Students with Disabilities: Research-Based Best Practices Parents Should Know When Working with Schools

students with disabilities: best practices

The word “inclusive” is easy to define and understand – it simply means to “include all.”

But an inclusive education is not always quite so simple, and when classrooms are filled with thirty or more students with varying levels of need and ability, to include all can become a challenge to put into practice. 

The question remains, however: How do parents, teachers, and principals ensure that each child, regardless of ability, receives an equal opportunity for the best education possible? 

How can schools help disabled students?  Schools can help disabled students by providing access to necessary accommodations that will allow the student to be successful in the least restrictive environment in the general education setting; regardless of whether their disability is physical, mental, or emotional,

The least restrictive environment means that each child has an opportunity to learn among their peers, rather than in a separate, isolated program.

Best Practices for Teaching Students with Disabilities

Under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), students with disabilities should spend as much time as is possible in the general education setting with ample support services and supplementary aids (source).

A Hands-On Approach

Most of us have heard the popular proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

The same holds true in the education of children: it takes a community, each member an integral part of a team committed to working together in order to provide the best education possible, regardless of ability. 

The pathway to equal opportunity is not always easy, however. Parents often have concerns about how their children will be treated, and whether or not they will receive the support services they need.

And, teachers and principals often have concerns about how to best accommodate disabled students, and how the school as a whole can provide adequate support services and equal opportunity for all. 

There are best practices that have proven to create a learning environment that holds high expectations while also providing necessary support, empowering students with the tools they need to be successful throughout their education.  

But in order to create such an environment, we must first address some of the main concerns of parents who have children with disabilities. 

Understanding the Concerns of Parents and Students with Disabilities

Parents of disabled students share the same concerns that all parents have for their child’s education, but there are added levels of concern about safety, support services, and even socialization. 

While it would be a mistake to overgeneralize and assume that all parents share the exact same concerns, there are a few that are commonly voiced among parents as being primary.

Having an understanding of some of these concerns will help school personnel to best advocate for students and parents alike. 

Labeling

Labels, in and of themselves are not harmful unless they are used as a means of limitation.  The issue arises when teachers or others’ perceptions of students are changed or negatively influenced by a particular label.

Many students who exhibit learning or other categorizations of disability are labeled as such early on, and the expectation for success is then limited or reduced. 

While early identification of students with specific learning needs and/or disabilities is instrumental in meeting the needs of the student, it is important that teachers and school personnel are not then lowering the level of expectation, or assuming that the student is incapable of learning at a high level.

The more teachers and support staff are provided with opportunities to work with students with disabilities and educational programs that seek to change the mindset of teachers from looking at the label to looking at the individual, the more successful both students and teachers will be (source).

Availability of Support Groups

Many parents are also not only worried about their children but are struggling themselves to come to terms with a reality that they may not have anticipated.

Additionally, some students may have a learning disability as a result of a traumatic injury or sudden accident. For these parents, finding assistance and support is a new, unfamiliar territory.

School counselors and principals can help reduce the level of concern and worry that parents feel by building peer support groups among parents, both in the school as well as in the community.

Doing so allows parents to share similar concerns, support one another, and promote a sense of normalcy while fostering encouragement. 

Safety

All parents are of course concerned for their child’s safety, whether in school or outside of it.  But this is especially concerning for children with disabilities. 

A child who is physically handicapped or visually impaired is in much more danger of injury. 

Schools must ensure that those who are working with the student are adequately trained to support the student’s needs, whether that be wheelchair transfers or use of school equipment and playground facilities.

In addition to physical safety, parents also may be more concerned about their child’s emotional safety. A student with a disability may be at a higher risk of being bullied by others. 

This fear is heightened for parents whose students may or may not be able or comfortable communicating to adults about what is going on at school.

Here, again, is where school counselors become instrumental in creating and maintaining adequate levels of support both for parents and students alike.

Peer support groups and counseling can help alleviate many fears for student safety. 

Socialization and Friendships

Developing friendships is an integral aspect of childhood and adolescence.

However, for students with disabilities, creating and maintaining friendships can be difficult, and parents are often concerned about their child’s ability to develop appropriate friendships with peers. 

This is magnified by the fact that some students with learning or mental/emotional disabilities struggle to communicate or may be socially immature as compared to their peers of the same age range (source).

And, students who have a paraprofessional or aide with them to assist in their learning may also be ostracized by other students. 

