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Curriculum modifications can go both ways

In order for many students with disabilities to be educated in the general education setting, some adjustments are required as far as what each particular student will learn or be able to do. The student should not be denied the opportunity to be in classrooms with typical children just because modifications are needed. This concept is part of the IDEA requirement that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment where their needs can be met.

Q: What about children who spend most of their day in an exceptional children’s classroom where their skills are at the top or bottom of the range for that class?

A: The instruction can be modified, as needed, for students within an EC classroom to ensure an appropriate amount of challenge and progress.

The “I” in IEP means that instruction can be individualized to address the unique needs of a student with a disability.  The child’s learning should not be put on hold until lower-functioning classmates catch up.  We expect typical students to make a year’s worth of progress over a year of school. We should also expect that students who have disabilities will make as much progress as they are capable of over the course of each school year.  We would be doing the student a disservice if we settled for “some” progress if the child is capable of much more.

If you are the parent of a child in an EC classroom who you feel is not being challenged, try to get as much information as you can about what is being taught in that class.  Ask whether, or how, the lesson planning and instruction accounts for the fact that the students are probably not all on the same level with any of their skills.  The answer to the question should not be that “there is one curriculum and I have to teach the same things to all of the children.” One size does not fit all, and is not an appropriate approach to special education. Instruction should be differentiated to meet the needs of each individual  child.

In some schools there may be multiple EC classrooms, either self-contained or resource rooms where the kids switch in and out. It is possible for a student at the separate level of service to get instruction from teachers in different rooms.  For example, a child may get most of her instruction from a primary EC teacher, but go work with another EC teacher in a subject area where she has skills that are much higher than her classmates. On the flip side, a child can be assigned primarily to one classroom, and also go to another classroom for instruction at an appropriate, but lower level of difficulty.

Flexibility within and between EC classrooms can offer students with significant disabilities the opportunity to benefit from an educational experience that adequately addresses their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

Back to school: Look closely at your child’s class schedule

For students in middle and high school it is extremely important for parents to keep up with the courses that they are taking. The classes should offer the right amount of challenge (not too easy, not too hard). They should be preparing your child for whatever their goals are for life after high school. More importantly, the courses need to be chosen so that they meet the graduation requirements for your school system. With many schools using computer programs to create schedules for students, it’s not hard for the needs of individual students to be overlooked.

For many students who have disabilities, course selection is even more critical. For some students it will be important to make sure that they are placed in the course sections that are co-taught by both regular education and special education teachers. This can offer real-time assistance and support to help students be successful with grade-level material. The co-taught classes can be selected in the areas most likely impacted by the student’s disability. Sometimes the assumption is made that, because the student has an IEP, they should automatically be placed in the lowest level course available. This approach would keep many students from building on their strengths to reach their full potential. Students who need support in some subjects can also take typical or even honors classes in subjects that are areas of strength for them.

These days, most high schools are using block schedules that cover the entire content of a course during a single semester. It may be important to make sure that the courses that will be most challenging for your child are not all piled into the same semester. With thoughtful planning, the school can create a schedule that spreads the work load out more evenly. For example, your child can take two really hard classes at the same time plus a support class and an elective in an area of interest. This kind of planning from the very beginning will usually allow students to complete all of their graduation requirements within 4 years so they can graduate with their peers. Even if they have to pick up a summer class or return for an extra semester, the goal is that the student experiences success and gains knowledge that will help them throughout their life. The extra time will be well spent.

Parents also need to look out for other kinds of scheduling problems:

  • Make sure that courses are taken in the right sequence. The level1 course should come before the level 2 course.
  • Make sure that your child is not assigned to a course that they have already successfully completed. With rare exceptions, they will not earn course credit the second time around.
  • Make sure that your child was not placed in an elective course that they have no interest in, or one that is a poor fit, just because there was space in that class. Forcing an extremely shy kid to take a drama class will probably not end well.
  •  Make sure that your child is on track to graduate when expected. Your child could be taking math and science classes that are counted as “electives” that do not meet the graduation requirements for that subject area. If your child comes up short by missing even a single graduation requirement, they will not get a diploma. At least once a year have your child’s guidance counselor review the courses that your child has taken and compare them to the courses required for graduation.

Read your child’s class schedule carefully as soon as you get it.  If you see anything on that doesn’t look right, contact staff at the school immediately.  Go to the school in person if you need to.  The sooner any problems are corrected, the easier it will be for your child, and the better their educational experience will be.

FAQ: One-on-one assistants and LRE for students with disabilities

questions-and-answersFAQ:  Is having a one-on-one assistant the “most restrictive” setting for a student with a disability?

Answer:  No. The type of support that a student requires has nothing to do with the degree to which her educational placement is considered to be “restrictive” under IDEA, the Federal special education law.

IDEA requires that students with disabilities are served in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) where their needs can be successfully met.  The continuum of alternative educational placements that goes from least restrictive to most restrictive is based on the amount of time that the student is removed from the regular education setting and  non-disabled peers.  The continuum includes the following placement options: Regular, Resource, Separate, Separate School, Residential, Home/Hospital.  Each step along the continuum reflects less and less contact with typical children, and would be considered to be more restrictive than the ones listed before it and less restrictive than the ones listed after it.

Children can receive special education services in the regular education classroom, in a special education classroom or therapy room, or in the total school environment.  Some students receive a lot of special education services, accommodations and supports in the regular education setting and are not removed from their non-disabled peers at all.  This would still be considered to be the least restrictive placement on the continuum.

Some parents who ask about  a one-on-one assistant for their child are told that this kind of individual support would be the most restrictive setting for their child, and that moving the child into a separate classroom or separate school would actually be less restrictive.  This is simply not true, and probably reflects a lack of information on the part of the person making that statement.

If this happens to you, talk to someone who would be expected to have a greater understanding of  special education rules and regulations.  Even if you have to speak with the Director of Exceptional Children’s services for your entire school system, it will be good for them to know that there is a need to correct misinformation.  This may not get a one-on-one assistant for your child, but at least the decision would not be made for the wrong reason.  The IEP team has an obligation to consider the use of supplementary aids and services that could increase the amount of time that a child with a disability would be able to be educated with non-disabled children.