Mainstreaming the Special Education Student
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Teaching in today’s classroom can be a daunting experience. The responsibilities of teachers seem to be increasing at the same time that resources for education are diminishing. In recent years, teachers have become increasingly expected to deal with a wide range of problems — from students with severe academic deficiencies to students whose first language is other than English to students suffering the effects of parental substance abuse. With the current trend toward inclusion, namely placing special-education students in regular classes, teachers may find they are instructing students with problems for which they have little training or preparation.
The following are some general strategies that regular-education teachers may find helpful in easing the transition of special-education students to regular classes:
- Connect with the student. Try to gain the student’s trust by listening attentively to what he says and showing respect for his thoughts and concerns. Find a few minutes every so often to talk with him about his interests and hobbies. Help him start the day out on a positive note by giving him a high five or making an upbeat comment when he walks in the door. He may feel more comfortable in your class and make better choices if he feels supported and accepted by you.
- Catch the student being good. The most basic application of behavior modification principles is to praise students when they are displaying appropriate behavior. Because of their frequent experience with frustration and failure in school, special-education students have a particular need for a pat on the back. Your challenge with this kind of student, especially if you have a large class, is to identify areas of deficiency, catch him when he is performing well in these areas and then praise him immediately and genuinely.
- Give the student clear and simple directions. State directions with a minimum of words. If you go over every detail, he may miss the key points. You might have him repeat the directions to you so you are confident he understands them. If you are explaining a complex task, give him one or two instructions at a time. You might also demonstrate it to him and then have him do it while you observe.
- Provide the student with a classroom buddy. This should be a mature, responsible classmate who can help the student with classroom tasks when you are unavailable. A variation of this is to group students at tables, with students expected to help each other when questions arise.
- Adapt the homework to the student’s needs. If the assignment appears overwhelming for him, consider shortening it. For example, you might have him do only the odd numbered problems, or have him write a two-paragraph rather than a four-paragraph composition. As his confidence and skills improve, you can increase the length of the assignment. If the student’s skills are well below the level of his classmates, consider giving him a different assignment altogether. If the act of writing is especially hard for the student, allow him to do the assignment on a computer. If motivation is a factor in the student’s homework resistance, design the assignment to reflect his interests and strengths.
- Break a task into smaller, more doable parts. Special-needs students may be overwhelmed by large or complex tasks. Feeling there is little chance they can finish the task, they may give up quickly or not even attempt it. Breaking the task into more manageable parts may give the student more confidence that he can complete it successfully. As an example, rather than giving him a whole page of math problems to do, assign him two or three problems, check his performance, and then give him a few more.
- Develop a signaling system to help keep the student on task. If the student has difficulty staying on task, you may want to find some way to signal him that he needs to pay attention or get back to work. This might be as simple as walking by his desk, making eye contact with him, or pausing while you are speaking. Or it might be a private signal that you work out with him such as scratching your head, raising your eyebrows, tugging on your ear or winking.
- Seek parent support. Invite the parents in for a meeting to apprise them of his progress and obtain their perspective. Find out what strategies they have found successful with their child and what suggestions they have for dealing with him in class. This is also a good opportunity to develop a daily or weekly communication system so that you can inform parents of their child’s performance and so they can keep you posted about any concerns.
- If the student exhibits behavioral problems, try to understand the reason for his behavior through careful observation. Note the circumstances of his behavior, including what happens right before and after the incidents, when they usually occur, where the student is when he engages in the behavior, and whether his behavior is directed towards a particular student. Use this information to try to figure out what is triggering and reinforcing his behavior. It may be that he is trying to get your attention or the attention of other students, or to get back at a student or get him in trouble when he responds, or to divert attention from his academic problems. If you can identify the underlying reason for his behavior, you’ve got a better chance of eliminating it.
- Develop a behavior modification system to improve an inappropriate or negative behavior. Provide the student with classroom privileges or material rewards if he shows evidence of progress in the identified area. Let’s say the concern is with the student calling out. One way of doing this is to divide a 3″ x 5″ card into ten boxes and tape it to the student’s desk. Set a timer for 30 minutes at the beginning of the day. If the student does not call out within the 30-minute period, put your initials in a box and reset the timer. If he does call out, reset the timer immediately but do not initial the card. When all ten boxes are initialed, provide the student with an agreed-upon reward or privilege. Adjust the length of the period and the number of boxes needed to obtain a reward with the age of the student and the severity of the problem.