Teachers and principals play an important role in promoting a learning environment that is inclusive to all, supporting and encouraging students to both interact with and work alongside students with disabilities. 

The less separation that is created, the more likely students are to accept one another, regardless of their differences. 

Extracurricular activities and afterschool programs

Another concern related to friendships includes the accessibility for students with disabilities to participate in extracurricular activities, including games, sports, or other programs designed to foster friendship and social development. 

There is an adequate amount of research that shows that participation in extracurricular activities results in better grades, higher test scores, higher levels of attendance, and increased self-esteem (source).

Students with disabilities who do not have access to extracurricular activities miss important socialization and communication skills that develop naturally during these types of organized activities. 

Educating all students about acceptance is a key factor in helping to foster positive relationships among peers, both during and after school.

And, creating programs that provide the necessary assistance students with disabilities need in order to participate is important and can be included in a child’s individualized education program (IEP). 

School personnel and principals can also provide the necessary training and support staff that will allow all children the opportunity to participate in many of the programs that are offered throughout a child’s educational years. 

Lowered Expectations

Students with disabilities should be held to high expectations just as any student in a classroom setting would be expected to perform at his or her best. 

A major concern for parents of students with disabilities is the incorrect assumption that simply because a child has a disability, he or she is incapable of learning. This could not be further from reality. 

In fact, creating an educational environment that is inclusive supports not only students with disabilities but also fosters a learning community that allows for diverse learning styles and meets the learning needs of all students, thus maintaining high levels of expectation for all (source).

Assuming that a child is incapable of learning due to disability discounts the fact that many of these children are incredibly capable learners with adequate supports in place.

And, oftentimes students with a learning disability in one area may also be quite gifted in other areas or particular subjects and should be held to an even higher level of expectation than that of their peers.

A primary way in which schools can ensure that all students are held to high expectations includes; adequate support from school staff and counselors, as well as teacher education programs that promote positive attitudes, and challenging attitudes that promote discrimination or inaccurate assumptions of ability.    

Best Practices: What can Schools Do to Help Students with Disabilities be Successful?

students with disabilities: best practices

Over six million students ages 3 through 21 receive special education services each year (source).

Best practices that allow schools to effectively support students with disabilities are essential to fostering a positive learning environment not only for those with disabilities but for all students.

Some of these include ongoing training for teachers that focus on specific methodologies for inclusive classrooms, creating positive parent-school relationships, and providing high-quality special education services and support systems for students with disabilities, including therapy where applicable, paraprofessional support, and counseling.  

Ensuring High Quality, Inclusive Instruction

Schools are required to provide all students with a high-quality education.

Specifically, for students with disabilities, schools must provide equally high-quality education in the least restrictive environment that is appropriate in meeting the student’s needs. 

This means that schools must ensure that students with disabilities are afforded the necessary accommodations and modifications to the general curriculum that will increase academic progress and successful outcomes.

Accommodations are not limited to, but may include any or all of the following:

  • Individualized Education Plans (IEP) with specified goals and accommodations
  • Paraprofessional support or 1:1 aide in the general education classroom if needed
  • Differentiated instruction (varying delivery of and modifying curriculum)
  • Technology to aid in assisting students with speech-language or hearing disabilities

Schools must also provide the necessary funding for effective educator training and education programs. It is critical that principals and teachers understand how to best meet the needs of disabled students.

Teachers often express the need for additional support and flexibility in schedules in order to effectively prepare instruction that meets the needs of all students, including those with disabilities. 

This means more planning time, flexibility to the pace of instruction, and more time to prepare adequate materials that meet the needs of students who have specially designed instruction requirements (source). 

Encouraging Parent Participation and Relationships

Parent participation is a significant factor in ensuring student success and accountability both in general education as well as part of special education services. Parents need to feel that there are meaningful opportunities for participation in setting goals for their students, voicing concerns, and ensuring that adequate support services are provided.   

Much of this occurs as part of the student’s individualized education plan (IEP) team members, which often includes the general education teacher(s), school administrators, counselors, and other members who are involved in creating a positive learning environment for the student.

The student, recognizing that he or she has an immense team of supportive individuals both at home and at school then feels not only that his or her education is important, but that success is achievable. 

When schools create an environment that encourages parent participation, students achieve higher levels of academic success, are more positive about school, and have opportunities to better social skills and behavior (source).

