A Focus on the HOW
In this last part of the series, we dive deeper into how RTI/MTSS can positively support special education and students with special needs.
- Strategically assess within the finite formal evaluation time frame: There will be students who, despite are best efforts, are not yet adequately responding to tiered interventions. In these instances, we request permission to conduct a formal evaluation to determine eligibility for special education. But we intend that students will respond to special education supports such that they will no longer require them at some point in the future. In fact, we ask ourselves two critical questions when considering this step:
- What supports will we provide, or would we like to provide, if an eligibility determination is made? In other words, what unique supports would or could students receive within special education that they are not receiving now?
- What evidence will communicate to staff, the student, and parents that special education supports are no longer necessary? What is the exit plan, because exit from special education (albeit with continued supports as needed) is the goal?
We are committed to taking full advantage and to gaining vital information during the limited amount of time we have to evaluate student needs, make an eligibility determination, and if appropriate, collaboratively craft an Individualized Education Program plan. We must use all the knowledge that we have gained while scaffolding and intervening prior the formal evaluation period to ensure that this occurs.
- Collaboratively craft the IEP. Again, we intend for special education to be a temporary designation for the vast majority of students who are determined to be eligible. Therefore, IEPs must be strategically written. Students must receive supports within the least restrictive environments possible – inclusive settings with all students, regardless of label. They must continue to access and gain mastery of core academic and behavioral priorities. Significant deficits in foundational skills must be ameliorated. They must be equipped with coping mechanisms and work around strategies so that they will be successful in school, college, career, and life in the absence of special supports.
- Scaffolded access to core within the least restrictive environments: As noted repeatedly above, all students must successful participate in the core. Otherwise, the risk of failing to catching up will be great and sustaining progress will be compromised. To ensure that fully inclusive environments work for all students, so form of co-planning and co-teaching must be in place. Co-planning and co-teaching will have the following attributes:
- Co-teachers must have time and support to co-plan
- A proven model (or better yet, multiple models, dependent on students, student needs, and prioritized concepts and skills) of co-teaching is studied, practiced, implemented, and improved:
- One teach, one support: One teacher has the primary responsibility for planning and teaching, while the other teacher helps individuals and reteaches and reinforces particular behaviors.
- Parallel teaching: Teachers plan jointly but split the classroom in half to teach the same information at the same time.
- Alternative teaching: One teacher manages most of the class while the other teacher works with a small group inside or outside of the classroom.
- Station teaching: Teachers co-plan but take with lead with specific concepts and skills for specific units or lessons. Teachers serve students within small groups while other students work by themselves or in collaborative groups.
- Team teaching: Lessons are planned and taught by both teachers, who actively engage in conversation with one another and encourage discussion among students. Both teachers are actively involved in the management of the lesson and student discourse and behaviors.
- Access to Tier 2 must continue: We can predict that some students will learn core priorities at different rates and in different ways. This may be particularly true for students with special needs. This is Tier 2: more time, alternative approaches. Ensuring that students with special needs have access to all tiers of supports will greatly increase the likelihood of their success.
- Intervene in a targeted and intensive manner, in accordance with the IEP: This is critical. IEPs have specific goals and objectives based on areas of need. We must explicitly address and ameliorate these areas of needs. Time periods that serve as study halls and work completion assistance are not the answer. As noted above, we must immediately and intensively focus on diagnosed deficits with targeted interventions, with the goal of eliminating these deficits and developing coping mechanisms and workaround strategies. Within special education, the intensity of focus and resources that we are prepared to assign are greater than ever, as is the sense of urgency.
- Behaviors: As noted above but with even more care, we teach, reteach, and reinforce key pro-social and pro-functional behaviors for students with special needs. The 16 attributes describe above of doubly important for a student determined eligible for special education services.
- Monitor: Measuring the extent to which students are responding to instruction, intervention, and in this, case special education supports, should be done more, not less, when a student has been determined eligible for special education services. There is not a moment to lose and adjustments, in collaboration with the IEP team, must be made when adequate progress is not made.
- Exit when possible: Approximately 12% of students receive special education services and have an Individualized Education Program plan. Approximately 1% of students have been diagnosed with a severe or profound disability, meaning that their intellectual functioning will significantly limit their ability to live an independent adult life. They will have modified jobs and accommodated living conditions. We feel blessed to live in societies in which we provide care and support for these precious individuals.
A review of the percentages in the above paragraph reveals a very important reality that directly impacts high expectations, or a lack thereof. The vast majority of students receiving special education services, students who have an Individualized Education Program plan, do not have a severe or profound disability and will be expected to live an independent adult life, without modified jobs and accommodated living conditions.
The critical implication is as follows: When we do not expect high levels of learning for all (and complement these expectations with intensive and targeted interventions as necessary), we significantly limit future prospects with equally significant impacts on our societies. Students receiving special education services graduate from Grade 12 at rates that are demonstrably lower than their peers; they attend 4-year universities and colleges at equally lower rates (Samuels, 2015). We must remove supports when students are ready, allowing students to learn and thrive within the least restrictive environments, and ensure they have access to any and every opportunity.
We fear that tragically lower expectations for students receiving special education services has lead (and continues to lead) to their significantly lower achievement. Accommodations and modifications in support of successful educational experiences must not correspond with modifications to expectations. Students within Individualized Education Program plans who do not have a severe or profound disability will be expected to compete and collaborate with rest of the 99% for a purposeful and productive adult life, and we must urgently prepare for this reality.
Differentiation and special education are not new processes and they continue to be identified as areas of need by schools and schools leaders. They should be. They are incredibly impactful and important sets of principals and practices and we have not yet done them well. We must, for once and for all, do it right. A comprehensive approach to differentiation and special education, integrated into Instruction and Intervention Systems, is possible and more necessary than ever.