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How Can We Help Teachers Be Successful in the Classroom When There are Different Abilities?

Updated: Apr 7

By Karen Kaplan

There are so many things a teacher needs to know to be successful in supporting students with different abilities. I often ask myself what I would need to be successful if I were completing my teaching credential today and expecting to set up a classroom for elementary, middle, or secondary students. As I work as a consultant, I have been made aware that not all teachers are provided with the tools they need and are struggling. Here are some questions that come to mind:

  1. Have the teachers been given the opportunity to observe children with autism or other intellectual disabilities in school environments? Are they familiar with the levels of autism and how each level differs in their characteristics and symptoms? Example: communication skills can range from non-verbal to one-word sentences, to phrases, sentences, or just the inability to understand gestures and other non-verbal language skills. Students might also have voice quality issues, with pitch, tone, and inflection odd.

  2. Have they been made aware of the value of a multidisciplinary team addressing the multi-faceted challenges of those on the spectrum? Have they been trained in collaboration with speech delay therapists, occupational therapy, psychologists, parents, ABA therapy, physical therapists, and neurologists?

  3. Are they familiar with the assessment tools that identify autism? Have they had the chance to read the results of an Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)?

  4. Have they learned about the challenges that parents face? Do they recognize that students may not eat well or sleep well or may never be toilet trained? Do they understand the added stress on a sibling in the family? Do they know if both parents work? Do they understand the challenges of a single parent raising a child with different abilities? This type of information is key to working with families.

  5. Are teachers taught to stay in contact with the family? Do they understand that the parents get anxious when a student is non-verbal and cannot talk about their school day? Teachers should find out the best way to communicate with each family. Some type of communication reporting on weekly successes is appreciated. Parents do not want to hear what is always going wrong. They need to learn what is working and going right.

  6. Are teachers trained in providing accommodations and modifications in the curriculum? Have they learned the best practices for teaching reading, writing, and math?

  7. Have they been taught the prompt system in teaching skills? Has someone shown them how to use physical, tactile, proximity, and visual or verbal prompts? Have they learned that visually supporting schedules, directions, and lessons help provide structure for the individual on the spectrum?

  8. Do they know how to break tasks into manageable chunks, perhaps understanding forward chaining and backward chaining?

  9. Do they understand that those on the spectrum become anxious in unstructured environments where change is not planned? Have they been trained in Priming?

  10. Have they been trained in developing Social Stories to teach comprehension, decrease anxiety, and provide structure?

  11. Are teachers familiar with the tool kits offered to professionals and parents? Have they been taught how to identify sensory sensitivities and set up sensory diets for each student? Do they understand that the Occupational Therapist can be helpful in this area?

  12. Are teachers advised on how to set up calming stations in their classrooms to reduce the chance of students becoming overwhelmed? Do they know to provide earplugs or headsets to reduce noise levels?

  13. Do they know that there are special chairs (ball chairs, t-stools, seat cushions) to help with focus?

  14. Do they know that if they identify the interests, obsessions, and enthusiasm of each student, they can use those to engage students and motivate students?

  15. Are teachers aware that students on the spectrum can get stuck? When given a task, they will want to finish it. They could become frustrated if asked to stop before they have time to complete it. Perhaps adjust the number of questions or the length of an assignment given to them and provide warnings that time is coming to an end.

  16. Are teachers aware that smells can agitate a child on the spectrum? So, eating in front of others could be frustrating. Teachers may need to be flexible and offer another way to eat snacks and lunch.

  17. Are teachers aware that students with autism have executive functioning challenges? They need to develop skills in organizing, problem-solving, and planning.

  18. Are teachers aware they do not know how to function in a group project? They will need to know what their roles are and what expectations are for them and be reminded of project details.

  19. Are teachers being taught how to work with the paras placed in their classrooms? Do they have training in supervising and training those supports? Do they know how to support and celebrate those paras?

  20. Do teachers know how to develop relationships with the office staff, the librarian, the maintenance group, the cafeteria staff, the recess supervisors, and the other teachers so they can utilize those services to expand their students’ possibilities? Perhaps they can offer training on their sites to these support staff to help them accept and understand those on the autism spectrum.

  21. Teachers, do you know that you must teach recess before you send students to recess? Recess is a social skill not easily picked up by students with autism. It is a motor planning skill, which is an area that those on the spectrum need help with.

  22. Teachers of preschoolers, are you familiar with The Early Start Denver Model or The Floortime or Pivot Response Training?

  23. These are evidence-based models for those on the autism spectrum.

  24. Are they made aware of Social Thinking strategies by Michelle Garcia Winner,, a highly recommended model for teaching social skills?

I think new teachers need mentors. Colleges could do this, or school districts could do this. If we want to maintain teachers and support them, mentors and guides are needed in those first few years of teaching to build confidence, support frustrations, and celebrate accomplishments.

Yes, today, there are so many things that a teacher needs to know to support all students successfully. Teachers must always be involved in professional development in this area. Keep posted on the websites of the Autism Society of America Socialthinking - Speaker Detail, The MIND Institute, UC Davis MIND Institute, UCSF Welcome to the UCSF Center for ASD and NDDs | The UCSF Center for ASD and NDDs and Stanford Autism site. Stanford Autism Center | Stanford Autism Center | Stanford Medicine.

If we are to create and sustain a successful workforce in the special education field, we need to train and support our teachers better than ever. We need to prepare them, guide them, support them, and celebrate them.

For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.

Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in speech pathology and audiology. She minored in special education and obtained her speech therapist and special education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges.

Karen founded a non-profit, Offerings, which helps cultures globally to understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an annual Autism Awesomeness event. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. Karen has authored three books: Reach Me Teach Me: A Public School Program for the Autistic Child; A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators, On the Yellow Brick Road: My Search for Home and Hope for the Child with Autism, and Typewriting to Heaven… and Back: Conversations with My Dad on Death, Afterlife and Living (which is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love).

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