If you want to learn more about helping your student find their academic interests, check out this article.

Providing Specific Special Education Supports and Resources

A major component of meeting the needs of students with disabilities lies in early identification of needs, and the building of an ongoing, fluid individualized education plan (IEP) and IEP team.

The IEP team consists of many members, but perhaps most important is the special education teacher.

The special education teacher should act as the child’s advocate throughout his or her educational career, ensuring that appropriate modifications to curriculum are provided, as well as any other support services the student needs to be successful.

Many students feel a deep connection with their special education teachers.

These teachers can be unsung heroes. Not only do they instruct students academically, but they also act as the primary person to whom the student can go to when they need support, whether academically or emotionally. 

To be successful, schools must create an atmosphere where special education teachers feel valued.

They can do so by providing adequate time for additional meetings with parents, students, and general education teachers, developing and implementing IEPs, and maintaining student records that document goals and ongoing progress (source).

Best Practices: What can Teachers Do to Help Students with Disabilities be Successful?

students with disabilities: best practices

If we look at the school as the primary creator of a community that supports students with disabilities by creating inclusive classroom environments, co-taught classrooms (classes with both a general education and special education teacher), and providing all of the necessary supports students with disabilities need, the teacher, then, is the engine that keeps that community running effectively. 

There are proven best practices for meeting the instructional needs of students with disabilities, and in ensuring that these needs are met, the academic success of all students improves. 

Some of these best practices include adequate planning, co-teaching methods and collaboration with special education teachers, positive classroom management, and differentiated or scaffolded instruction. 

Best Practice: Planning for the Unexpected

Planning is, of course, central to effective teaching. In teaching students with disabilities, teachers must also plan for a variety of both anticipated and unanticipated needs and questions. 

Planning also must include collaboration and communication with special education teachers to ensure students have the necessary modifications to the curriculum.

Often, in inclusive classrooms, general education teachers are paired with special education teachers and/or paraprofessionals or aids that work 1:1 with a student with a learning or other disability.

When planning, teachers should aim to meet at least once a week to address past challenges and future goals for the student’s learning. 

In doing so, multiple ideas can be addressed, including but not limited to the following:

  • Co-teaching methods – whole group teaching and small group re-teaching
  • Addressing specially designed instruction needs and modifications
  • Additional resources for students who finish early as well as those who run out of time
  • Varied assessment of student learning – measuring and identification of set goals

Best Practice: Positive Classroom Management

In any classroom, positive and planned classroom management techniques are essential, regardless of age level.

All students need to have an awareness and understanding of classroom rules, consequences, structures, organization, and transition time guidelines. 

Successful classrooms that create a positive learning environment are also set up to include areas that focus on individual work, group work, 1:1 help, enrichment or advanced learning, as well as re-teaching. 

These classrooms are not limited to whole group instruction, but rather provides ample opportunity for students to learn not only from the teacher but from one another.

This also fosters positive working relationships among students.

Other factors that enhance positive classroom management include:

  • Creating a warm & welcoming environment so students feel safe
  • Celebrating student success
  • Posting of daily schedules
  • Posting of classroom rules
  • Celebration of success (“Star Students,” for example)
  • Displays of student work
  • Organization of student materials and belongings
  • Development of cues for settling down or transitioning to new activities

If you want to learn more about helping your student explore their academic strengths and weaknesses, this article may be helpful.

Best Practice: Differentiated Instruction

The term “differentiated instruction” is widely used in educational circles, and simply means that teachers design lessons using a variety of instructional strategies and assessments, and teach at varying levels of difficulty based on the needs of the student (source).   

Differentiated instruction is also predicated on planning – it requires that teachers are able to continually assess student learning throughout a lesson (not just at the end) and adjust based on the changing needs of students.

While its definition seems simple, differentiated instruction is at its core a complex strategy that requires a solid understanding of both the content being taught as well as the way in which content is delivered. 

In general, differentiated instruction can be accomplished in each of the following categories: Content, Process, and Product. 

         Differentiating content

Methods to differentiate content can vary and be accomplished in multiple ways. Teachers vary delivery by using different methods for instruction, including video, lecture, readings or podcasts, games, or other technologies. 

Because all students have different learning preferences and styles, differentiating delivery is a way in which to meet the needs of many learners, especially when different modalities are combined, such as both visual and oral instruction.

