, but I have found that bringing a positive and success-oriented attitude to working with special-needs children goes a long way in helping them succeed. Yes, traditional academic work, with its linear approach to learning, may prove especially challenging, but repeatedly emphasizing that the child can and will succeed, with proper support, plays a large role in making it happen.

Modify Classroom Practices

Children with special needs will usually arrive in your classroom with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which formally outlines the requirements for the child’s education. Modifications in IEPs may include access to study guides, preferential seating and the use of different (re)teaching strategies. You’ll need to review each child’s IEP, notify their case manager that you’ve done so and bring the best practices outlined in the IEP into your classroom practice. For example, you may be required to supply the special-needs child with a study guide. Well, if the study guide will help that individual child succeed, why not make the guide available to your entire class?

Bring in Parents

One of the most emotional aspects of working with special-needs children is establishing positive working relationships with their parents. I’ve worked with parents through the entire process of expressing concern, identifying the issue, testing the child’s abilities and implementing a plan of action, and it has been an incredibly emotional and difficult process for all involved. Very often these parents are defensive, worried and confused about the world of special education. The best way to support your work with these children is to develop positive working relationships with their parents. Reach out to them directly to review your class goals and tell them how you will modify them, as necessary, for their children.

Be an Advocate

Despite tremendous strides in how schools and society view children with special needs, confusion and lack of acceptance haven’t gone away. You need to believe that inclusion of special-needs students in America’s classrooms is as important as our country’s civil rights and women’s rights movements, and you need to speak out often and loudly on their behalf. Your consistent dedication to children with special needs will set a strong example for your general education students and your colleagues.

People have tremendous capacity, very often more than we give them credit for, and it’s a moral imperative on your part to foster that capacity in your students and their families. Many teachers can work effectively with general education students who arrive at in their classrooms with a natural capacity to succeed. But the ability to care for special-needs students, very often those with tremendous challenges, will be the true test of how effective you are as a teacher. Remember, you’re always better than you think.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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Teacher Assists Special Needs Student  [DOWNLOAD]