Every child deserves a chance to learn, but not every child learns the same way. Helping students with disabilities develop and grow requires specific expertise, adaptability, and creativity. We spoke with some teachers of children with disabilities to get their advice on how they help their students thrive.
Help Students Find Their Potential
“All my students have potential, and it’s my job to find that potential and push them—whether I make up a game to challenge them or use a product to scaffold their learning,” said Jennifer Seitz, a Grades 1–3 teacher of students with mild to moderate disabilities in New Jersey. If we limit what we believe students can achieve or label them, they won’t exceed those limitations. “Labels are for jars, not children,” she added. “They come to school to learn, and they can all learn and do learn.”
Use Incentives to Motivate
Sharicka Gray, a Grades 3–5 teacher in Mississippi, uses marshmallows to celebrate small wins for her students and motivate them to do their best. “Marshmallows are super cheap—you can get a 100-pack for $1,” she said. “And kids love them." One of her third grade inclusion students came in at the kindergarten level. So her student would feel a sense of responsibility, Sharicka gave him a class job and set small, attainable goals for him. Every time he reached his goal, she gave him a marshmallow. “He moved from kindergarten to late second grade—that’s two grade levels in a year’s time,” she said. “And that student’s confidence has grown tremendously.”
Help Students Use Their Voice
Amanda Kipnis, a specialized academic instruction teacher for Grades 3–5 in California, has students who experience difficulties with behavior and emotional regulation. “I make procedures clear, so there’s no gray area around expectations,” she said. “We work together, make eye contact with each other, sit in a circle, and build trust. I want my students to build their voices, literally and figuratively, so they can be advocates for the change they want to see.” Some of Amanda’s students were placed in her classroom because they didn’t fit into their prior community. “This is a place where everyone can feel safe,” she added. “We know behavior is a result of the environment we create. My classroom gives students a chance to discuss, problem solve, and develop the skills they need to become successful adults. They’re not just here to learn math.”
Show Students You're Human
Students often look up to their teachers as role models, but it’s also important for them to see their teachers aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. They have bad days. They aren’t superhuman. “I admit to my own mistakes when I make them and let my students be part of the solution,” Jennifer said. “‘Oh . . . look what I did wrong. Oh, my goodness, what am I going to do?’” When it comes to technology, kids are often more adept than their teachers, which can be a great confidence booster for them.
Create a Culture of Inclusion
Amanda’s school has a buddy system in which certain mainstream students spend a part of their day working side by side with her students. These buddies teach her students test-taking skills, or they might read with them. Most buddies have behavioral challenges. But when they enter her classroom, it becomes a safe space, and they rise to the occasion, acting as role models for her students. “They take such pride in being a helper, and I couldn’t do my job without them,” she said. It’s a win-win situation for all. “Before, my kids didn’t feel a part of the community,” she added. “But the more the general ed kids get to know my students, the more my students feel included. The self-esteem piece and the feeling of belonging is huge, and it’s authentic. Now my kids say, ‘Hi’ when they see their buddies at lunch.”
Whether you have one student with disabilities or a whole classroom, you know how important it is to keep your students motivated and engaged. Try the strategies above to help them feel valued and recognized.