Like Most teachers, you approach a new year with excitement. You daydream of spectacular projects involving a dino-dig in the back of the class and students becoming “experts” on individual species of dinosaurs. You fantasize about students building bottle rockets and launching them on the football field. Then You get your class rosters and find that you have one or more “special needs” children in your class. Before you despair of your class being weighed down by a special-needs albatross, get a grip. There is hope.
First, go talk to the child’s case-carrier (or whatever they’re called in your district). Though confidentiality laws probably won’t allow you to see the child’s entire file, you can find out what her disabilities are and what limitations she has. The case-carrier can also guide you through the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and Behavior Plan (if she has one). These documents will tell you what sort of accommodations you are required to provide, as well as help you know what do avoid. If the child has had behavior problems in the past, old Behavior Plans can alert you to possible problems and let you know what worked in the past. Rather than getting your scholastic panties in a bunch over this intrusion into your classroom, remember that you are here for the sake of the children, not the other way around. So give the child the preferred seat, shut the blinds, provide extra time to turn in homework, and accept assignments done on that strange yellow-green paper that the IEP says helps him focus better.
Next, become more helpful-for all your students. One of the slickest tricks I ever saw was a teacher with multiple special needs children in her class. She really should have been given a reading tutor for them, but there was no funding. So she created an after-school reading club. Anyone could come to this once-a-week reading party where they read fun, easy books and played letter games. It was highly entertaining and well attended-religiously so by the three students with visual processing disorders. After conferring with the parents in question, these students were required to attend reading club-everyone else came for fun. Become available to give extra help; chances are there are kids in your class who would like some help, even if they aren’t labeled special needs.
Be creative. I once had a boy with dyslexia in my class. Before I came to the school, he routinely crashed and burned on his weekly spelling test. Going over his first test, I realized that the problem wasn’t his spelling, it was his dyslexia-he couldn’t properly form the letters. I decided to stop testing whether he’d gotten over his dyslexia on a weekly basis and gave him his spelling test orally during recess on test day. It usually took us about three minutes, because he was a very bright child, and suddenly, he felt smart.
Lastly, remember that you’re integrating, not babysitting, a special needs child. Make sure activities, lessons, and assignments are suitable and attainable for all children in your class, or make some adjustments based on personal needs. Treat special needs children as you would any child in your class-with interest, respect, and a not-quite-contained exuberance for the wonderful things you know are just around the corner for them.