Working Effectively with Special Needs Learners

Thoughts and Issues

There are three things that it takes to work effectively with special needs learners:

* Philosophy

* Knowledge

* Techniques

Perhaps it’s best to think of them like a 3 – legged stool. They are all necessary in order for teachers to work effectively with these students.

Philosophy & Paradigm Shifts

As I’ve read and written and worked with students and teachers over my years as an active classroom teacher and programme leader, I’ve thought about the following issues:

* In all our interactions with students, we need to remind ourselves that if we wouldn’t do it (or say it) to an adult, then we shouldn’t do it (or say it) to a student.

* Any student would prefer to be viewed as a bad kid rather than a dumb kid. That decision often guides a student’s actions. This seems to be particularly true of students in secondary school.  It’s not easy to work with students who often have major learning needs when these students are also being impacted by peer pressures, the stresses of many courses and many different teachers, coping with new schools and trying to find their place in the pecking order of that school, and the teenage hormone storm.

* Special needs learners respond better to coaching techniques than to teaching techniques.  Give them constant practice, honest praise, and start and end each lesson with what they can do. This advice makes much sense. Then, we don’t assume prior knowledge or skill acquisition. We work to develop skills and knowledge through well designed lessons with appropriate scaffolding and distributive practice to embed knowledge.

* The pain that a troubled child causes is never greater than the pain he or she feels. There are times when it’s difficult not to believe that a student is being difficult for the sake of being difficult.

As adults, we have filters though which to monitor our responses. We often wonder why our students choose to behave as they do. We forget that they do not have the cognitive resources which we do. We need to remember that it is easier for us to monitor our responses than it is for our students to monitor their behaviour.

* Special needs learners often behave irrationally or in inappropriate ways. Take the behaviour seriously but not personally. As one of our students said recently, “I’m swearing [it’s how he tics] but I’m not swearing at you.”

* When we talk about special needs learners who have hidden handicaps, we need to think about this: that the student has a problem not that the student is a problem. Because these students take more time, energy and resources than other students, they start to be seen as a problem rather than having a problem. The student has the learning problem through no fault of his or her own. These learning problems are shown in student behaviour and the choices which students make regarding school work.

How these learning problems are manifest is individual for each student. We, therefore, cannot suggest generalized strategies to respond to specific individual behaviours. There is no ‘one size fits all’ with regard to which teaching strategies we might use to help any one student learn.

* We need to judge how well we are doing by how well we deal with the special needs learners not by how well we deal with the best and the brightest. It is easy to advocate for the best or brightest of our students. Special needs students aren’t easy to advocate for; however, if we don’t advocate for them, who else will?

Plato argued that how any society will be judged is by considering how that society treats its four most vulnerable constituencies the first of which is the young. When we consider what we do, we should ask ourselves, “So how are the children?” If we take care of our children, the rest of society will take care of itself. Our job is to work for the children who struggle. As teachers – not just Special Education teachers – we will be judged by how well we do this.

* Inclusion works with appropriate supports and assistance (which does not mean another EA or sending the student to the Personal Learning Centre or Resource Room). Inclusion is not something done to teachers but something done for teachers. Teachers get better because they have to be creative in how they present course materials. Making the school accessible for special needs learners makes it accessible for all students. When we use we make the curriculum accessible to all our students, the changes which we make work not only for the special needs learner but also for all our students because they’re really just good changes.

* As FDR advised: “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.” Don’t continue to teach/work with students in the same way simply because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done.’ Teachers need to remember that they have a great deal of experience of school both as students and as teachers. They need to rely on their instincts. It is not necessary, always, to wait for some educational guru to’ lay the good news on us’. As well, we don’t always have the luxury of the time it takes to get that information – not if we have a student who needs help right now.

So, we need to follow FDR’s advice. We also need to approach new theories with caution. Progress does not mean accepting what’s new because it’s new and rejecting what is old because it’s old. We have much wisdom about teaching our subjects and about working with people that we can share. We need to open what we know and have learned to our colleagues and join our knowledge with others.

* Fairness does not mean equality. It means that everyone gets what he or she needs.  “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.” Kohlberg’s theorized that we develop our morals and values in a predictable developmental sequence. The concept of ‘fairness’ to a nine year old means that everyone gets treated the same way. We have become convinced that the nine year old’s view point is what ‘fairness’ truly is. We have allowed our children to teach us what fairness means.

