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All teachers are faced with the daunting challenge of differentiating their lessons to meet the specific needs of all of their students. However, teachers of children with special needs have even more factors to consider as they do their planning. They may have students with very different cognitive impairments, physical disabilities, and emotional conditions, all in one classroom, and they are responsible for the education of all of them.
It’s a tough job, for sure, but when the students are learning and succeeding, it’s a highly rewarding one. Here are five things that educators of special needs children can do to help their students reach their fullest potential.
1. Make necessary environmental modifications
The image of a classroom in which all students are seated and performing the same task may be traditional, but it doesn’t address the unique learning preferences of all students, and it certainly does not account for students with special needs. To help their students do their best, educators should be willing to modify the classroom to create the best learning environment possible. If certain kids learn best while they’re standing, then allow them to stand. If there are kinetic learners who need to move around to do their best, then allow them to move around. If some students need to have something to occupy their hands while they’re reading or listening, then have small manipulative toys on hand for them. These small environmental modifications can make an enormous difference for a special needs student.
2. Teach to their strengths
You’ve probably heard the old Albert Einstein quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” One of the best things a teacher of special needs children can do is to find out what each child in his or her class excels at, and then use that as a starting point for as many lessons as possible. Yes, it’s important to work on weaknesses, but it’s just as important to celebrate strengths. While all good teachers will teach to their students’ strengths, this approach is even more important with special needs children, some of whom may be significantly better in some areas that others, and some of whom may be sensitive about their strengths and weaknesses.
3. Reward, reward, reward
A classroom reward system is a good idea for teachers of all students; it’s a way to positively recognize good behavior and discourage acting up. For children with special needs, though, a reward system in the classroom is indisposable. There are many ways to set one up, but the gist of them all is that positive actions get rewarded. Ideally, the good behaviors will increase, and the negative ones will fall off because they are not recognized in a desirable way.
4. Keep in close contact with families
Again, this is important for all educators, but it’s especially necessary for teachers of students with cognitive or emotional impairments. Parents and caregivers can give educators an update on progress outside of the classroom and inform educators of anything happening at home that could affect school behavior.
5. Be as encouraging as possible
It’s never easy being a kid, but it’s especially difficult being a kid who is seen as different. Kind words from a teacher can go a long way in helping special needs kids feel valued. Reminding them of their excellence, their positive contributions, and their worth boosts kids’ self esteem tremendously. Having a teacher who believes in them can make a huge difference.
Understanding that if a child suffers from anxiety or depression or has attachment difficulties can be unexpected. Again, every child will be different, yet these can leave your family dealing with a roller coaster of mood swings, crises, and defiance. It's very important that parents find the right professionals to help with the child. You will also need to make decisions about therapy, medications, and, possibly, hospitalization.
If you are an educator who works with special needs children, we’d love to hear what you do to help your students succeed. Tell us about it in the comments.