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Adapting a Lesson for Special Education

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When I used to hear the words adapting a lesson for special education, my heart would fill with dread. Back in my first year of teaching, looking at a general education lesson and figuring out how it was going to work for students with special needs took me forever. However, once I figured out a system, it went much faster! So for this blog post, I’m going to walk you through my thought process as I adapt a lesson for students with IEPs.

Fun fact about me, I’m certified in special education and general education, and not because I’m an overachiever. (I am, but in this case, that wasn’t a factor).

It was not really an option for me at my university. If you were studying Childhood Education, you were also studying Childhood Special Education and on a track to get double certification. 

The logic behind this was that it would integrate these two worlds more and bring more of the general education curriculum into the special ed world.

Now, I’ve never worked as a gen ed teacher because I prefer special ed, but for four years, I spent a lot of time creating units and lesson plans for gen ed kids.

Every now and then, I like to flex those muscles, which is why occasionally, you get an overly elaborate unit like my Read Aloud Unit for Freedom in Congo Square.

What might be surprising for you to learn is that I actually used an adapted version of that unit in my special education classroom. 

To make adapting a lesson for special education a breeze, I’m going to walk you through my thought process on how to do it! 

Keep reading for all my tips and tricks that are a must for any new special ed teacher.

A big part of this blog is making your life easier! 

That is why I’ve compiled a free resource library full of goodies for general ed and special ed teachers alike! 

Anyone on my email list gets access to these wonderful resources on data collection and lesson plan templates! 

Click here to join! 

The simple answer to this is always. 

You always need to adapt lessons and not just for special education. General education teachers shouldn’t just be teaching directly from a book either but customizing and tweaking the curriculum a little bit best to fit their students and their personal classroom philosophies.

So, if you’re a new special ed teacher, don’t feel like you got the short end of the stick. Everyone needs to adapt lessons. 

We just get to do it a little more because we are super awesome. 

A big part of special education is taking a child-centric approach. You meet your students where they are at and design the curriculum around that. 

So that’s where we start, with their current abilities and where you’d like them to be. Then you adjust the lesson or unit to reflect that. 

It varies from case to case, so let’s go through how to do it with an example.

Before you can adapt a lesson, you must be familiar with it. 

In this case, let’s take a look at my Freedom in Congo Square Read Aloud Unit.

You’re going to want to look at what the unit does, its end products, and the standards it addresses. 

In the case of Freedom in Congo Square, the goal is to learn a little about the history of slavery, read a book together, and create an art project and artist statement. 

We’re hitting a bunch of different areas in this unit, social studies, reading, fine motor skills, and writing. (See, there’s that overachiever in me). 

It sounds like a lot because it is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it accessible.

However, how you make it more accessible is going to depend on your students.

The first thing is first is to check your kids’ IEPs. What are their goals, and how can you make sure this lesson is going to move them toward it? 

Let’s think up a pretend student with a learning disability in writing, so this pretend student probably needs to use assistive technology when writing, like with speech-to-text or a program like Kami.

They also have an IEP goal to write and edit three consecutive, complete sentences with correct punctuation with fading teacher prompts. 

The original Freedom in Congo Square unit calls for a paragraph much longer than the three sentences this student’s IEP calls for. 

However, that doesn’t mean this lesson isn’t appropriate. 

There’s no reason you can’t change the end product. 

This student would simply use a Chromebook instead of writing by hand. I would allow them to use speech-to-text but expect them to input the right punctuation still. (that thing is annoying, and you do have to say the word period to get it to include it.)

You should present those standards to that student and not use the pre-made rubric when grading! 

The rest of the unit could stay the same.

Sometimes adaptations are easy, and I’ll level with you. Dysgraphia is actually not that hard to make adaptions for. 

What about if you have a student who is significantly behind or not fully verbal? Could you still do this unit? 

Probably, but the student would need more changes and different end products. 

Let’s say you have a student who is not verbal and has a short attention span. They have an IEP goal for fine motor skills and simple spelling. 

In this case, I would cut out pre-teaching the history in order to preserve the student’s energy to focus on the skills their IEP calls for. 

It would be a simple unit, read the book, make the art, and then fill in a blank, focusing on the spelling and handwriting. 

You can still display that work and do a gallery walk with it. It’s just a different end product.

You may have noticed in that second example, I cut out the social studies component. 

That’s because a lot of the time, I like to say that in special ed, we have to make a decision about what to focus on because we can’t do it all. 

When teachers ask if I can hold onto important papers for a student that can’t keep track of them, they choose to prioritize the academic information contained in those papers over learning organization.

And that’s totally fine. 

We can’t prioritize everything, and when I’m in a situation like that, I tend to focus on what aligns with the IEP.

In the case of the student from my second example, the IEP mentions fine motor skills and spelling, not knowledge of history. 

Since this unit needed to be cut down because of the shorter attention span/stamina, I chose to save the fine motor skills and spelling over the history. 

Other people might make different decisions, and that’s okay. Just make sure you’re clear on your priorities when making those calls.\

I know adapting a lesson for special education can seem intimidating, but the good news is the more you do it, the easier it will become. 

Just make sure to keep your students and their best interest in mind, and you’ll be great! 

And make sure to check out this blog post on my full Freedom in Congo Square read-aloud Unit to try your own hand at how to adapt it for your students! 

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