Other ways teachers are able to differentiate content include how students work through the material. Specific aids that further assist in differentiating content may also include:

  • Graphic Organizers
  • Pre-filled or partially filled notes
  • Small group work
  • Chunking content into smaller sections

Differentiating process

Differentiating the process of instruction simply means to allow students time to process what they are learning and allowing them to do so in multiple ways. 

Some popular methods to differentiate include the following:

Think-Pair-ShareJournalingPartner Talk
This method requires the teacher to ask a question, and then allow students time to first think individually, then share their thoughts with a partner close by before sharing out to the whole group.This method is followed by a question posed by a teacher.  Students are permitted time to jot down their thoughts before the teacher asks for responses or calls on a student to share.Partner talk is similar to think-pair-share, but simply allows students time to talk to their surrounding peers about a topic before sharing ideas with the whole group.

         Differentiating product

Differentiating products or assessments allow students multiple opportunities to showcase their learning.

In the past, assessment generally meant a test or quiz. In utilizing differentiated instruction, students may be provided with multiple options through which to show that they have met the learning objectives. 

This may include formats such as projects, tests, written papers, or student-initiated ideas. 

Additionally, the differentiating products allow the teacher to vary the level of complexity for student assessments based on student needs and ability level (source).

Other Best Practices in Meeting the Needs of Students with Disabilities

There are, of course, many other ways unmentioned in which schools and teachers can support students with disabilities.

Part of it is creating a culture of inclusion. Another part is teaching methodology. A third is parent involvement. 

There is a sense that the list is an ever-evolving one as students with disabilities are also all unique individuals with different personalities, different levels of understanding, and varying degrees of intrinsic motivation. 

Other best practices may include scaffolding, gradual release of responsibility, engaging learners and making real-world connections, and even making changes to student’s seating or environment. 

Scaffolding

Scaffolding lessons and learning at its core is simply breaking up instruction into chunks – also called “chunking” material.

This strategy is useful for both general education students as well as those with learning disabilities. 

With each “chunk” of material, the teacher provides a tool, such as a graphic organizer, to guide learning and help the student to organize new content. 

A large part of scaffolding includes modeling the behaviors and learning you are aiming to achieve with your students.

For example, you may do a “think-aloud,” in which you quite literally speak what you are thinking out loud. This allows students to follow their own thought process as you work through a difficult concept (source).

Again, just as with many other instructional tools, scaffolding allows your students to work through concepts one piece at a time, with adequate time to talk ideas out with peers or other adults in the room, work with visual aids, and pause for questions and review. 

Gradual Release of Responsibility

This best practice is much like it sounds. Teachers begin by giving students low levels of responsibility and slowing moving toward higher levels of responsibility and independent learning. 

A gradual release begins with the “I Do” framework. The teacher models the concept.

This is then followed by a “We Do” whole group lesson where the teacher and the students share responsibility.

If the teacher determines via formative assessment that students are not quite ready to move to the next level, they can then provide opportunities for students to continue to work together.

Ultimately, the gradual release culminates in a “You Do” framework where students are able to showcase their learning individually via multiple mediums.   

Creating an Engaging Learning Environment

Creating an engaging environment does not mean simply entertaining students.

However, it is important to understand that all learners retain more when they are engaged in their own learning and when they can make real-world and real-life connections. 

Making learning relevant and meaningful includes making initial connections to students’ prior learning experiences.

In other words, referencing something they have already learned and connecting it to what they are about to learn creates space for new learning to occur. 

And, perhaps more importantly, engaging learners means understanding their lives, their goals, and their interests.

It means knowing each student and taking the time to consider what they are interested in.

Any lesson that makes these connections for students will inherently create higher levels of learning and success for all students, regardless of disability. 

Environment

While the environment of the classroom includes many things, it’s important to take into account individual needs and placement for students.

A student who is easily distracted may need to sit away from windows and doors to prevent further distractions.

Or, a student who needs more 1:1 attention may need to sit front and center, despite his or her desire to sit in the back of the room. 

For students with physical disabilities or limitations, sitting near an aisle or doorway could be important, especially in order to provide the highest level of comfort and access to entrances/exits. 

Final Thoughts

Helping students who have disabilities to learn may seem complicated at the outset, but in reality, these best practices apply to all learners, regardless of disability.

The school acts as the hub in bringing together administration, counseling, teaching staff, and parents – all crucial members of a holistic team in achieving the goals of inclusive education.  

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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