Participation and Inclusion Strategies for Students with Significant Support Needs

Inclusion and participation are critical to the success of our kids with more significant support needs (SSN). Dr. Amy Hanreddy, professor of Special Education at CSUN, teamed up with Adie Buchinsky, a SpEd teacher at CHIME Charter School, and Samantha Toews, a SpEd professor at CSUN, to present strategies for helping students with SSN in this 30-minute video. Note that this video is geared toward special education teachers and support providers, but these strategies can be used when helping your child with distance learning, and we encourage you to share these ideas with your child’s teacher and ask if they can incorporate some of them into their lessons. We’ll highlight the key takeaways here, and have noted the timestamps for different strategies.

Key takeaways: 

  • Encourage participation for students with SSN in a way that’s respectful and inclusive. 
  • Plan ahead. One of the hardest things for students with SSN is not knowing the plan ahead of time, so make sure caregivers, teachers, parents, and the student are communicating.
  • Talk to your child’s speech language pathologist and occupational therapist to see if there are goals that should be embedded in lessons. 
  • Start small; you don’t have to incorporate all of these strategies. Start with one or two and refine and build on them from there.
  • Have fun; the main objective is to promote belonging and engagement. 
A Bitmoji classroom (cartoon representation of a teacher in a classroom with a board that says "Welcome to Sixth Grade Science!"
A Bitmoji classroom (cartoon representation of a teacher in a classroom with a board that says "Welcome to Sixth Grade Science!"

Core ideas behind these strategies: 

  • Students with SSN benefit from general education, and inclusive practices are essential — especially in a distance learning environment. 
  • Students with SSN are most at risk of being excluded from general education activities; this exclusion might become more likely in distance learning, so we need to combat that.
  • All students benefit from access to core curriculum as long as they get the support and accommodations they need.

Barriers for students with SSN in online settings:

  • Online classes move quickly, and student participation opportunities happen really fast. This makes direct prompting or wait times that students with SSN might need less feasible.
  • Student responses might rely heavily on language (both input and output), which is often challenging for students who are nonverbal or have difficulty with motor skills or reading.
  • Students with SSN might rely heavily on support from a caregiver.

Strategies that are successful for in-person general education classes for students with SSN:

  • Embedded instruction, which provides consistent practice of specific skills in a meaningful context.
  • Simple participation strategies to promote belonging and class membership.
  • Making sure that students with SSN are not just participating passively but are seen as leaders and contributors.

Key features of participation strategies for students with SSN:

  • Make sure that things are predictable so that students and caregivers can anticipate how and when to participate.
  • The student should contribute to the lesson, not take away from it.
  • The skills targeted by the lesson should be consistent with the skills the student is working on in their IEP. 
  • Make sure strategies to encourage the student’s participation are respectful and not stigmatizing.
  • Consider the student’s unique needs related to accessibility (motor skills, vision, hearing, and communication skills). 

Online Learning Strategies for Increased Participation from Students with SSN

  • Taking attendance (7:55)
    Have the student be the person responsible for taking attendance; they can check off or circle names, or it could be Google form with pictures of students. This can help with social skills, letter recognition, alphabetizing, numbering, subtraction, prevocational skills, and fine motor skills. 
  • Selecting a brain break (9:49)
    Ask the student to choose a movement-based activity for the whole class to complete; this provides recognition and opportunities for choice making.
  • Priming students for participation (12:20)
    It’s important to have accessible options in advance and to provide a warning for what’s coming next (for example, ask the student to get something ready on their device, use the private chat function, have a Google voice call on the side, or ask the parent or caregiver to pre-read a chapter with the student so they’re prepared). This engages listening skills, literacy skills, and self-determination.
  • Embedding repeated sentences/main ideas in content (14:40)
    Add an intro or summary slide to a PowerPoint presentation and include it on multiple slides throughout the lesson, or paste the sentence or main idea in a digital book. This targets skills such as identifying the main idea, repetitive reading, and confidence in reading.
  • Embedding literacy practice (18:32)
    Highlight or bold content in materials or PowerPoint presentations. This helps with sight words, number reading, and planned participation opportunities.
  • Image supports (20:23)
    Create a picture board of content for the day (this works well with reading, science, and social studies). You’re looking at the content for the day and creating a timeline for what’s happening with pictures. This can help the student engage in literacy IEP goals for summarizing, sequencing, and answering questions.
  • Reading questions or problems (22:58)
    If answering questions or solving problems is too challenging, the student can instead introduce the question to the class (“Can you let the group know what math problem we’re working on next?” or “Please read the first sentence for us”). This lets them participate in a meaningful way while working on their goals. 
  • Keeping the class schedule (24:05)
    The teacher can provide a copy of the class schedule for the student to check off and use to hold classmates accountable. This can help with number identification, fine motor skills, and reading skills.
  • Class token economy (25:43)
    Ask the student to manage the class token system; they can assign points (or marbles or dollars) to small groups or to the whole class and keep track of the totals. This can help with addition, number writing, reading numbers, and fine motor skills.
  • Digital choice boards (26:50)
    Search for this phrase and you’ll see lots of examples of already created boards; Bitmoji classrooms are fancy versions of these tools. Digital choice boards are basically slides (Google slide or PowerPoint), and when a student clicks or presses on one part of the slide, it links to something new. For students with SSN, these boards represent visual choices that help them participate in online meetings.

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