What Factors Go Into Developing a Special Needs Curriculum?

When determining how best to instruct a child with a learning disability, there is no formulaic method for success. This is largely due to the varying degrees at which children are affected by their disabilities. For example, a child who is simply dyslexic requires distinct assistance from a child with severe mental impairment. As a result, a proper curriculum must take a wide range of factors into consideration:

Special Needs Curriculum

Image courtesy of Flickr

Meeting of the Minds

It is said that It takes a village to raise a child, and the old adage certainly rings true in special education. No single person, including the parents, will know all of the challenges faced by the child throughout his school day. It’s important to bring together, at minimum, all those who have direct contact with the child on at least a semi-daily basis. This includes the parents, a special ed teacher, a general ed teacher, the special education director, and even the child when appropriate.

Determine the Class of Assistance Required

This group will determine, through mutual agreement, exactly what type of assistance the child needs. From minimal collaborative assistance where the child meets outside of class with a psychologist, language specialist, or for other assistance as needed to a Self-Contained Special Education dynamic where the child does not attend or participate in general education.

Additionally, this can also be the time to determine the specific learning issues if hitherto unidentified, for the sake of all in attendance. Clear and deliberate communication at this stage provides the strongest path forward for both the child and those instructing him, as well as serving to minimize the potential for miscommunication. Image courtesy of Flickr

Lay Out Measurable Goals

As with General Education, a child’s progress needs to be measurable. The hindrances to the child’s ability to learn are not a reason to omit reasonable goals and standards of success. It may take some fine tuning to keep the goals attainable, but it is paramount that they be specific and therefore measurable.

It is not enough to say, “Julie needs to improve her reading.” This goal is based on an undefined sense of improvement that could be different to everyone observing her progress. Instead, set specific reading speed goals for each week, month and school year. Use comprehension tests to measure her ability to understand what she reads, and pursue specific increments of improvement.

Track the instruction as well. Sometimes it is the teaching approach itself that is responsible for delayed progress. Often small changes and improvements to the instruction can break through a stall that might otherwise have taken more time.

Verify the Curriculum’s Effectiveness

Regardless of the learning difficulties and feelings of those involved, the curriculum itself should adhere to a certain standard of quality. Some questions you might ask, among others, about the specific curriculum are:

  • Does it help achieve the various learning goals within the eight domains of learning as outlined in the learning standards of your state?
  • Do the expectations allow the children to master current skills as well as provide appropriate challenges that lead to new skill acquisition?
  • Does it build on and extend children’s current knowledge and abilities?
  • Does it promote the development of higher order abilities, such as thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making?
  • Does it lead to conceptual understanding by helping children construct their own understanding in meaningful contexts?
  • Does it provide experiences that promote feelings of success, competence, and enjoyment of learning?

Monitor Progress, Amend as Needed

It is entirely possible that in spite of everyone’s best intentions, a curriculum may not create the desired improvement in the child’s learning. If this is the case, the parents or teachers, should feel free to offer thoughts on how the system might be improved and to shape the curriculum over time until it achieves the desired results.

Lost in Translation: the Challenges Presented in Bilingual Special Education

In general education, both teachers and students face certain obstacles along the path to learning. If a student is learning English as a second language (ESL) then there can be greater difficulties, as communication and comprehension break down at a basic level. In bilingual special education, all of these traditional problems exist and are compounded further by the individual student’s learning disabilities, making it difficult not only to discern where the obstacles lie but in which language the student will best understand the solution. In this article, we will probe into the specific challenges relating to culturally and linguistically diverse students with exceptionalities (CLDE).


One of the more common issues within bilingual special education is the miscategorization of English Language Learners (ELL), who are developmentally capable, as special needs. Evaluations for learning disabilities do not adequately account for a child who is still learning a language versus a child with learning disabilities. Such a child may know three colors in English where a monolingual peer knows five. This child may be able to name an additional three colors in their native language, making them above average learners, but they are not tested for this and are thus miscategorized as special needs due to an inadequate evaluation.

Proper Classroom Supportbilingual special education

CLDE students who are placed in a special education classroom still require services designed to support ELL students. Just because they will have an education that caters to their learning disabilities does not mean that they can stop developing their english language skills. Students without learning disabilities require 3-5 years to become orally fluent in a second language. This only highlights the need for further attention to a CLDE student’s education which considers their primary language in the learning process, as they might require more time to become fluent in English.

Culture and Language

CLDE students have the added obstacle of learning in a culture distinct from the one they have grown up in. Ideas can be communicated quite differently across cultures, even teaching and learning styles themselves can be foreign and ineffective if not properly adapted. Students with disabilities require teachers who are aware of these differences, in both culture and language, and who can properly instruct the children in a way an untrained special education instructor could not.

For example, a Chinese student might expect a more rigid classroom structure and could feel flustered and confused in its absence. She might have difficulty focusing on the task at hand until the material is presented in a more familiar setting, at least initially. Similarly, a student of a more traditionally extroverted culture, such as Latin America, might have difficulty adapting to the social norms of an introspective classroom environment. A knowledgeable teacher could help bridge the gap and correct undesirable behavior without resorting to strict punishments or exclusion.

In summary, CDLE  students require culturally and linguistically responsive teachers and instruction, supportive learning environments, assistance in general education, and assistance learning English. If any one of these elements is absent or inadequate, it can impede the education of a CLDE child even further.


Finding the Right Grants for Special Needs Children

These days–at first glance–it seems like our society has finally come around in regard to awareness towards children with special needs. Public awareness of various disabilities—autism and Asperger syndrome are two salient success cases—has risen sharply in the last few years, as conditions formerly cocooned in shame and misunderstanding are now being fought head-on, through countless benefit events and pledge drives.

