Exceptional Needs & Educational Growth


Beautiful and happy girl playing in the park, with wonderful lawn and flowers

As we move into an educational world that is at times rattled with negatively and difficulty for teachers, a hot bed topic that comes up over and over is helping students gain access to education when they have a learning disability or an emotional disability. How do we truly help those students who have a cognitive impairment when they are sitting in an 8th grade general education class, but have huge educational gaps?

During a conversation with other administrators, every team member mentioned they were extremely worried about the progress students with exceptional needs were making at their school. As this team of some of the top educators in the district came together it became painfully obvious we are missing how to really help students with exceptionalities.

It made me wonder, how do classroom educators support students? How are educators attempting to help students achieve beyond the label attached to the student? I further wondered how do we engage the student who is in 7th grade who is struggling to decode long vowel sounds? Or how do we provide support to the 3rd grade student who one minute seems to have mastered a concept and in the next is melting down? While the easy answer may be to have a student in 7th grade decoding a first grade text, the problem is that we can create a bigger gap for a student instead of bridging the gap because instead of the student working on learning the content for the grade they are in, they are working on concepts that are far below the grade level they are currently placed now, now causing a bigger problem.

Here are some suggestions that can help:

Learning menus: For example, in math give a student who is working on cognitively challenging ideas a menu, suggests Bryan Drost, an experienced educator who wrote a blog on Achieve The Core. This is a great way for students to be able to show their ability in this area in a variety of ways. It isn’t always about the students not understanding the concept, but it’s about giving them an access point to be able to engage in the topic. His recommendation is to take a piece of paper and have it split into several categories. Example: appetizer, main dish, side dish and desert. Students who need some front-loading on a topic may start with the problems in the appetizer section while students who are ready for the learning can jump right into the main dish.

Utilize tools: I often heard as a resource teacher that an inappropriate accommodation for students in 7th and 8th grade math was to use a calculator because they couldn’t use one on the test. However, don’t we all use a tool once in a while to help us? And we are not training students to take a test we are giving students an educational opportunity that will provide for them in the future. Technology can give a student whose struggling to decode, access to the same high interest text that their peers are reading, while helping another student to explain their ideas prior to writing them down. Technology is used in so many inappropriate ways at times, let’s streamline what we have and use it to our advantage.

Frequent checks: This will allow teachers to see how students are doing. The only way to truly know if a student is mastering a concept or is still struggling is informal checks. You don’t have to sit down and have a student take a 20-minute paper and pencil assessment. Talk to students about their learning, ask them to walk you through their thinking, and if they are struggling, remediate then, you don’t have to wait.

Implementing these strategies and other strategies like this can help to increase student learning and decrease student’s stress.


Dr. Austine Etcheverry

I started my educational career as a 1:1 paraprofessional for a student who was blind and had a cognitive impairment. After this amazing opportunity, I decided teaching was my passion. In 2007 I became a certified special education teacher and taught 5th – 8th grade resource. Throughout my career in education, I have held various leadership roles such as a technology coach, an exceptional needs coach and an IEP coordinator. Three years ago, I decided to begin pursuing my National Board Certification and was fortunate enough to achieve in December 2018. I currently have the privilege of being the principal in the Avondale Elementary School District at a school for students with an emotional disability. I have my own social media company where I write and create dental blogs. I have also had the honor of publishing articles in a dental magazine as well as published a young adult science fiction series. In December 2018, I became a certified yoga instructor and recently completed my Doctorate in Education Leadership and Administration from Aspen University.

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