The year is speeding along. You now have good schedules and routines going. Now is the time to really focus on providing good instruction that will prepare your students for the state assessment and also lead to a broader understanding of the world and enhanced quality of life.
Address Critical Belief System
As we begin to discuss instructing students with significant cognitive delays, we must begin by addressing your critical belief system. As the teacher, you must believe in your students and their ability to learn – no matter the disability or the degree to which the disability impacts the child. It is imperative that you always presume competence and seek ways to connect with and engage the student. It is an essential part of your job to help every student make connections and gain meaning from the world. This is one of the most critical components of instruction.
With the Least Dangerous Assumption as your foundational belief, you can begin to design instruction. Historically, teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities have a great deal of flexibility in designing instruction. While this provides the means to individualize, the task can be daunting. After reviewing PLAAFPs, IEPs and upcoming targeted essence statements for the state assessment, teachers are on their own to develop lesson plans and bring it all together.
Now is a good time to look to the schedule and routines that you have established. They are critical in providing instruction. Consider changing out materials during established routines to cover a variety of topics. When the student is comfortable with a routine and can predict the types of activities that will be done during that routine, they are better able to process information.
You may have a morning routine where students enter your room and access a fun, transitional task to start the day. If the student likes farm equipment, and you have been discussing vegetables and which states they are grown in, the student may complete a task matching the tractor with the apples and the state of Washington, the tractor with the oranges and the state of Florida, etc. For some students you may be assisting the student in exploring the sensory aspects of an apple or an orange. These examples are provided to stress the importance of designing activities based on your available resources and most importantly your students’ strengths and needs. Incorporating students’ interest increases engagement.
Provide Student Support
Texas has made Literacy instruction a priority. TX CAN has developed a free online module titled “Teaching Literacy to Students with Significant Cognitive Delays.” This module provides strategies for teaching literacy to every student.
Also consider looking at what your general education counterparts are teaching. Use this as your springboard for designing instruction. For example, what are they reading? Could you create an adapted book for your students? Or better yet, find one that is already created.
Tar Heel Reader
A collection of free, easy-to-read, and accessible books on a wide range of topicsView Resource - Tar Heel Reader
Dedicated to people who use symbols, material for all ages and includes personal contributions, stories and learning materialsView Resource - SymbolWorld
The Autism Helper
Resources, tools, and the methods to measure success for those supporting individuals with AutismView Resource - The Autism Helper
Teaching Learners with Multiple Special Needs
Resources and ideas for teachers of learners with complex access needsView Resource - Teaching Learners with Multiple Special Needs
Adapted Literature and Lessons
Adapted Literature available through the Sherlock Center Resource LibraryView Resource - Adapted Literature and Lessons
Paths to Literacy
Modifying Books for Students with Multiple DisabilitiesView Resource - Paths to Literacy
Tools, videos, and articles for the improvement of communication and literacy abilities of people with significant communication difficultiesView Resource - PrAACtical AAC
Breezy Special Ed
Life skill resources to help all students succeedView Resource - Breezy Special Ed
Partner With a General Education Class
Partner with a general education class so that students in the class write summaries of their book and read them, one on one, to your students. Or perhaps they could write and present a dramatic reenactment of the story to your students. Would the general education teacher be open to having her students write a manga version of the story to share with your class? Be creative - think out of the box! How could this story be adapted or presented in a way that is meaningful for the students that you support? Finding ways to increase exposure and inclusion with general education peers is a bonus!
Let’s look at an example for bringing all the pieces together.
- You teach at the elementary level and have a fifth grade student.
- You have partnered with a general education class and they have shared a re-enactment of a piece of literature with your class.
- In the fifth grade reading alternate assessment, the targeted essence statement involves learning new vocabulary. You have already been providing exposure to many different reference books and instructing the student on alphabetization practices and how to locate words in the dictionary or glossary.
- Now, you might follow up the general education activity by having the student insert new vocabulary words from the story in alphabetical order into a classroom dictionary as an extension activity.
It seems like a lot, but as you become more and more familiar with the general education curriculum, your students’ PLAAFPs, IEPs and the targeted essence statements, it does get easier. Don’t get overwhelmed; just try to make concept connections as you can.
Involve all instructional and related service providers (Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapists, Language Speech Pathologist, Adapted P.E.). They are a great resource in making connections, as well.
Let Data Drive Instruction
As you instruct, continue to take data and make instructional changes as needed. Remember your data should drive your instruction.
If data shows progress is being made on a skill, you might want to begin working on generalizing that skill. However, if no progress is being demonstrated, you must go back and determine why.
- Do you need to build in more supports?
- Do you need to break the task down into smaller steps?
- Can you make the task more relevant for the student?
Establish a System
Your data will be invaluable as you begin to prepare for Admission, Review and Dismissal (also called ARD or IEP) meetings. You will probably want to establish a system for keeping on top of ARD paperwork.
IEP Annual Goal Development Question and Answer Document
Created by TEA and the Statewide Progress in General Curriculum Network to help answer common questions about writing IEP goalsView Resource - IEP Annual Goal Development Question and Answer Document
Involve Your Students in the ARD Meeting
Consider allowing your student to participate in the ARD meeting. Involving the student in the ARD meeting is just one way to promote both communication and independence while honoring the unique aspects of each student.
Create a Digital Portfolio
You may also want to consider creating a digital portfolio for your student. This will take a little time, but once you get a little experience under your belt, it really takes no longer than putting together a PowerPoint presentation. This provides a powerful demonstration for the ARD meeting when you are able to show a short movie of your student exhibiting the skills that have been mastered in their IEP. If you take a lot of pictures and videos of your students, this might be a good option for you. (Remember to obtain parental permission for photographing and videotaping).
STAAR Alternate 2
Improve Your Classroom Climate and Build Rapport with your Students
This month you’ve been focused on IEP goals and instruction. You are figuring out how to write lesson plans that will work for your class, and you are hoping that the hard work that you have invested will soon result in a calmer classroom environment. Yes, you have been busy, and although it is only October, you probably cannot believe how much has been accomplished since August. The summer might seem like long ago, but you should take time to value how far you have come.
At this point, you have gotten to know your students, and they have gotten to know you. If your class is running like a well-oiled machine, there’s little need to make changes. The majority of you, though, are probably still seeing some areas for improvement. If this is the case, you need to start by identifying those areas. Be sure not to get ahead of yourself, though. If you are a new teacher, or new to this classroom setting, there is too much to be done in one year… or two. It takes time to build lessons and a library of manipulatives and activities. If you are struggling with your classroom environment, though, take some time to make the needed changes. Building rapport with your students is crucial, as you need them to believe in you for the long haul.
There are many ways to improve your classroom climate and build rapport with your students. The strategy that you choose really depends on your group of students in a given year. There is one constant, though, in that students who believe in their own worth are more successful. There is an article by Alicia A. Cole that discusses, “Minds-On, Hands-Off Learning.” This concept can be difficult for teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities because our students require such varying, but intensive supports. Although they require a certain level of support and supervision, it does not mean that all autonomy should be taken from them. There are ways to build confidence in our students by setting up the classroom to support their need for autonomy. Read Allowing students freedom within boundaries promotes dynamic learning, and think about ways that you can make this work with your students. Not all points will apply to all of your students, but that is the nature of a special needs classroom. Some of the ideas might inspire you to come up with your own ways to build autonomy for your students.
If you need help or clarification, contact your regional ESC TX CAN specialist.