Children with learning challenges will require more intentional thought and attention at home or in school. These twenty-one reminders can serve all of us no matter the educational setting.
1. Be Active
Teach in short bursts, alternating between physical activities and seated activities. Low muscle tone or distracted minds can lead to fatigue. Provide movement or snack breaks to prepare students for the next activity.
2. Be Brief
Communicate your instructions clearly and speak concisely. Shorten assignments. Work toward step-by-step accomplishments. End on success.
3. Be Concrete
Ask Who?, What?, When?, and Where? questions with visual cues. Allow more advanced students to answer How? and Why? questions. Discuss these with manipulatives or illustrations to nudge students toward more abstract pondering.
4. Be Demonstrating
Use money, objects, and play-acting. Show with real apples: “Sarah has three apples. She gives two away.” Role play, illustrate, or demonstrate the actions within narrative language or word problems. Assign fewer practice items if needed to allow extra time for demonstrations.
5. Be Engaging
Link personal interests to the topic whenever possible to promote interest. Include the student’s first and last names for speech articulation practice, in penmanship or sentence writing, and in story problem examples.
6. Be Foolproof
“One-and-done” is not to be expected with students who have an intellectual disability or other special needs. Provide repeated practice with the lesson, preferably later in the day and throughout the year.
7. Be Giving
Give of yourself. Teaching a student with challenges is a matter of love and of art. As you learn the child’s needs, give tips to other caregivers, teachers, and therapists to create generous teamwork. A cohesive team will give more to the child than any one person could accomplish alone. Give generously also to your student, in quiet moments such as a heart-to-heart talk after social difficulties, or by a deep hand massage after extensive writing.
8. Be Health-Oriented
Respect dietary, olfactory, or allergic sensitivities and difficulties with impulse control. Secure edible, poisonous, or sharp items to provide safe boundaries. Know and anticipate a student’s temptations. Give space for movement and pad edges or corners of furniture. Review and update notes regarding the student’s physical and medical challenges.
9. Be Incremental
Give the “big picture” but also break lessons down into small steps, whether shoe-tying or long division. Allow for mastery before introducing next steps and review mastered steps until they are integrated into the whole.
10. Be Judicious
Give encouragement to students who need it, but avoid indulging with reward or praise for minimal effort. Expect students to rise to the standard of becoming increasingly diligent, thoughtful, and self-governing.
11. Be Kind
Watch how you respond to a struggling child. The child himself—and any child overhearing—will witness how you react. When handled with kindness, such moments can encourage students to imitate gentleness.
12. Be Lasting
Whether you teach one hour a week or every hour of every school day, remember the lasting impact of overcoming your own resentment, trials, and inconveniences to give a student nourishment for both body and soul.
13. Be Masterful
When possible, craft the day as you would a work of art. This may require periods of rising early or reflecting late. Whenever you fall short, refresh, recover, and begin again.
14. Be Need-Aware
Provide time in your school day to teach the necessities, such as putting on and tying shoes, washing hands, eating neatly, using a napkin, speaking politely, and other daily needs. Allow a quiet area for sensory load reduction and calming as needed.
15. Be Observant
Notice early signs of the need to become more vigilant, more flexible, more compassionate, more matter-of-fact, or more directive. Observation and prevention can be far more effective than merely reacting.
16. Be Persistent
Do not give up. Teaching takes time. For example, reading cannot be reduced to memorization of sight words, so persevere with phonics instruction and practice. Sometimes, as the child matures, lessons become easier to grasp and to integrate into reading, spelling, or writing.
17. Be Questioning
Ask the student to show or paraphrase your instructions. Pause to ask simple “repeat-back” questions during your lesson to ensure attention and understanding. Use simple recitation to accustom students to question-answer format for both pragmatic and academic language.
18. Be Reasonable
Set expectations to expand rather than outstrip the student’s capabilities. Reasonable requests respect honest struggles and engender willingness to persist in the effort.
19. Be Supportive
Consult physical and occupational therapists for seating or writing support such as a slant board, sloped desk, foot wedge, textured cushion, slate, mini whiteboard, or other physical and therapeutic aids.
20. Be Transition-Minded
Assist students with transitions. Post picture schedules with clear left-to-right or top-to-bottom sequences. Overview these. Use the same words “first, next, then, last” each time to impart predictable order and to promote smooth, consistent routines.
21. Be Undaunted
Teaching a student with special needs can be daunting but preparation eases the challenge. Over the summer, enlarge print from workbooks, design flip charts to accompany recitations, or create a wall number line for demonstrations. You are more qualified than you think. Be undaunted, if only because of your love for the student. In the words of St. John of Salisbury: “Such attachments are of great assistance to study, for pupils are glad to listen to those whom they love.”