Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Students with Special Needs

By Andrew Hawk

Creating an Inclusive Classroom for Students with Special NeedsPull-out teaching models are falling out of use whether we agree or disagree with the change. Every year, federal and state departments of education raise the amount of time special education students are expected to spend in general education classrooms. Some states, such as Ohio, have moved to full inclusion for all special education students who do not require a self-contained classroom. Finding the best practices to set up an inclusive classroom is vital. Here are some tips you may find useful if you are faced with this rewarding challenge.

Start with the Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
While there will be some similarities among most inclusive classrooms, the finer details may be quite different. This is because teachers tailor their inclusive classrooms to meet the specific needs of their students. This process starts with a detailed review of each student’s IEP. Pay close attention to students’ exceptionalities, goals, provisions, and accommodations. Check the goals to see if you will need to collect data. The provisions will tell you if the student will spend any time in a special education setting or if the student receives any additional services such as speech or physical therapy. The accommodations will describe any special things you will need to do for the student, such as preferential seating or restating directions to check for understanding.

Check Your Room Arrangement
Does one of your students use a wheelchair? If so, you need to check the space between desks and tables to make sure there is adequate space for the student to maneuver. Also, check to see if classroom items are within reach. Does one of your students have low vision? He or she should be seated close to the instructor. You will also need to print everything you can in a larger font.

These are the kinds of things that will need to be considered. The good news is that a lot of this information is included in the student’s IEP. Be prepared to make changes if something is not working.

Make a Logical Seating Chart
Forget the alphabetical order or random first-day seating chart that many teachers use. There are two trains of thought on how to group students in an inclusive classroom. You can intermingle at-risk students with higher achieving students. This offers an opportunity for peer tutoring. The second approach is to group the students together by their ability. This gives you the opportunity to deliver a lesson to the whole group and then offer remediation to at-risk students. Having at-risk students seated together makes re-teaching material easier.

Make a Schedule That Includes Services
If you have an inclusive classroom, one or more of your students may regularly receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, or social skills services. These services can make it challenging to find times for students to be away from the room without missing important content or instruction. Work with other school personnel to fit in these services during times that will cause fewer difficulties. When you have a student who is pulled out of class often, this can feel impossible, but it’s worth the effort to try.

Choose the Right Materials
When you are teaching students at very different skill levels, it can feel like you have to write individual lesson plans. This is a challenge when you’re trying to meet the needs of a classroom full of students. Finding the right materials to meet the needs of your students is crucial. This might be as easy as differentiating your regular classroom materials. However, sometimes you may need to use completely different materials. Find out what resources your school has available. A lot of free resources are available on the Internet, so check them out as well.

Collaborate with the Special Education Teacher
I know the things I have described sound like a lot of work. The good news is that you are not in this alone. Work with your school’s special education teacher to get help setting up your classroom and meeting the needs of your special education students. The special education teacher may even have materials that you can borrow if necessary. This person should be a great resource to you as you work through the school year.

Consider Co-Teaching
If your administrator agrees and your special education teacher is available, consider co-teaching for a portion of the day. Co-teaching holds vast potential for meeting the needs of special education students in an inclusive environment. Some of the benefits of a co-taught classroom include the following:

  • It gives teachers the opportunity to build leadership skills.
  • It offers a smaller student-to-teacher ratio.
  • It offers expanded opportunities to differentiate instruction.
  • Students often enjoy the opportunity to receive more adult attention.

Final Thoughts
Depending on a given group of students’ needs, inclusive classrooms can look very different from one another. Be ready to think outside the box, and do not be afraid to try creative solutions. The answers to some problems only come after a little experimentation. No idea is ever really a failure so long as it helps you know what to do differently in the future.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


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Suggested Resources
Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom
The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education
The Survival Guide for Kids with Physical Disabilities & Challenges


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