Substitute Preparedness

Special Education Teaching Strategies

Learn some teaching strategies for working with special education students.
a teacher works with a student

What is special education?

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with learning disabilities are afforded specialized instruction to meet grade-level standards and skills. There are a number of federally-recognized categories under which students may qualify, such as visual impairment, speech impairment, autism spectrum disorder, or a specific learning disability, such as a significant deficiency in reading, writing, or mathematics.

When testing and any medical diagnoses determine that a student is eligible, schools and parents develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), also sometimes called an individualized education program. Students may receive

  • a specified amount of specialized instructional minutes each week
  • modifications to coursework (changes to content or assignments, such as abbreviated homework)
  • accommodations (supports to complete assignments as given, such as additional time)

Do substitutes work with special education students?

Yes! You will see opportunities to substitute for special education teachers and aides. In these cases, you may work in a classroom specifically for special education students, or you may visit different classrooms throughout the day to support special education students within their regular classes.

Although there are some schools with dedicated programs for students with severe disabilities, the majority of students in special education have mild or moderate needs, which may only become apparent during learning activities. On the Senya platform, you can look at each job's details to see specific notes about the kind of work and level of student needs that you would provide as the substitute.

Even if you are subbing for a general education classroom, you will still likely have a number of special education students in your class(es). The teacher will leave notes on the sub plan if there are any specific circumstances for special education students.

Whatever the situation, it is helpful to learn some special education teaching strategies so that you are prepared and can give students the support they need!

Special Education Teaching Strategies

The following strategies are based on research compiled by the National Association of Special Education Teachers. You can access the full report at this link.

These strategies can be applied seamlessly in any grade level and any subject area. As experienced teachers will attest, these strategies—although designed to support students with learning disabilities—can help ALL students improve their academic performance and classroom behavior. Using these strategies with the whole class also protects special education students from being treated noticeably different than their peers.

Set Learning and Behavior Expectations

Give extremely clear learning and behavior expectations—what students will do during the lesson or assignment and how they should behave.

For example: "In this lesson, we will read an article and highlight important terms. Everyone is expected to silently follow along, participate in highlighting, and raise hands if there is a question or comment when we pause to talk about the reading. I know you are following along when I see your eyes on your paper and your highlighter marking important terms."

Simplify Instructions and Choices

Give instructions in small chunks rather than a list of everything all at once. Keep the number of choices reasonable and suggest a good choice for students who need help deciding.

For example:

"I will have you get materials one table at a time; then, wait in your seat for more directions…

Now you are going to choose a project from the list of options. You have three choices…

If you don't know which project to choose, I recommend doing the poster. Start by writing important places and names."

Model Skills with Think-Alouds

Walk students through skills that they need to perform by modeling them in front of the class or small groups, sharing your thinking process out loud.

For example: "When I solve algebra equations, the first thing that I do is combine like-terms. So in the equation 2x+5x+6 = 20, I notice that I can add 2x and 5x. So I rewrite this as 7x+6 = 20. Next, I…"

Provide Sentence Starters

Give students sentence starters (also called sentence stems) to help them in class discussions or writing.

For example, some sentence starters for writing could include:

  • I argue that . . .
  • One fact is . . .
  • This example shows . . .
  • Another reason . . .
  • Some people say . . . but I think . . .

Make Participation Accessible

Give students advanced warning when you are planning to call on them to answer or comment. Check in beforehand to make sure they have something to say. Allow peers to offer ideas, or allow students to restate something they liked that another person shared.

For example: "Magdalena, I'm going to have you share an idea with the class when we finish these group discussions. If you don't have something to say, you can share something that you liked from someone else at this table."

Use Assistive Technology

When you substitute, you and/or students may not have access to classroom technology. But if you do, assistive technology can be a tremendous support.

Some examples of assistive technology include:

  • teacher microphone for voice amplification
  • audiobooks, text-to-speech for students to listen to readings (w/ headphones)
  • speech-to-text for writing
  • screen magnification
  • online supports, such as calculators, translators, spell checkers, and dictionaries

Support Time Management

Review any items if the classroom has a class calendar or daily agenda posted. If the school provides students with planners, have students write in the day's agenda and any homework. This will help them remember schedules, due dates, upcoming events, and topics covered in class.

Give students periodic time reminders during activities so that they self-monitor their pace and finish work by the end time. Time reminders can be a helpful redirect when students are getting off-task.

Regulate Noise Levels

Students with disabilities can be especially sensitive to or distracted by high noise levels. Be clear about what noise level is expected for each activity and enforce it. Schools commonly use the words "silent," "whispers," and "inside voices" to indicate expected classroom noise levels.

In some circumstances, special education students may need ear protection when attending noisy or busy events, such as assemblies,  field trips, or school reward activities.

Final Considerations

You won't, and shouldn't feel like, you need to use all of these strategies in a day. But it is helpful to have a variety of strategies to draw from as you become more familiar with students and recognize where you can support those with greater needs.

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