Transforming Special Education in a Rural School (Part II)
| by Lynn Beal, Ed.D.
Part Two of a Two-Part Series on Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
Uprooting and transforming ineffective and antiquated educational practice is necessary to ensure the success of all students, particularly our most vulnerable learners with special needs. In this two-part blog post, I share my experience developing an effective special-education program in a rural school where inclusive practices were lacking. Click here to read part one in which I set the stage for transformation by explaining the context of the school and preparatory work necessary to implement the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for students with special needs. In part two below, learn how this school was able to ultimately foster a culture of inclusion through co-teaching, accommodations, and teacher-led observations.
Upon arrival, teachers were graced with a gift and a surprise. Each core teacher received a new laptop (their first from the school) and a revised schedule. Their schedules reflected our co-teaching approach, a concept brand new to many on campus. While teachers’ feelings toward the changes varied, we all sprang into action. Special-education teachers and general-education core teachers alike required training in co-teaching models. A few models of co-teaching from which we had to choose include the following:
- Station teaching
- Parallel teaching
- Alternative teaching
- One teach-one assist
As we have discussed, co-teaching is an instructional delivery approach that enables students with disabilities to receive services and support in the least restrictive environment. Every co-teaching partnership is different. When deciding on a co-teaching model, educators should consider colleagues’ personalities and content knowledge, as well as students’ needs. In this model, students who receive special-education services receive support within the same environment as peers. As a result, the stigma students with disabilities experience decreases as they are included more mindfully in the general-education classroom. Moreover, students with disabilities benefit from consistency in their learning environment without the need to transition multiple times throughout the day. This may, in fact, contribute to improved academic achievement. Students within special education who attend general-education classes will likely receive more content instruction while also building relationships with their peers. Co-teaching builds deeper relationships among teachers, as well, leading to a positive learning environment.
Professional collaboration imposed by school leadership is a challenge, particularly without the necessary structures and support to foster community. General educators and special educators share responsibility for planning, delivering, and evaluating instruction for all. Many refer to the co-teaching relationship as a professional “marriage.” Two educators are thrust together within a classroom where they collaborate closely for the betterment of children, each bringing their own strengths to the table. General-education teachers afford content knowledge while special-education teachers provide specialized instructional methods. To learn more about the positive outcomes of an inclusive learning environment facilitated by co-teaching, click here to read a review from the International Journal of Special Education.
In addition to co-teaching, special-education teachers provide accommodations for cognitive and academic deficits to support students with disabilities. These accommodations aim to level the playing field and provide equal access to the general-education curriculum. Accommodations typically support students in accessing materials, demonstrating their knowledge, working in diverse settings, and adjusting to various schedules. Some accommodations for accessing materials include modified texts for accessibility, visual aids, amplification equipment, and bi-lingual dictionaries. Teachers can support students in providing responses and demonstrating understanding through speech-to-text technology, increased sizing of answer documents, and even communication boards. Some students need accommodation within the classroom setting, as well, through adaptive and specialized furniture, preferential seating, and special lighting. Finally, accommodations for timing or scheduling include flexible learning schedules, extended time on assignments, testing over multiple days, and frequent breaks. Students with special needs can receive many of these accommodations in the general-education environment with peers with the implementation of least restrictive environment.
In addition to implementing a co-teaching model and providing accommodations within the general-education classroom through the lens of least restrictive environment, we also used classroom observations to help teachers recognize students’ needs and innovate practice. Each Friday, different teachers sat at students’ desks and participated in classroom activities as though they were students. Each teacher alternated a bi-weekly observation through the lens of student experience. This process was enlightening, motivating all teachers to significantly improve their craft by creating student-centered activities, enhancing engagement, and embedding technology. While students did not have laptops, many had cell phones. Teachers utilized programs that students could access on mobile devices including Kahoot or Quia. These and other applications allowed students to work collaboratively. Instead of teaching passive learners, teachers asked students to create and collaborate during the instructional time through the use of graphic organizers, “cloze” activities, and even project-based learning. Students had choices and opportunities to lean into their strengths. As a result, students were deeply engaged throughout the learning process.
The revised approaches to teaching and learning we implemented in this school did not focus solely on students within the special-education program; instead, they focused on the needs of all learners. Throughout their instructional plans and collaboration, teachers fostered the least restrictive environment whereby learners of all backgrounds and needs experienced success. When educators focus on meeting the needs of all learners, they embrace equitable practices that increase student engagement and improve learning outcomes. Critically, successful teachers explore their instructional practices through self-reflection and consideration of student experience as they strive to grow and improve so that all students learn.