As the number of students with moderate and severe disabilities in our schools increases, educators must be prepared to meet their needs.
Learn about three areas to consider when programming for students with moderate and severe disabilities.
All students deserve an education, and according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), individuals with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). For a student with moderate to severe disabilities who might be functioning several grade levels behind their peers, what does this look like? How can you include a student who communicates with two-word phrases with peers who are learning to write essays? How does a student with severe physical and intellectual impairments participate in an age-appropriate curriculum? These considerations are crucial for teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities.
Individually Designed Instruction
As your school system designs programming for students with significant disabilities, there are several important concepts to address.Students with moderate to severe disabilities have significant needs that impact their performance of school tasks, needs that are very different from other children of the same age. The first step is to evaluate their performance in the areas of cognition, communication, motor ability, adaptive behavior, and social and emotional skills. Identify specific challenges in these areas that prevent students from making progress in the general curriculum. Assign goals to target those challenges, and make a plan to address those goals.
IDEA requires that all students have access to a general education curriculum appropriate to their age and grade. This can seem difficult when a student is functioning intellectually several years behind others of the same age.There are two approaches that can be used to address grade-level curriculum.
- Access skills are skills that are necessary to participate in learning activities.
For example, a non-verbal student may have speech and communication goals, because communication is essential to classroom participation. Another student may have goals related to motor function as the ability to move safely around the school and use school tools are tied to curriculum access.
- Entry points are goals that address academic concepts related to grade-level curriculum, but at a lower level. For example, a student whose classmates are working on multiplication might have a goal relating to prerequisite skills, like basic number identification and concepts. In English language arts, a student whose classmates are working on setting and theme might have a goal related to answering basic listening comprehension questions about a story.
Least Restrictive Environment
The law that guarantees FAPE specifies that students be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The intention of the LRE is to provide students with disabilities access to the same learning opportunities as their non-disabled peers in surroundings that minimize the impact of their disabilities.
Defining the LRE for specific students is not always easy. However, a disability cannot be used as a barrier to keep students from age-appropriate learning experiences. Schools need to consider how to meet disabled students’ needs with as little separation as possible while still allowing them to address and progress on their individualized goals.When deciding on an LRE, we look at inclusion, or the extent to which students are educated with their typically developing peers. Some students, due to the nature and severity of their disabilities, have needs that cannot be met in a general education classroom.
A well-equipped school system will have a range of options. Here are some possibilities.
- Assign students with mild disabilities to a general education classroom on a full-time basis and provide them with an individualized education plan (IEP). Allow for short daily or weekly sessions in a separate setting for intensive instruction in an area of need, such as academics, speech therapy, or occupational therapy.
- Allow students with moderate to severe disabilities to spend more time out of the general education classroom as needed. For some students, this may mean spending most of their time in a separate classroom, where their needs and goals are addressed continually throughout the school day. Schedule time in the general education classroom for activities appropriate for students’ needs and abilities. Some students may spend half of each day in the general education classroom, while others might only spend a half an hour each day.
- Make sure that students who are unable to attend a general education class for academics participate in the life of the school by sharing hallways, facilities, assemblies, and events. Plan for activities and interactions with same-age peers that benefit both sets of students.
- Use the most restrictive option, a separate specialized school, sparingly. While many small school systems select this option because they don’t have enough students with intensive needs to justify special programming, as the most restrictive option, it should be used very sparingly.
Students with moderate to severe disabilities benefit most from a team-based approach to their education. A student may have needs in several areas, requiring services from a special education teacher and any number of other providers.Students make the most progress when everyone involved in their education knows and addresses their goals. For example, a physical therapist can work on communication while doing physical therapy, a speech therapist can incorporate physical and occupational therapy goals in communication activities, and a special education teacher can address all of a student’s areas of need in natural contexts throughout the day.
IDEA guarantees students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). When creating programming for students with moderate to severe special needs, there are three important considerations:
- Individually designed instruction with goals addressing the general education curriculum via access skills and entry points.
- Inclusion in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
- A team-based approach to student education.