Inclusive classrooms might contain several students with special needs who are mainstreamed full time into the general classroom, or one or two students who spend time each day in both a special education classroom and a general classroom. Either way, your role as a general education teacher is to create a community conducive to helping all students meet academic and behavioral goals; however, you should not have to achieve this aim alone. Ongoing communication is essential for locating individuals, services and materials to best support all of your students. In addition, some key planning and teaching strategies can make a dramatic difference in reaching students with diverse abilities and skill bases.
Begin at the End
Backward planning is the most straightforward way to ensure that you align daily lessons and units with your year-end goals. This is a multi-step process:
- Consult the records of your students who receive special education services, particularly their individualized education programs (IEPs), to determine overarching behavioral and academic goals.
- Figure out how these goals intersect with national and state standards and other year-end goals for all of the students in your classroom.
- Review your curriculum to figure out which units will help you meet which year-end goals.
- Map out individual lessons within the units that align with these goals.
- Formulate a to-do list of people and services to contact so you that can schedule support when necessary. For example, if you plan to have students complete a cross-curricular research project, you need to know when you will schedule a visit to the school or public library so that you can ask a parent or aide to support students with special needs.
- Adjust lessons to ensure that they accommodate the needs and abilities of your students, including those in special education programs.
Embrace Universal Design
One of the buzzwords in contemporary education is universal design. This approach makes your curriculum accessible to all students, regardless of their backgrounds, learning styles and abilities. There are several ways for you to accomplish this feat:
- Relay content in diverse ways (visually, verbally, written).
- Ask students to share what they are learning in diverse ways (speaking, illustrating, writing).
- Utilize multiple materials to engage students (software, art, theater, video, object lessons).
These approaches ensure that you reach all of your students with special needs, as well as deepen their thinking and reinforce new information so it moves from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Apply Multiple Intelligences Theory
Universal design shares much with Howard Gardner’s Theory of the Multiple Intelligences, which outlines students’ varied approaches for processing information (known as “intelligences”) and how teachers can access these pathways. For example, in an inclusive classroom, a unit in the core curriculum, such as one on the solar system, might feature vocabulary and abstract concepts that are challenging for students with disabilities to master. A general education teacher can make these concepts more comprehensible by employing various strategies and leading hands-on activities such as:
- Showing videos about the solar system.
- Making models of the planets.
- Interviewing an astronaut.
- Visiting a science museum or planetarium with an astronomy display and program.
- Looking at books with images of the solar system.
- Making up songs, poems, rhymes and chants about the cosmos.
- Drawing or painting images of stars, meteors, galaxies and planets.
- Acting out a scene of astronauts in flight.
According to Sarah Murray and Kylie Moore, in their article “Inclusion Through Multiple Intelligences,” utilizing techniques that are suited to multiple intelligences “allows students to explore important concepts using a range of domains, and find information based on their own abilities.”
Incorporate Life Skills Training
According to the National Down Syndrome Society’s guide to implementing inclusion, some parents and educators are concerned “that functional life skills cannot be addressed in general classroom settings.” Indeed, integrating functional life skills into a general education curriculum can seem time-consuming to a teacher.
However, integrating some basic, daily strategies can make a profound difference in your students. Consider the classroom tasks in which you and your students regularly engage and how you could make these tasks accessible and valuable to your special education students. For instance:
- Organizing school supplies, art materials, learning centers and the classroom library teaches valuable life skills while making all students feel part of the classroom community.
- Creating backdrops and decorations for the bulletin board and other classroom displays teaches responsibility while enhancing students’ spatial and visual intelligences.
- Being in charge of homework collection, attendance charts, computer equipment or record-keeping teaches organizational skills.
Incorporating life skills training into your curriculum is not a one-time proposition. To effectively impart these skills, you will need to model the required tasks and reinforce them on a regular basis.
Employ Collaborative Teaching Techniques
No classroom is an island, particularly an inclusive classroom. Opening up your room to volunteers, teacher’s aides, service providers and the special education teacher gives you valuable opportunities to engage in collaborative teaching.
In “Effective Teaching Practices for Students in Inclusive Classrooms,” Sue Land, M.Ed., reviews the diverse applications of collaborative teaching in the inclusive classroom:
- Interactive Teaching: Two or more teachers shift roles between leading whole-class instruction, observing instruction and monitoring learning.
- Alternative Teaching: One teacher leads small-group instruction while the other teacher works with the rest of the class. This model works particularly well if a small group requires reinforcement or reteaching to master a concept.
- Parallel Teaching: Two or more teachers lead small, mixed-ability groups of students in the same lesson. This approach functions well when teachers require a high level of focus and participation from students.
- Station Teaching: Two or more teachers lead or observe small groups of students as these groups rotate through several learning stations. This technique helps students stay on task as they complete shorter activities and transition clearly from task to task.
Formulate a Flexible Behavior Management Plan
Effective planning and teaching in an inclusive classroom depends upon having control of your classroom. This does not mean that you must adopt an authoritative model laden with punishments and rewards, but it does require that you be assertive and clearly communicate your expectations and goals.
With many students, those with special needs and otherwise, a rigid behavior management plan will not serve you in every circumstance. For example, if you have a student who has a shorter attention span due to developmental issues, it is unfair to expect that student to stay focused on seatwork for as long as students with longer attention spans. No amount of punishment or reward can extend that student’s focus.
Instead, tailor your classroom environment to better suit diverse students’ needs. With students’ and specialists’ input, create a checklist or action plan for students. It can list, with short phrases, symbols or cutouts, how to review work, put away supplies and find an independent task to do, such as writing in a journal, drawing in a sketchpad or reading a book from the classroom library.
Among the other behavior management strategies that support effective inclusion are:
- Posting a schedule and sticking to it.
- Displaying classroom rules.
- Diversifying instruction.
- Encouraging peer instruction and leadership.
- Using signals to quiet down, start working and put away materials.
- Giving students folders, labels and containers to organize supplies.
- Checking in with students while they work.
- Speaking to students privately about any concerns.
- Employing specific, targeted positive reinforcement when a student meets a behavioral or academic goal.
The Power of Inclusion
Practicing these planning, teaching and management strategies is underscored by a recognition of the unique gifts of all your students. You model respect for and celebration of who they are as individuals. This appreciation transforms your room from a mere meeting place into a genuine community.