Working with Special Needs Students: What Do All Teachers Need to Know?

It can be challenging to select instructional materials and methods, which will enrich student learning. The key is first understanding the needs of every student. In particular, all teachers need to understand how to provide for students with special needs.

There are an estimated 6.6 million special needs students in our schools today, making up 13% of our school population. How can we make sure that all teachers are prepared for special needs students, especially when the majority of teachers are not certified special education teachers, nor may engage in regular training related to special education.

I recently attended a session on “inclusion” at EdCamp Pittsburgh which was a very informative, open discussion, where two special education teachers responded to the questions and concerns expressed in regard to special needs students. There were three main questions with some really helpful ideas shared.

Common Questions

  • How can teachers create a supportive learning environment for students?

Start with the relationships. Create opportunities for students to interact by designing some relationship building activities. For example, one teacher mentioned taking three minutes in class to have students group themselves according to animals or foods they like, or their birthdays. When students see what they have in common with one another, they begin to build trust and relationships. Realizing that they might have a lot in common, that someone else in the class is “just like me”, can be used as a springboard to ongoing relationship building.

  •  What do you do when having a mix of auditory, visual, and IEPs in a regular classroom?

Offer opportunities for students to engage in reading together. Place students into mixed ability groups and have time to interact with each group. Students need to hear fluent reading and have practice, so by pairing students with fluent readers, students can build their skills. In these activities, both students get practice modeling good reading and working together. Some tools used for this are Lexia and Alphabet Prosody.

  • How do teachers learn strategies, what are tools to use, what works best for students in your classroom environment?

When possible, co-teaching is a great way to provide additional support in the classroom. It opens up the opportunity to work with small groups or to design independent learning centers, which focus on specific skills. One EdCamp attendee shared that in her classroom, two learning centers may be focused on the same skill but delivered in a different format, or offer adaptations to help students become more independent. Making time to work with the special education teachers and share strategies is key.

Start with the Right Resources

It can be difficult to find enough tools or instructional strategies to use, but with the right resources and connections, it becomes easier to find something for each student. We also need to be prepared to provide additional support for the families of our special needs students.

Special Education Teachers: When I took my graduate courses in special education, I developed a much greater understanding and appreciation of the work done by special education teachers. There was so much that I did not know, and it is critical that teachers have time to work with one another and build relationships. The phrase “I wish that general education teachers knew…about special education” would be a great way to start a conversation, as there is so much to know and it can be confusing to a general education teacher. Making time to collaborate and even co-teach will have a great impact on student-teacher/teacher-teacher relationships. With technology, connecting can be done through tools such as Twitter (follow #specialneeds, #spedchat, #inclusion) or create a group to talk using a tool like Voxer.

Supporting Families: Families need advice, assistance and advocates. Finding the time can be difficult, so it makes sense to share the resources which enable families to access information when they need it. There are books focused on special needs, that can help families to better understand and explain special needs. There are local, state and national organizations which focus on special needs as a whole, or that are specific to a disability or serve as an advocacy organization. Educators and families can connect in a Google Community to learn about AT (Assistive Technology) which includes many Chrome extensions. The use of a messaging app such as BloomzApp or Remind enables families to reach out with questions when needed.

Tech Tools: There are tremendous apps and digital tools that educators and families can use to provide ongoing support for students.
1) Common Sense Media includes sample lesson plans, digital tools and apps with user reviews, providing a reference point for educators or families looking for additional learning materials.

2) AbiTalk offers numerous apps for different target areas and also more specific apps for Speech Therapy and special needs, with a description of each and link to directly download.

3) EdShelf, where you can look at the recommended apps and read what other educators have said about the tools and their benefits for classroom use.

4) One resource, A Day in Our Shoes, recently offered a list of 100+ apps for Autism and Special Needs, including different categories specific to disability type and skill.

5) Bridging Apps offers apps and reviews, to “bridge the gap between technology and people with disabilities.”  Most recently included a list of the 7 best apps for Autism Awareness month

6) Helper Bird is a Chrome extension which uses OpenDyslexic font, overrides the text on a webpage to make it easier to read.

7) Magnus Cards is a new, free autism app, for use on a handheld device, serves to help the user follow a step-by-step guide to get through various situations. It is an app to help people with cognitive special needs, for example to sensitivity to sound, crowds, or confusion based on certain situations.

8) Autism Speaks helps families to locate community events and centers, links to other resources such as information about grants, non-English resources, and other helpful tips. There is an option to search for Apps based on the function of the app itself or more specific apps for developing social skills, behavioral interventions, and others which are based on specific learning targets. Apps have been quite effective in helping students with Autism.

All teachers need to be invested in providing for all students. We also need to make sure that the families have access to the information and resources they need in order to provide support at home as well. By setting up a means of communicating with our colleagues, the families, and continuing to look for and share resources, it becomes easier to facilitate the best possible learning opportunities for all students.

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Rachelle Dené Poth

Rachelle Dené Poth is a Spanish and STEAM: Emerging Technology teacher at Riverview High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an edtech consultant, presenter, attorney, and the author of seven books, her most recent Things I Wish [...] Knew includes stories from 50 educators. Rachelle is an ISTE Certified Educator. Follow Rachelle's blog at

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