Teaching Students with Disabilities

Updated November 14, 2022

Looking for actionable and concrete tips for teaching students with disabilities and helping them succeed? Use this guide to find out about common disabilities, discover helpful teaching strategies, and read expert advice.

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Teaching Strategies for Educators to Support and Advocate for Their Students

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities' State of Learning Disabilities report, one in five children have a learning and/or attention disability that affects their ability to learn in a classroom. Approximately 33 percent of educators stated that what individuals call a learning disability can be confused with laziness, making it clear that some pockets of the teaching community need more information about the realities of disabilities and how to best support children with them. The following guide takes a look at the prevalence of disabilities, how teachers can best support students, and expert advice on this important topic.

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Understanding Disabilities in an Academic Environment

Despite increasing research and reports about the state of disabilities in K-12 children, many parents and educators are still woefully underserved in terms of their knowledge both about the disabilities and how to best address them. This section highlights a few startling facts about how children with disabilities are seen by their communities.

  1. Approximately 35 percent of parents expressed serious concerns about their ability to cope with and support their children's disabilities. (Source)
  2. 70 percent of educators and parents believe learning disabilities are related to intellectual disabilities. (Source)
  3. While most educational responses to disabilities focus solely on accommodations, it's important to remember that disabilities cannot be solely categorized as a medical issue or a problem that needs fixing. A student's whole being must be considered to truly help and support them. (Source)

What are some examples of disabilities that may impact academic success?

While most parents and teachers typically think of learning disabilities first when considering limitations or differences in the classroom, students can also be affected by temporary (like a broken bone), relapsing, remitting, or long-term disabilities. A few examples include:

  • ADHD
  • Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Language Processing Disorder
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
  • Seizure Disorder

How can disabilities impact academic success?

Disabilities can affect students in myriad ways in the classroom, depending on the disability at hand. While the list below is not exhaustive, it presents a few common challenges.

  • Reading and writing slower than other students due to language processing disabilities
  • Needing to reread information or receive instruction multiple times due to memory disabilities
  • Requiring additional time to process new material
  • Inability to participate in classroom activities or discussions due to processing disabilities
  • Finding it difficult to focus and/or pay attention due to ADHD/ADD
  • Trouble participating in activities such as holding a pencil or creating a science project due to issues related to motor disabilities
  • Difficulty maintaining friendships because of challenges with impulse control and understanding social cues
  • Problems reaching the classroom due to inaccessible buildings
  • Inability to see class materials or hear the teacher due to issues with visual or hearing impairments
  • Challenges understanding numbers and symbols due to dyscalculia

Can you always tell when a student has a disability?

Simply put, no. Even if a student “looks” fine, that doesn't always mean that they are. Many invisible disabilities exist and create obstacles for students in the classroom. Educators with proper training on how to best support learners with disabilities understand the importance of working with students and their families to understand how to best teach them. Examples of invisible/hidden disabilities include:

  • Chronic fatigue and/or pain
  • Mental illnesses such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression
  • Allergies
  • Crohn's disease or inflammatory bowel syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Lupus
  • Repetitive stress injuries
  • Asthma and/or breathing issues
  • Brain injuries

Successful Strategies for Teaching and Supporting Students with Disabilities

Educators and administrators can do a lot to support students with disabilities in achieving their potential, but it can feel difficult to juggle all the responsibilities of a day alongside these additional steps. Marissa Rocheleau, Founder of Linguabilities, offers a number of simple things that teachers can do to address the needs of their students without feeling overwhelmed by all that they must accomplish.

Supporting Your Students in the Classroom

Lean on others.

“I find it can be very helpful for educators to collaborate with the entire team, including teachers, case managers, therapists, the student, and their parents,” says Rocheleau. “This is especially important in online schools where teachers and students don't have the added benefit of daily contact while passing in the halls.”

Stay organized.

Creating an organized classroom with minimal distractions can help students feel focused without adding unnecessary structure. Teachers can create systems for helping students organize their notebooks while also making space for them to take a body break if they feel overwhelmed.

Don't reinvent the wheel.

“Read through the IEP or any accommodations/modifications ahead of time,” suggests Rocheleau. “The IEP is designed to give a template of how to help the student, so there should be clear goals or classroom accommodations already written for teachers to follow.”

Know that each student is unique.

“Remember that each student learns differently,” encourages Rocheleau. “Some need visuals, while others need to get in there and kinesthetically feel through learning – allow your student lots of opportunities to explore the subject in different ways.”

Keep instructions simple.

If students struggle to stay focused or take in lots of information at once, try to break things down into smaller tasks that feel more manageable and allow them to feel like they are accomplishing things throughout the day.

Embrace advocacy.

“Advocate for yourself and your students,” reminds Rocheleau. “Reasonable classrooms sizes and time for preparation and documentation is essential when you have students with special needs in your classroom.”

Create opportunities for success.

Students with special needs can often feel like they struggle to succeed, so create opportunities for them to recognize and celebrate their accomplishments. Creating lessons that lead to positive results and introducing rewards can help them stay motivated.

Don't feel pressure to be perfect.

“Be patient with yourself and the student,” encourages Rocheleau. “You will both make mistakes and learn from them along the way.”