Nevertheless, in reflection of the well-nigh criminal underfunding of our school systems, special needs kids often find themselves underserved. What makes this situation all the more tragic is that a veritable mother lode of various monies that go untapped each year. Here’s a quick look at special needs funding and how to get it.

Special Needs Funding: The Lowdown

Although funding for special education is a many-sided story, it’s not so byzantine that the average parents can’t wrap their heads around it. Unfortunately, much of the fine print goes tragically misunderstood. A lot of parents are under the false impression that it’s largely—or even entirely—the bailiwick of the state and federal governments to allocate monies for special education. In reality, a free appropriate education, or FAPE, has been mandated for special needs individuals by the federal government, but the bursary process takes place almost entirely at the local district level.

Back in 1975, the federal government passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, a legislative measure that was subsequently modified into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Under the parameters of IDEA, it falls upon the state to secure services for special needs children as a precondition for school systems to receive any federal funding.

The fed acts as guarantor for three different special ed funding grants under the auspices of IDEA, the most significant of which is called IDEA Part B, a program that targets students in the K-12 range. It’s important to point out that under special education law, students are granted very specific basic rights and privileges, so those seeking grant monies would do well to secure the services of a lawyer to make sure that no legal stone is left unturned.

Image Courtesy of Flickr

Image Courtesy of Flickr

Beyond the Baseline

While on paper the directives of IDEA would seem to cover the needs of all special ed kids, the reality is that states are only coughing up a mere 15% of the funds promised in the language of IDEA’s legislation. What’s more, the true cost of special education can surpass the rather conservative allowances made by official channels. For example, an individual with autism may pay as much as $2.4 million over the course of a lifetime, according to a paradigm-shifting study published by JAMA Pediatrics.

Unfortunately, there really is no conveniently located central clearinghouse with which to track down external grant opportunities, although there are a few reliable databases to turn to. The best way to seek money is to be as specific as possible in researching the student’s circumstances and disabilities. Often times, hiring a special needs advocate to help find opportunities for your child with special needs is the best approach, Some monies are available only for residents of particular states, while others target special needs children who may face challenges presented by certain minority statuses. On the one hand, a slew of grants may be earmarked for ADHD children specifically, while elsewhere there may be grants that are written exclusively to meet the transportation needs of all special needs cases. Elsewhere, certain corporations kick off programs that supply special needs programs with particular pieces of equipment, such as free iPads.

The final secret of finding grants is to be thorough, persistent, and punctual. If you look hard enough, the internet generally will provide ample leads with which to secure funding, but in many cases the money flows out according to meticulous schedules tied to reams of paperwork. Be prepared to do  a lot of thankless virtual footwork—but given the payoff, it should be work borne lightly.

The Joys of Working with Special Needs Children

Being a teacher of any stripe is no job for the thin-skinned, but those who chose to charge into the field of special education, working with special needs children deserve to come back with medals on their chests. On top of the standard issue stresses of education, special ed teachers face increased emotional demands, potential liabilities, and the eternal need to tool up with new developments in the field. So how, then, does special education find its way onto the top ten list of career satisfaction? Simply stated, working with special needs children offers profoundly meaningful experiences that money can’t buy.

Involvement with students’ lives

 Although all teachers should be great communicators, special needs teachers need to be a walking Rosetta Stone of translating needs, perspectives, and experiences. In addition to navigating students for whom connection with others may be a challenge in itself—think autism—special ed teachers often act as a conduit between parents, therapists, and case workers. That can amount to a job you don’t leave at the office, as parents may seek guidance and feedback after the bell rings. But it also means knowing you’re taking an active role in a young person’s growth.

 Special needs teachers are more likely to break through social barriers than their general ed counterparts, and that give and take more than makes up for a few late night phone calls.

Courtesy of Flickr

Courtesy of Flickr


An endless well of stimulation and personal upgrading

Any special needs teacher will tell you that even on a slow news day, their environment is never dull. While general ed teachers can often count on trotting through the school year at a stately, measured pace, the universe of special needs students is an endlessly morphing evolution of new people, challenges, and sometimes crises.  For those with the right profile, however, such pressures are impetus for ever-renewing growth, not buckling under.

Getting through to many special needs kids is rarely a by-the-numbers affair, so even the most mundane feats of communication may stoke a teacher’s ability to tackle problems creatively. Even more than with general teachers, special needs teachers find themselves re-learning about the world they live in, often learning about the limitations of their worldview in the process. This intellectual rejuvenation, coupled with the daily effervescence of wide-eyed young people, manages to cultivate a playful sense of vitality among special needs educators.

The Little Moments

Bound up in the altruistic care that comes with effective teaching, there is often a little selfishness: we feel good about ourselves when we see our efforts at illumination catch fire. This is true for all educators, but these emotional and intellectual dividends are magnified in special ed, often because many of its students have had their faith in their abilities shattered—or never built up at all. Similarly, the thanks a special needs teacher gets from parents who have previously felt isolated in their quest for their children’s blossoming is a precious and unexchangeable currency of its own. Breaking through the various boundaries that separate all human beings is always a powerful jab of pleasure, but when the challenges are higher, so are the rewards.

In short, the very challenges of being a special needs teacher are often its very rewards. It demands that you be as strong and resilient as a spider web, yet vulnerable at the same time.  It demands one be human, in the fullest sense of the word, and it provides no shortage of raw material with which to become fully so. What more could one ask for in a job?