How To Develop Innovative Special Education Programs

Innovation in special needs learning has never been easier and more crucial! Educators and administrators have a wealth of resources at their disposal via the internet. We are learning more about what works with those who rely upon us for assistance. And best of all, many of the components of a quality program can be implemented inexpensively, a real relief in these days of 'lots of show and little go' from government programs.

  1. Get good at grant writing. Money is available for special needs resources, so look and ask and research. It is money well spent to train in grant-writing.

  2. Hire capable staff well-versed in special needs theory and instruction. With the advent of inclusive education in the early 1990's, we saw a huge influx of unprepared special needs students pushed into the over-crowded classrooms of even less prepared mainstream teachers. Those of us who were rigorously trained in special education at top-notch universities back in the mid-eighties are shocked at what has happened, both to our students and to our fellow instructors. Make funds available for continuing education credits so that your good teachers stay!
  3. Encourage parents and family members to fill out any forms that will help you to identify possible special needs learners. Ask about concerns and questions and listen to their concerns and feedback. They may notice things that they don't understand about health, behavior, speech, language, emotional reactions, and habits. And they certainly know the child's background. You can help them connect with resources.
  4. Familiarize staff with community resources. There are many foundations and organizations that will assist with almost any special need a child may have. Be the human liaison between your students and their families and the vast, confusing help network.
  5. Implement good evaluation techniques for all students. Select or develop tests that assess skills like comprehension, study skills, practical math, problem-solving, social skills, self-help skills and communication.

    Many tools evaluate students unfairly or test unnecessary skills. Before you administer any test, take it yourself. Students with special needs have a handicap to start with and need fair, appropriate evaluation.

  6. Hold your regular IEPC's (Individualized Educational Planning Committee). Those whose input is needed should attend -- family and caregivers, general teachers, the special needs teacher, counselor, principal and any specialists (speech pathologist, physicians).  There may be times to include the student. Keep updated IEP's (Individualized Educational Plans) and monitor progress with the student. He must be involved and have a vested interest in his program.
  7. Develop or choose objectives based on identified areas of need in each student. Use clear, strong action verbs like "write," "memorize," and "cut."  There are several recognized objective lists. See the recommended resources for sites. Basically identify the student's struggles and plan materials to help her learn to overcome them.
  8. Break tasks down into smallest components. Encourage mastery at each step of the way. Find many ways to boost student's morale (it is generally pretty low). For example:

    Goal: TSW (in teacher jargon, that stands for 'the student will') memorize the times tables from 1-10.

    Now break this down into bite-sized multiplication components and post an attractive chart on the wall, so that every time she memorizes a component fast, she gets a sticker.  

  9. When writing objectives, make reasonable time frames for students to achieve them. Better to make it too easy than too difficult.  But keep them challenging! The key here is to know the student; work for mastery. In special needs education, we have the liberty of being able to individualize. So take advantage and do what works for each kid!
  10. Set up a neat, organized classroom that is comfortable and attractive yet not over-stimulating. Keep materials in labeled drawers or bins. Keep wall art neat and simple. I like to use some nice, well-framed copies of art. Sensory integration is a skill that many special needs children struggle with. Change is intimidating.
  11. When choosing materials, focus on interactive and hands-on manipulatives. Remember, these students have failed with the 'traditional' system. Abstracts usually don't make sense, so don't offer what they have already struggled with. Make it real. Look for games, activities and visuals that can be used to help abstract concepts become clear.
  12. Make materials available to students. Generally the teacher-student ratio is low, so this can be monitored. Teach kids to explore concepts.
  13. When working with the 'regular' teacher, keep communication open. If the student is unable to complete or comprehend work sent with them, be honest. Offer to adapt the lesson to give the student success. Find out the main task of the assignment and then help student with all the non-essentials. If the task is to write a mystery story and get in all the elements, then you can do all the busy work with the student (typing, spell-check, etc.).
  14. Enjoy the students! Make the classroom a safe haven! Laugh a lot with them about jokes they understand and enjoy! 

We owe all of our children the best we have in staff, resources and environment!


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