This year, ABC has been privileged to facilitate a Community of Practice across DC educators to discuss issues related to implementing specially designed instruction during COVID-19. While this year has presented incredible challenges, the move to thinking about returning to school buildings on a more widespread basis holds promise. Our COP members, and many of the educators across the country, are wrestling with the very real challenges of making the most of a less than ideal scenario to accelerate learning for students. Some of whom have not seen the inside of a school building for a full year!
In researching resources for our COP, we were concerned with the lack of information about how to implement specially designed instruction in hybrid settings. So, we created our own resource (download a copy at the end of this blog). We know the format and parameters for what hybrid looks like in your settings may vary, but we cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal – to get students back on the path to accessing grade-level content.
First a little background. What is “specially designed instruction”?
Specially designed instruction (or specialized instruction in some districts) is the instruction provided to a student with a disability who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to help him/her master IEP goals/objectives. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines specially designed instruction as adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child through the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction:
- to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability
- to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum so the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.
Think of these services as specific differentiation strategies planned to address one child’s disability-related needs. The advantage is that by planning for and using specially designed instruction in inclusive classrooms, you can actually remove barriers and provide access to grade-level curriculum more generally for all of your students.
Why do we need this?
Specially designed instruction was a challenge for schools before COVID, and it will most certainly be a challenge after COVID. In some ways, it is the essential component of some students’ educational program that dictates whether they are successful in progressing from grade to grade. Without it, students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms may struggle to access the content that their non-disabled peers grasp more easily. With missed opportunities for learning, students with disabilities may continue to fall further behind. This is true for in-person, remote, hybrid, and any other setting with which we’re faced.
How can we approach specially designed instruction for hybrid teaching?
When planning for specialized instruction in any setting, educators should first and foremost get to know the individual needs of each of their learners. Lesson planning that includes specialized instruction is a balance between designing for the whole class and designing for an individual student. Educators who do this well are able to move back and forth fluidly to ensure their lessons are appropriately challenging, provide access, and help each student achieve success.
Determine the grade-level content. First, look at the big picture. While COVID school may feel unlike anything you’ve ever encountered, many of the same principles of effective lesson design still apply. Look to the overarching goal for the lesson, especially as it relates to the overall progression of your curriculum unit or scope and sequence. These are the learning goals for all students, regardless of setting.
Determine the target skills. Align lesson objectives with skills you will teach. These are the skills a student must acquire in order to progress and should not be compromised when determining adaptations to instruction. For example, your approach for systematically teaching reading will be different if you are targeting phonological awareness or fluency. When we at ABC were planning our self-paced modules, we identified the skills we sought to instill in educators – skills such as determining a plan for collecting and reflecting on data or facilitating carry-over supports to all educational contexts or settings. Once the skills were set, we essentially had our north star for each lesson.
Determine the method of pre-assessment. In order to know whether students have mastered target skills, you need to know what is their starting point. Pre-assessment tools and strategies can vary depending on student need. Use the strategies for checking for understanding described below to determine baseline knowledge for students. There are also many quick screeners or other types of assessments that can be employed depending on the curriculum your school uses.
Determine the methods of instruction. How you will get the students to learn the content and acquire the skills. This is the part we’re most comfortable with – lesson planning to scaffold the skills being taught. This is the “I do, We do, You do” approach or whatever model you use to explore, learn, practice, and reflect on new content. Varying methods of instruction such as pacing, modalities, types of presentation, and more can help engage diverse learners. Pre-plan how grouping could be used to facilitate engagement across settings if you have both remote and in-person students simultaneously. Explore Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to better understand one approach to designing accessible instruction. The UDL strategies can be particularly helpful in a remote and hybrid context as many of the resources are technology-based.
Determine the adaptations to the methods of instruction. This is where specially designed instruction gets good. Some students with disabilities will need accommodations or modifications beyond the differentiation in the lesson plan that applies to all students (described in the step above). You might find these written on a student’s IEP, or you may need to be creative, particularly in the hybrid space. For a student who struggles with executive functioning, you may need to assign each step of a multi-step assignment, especially if the student will be working on the assignment in class and at home. For students who are easily distracted, you may find it helpful to plan active assignments that require sitting, standing, and moving (to the extent possible) to maintain engagement. While a student may have developed remote strategies for staying focused, the transition to a hybrid setting may require revisiting those ideas and adjusting the way you teach some students. After determining individualized adaptations, zoom back out to see how those adaptations may help other students if applied more generally across the classroom.
Determine types of assessment for checking understanding. This is an area where we sometimes forget to plan but it is essential to probe in the right ways. Not every student needs to demonstrate mastery of concepts in the same way. For history lessons, children with reading challenges should not be expected to complete a reading-focused quiz in order to show they understand. Try giving your students a choice between an essay, a drawing, or a video. You might be surprised if you share the criteria for successful mastery with your students and ask them to self-assess learning. Hybrid instruction opens the door for the use of different assessment strategies such as presentations, conferences, performance tasks, or observations. Even using technology-based accessibility tools (dyslexic font, text to read, color contrast) can be useful to help students demonstrate understanding.
Determine whether and how re-teaching is necessary. If a student is unable to demonstrate understanding of a new concept or skill, it’s time to dig into what’s happening to better understand how to move forward. Look into the assessment data to see if there are particular areas where the student was unable to demonstrate knowledge. Analyze your strategies to see whether inadvertent barriers were created. For example, when we tested our online content with educators, we received feedback that the video and reading modalities were helpful, but participants were having trouble grasping some of the concepts. Reviewing our approaches, we decided to add audio of real family stories as a way to draw connections with participants and humanize different perspectives. This, in turn, deepens the learning experience for all of our participants, especially those who benefit from audio inputs.
When designing lessons, it’s helpful to keep in mind that some students may need additional touchpoints with certain concepts, spiraling, or more intensive interventions to progress. Consider what setting might be the most effective for re-teaching – for some students, reinforcing learning might be best done at home through asynchronous learning modules, while for others, an in-person strategy might be more effective.
You’ll notice these are the same steps we used to plan for instruction in our pre-COVID days. While we’re all working at a somewhat decreased capacity after a year of the pandemic, it’s important to return to the basics when feeling stuck. It’s up to all of us to ensure our students can continue to access instruction. As we return to some form of in-person teaching, let’s not lose sight of our ultimate goal!
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