Teaching Tips and Strategies

  • Set the tone from day one. When students first walk into your class for day one of the new term, let each of them know that all students are welcome and valued and that the class will work as a team to lift one another up. Include this concept in any class materials and review it regularly.
  • Support your students in their learning. “By using strategies of scaffolding, appropriate prompting, and materials suited to your student's level of achievement, you can ensure that they will both learn and succeed,” says Rocheleau.
  • Structure lesson plans to support inclusivity. Rather than creating separate activities or learning plans for students with disabilities, consider how you can include disability services in the general plan and where you might be able to educate all learners about disabilities through the voices of those who experience them.
  • Assume your student can do something until proven wrong. “Many times students with disabilities are not given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their abilities,” notes Rocheleau. “Let all your students have a chance to shine, support them when they do not succeed, and never assume a student cannot do something without seeing for yourself.”
  • Communicate clearly with students and parents. At the start of term (and at the start of each week, if necessary), clearly let your students know what your expectations are in terms of assignments and deadlines. Share this information with parents so they can support their children in being successful.
  • Partner students with disabilities with students who do not have disabilities. “Peer mentoring is a wonderful resource for teaching social skills, problem solving, and independence,” encourages Rocheleau. “It allows both students with disabilities and those without to appreciate each other for their strengths and to learn from each others' experiences.”
  • Make yourself available. Though a student might not want to speak up in a room full of their peers if they feel themselves falling behind or not understanding material, they might speak to you one-to-one about the issue. Make sure your students know when and where they can find you to discuss any problems arising.
  • Model the behaviors you want to see in your students. “If we want our students to act a certain way, one of the easiest ways is to show them that behavior in ourselves,” says Rocheleau. “This goes for reading a book, interacting socially, or simply treating others with respect.”
  • Allow all students to work on the same assignments. Students who feel they are receiving assignments different from those their peers receive assume that teachers do not think they are capable of succeeding. Rather than setting different projects, assign the same ones but allow the students with disabilities to work towards the goals in different ways. Use accommodations to help them feel like they are part of the class, rather than separate.
  • Create resources for all students, not just those with disabilities. “By making things like a self-selected quiet corner, stress balls, or large print books available to all students, the differences suddenly become less noticeable,” explains Rocheleau. “In fact, many general education students enjoy having the extra supports and perform better when given a little extra choice or sensory input in their days.”

Disciplining Students with Disabilities in the Classroom

According to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, students with disabilities are disciplined twice as much as their peers, leading many parents and educators to wonder how this can be addressed. Michelle Rocheleau, Founder of Linguabilities, offers several ideas that can be implemented to avoid over-disciplining these learners.

What alternatives exist for teachers who do not want to over-discipline students with disabilities?

Teachers can avoid many of the behavioral problems potentially faced when teaching a student with disabilities by using structure, positive reinforcement, and clear expectations.

How do these concepts work and how can they be implemented successfully?

Structure can refer to a regular schedule of activities or a lack of staff turnover. It's when things become chaotic, loud, and overwhelming in classrooms that we often see more negative behaviors. Positive reinforcement means responding with praise to the behaviors we want to see. Get creative and find out what motivates your student. Some students work well with a token reward system to earn a break, while others need an immediate high five for encouragement. Finally, use clear expectations of what you want from students. Write down instructions, use visual reminders, and actually tell students what to do before it happens. It's also helpful to give children an option of what to do instead of what not to do. For example, if you want a student to stop talking about an inappropriate subject, give them a more appropriate topic they can talk about instead.

Support Resources for Educators

Meeting the needs of students with disabilities – alongside the needs of students without disabilities – can feel overwhelming when balancing lesson plans, grading, faculty meetings, and extracurriculars. Fortunately, countless resources exist online and in-person to help teachers learn about the spectrum of disabilities and how to best accommodate them while empowering their students.

Teacher Blogs

On Special Education. This blog is maintained by Education Week and provides regularly updated posts with news, resources, and interviews from those working in the field.

Smart Kinds with Learning Disabilities. This teacher blog offers tons of actionable advice and helpful tips. The group also maintains local chapters and programs/events for teachers who want to get more involved.

Special 2 Me. This blog is authored by a special education resource specialist teacher who provides a glimpse into what her days look like while also offering helpful advice and tips.

Successful Teaching. A teacher with more than three decades of experience writes this blog, which is aimed at special education and regular teachers.

Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities. In addition to providing a sounding board for teachers working with students with disabilities, this blog also provides free resources for educators looking to better serve their learners.

Social Media/In-Person Support Groups

Meetup. The special education group of Meetup maintains more than 50,000 members (including parents and teachers) who get together to discuss challenges in teaching and raising children with disabilities.

National Association of Special Education Teachers. In addition to annual conferences and events, NASET also provides local chapters for educators who want to interact with fellow teachers.

Simply Special Ed. This Facebook group shares innovative ideas, lesson plans, freebies, and curriculum plans to help educators serve their students.

Special Education Teachers. The National Association of Special Education Teachers provides this group of more than 21,000 members to offer support and guidance in teaching.

We Teach Sped. Comprised of special education bloggers, this support group exists to help encourage and inspire educators who teach students with disabilities.

Online Courses

Continuing education courses. NASET provides a variety of online courses covering topics such as behavior management tools, setting up a special education classroom, and the requirements of IEPs and 504 plans.

Council for Exceptional Children. CEC offers regularly scheduled webinars on a variety of topics related to supporting exceptional children.

Endorsement Program for Teachers of Students with Disabilities. Rutgers University offers this certificate program for educators who want to learn more about pedagogy and receive an endorsement in this area.

Engaging Child Professional Development. School and district administrators, special education teachers, general education teachers, and paraeducators can find evidence-based courses on how to meet the needs of exceptional learners.

Students with Disabilities: What Do I Do. ASCD provides this free webinar for educators who want to learn more about laws impacting teaching and how to create engaging and inclusive lesson plans.

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