Two-Step Thinking: Keeping What’s “Special” in Special Education

Two-Step Thinking: Keeping what’s “Special” in Special Education

In the era of rigorous College- and Career-Readiness Standards, what does it mean to “think like a special educator?”

“Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE)
“Access to the general education curriculum”
“Free Appropriate Public Education”
“Removal to more restrictive settings only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular education classes with the use of supplementary aids and services can’t be achieved satisfactorily”

These are all phrases and ideas that are familiar to special educators because they are all part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But what do they really mean? How do we operationalize them in meaningful and coherent ways that make a difference in the lives of students with disabilities? How do we keep the “I” (“Individualized”) in the IEP, instead of simply fitting students with disabilities into the programs and services a school has established, whether they be resource rooms, self-contained classrooms, or environments organized to facilitate inclusion? And how do we ensure that we are responsibly including students into LREs?

Recently, Dr. Ellen Gaske, Senior Vice President of Academics for Catapult Learning’s Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI), took us “Back to the Future” of special education. She offered us a glimpse into the many trends and instructional models that have come in and out of favor since the advent of special education in the mid-1970s. Her passionate writing reminded us that in the case of special education, the “beginning” has always got to be with the individual students we are charged to educate. So with that in mind, let’s explore the notion of special education at its core: preparing to deliver a specially designed instructional program to the individual child with a disability, while honoring the LRE (least restrictive environment) mandate of the IDEA, which requires that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled.” (20 U.S.C. ‘1412(a)(5)(A))

As a special educator, each teacher generally has a group of students who make up their caseload, and each student on the caseload has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that drives his or her specially designed instruction. The question is, given this, where does the special educator start beginning to plan what he or she is actually going to do to ensure compliant delivery of the individually designed plans? One of the greatest challenges faced by special educators is the “juggling act” they must manage in order to meet the unique needs of each child on their caseload. It is critical to identify all the spaces and places where these plans converge and diverge, are similar and dissimilar, or require the same sorts of strategies and interventions. Further, consider that while oftentimes the IEP is considered the document that drives the student’s education (what we need to do and where we need to do it), it’s important to begin by thinking more broadly about each student’s whole educational experience. An IEP delineates what specially designed instruction the student requires, and which accommodations and modifications are needed, but it does not describe a comprehensive educational program, nor was it ever meant to. To serve our students in the best way possible, we need to step back and examine how the instructional priorities detailed in the IEP mesh with and support the student’s total educational experience. Mind you, the better part of that experience will often occur in general education settings.

Two-Step Thinking

In order to “think like a special educator,” one must look first at how to maximize the educational benefit for each individual student. This process can begin with an idea you might call “two-step thinking.”

Step 1: Different Strokes for Different Folks
As special educators, our focus is teaching students with disabilities; our students need something in addition to the regular classroom fare—if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have an IEP. It’s important to acknowledge this right up front; students who have been deemed eligible to receive specially designed instruction require what is described in Step 1 as “Different Strokes for Different Folks.” So the real challenge that is oftentimes faced by special educators is how to best deliver “different strokes” in a LRE that is set up largely for group learning experiences. Generally speaking, these different strokes can be organized and delivered in three common arrangements. These arrangements may seem familiar to you because they align in large part with tiered strategies often associated with Response to Intervention ( RtI).

Supporting doing and learning in the general education classroom
The first level of delivering specially designed instruction in a LRE that is an inclusive setting is supporting doing and learning in the general education classroom. For many students, their doing and learning in the classroom setting can be supported all day, every day, through the collaborative efforts of the general educator and special educator. Working in collaboration, these two professionals can be equipped to both support the needs of a particular child, whether working individually or in partnership, whether present in the classroom or not. In other words, some of the work of the special educator may be preparing the general educator to support a child’s unique learning needs when the special educator is not physically present in the classroom. Regardless of where the IEP says the student should be educated, every student deserves that we regularly think of their education in connection to the general education classroom and curriculum, and that we can integrate their special education into the general education classroom setting (the least restrictive environment) to the fullest extent possible.

Supporting doing and learning in the general education classroom with the additional provision of intensive remediation
Some students will have needs that go beyond supporting doing and learning in the general education classroom. SOME will need more intensive remediation in certain areas. However, intensive remediation does not supplant the attainment of grade-level standards and goals. In fact, it should be designed to accelerate the acquisition of skills in an effort to move the student more closely to the grade-level standard—closing the achievement gap, so to speak. So while the general educator and special educator will continue to collaborate to ensure delivery of the child’s special education program, the special educator (in concert with the general educator) may also need to deliver more targeted and intensive interventions.

Supporting doing and learning in the general education classroom with the additional provision of parallel and/or alternative curriculum
There will be a small number of students who demonstrate such a significant level of need that they require a parallel or alternative curriculum for specific subjects. You will find this set of circumstances less frequently in the elementary grades, but it may become more of a necessity as students move into middle and high school where the academic demands may exceed the capacity of those relatively few students with the most significant disabilities. Delivering a parallel or alternative curriculum does warrant a need, at times, to supplant the attainment of grade-level standards and goals. However, the alternatives should always be as closely connected to grade level standards as possible. While the general educator and special educator will continue to collaborate to ensure delivery of the child’s special education program, the special educator (in concert with other professionals who support the child’s academic needs) delivers targeted instruction in the alternative and/or parallel subject matter.

In Step 1 of thinking like a special educator then, we determine what “different strokes” an individual student might need to be successful: making significant progress towards the goals and objectives set forth in the IEP and in the general curriculum.

Step 2: What’s Good for One is Good for All
Step 2 takes our thinking one step further; it’s the notion that “What’s Good for One is Good for All.” Thinking at this level allows us to begin to affect what goes on everyday in the classroom (even, and especially, when we’re not there) so that our general education partners are more successful with a broader range of students, including students with unique learning needs. Many special educators will tell you that good specially designed instruction is just plain and simple “good instruction.” In Step 2 we ask ourselves this question: “Which of these interventions, strategies, or instructional techniques that we are using as Different Strokes for Different Folks could benefit a wider group of students in the general education classroom?”

This is a powerful concept. If we can make general education classes work better for a broader range of students, including students with IEPs, then all children will benefit and have a more successful learning experience.


  1. MAUREEN SIMMONS October 20, 2015 Reply

    I enjoy reading and learning more about effective practice and evidence-based research. Great read! I will definitely share this article with my place of employment.

  2. Sue Gerenstein October 26, 2015 Reply

    Thank you for your comment, Maureen! I hope the ideas are well received and benefit teachers and students alike.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *