For middle school special education students, attending school can feel like traveling in a foreign country. Desperately, you wish to go unnoticed and simply blend in, but you are keenly aware of your differences, and feel certain that everyone else is too.
As a middle school special education teacher, you play a critical role in easing students' anxieties and helping them through this formative time. Succeeding means honoring your students' perceptions and supporting them on their journey through the awkward, self-obsessed middle school years. Here are some tips to help middle school students feel less self-conscious, and more empowered and engaged.
1. Use Regular Education Textbooks and Curriculum
Middle school special education students are hyper-aware of being different. More than anything, they don't want to carry special education books in the hallway when they're with their friends. To be cognizant of this, use the same curriculum as the regular education classes whenever possible. Work with regular education teachers to learn about the books and resources they use. Ask for access to their website or lesson plans. With their plans, you can modify assignments to a more manageable level for your special education students while using the same curriculum.
I've found students to be much more motivated to work on assignments when they know the regular education classes are completing them as well. Students are also more willing to challenge themselves, and often meet higher expectations, when using the same curriculum as their regular education peers.
2. Partner with a Regular Education Class
Like high school, most middle schools switch classes every period for different subjects. This can make attending special education classes less conspicuous, but students are still very aware which room is the special education room. An effective way to reduce the stigma of the special education classroom is partnering with a regular education class.
Further reading: Streamline the Creation of IEP Goals
My special education students often attended part of the regular education class for instruction, then returned to our special education room to work on their assignment. To cultivate our partnership, I began inviting a few regular education students to join us in the special education room during work time. I was amazed by how the regular education students loved the smaller, quieter, and cozier setting. Soon, more and more regular education students began requesting to come work in our special education classroom. Quickly, our classroom became the desired place to be, and my students felt less stigmatized and embarrassed.
3. Discuss Differences and Promote Success Stories
Middle school special education students deserve to understand their disability. Think of the last time you experienced an odd physical symptom. You knew something was wrong, but you didn't know what it was. You felt worried or embarrassed. Finally, you went to the doctor, who gave you a diagnosis and information about your condition. This knowledge filled you with hope and relief. Your anxiety subsided. Your motivation to learn how to manage your condition increased. Most importantly, you learned there was nothing inherently wrong with you.
The same is true for special education students. Many are very aware they are in "special ed." They know they learn differently, but they don't understand why. They worry and feel anxious, depressed, or ashamed. Sadly, many teachers and parents fear making students feel bad, so they don't teach them about their disabilities. In reality, the opposite is true.
Honor your students by talking openly with them and educating them about their differences. Students with special needs need teachers to be honest and help them understand and capitalize on their strengths. Introduce students to role models or videos to inspire them and provide hope and motivation. I like to share this particularly inspirational TED Talk with my students.
Further reading: Survival Tips for a New Special Education Teacher
Like traveling abroad, middle school can be exhilarating and life-changing, or it can be frightening and uncomfortable. The difference often depends on your tour guide. A successful middle school special education teacher is like a skilled tour guide. Honoring your students' perceptions and easing their insecurities will help you rise to the challenge, and successfully lead your students through the trying middle school years.