As teachers, we are detailed oriented individuals. We truly do “have eyes on the back of our heads,” constantly keeping tabs on our students’ academic and social progress. We scan our rooms looking for places to add student work, display books for our students to read, and if you are like me, you often have thought of new furniture arrangements to squeeze out an extra few inches for your ever-growing students. We, as teachers, are always evolving and looking for the next best environmental accommodations, visual supports, and how to fine tune instructional methods for our students. In our quest for improvement, it is important that we find a “balance,” especially for our students with disabilities. Our students with disabilities should be provided with a predictable routine, environment and instructional supports that they can count on. And, believe me, it is a lot simpler than it sounds. Below are my top three tips for supporting all students, especially those with disabilities.
1. Simple, Visual Supports
- Students benefit from a visual schedule that clearly explains what they need to do not only during the day, but during Reading and Writing Workshop.
o Consider creating small icons next to your schedule on the board. Icons can be hand drawn (i.e. a student writing), or an actual picture of a student writing, for Writing Workshop.
o Many students benefit from a visual schedule/checklist that explains every aspect of the schedule. The pie chart below provides students with an overview of what to expect in workshop. Although, for many students with disabilities, they do not know what it means to be “in meeting area with teacher” or “working together as a group.” We can provide pictures of what those look like and place them on the chart.
o Each phrase could also be broken down further in a step-by- step fashion on separate sheets of paper, placed in a binder for students to reference at their desk or tables. For example, “in meeting area with teacher” might have the following steps: listen for the signal to move to the meeting area, bring writer’s notebook and writing tool, sit in my assigned spot, sit cross-legged with my materials in my lap, and listen to the mini-lesson.
o Alternatively, students could also be provided with a short video of what the teacher expects the room to “look like” and “sound like” during workshop.
- Interactive charts that provide students with a map of where to sit in the meeting area create independence.
- Charts that support instructional content ideally have examples and pictures. Charts should also reinforce independence, providing students with strategies to help them throughout each aspect of the writing process.
2. Environmental Accommodations
- Many students with disabilities do not do well within the constraints of a meeting area on a carpet. Feel free to have students stay at their desks, while you present the mini-lesson from the front of the room. This can minimize transition difficulties.
- Students can benefit from visual timers between each component of workshop, i.e. transitioning from the meeting area to independent writing. It is also helpful for students to know the amount of time expected for independent writing. Many visual timers can often be placed on the board.
- If students do gather in a meeting area, students should be able to exit easily if needed. Also, a pacing line (colored tape on the floor) can be used for students who have difficulty focusing during the mini-lesson. The management of the pacing line needs to be clear for all students, i.e. students cannot freely choose to use the pacing line during a lesson.
- Beanbags, bumpy seats and cushion supports have often been helpful for some students who need assistance focusing during a lesson and independent work time.
- As much as possible, the environmental arrangement of the classroom should stay as consistent as possible. Students with disabilities benefit from a structured environment that stays the same all year. While minimal changes, such as a rotation of student work on bulletin boards is helpful, rearranging desks, tables and the location of the classroom library can bring unnecessary anxiety and frustration for some students.
- The classroom library should stay consistent for the entire year. Often, we reveal one aspect of the library at a time, relishing in the element of “surprise.” Students with disabilities often appreciate when everything is laid out to them at once. If you have extra levels of books that cannot be stored in your library, try to store them in a closet that is clearly labeled.
- It is beneficial if students do not have anything on top of their desks or tables, or even in their desks if at all possible to minimize distraction, and create a clutter free environment. The writing center should store all necessary supplies in clearly labeled bins.
- For primary teachers who use centers, it is beneficial if every center is color-coded. When called from the meeting area, students can line up on the appropriate line of colored tape on the floor next to the center, and then sit down at the center when directed by the teacher. Then students move from center to center transitioning using the colored taped lines.
- Cardboard from furniture stores can be cut and placed in between desks. For example, a piece of large piece of cardboard can go between six desks (three on each side), and students can use that to place post-its on, so they have more space for their ideas. It can also serve as a divider to help students focus, and is an alternative to separate dividers around each student, which can be cumbersome.
3. Instructional Supports During Workshop
- Students with disabilities benefit from small group instruction during writing and reading workshop. Small group instruction can take place during independent work time, where the teacher can provide additional modeling of the skill or strategy to help students with disabilities. This can be an effective alternative to partnership discussions, because a teacher can facilitate discussion among group members.
- Graphic organizers are extremely beneficial during the writing process, and can also aid students in recording their thoughts about their reading.
- Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), pioneered by Karen Harris and Steve Graham (Arizona State University) contains several graphic organizers that will aid students in the writing process. See – http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/casl/srsd.html
- Students with disabilities benefit from multi-media during the mini-lesson, especially with difficult concepts such as theme. For example, showing students a video on Michael Jordan’s career in basketball can be helpful in explaining determination and perseverance to a student.
- Whenever possible, it is helpful to embed pictures within the sentence starters and graphic organizers. Boardmaker has excellent pictures that can be used for this purpose.
- Sentence starters that are individualized can be particularly helpful, and also be a part of the graphic organizers. Below is an example of sentence starters used for the conclusion of a literary essay:
I wish that ___________________.
This book proves that ______________ and I know that people can learn from this because ___________________.
My thinking changed because _____________________________.
- When teaching spelling concepts, utilize student writing to make it as authentic as possible. It is helpful to score students spelling ability in terms of application. Below, I had a student “hunt” for her correct application of several spelling concepts within her writing.
For additional resources see: I Hate to Write: Tips for Helping Students with Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders Increase Achievement, Meet Academic Standards, and Become Happy, Successful Writers by Cheryl Boucher and Kathy Oehler
Written by Kate Riedell, Growing Educators Staff Developer