Commonsense Guidelines for Welcoming Special-Needs Students into Your Classroom
Welcoming a special-needs child into your classroom will be one of the finest moments of your teaching career.
For too long, these children were shunted off to specialized facilities and classrooms, never enjoying the opportunity to be educated alongside grade-level peers. That cost them the social benefits of being part of the class — birthdays, class parties, school assemblies, elective classes and all the experiences that general education students take for granted.
Fortunately, society is trending toward more equality of opportunity, and school districts are working alongside parents to bring more of special-needs children back into the regular education classroom. Not all children can return to standard classrooms, as their needs might be too great, but many of the obstacles to their return have been removed.
From a classroom perspective, you’ll need to establish new relationships and expectations to make the experience beneficial to all.
Working with the child’s aide
Most likely, a one-to-one (1:1) aide will be assigned to the student. The aide has been trained to help smooth out the rough patches in the classroom and will assist with delivering the instructional content, helping to manage behavior as necessary and otherwise act as the child’s advocate.
Meet with the aide as soon as possible to discuss your relationship and your roles. Each child is unique, and so is each relationship. Perhaps the aide needs to spend a lot of time managing the child during the class, or perhaps growing independence will free the aide up to work with other children. Regardless of the relationship, it’s essential that it is established before the children come into the classroom.
What do you say to the students and parents?
This is always a tricky subject. While there may be a benefit to prepping your students and their parents about a student’s special needs, you also need to be aware of privacy concerns for everyone involved. This is a conversation best held with your immediate superior and the child’s case manager before you present ideas to the families or say anything to the class.
My experience has been that families on both sides are open to prepping everyone involved, as long as all conversations are held in the spirit of giving everyone a strong classroom experience.
Minding the legal bounds
All special-needs students have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that drives every facet of their school experience. You need to be highly fluent in its contents and meet all your responsibilities.
Reach out to the Child Study Team if you need clarification and be sure to keep clear records where you can account for the work you’ve done. This is rarely an issue, but it is important to be well-versed in these legalities.
Becoming an ally to the child’s parent
Having a highly needy child is a burden many parents handle with grace and dignity, and while I’ve seen incredible strength flow from these families, I have also learned that it is often very isolating.
All parents have hopes for their children and when life deals them a significant blow, many of the standard experiences appear to be lost. Taking part in school plays, walking in a graduation and going to their local school often become impossible, but all of these events come back to life when their child begins to attend your classroom. It’s important for you to realize that you have a significant role in helping make this better. Take pride in that.
As with all that I do here, I write from experience. I’ve been honored to be the classroom teacher who has welcomed a child back to their neighborhood school. The path was sometimes rocky, but working with my colleagues, we were always able to give everyone — the student, classmates and parents — a great experience.