by Lyndsey Cook, Rodel Teacher Council
From as early as daycare and pre-k, we mold our children for success. We monitor their abilities and use data to make sure they are on track. As teachers, when we notice that a student is not on track, we often refer them to intervention programs and pull-out sessions with teachers who specialize in their craft. For those who don’t spend their days inside a classroom, an intervention program is a resource used to close the gap between where a student is performing and the expectation. Currently, many curricula include additional materials to help struggling students which benefit many but do have some limitations.
Interventions need to be personalized for the students’ needs, but at the same time need to be respectful to the student’s age.
As an educator who works with exceptional students—including those with autism and other disabilities—I see evidence that intervention programs aren’t always as effective as we hope for our lower-achieving students. Often it seems we are lacking appropriate tools to follow the process of response to intervention (RTI) for students who are struggling cognitively and are therefore below grade level. A perfect example: A 16-year old that is reading at a 1st grade level. There are scarcely any programs that truly respect the teen’s age while also teaching the student on the appropriate instructional level.
We have really great programs that fit a specific level or score, but in turn, that tends to filter out those students who are multiple grade levels behind. Additionally, students who are struggling significantly often get passed through the system without actually reaching their appropriate grade level. Interventions need to be personalized for the students’ needs, but at the same time need to be age-respectful (looks like it fits the student’s chronological age), which can be a daunting task due to the amount of resources that would need to be available (staffing, technology, and a curriculum that adjusts to the student’s personal learning level).
Education is getting better all the time and newer technologies are giving students more opportunities to respond. Technology gives us many opportunities to differentiate and individualize. Education has also been focusing on student engagement and how to motivate students and get them to be more active participants in this process. This helps us to address the needs of the majority, but what about those children whose learning gap gets bigger each year that they get older? We have great ideas in the works for these students like teaching S.T.E.M. and Next Generation Science Standards which are hands-on and can often let the student learn at their instructional level. The Common Core Standards let students explore and learn through doing and trying, where they get to learn from a standard, not a specific skill which helps teachers with differentiation. We are on the right track, and we need to keep going—keep working on personalizing the student’s learning and educational outcomes based on their abilities, strengths, and their own personal goals. What can help us bridge this achievement gap? What strategies should we use?
To help answer this question, The National Center for Learning Disabilities released some great resources last year for educators, parents, and school administrators highlighting the opportunities and challenges of personalized learning for students with disabilities. In particular, they recommend that teachers:
- Spend time planning and sharing expertise with colleagues and experts to determine the strategies and resources specific to each student’s needs.
- Engage and connect with parents to receive feedback and explain how students’ needs will be met.
- Create opportunities for students to exercise self-advocacy and decision-making skills
- Ensure technology is accessible and equitable for all students, with adaptations to meet their needs.
- Use a framework like Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to give every student the opportunity to learn.
- Monitor progress to help students meet their goals.
- Be sure learner profiles (if used) inform students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Program).
These are not just important for educators seeking to build more personalized settings for students with disabilities, but are clearly practices that work in the best interest of all students.
Lyndsey Cook is a secondary instructional coach at Kent County Community School, part of the Capital School District. She has been working in the field of autism and severe disabilities since 2007, and aims to provide her exceptional students with more inclusive opportunities.