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Special Needs Teachers Need More Help: It’s Time to Think Outside the Box

Updated: Apr 8

By Karen Kaplan, MS

There is a huge need for more faculty and staff in our public and private schools for those who learn differently and need more support. The traditional ways of supporting teachers in the classroom have been hiring instructional assistants or keeping the classroom student body manageable. When a student needs more intensive support due to an intellectual disability, dyslexia, or developmental delays, a school may draw up a contract with a certified non-public school or charter school to support the student. Today, the instructional assistant workforce is lower than it has been in a long time, making it challenging for schools.

With a smaller workforce, special schools are not able to accommodate the referrals they have. Public schools have to add students to classrooms or through the Individual Education Plan, which would shorten a student’s day, add additional therapy sessions, and ask the parents to place their student on a waiting list for specialized school placement and be patient. This places more stress on teachers.

There is also a shortage of speech delay therapists, special education teachers, and occupational therapists, adding pressure to all schools. This makes it, again, harder for special schools to accept referrals as they may not have enough therapy hours available as required by an Individual Education Plan or have the ability to create a new classroom to accommodate needs.

Parents, teachers, and other students become anxious, overwhelmed, and even angry with the struggles of special education. This anger can lead to frustration and sometimes continuous legal actions against schools trying to recruit and hire additional workforce. It is a complicated process and is not easy on anyone.

So, how might schools think differently? When I was the classroom teacher of moderate to severe students on the spectrum, I had to think outside the box. This is when I found out about the Foster Grandparent Association Foster Grandparent Program Builds Strong Bonds ( I had the two most incredible grandparents support me in the classroom. They supervised a bit at recess, helped at lunchtime, helped with bathroom and hygiene, and with the setup and clean-up of the classroom. I was grateful.

When I taught on an elementary site in the only special needs classroom, I connected with two sixth-grade teachers and discussed the concept of peer buddies. The teachers embraced the idea. So, when it was time for music, art, lunch, or recess, I had some sixth graders help with my class. Then, during the back-to-school night, those sixth graders brought their parents into my room, and those parents were so grateful.

How many senior centers are around your school? Are there any retired adult communities around? Perhaps a retired teacher or psychologist lives there? Maybe a former speech or occupational therapist resides there. Connect, find out, and see if you can create a volunteer group.

Are there any Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts meeting at your site? These groups need to earn badges for service and friendship. Find out and connect with the Scout Leader. Maybe they might spend some recess time helping your students learn to play. The leader could work with their teacher.

If you are an administrator in public schools or the private sector, it may be time to visit your community and state colleges. Ask to present your special education programs to students interested in volunteering or working while attending college. Go to the human service, psychology, education, or early childhood department. Perhaps some will be future teachers or therapists. Maybe some will be developmental pediatricians.

It is time to develop a new workforce and open people’s eyes. It is time to show people what is possible when volunteering or working while attending college. Remember, people do not have to work full-time; it just takes two or three of them part-time to make a difference.

Sometimes parents can be a help too. Perhaps not in the classroom all day, but helping at music or art time. Possibly they can design an art project and bring it to the class. Maybe they can help at lunchtime. Perhaps you have a library time they can join or help with a field trip.

There is now a population that I was not aware of during my time in public school classrooms. It is the neuro-diverse workforce. Perhaps, work with a job placement agency such as Businesses - Evolibri to see if there is a good fit to help support classroom size expansion and provide special teachers with extra support.

In addition to expanding our ideas of the different kinds of support, there needs to be more effective trainings for instructional assistants. They must understand different learning abilities and be shown how to be co-regulators and communication facilitators. They need to be financially supported through adequate wages and benefits, especially if we want them to be long-term, trustworthy, and committed.

We have some challenges ahead of us, but there are solutions. We must think outside the box and have a positive, professional voice. We must be willing to be flexible and creative.

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 both public schools and private schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism spectrum disorders. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 additional years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges. Karan founded a small non-profit, Offerings, which travels globally helping other cultures 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 Autism Awesomeness event yearly, showcasing the strengths and talents of those who live on the spectrum. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. She has published articles to help bring ideas and strategies to families and professionals, providing hope. Karen authored Reach Me Teach Me in the early 70s and went on to publish her second book, On the Yellow Brick Road Finding Hope for Autism, in 2017. Her third book, Typing to Heaven and Back, is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love. Be sure to connect with Karen—she is always ready to listen and think of the possibilities.

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