5 Strategies for Inclusivity in Special Education

By Karen Achtman, Special Education Teacher & Inclusivity Specialist

Like I suppose many of us, I knew I wanted to go into education. However, where I am in my career now is nowhere what I expected or anticipated when I began my journey 10 years ago. I earned degrees in elementary and special education knowing how much differentiation teachers are required to do nowadays. As a classroom teacher, I was drawn to my lower­ leveled students — those that needed more support to be successful, were behind grade­ level, but wanted to be like their peers. I took a leap to leave the classroom and take on the role as a special education teacher. For the past year plus, I have been teaching at a therapeutic day school for students on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Students in my classroom range in age and academic levels. My classroom is organized like a typical classroom, but I do a lot of small group instruction to support their various needs and abilities.

Inclusive education is near and dear to my heart. I truly believe all students should have the opportunity to learn and be successful in the classroom. Though I make accommodations and modifications on a daily basis, differentiation benefits all students. Here are some easy tips to incorporate in the classroom that support multiple students!

1. Clear Expectations and Schedules

We’ve all been there­ — you know what you want students to do, but after you give instructions blank faces are staring back at you. Give clear expectations of what you want students to do to complete an activity­: what are the directions, where can they work, what should the voice volume be, what should they do if they need help. Giving the directions orally and writing them on a board or projecting them are helpful ideas for students who have different modes of learning.

Some students benefit from individual directions they can refer to. I often post an agenda for the session and check off tasks as we complete them, so students know what they can expect next. If there are going to be schedule changes, preview them in advance in case some students struggle with the change. Being clear will help students know exactly what to do and focus more energy on the activities than figuring out what is going on.

2. Set Reasonable Goals

When I create IEP goals, I think, “what skills will this student need to be successful in the future?” While my criteria is different than if I was at a public school, I do think it’s important to think about what will truly benefit the student. Is it more important someone can solve multi­-digit operation problems or be able to use a calculator? If a student can access information if someone reads it to him, then should we focus on comprehension in addition to fluency? If handwriting is an issue, can he type or dictate to complete his work and share his ideas? Are there social skills that can be incorporated into an activity? It may be hard to think past the current moment, but it’s also important to think what skills does this child need to be successful long­term.

3. Be a Team Player

It truly takes a group of teachers and therapists to support all aspects of a child. I’m fortunate to have a social worker, speech-­language pathologist, occupational therapist, and behavior analyst in addition to paraprofessionals to support my students. Each person brings a unique perspective to the conversation. Together, you can make a difference. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for advice or a question. Since each person has a different background, she may notice something different or have a new strategy to try. Collaboration is worth the time to help your classroom run more smoothly.

4. Be Flexible

Days never go as planned as there are many things out of your control. Maybe your students take longer to grasp a concept, so you have to spend more days teaching than originally planned. Maybe something is going on at home and a student is upset; as a result, you scrap your lesson because having a social and emotional conversation takes priority. Maybe a topic is challenging and the student gets frustrated; you give them a break and find a new way to teach the topic the following day. Maybe the student has trouble sitting still and needs extra sensory input and misses some of the activity. Maybe there are a lot of staff absent on a certain day and your plan period is cancelled so you can support instruction. While some of the situations are frustrating, it’s not worth getting upset — ­remember, your job is to support these students. Have faith that the work will get done. Build relationships with your students and support them in whatever ways are needed in the moment.

5. Stay in the moment. Have a fresh start each day.

There are going to be good days and bad days. There are going to be unexpected bumps in the road and challenging moments. As hard as it may be, get through it, reflect on what you can do next time, and keep going. Even when I have days that it seems everything goes wrong, I try to find at least one positive that happened. Even when I am frustrated with how a student behaved, I remember that the next morning is a new day and to give him a fresh start. As much as we support these students, we don’t know or understand everything that is going on in their lives. It is our job to be their cheerleader and support them. There is something good in every day.

As teachers, it seems that our workload never stops but don’t forget your main priority is to educate your students. Look for ways that you can incorporate new ideas or strategies into your classroom that support all your students. Feel free to comment below with additional ideas you use to support your students.


Karen Achtman is a Special Education Teacher at Giant Steps in Illinois. This is her 7th year teaching in both elementary and special education classrooms. Karen graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Inclusive Elementary and Special Education. She is passionate about teaching all students at their ability levels and finding a way for them to be successful.


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