GenEd Differentiation: SPED’s Been Ahead of the Game for Years

learning knows no bounds sped

With a different kind of emphasis and focus recently (last couple decades or so) on mainstream differentiation, I think we must turn to our SPED educators for guidance. They’ve been doing it all along.

The premise of special education is to work with colleagues and families to devise an individualized education plan (IEP) to meet kids at their learning readiness levels. Recent mandates and expectations have placed the same accountability on general education teachers for mainstreamed students.

To plan for and accommodate the standard three traditional learning levels (“on level”, “below level”, and “above level”) are no longer enough. The reality has always been that in a classroom of X kids, there are X different readiness levels. In the past, grouping students into 3 instructional cohorts was acceptable(?); however, this is not acceptable in the current era of education. General educators are under more and more pressure (some mandated, and some from personally high expectations and passion for their craft) to cater to each individual learning readiness level in the classroom; in essence, to create personalized learning paths–or individualized education plans–for each and every student.

In theory, I believe every educator wants to do this; however, in reality, it is a challenge–and not an area of strength–in public education. Time, resources, and manpower are just a few constraints that make this task challenging. I believe 3 things can help alleviate this stress and promote work toward accomplishing this great task:
1. Collaborate & confer with your SPED staff. This is the work they’ve always done for kids. Working with all staff who have any kind of relationship with the student (academic, social, emotional), along with parents, as a team to target strengths and areas for improvement is their everyday job. They design goals and plans to reach said goals. They continuously check in with one another, formally and informally, monitoring progress along the way, always including parents. They make adjustments as necessary, always in an effort to create success, build confidence, and foster independence.
2. Stay current and implement best practices: multidisciplinary, project based, inquiry based, backward design, Maker Education, genius hour, to name a few. These practices can empower learners (including the teacher and parents as learners) to take ownership of the learning process. When this occurs, you’ve essentially increased the resource of instructional manpower in your classroom.
3. Leverage the resources available to you. For example, there are so many apps and social media platforms that can be utilized to foster collaboration. Collaboration can take place among learners within the classroom, grade level, school, district, state, country, and world. These relationships can be used for sharing, brainstorming, proof reading & editing, and feedback. Talk about increasing the resource of manpower–the assistance of the entire world and its expertise is one click away! Leveraging 21st century virtual tools for collaboration also increases the resource of time, as these tools transcend learning outside of school hours and across time zones, borders, and oceans.

During this educational era which can feel lonely and barren, it is imperative to reach out to the people and resources you do have around you to maximize our kids’ learning opportunities and experiences. If you have more ways to accomplish this, please share.


  1. karen said:

    I have said this all along. Being a special education teacher, I feel we have a lot to add to curriculum development and differentiated instruction. We can often help with classroom management because we have some of the behavior students. We think on a different level than the regular education teacher in that we are always looking at things from the perspective of the kids we work with. We have a very close relationship with our students and often they will say things like I wish the teacher would do this etc. and we could pass this on. It is time that special education is treated like a major player on the team. Thanks for the article, I am sure special education teachers (strategic specialists- our nickname here) will like it.

    October 2, 2014
    • Sam LeDeaux said:

      Thank you for reading, Karen! Great points. Learning environments which give full voice to all team members and provide a platform for true collaboration across disciplines and departments certainly can benefit the entire school community. Leaders can assist by removing any existing obstacles to foster such a culture of respect and perspective.

      October 2, 2014
  2. Stacey said:

    And don’t forget the gifted education specialists. Differentiation is a best practice that came from the gifted education field. This is at the core of what the teacher of the gifted does. Specialists of exceptional learners at both ends of the spectrum can be tapped for collaboration and expertise when it comes to individualized learning.

    October 3, 2014
    • Sam LeDeaux said:

      Awesome, Stacey! Thank you for the read and the contribution 🙂

      October 3, 2014
  3. Margaret Marquis said:

    Don’t forget your librarians. We do a lot of that in our daily lessons with the students. We know a lot about many of the different resources available to guide the classroom teacher. Plus we work daily with lots of different technology.

    October 3, 2014
    • Sam LeDeaux said:

      Yes! Thank you, Margaret! I love the position diversity reading and commenting here. You know first hand the power of true collaboration in genuine learning communities. It would be great if these thread contributions could continue from all roles in a school system, sharing (perhaps what systems and practices are in place) how they support one another during this challenging era of meeting all kids’ needs!

      October 3, 2014
  4. abdulwaheed said:

    That’s great but you know we do have taboos or traditions even in this field and challenging them or trying to replace them would make it difficult for the teachers living in this profession since some decades; the point you highlighted about the levels, on level, above level and below level. A lot to think, digest and then to put into practice for them. Thank you

    October 6, 2014
    • Sam LeDeaux said:

      Interesting point. Thank you for reading and sharing, Abdul! I believe education is all about challenging what we believe and remaining current and relevant as teachers and learners. When we challenge, it allows us to confirm our beliefs, or revise them for the better–both positive and productive outcomes. Remaining current and relevant as teachers and learners means we continue to evolve with the kids and needs in front of us daily. Doing this often feels uncomfortable, but is necessary if our focus is our kiddos. Thus, the significance in supporting one another and utilizing all available resources to assist. I recently saw a quote: “You can be comfortable or courageous, but you cannot be both.” Being a 21st century educator takes courage.

      October 7, 2014
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