We need to give ourselves permission to treat special needs learners differently. We should not feel the need to justify our decisions which we have made based upon our understanding of the learner and our best professional judgement.

* The answer to every problem we have in working with special needs learners is to look at the problem through the student’s eyes. Especially for special needs learners, we need to understand that their ultimate success as adults will be determined by their social skills not their academic skills. If a student is worried about any social interaction, that student will not be responsive to academic instruction. We need to teach social skills as we organize our lesson material. All our students need to understand and respond to the unwritten social contracts which we all have when we work together. This is often referred to as the ‘hidden curriculum’ of school.

* We need to re-form how we approach discipline – not just for special needs students but for all our students. Positive discipline changes behaviour and will change it in all situations. Negative (punitive) discipline will stop the behaviour but only that one behaviour and only in that one situation. In working with students and disciplining, we should be about change. We need to remember that, for everyone, all behaviour serves a purpose. We need to try and find out what purpose is being served for the student by that student’s behaviour. Thus, punishment should not be the first thing we try but should be our ‘trump card’. We have to work to overcome our knee jerk reactions to student behaviour.

* We need to consider ways to empower students. Teachers often think they need every bit of power to control the class and that any time a student is given power, it will diminish the teacher’s control. However, power can be shared with students without the teacher losing any of his or her own. Our students don’t want to ‘steal’ our power, they just want some of their own. For example:

* Minor Choice Technique – Give the student a minor choice that doesn’t affect the final outcome or product.

* Ask the student to commit to the desired behavior. In that way, if the student does not do what he or she said they would do, we can say, “You didn’t do what you said you were going to do.”

DO NOT say, “I’m very disappointed in you.” Remember that everyone would rather have someone angry at them than disappointed in them.

* The following list is a good one which I shared with colleagues when I was still in the classroom. It comes from a workshop which I attended given by Rick Lavoie.


1. They’ve been punished often enough that they are immune to it. The punishment hasn’t changed the behaviour.

2. Punishment doesn’t eliminate behaviour. It only represses it.

3. Punishment doesn’t model the desired behaviour.

4. Punishment models aggression and the use and abuse of power.

5. The message gets lost in the fear, anxiety, stress and anger the student feels. The student forgets what he or she was disciplined for.

6. The student associates the punishment with the ‘punisher’ not with what he or she did that was wrong.

7. Punishment doesn’t transfer or generalize to other settings.

8. Punishment is only effective as long as the threat of punishment exists. The student will behave only as long as they are in direct sight of the punisher.

9. The student loses the ability to control/monitor/evaluate his or her own behavior.

10. Punishment only works if there is a degree of motivation on the part of the student to please the punisher.

Final Thoughts

The magic of teaching is to look at the world through a kid’s eyes. It’s not the teacher’s classroom, it’s the students’ classroom. Teachers should remember that just because their students are more sophisticated than the teachers were, that does not mean that these students are more mature. Students may have seen a great deal more than their teachers did at the same age but that does not mean they understand it. Students are not little adults.

There is a poster which was in the Personal Learning Centre of the school at which I taught. It says what I believe much better and more succinctly than many of the books of educational theory I’ve read have done. The message is:

“I am convinced that children learn in more ways than I know how to teach.”

That is the message that every teacher needs to keep close as they work with all students.



About Authentic Vibrations

My life is about learning and personal growth. I was an educator in the public secondary system for over 33 years. I now work with women, individually and in small groups, using words and music, art and language to help them explore their individaul sense of self in ways with are authentically meaningful for each of them. I also facilitate discussions with educators at all stages of their involvement in the teaching profession to help each of us explore the meaning, value and potential of learning and teaching. It is my belief that, in working individually and in collective, we have the power to transform and evolve. In the power of the collectives which we create together is the power to create culture. As a musician, I believe that the arts have the power to change lives. Certification: CODE Model™ Coach WEL-Systems® Institute Affiliate Education: Ed. D (c) (Applied Psychology – Focus on Teaching) University of Toronto M. Ed (Curriculum Development and Design) Queen’s University (1992) B. Ed (Music, English, Elementary Education) University of Toronto (1976) Mus. Bac. (Music Education) University of Toronto (1975) RCM Grade 4 Harmony, Grade 4 History, Grade 9 Voice, Grade 10 Piano Awards: Life Membership, Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (2009)
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