Why should we bother giving access to curriculum for students with the most significant disabilities?

I’ve spent 30+ years in the educational field working with students who have a label of significant intellectual disabilities. I have seen a number of practices and philosophies come and go in that time. What I have seen as a constant is that students rise to the level of expectation if given the opportunity.

There is a new emphasis on providing instruction for students that allows them to access to curriculum and the same standards as their grade level peers. Some argue that “these students” don’t NEED academic skills. Thirty years ago they told us ‘these students’ did not need to be in school. Yet our students rose to the level of expectation.

There is a focus in general education on differentiated instruction and active student participation as well as higher order thinking. I am not seeing the same strategies used as much by teachers of more significantly involved students. Many teachers argue that by focusing on academics we are not providing the life skills that students need as adults. Why do we think they are mutually exclusive? Why can’t we do both? I believe strongly that all students have the right to be exposed to the curriculum. Our job as teachers is to provide the materials and scaffolding they need to participate and progress. Isn’t that what special education means?

One of the arguments I often hear from teachers is “Why are we wasting our time teaching Romeo & Juliet when they need to learn basic life skills?” Don’t all students have the right to learn about the world around them and find their place in it? I have seen remarkable things happen once we started exposing our students to general education curriculum – better communication, interest in the world around them, more acceptance by peers, and participation in the general education program. In other words, becoming a full member of the educational community instead of someone in a totally different curriculum housed in an educational building.

The key is providing the curriculum in a meaningful way. This may mean it looks different. It means doing activities that involve the content of the curriculum in meaningful ways. It means not doing worksheets all day. It means allowing students to be involved with their peers.

The key to successfully adapting materials is starting with the skills the student has already. When I am working with a new teacher, the first thing I do is ask them to tell me about their students. They almost always begin by telling me about the deficits or what they cannot do. Until we change the thought process to what they CAN do, we can’t successfully support students. It is difficult to move forward with what the student CANNOT do. For example, the student cannot use his/her hands but they CAN track objects visually or turn toward sound. In this case we have to create materials that allow visual choices or provide auditory input to help the student participate.

The teacher has to approach every lesson thinking “What do I need to do to allow this student to participate and succeed?” Some simple strategies are providing manipulatives so the student has a concrete connection to the lesson, use photos or graphics with the words for non-readers, provide picture/symbol vocabulary sheet or communication board even for verbal communicators, provide tactile supports on materials, adapt written text for understanding and participation, pre-teach vocabulary and/or basic concepts and involve the family and other support systems. The most important strategy is expect success.

In working with many teachers over the years, I have found two common characteristics of teachers who are successful in working with students that have severe disabilities. The first characteristic is that they approach instruction with a positive mind set. “How do I make sure this happens?” instead of “They can’t do that.” I call this thinking outside the box. Our students don’t fit in the gen ed box neatly so our solutions will have to be found outside that box. The second characteristic is they do their job with joy and create a fun learning environment. If the student and teacher are having fun, then learning will definitely take place.

Photo Credit: Karen Pedersen-Bayus

What do you think? How should we approach teaching students with the most significant needs grade-level aligned curriculum? Tell us about it in the comments section below!