Does Your Child Have Complex Learning Needs? Here's What To Look for in Her Classroom

Summer is nearing its end, which means that millions of children across America will soon be going back to school.

While the beginning of the year is a source of both excitement and trepidation, it can be especially challenging for parents who have children with complex learning needs. For seven out of the twelve years I have been a teacher, I taught in a classroom designed for students who had the most profound intellectual disabilities.

Many of my students had numerous medical conditions that needed to be monitored, not to mention emotional and behavioral challenges. Perhaps your child needs similar supports. As you prepare for the new school year, here are some things to look for in her classroom.

Her teacher should give your child access to the same curriculum offered to general education students.

I have unfortunately had conversations with colleagues that sounded like this:

Colleague: "It’s really too bad that you have to teach the standards to these kids. Do they get anything out of it?"

Me: "Of course they do. You can teach almost anything and embed their IEP goals within standards-based instruction."

Colleague: "Well, I don't understand why you can't just teach them life skills."

Me: "What are greater life skills than reading and number sense?"

These conversations never go very far. What I try to convey to colleagues in conversations like this is that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) can be tailored to meet the needs of nearly any student at any level. This agreement outlines the services that your child will receive, detailing specifics about providers she may work with (such as therapists and paraprofessionals), accommodations she may get (like assistive technology or different testing rules), and the type of classroom setting she may be in (general education, special education, or an inclusive class).

If the special education team that comes together to plan for your child decides that counting is an important enough skill to focus on, for example, then it is important to establish ways in which counting and sequencing can be used throughout the day — even in an upper-grade general education classroom.

I will never forget what one parent told me at an inclusion advocacy conference a few years ago when she explained her rebuttal of the "life skills" argument — that is, the assertion by skeptics that students with disabilities cannot benefit from standards-based instruction.

She politely pointed out to the naysayer that her daughter had the rest of her life to learn how to brush her teeth, fold laundry, and make the bed. But she only had until she was 21 years old — the age specified in the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — before her opportunities to learn side-by-side with non-disabled peers disappeared.

This is especially true for students with complex learning needs. School may be the only time in their lives in which they can spend every day with people their own age learning similar things. We should not squander such an opportunity by teaching them skills that have nothing to do with academics or the general curriculum.

The classroom should be designed for students with the most needs in mind first.

I like to explain to my colleagues that, in designing the physical structure of my classroom, I try to prioritize the students with the greatest number of needs. If my classroom is going to work at all, it has to work for my kids who need the most support.

Here are five questions I consider that may help you evaluate whether your child’s teacher is thinking similarly:

  1. How easy will it be for my students to move around the classroom?
  2. Will my students be able to use adaptive equipment (like wheelchairs) in the various learning spaces?
  3. Does this classroom setup encourage the safety of all of the students in it?
  4. Does every individual seat and spot in the classroom serve a purpose and meaningful context? (Areas of the classroom should be well-defined and labeled with both pictures and words. For example, when your child is at a work table, she should be able to understand from these supports that she is there to work and what expectations are on her to complete her assignments.)
  5. Does the classroom include photographs to help students with various procedures and activities? (For instance, images of foods paired with simple but descriptive captions is a great way to build literacy skills in a meaningful way at snack time. This carries over into other areas, too, like photographing and labeling the art room, computer lab, and cafeteria.)

The classroom should prioritize communication skills.

If nothing else, I want you to walk away from this article with this piece of information: Your child should have a functioning system for communicating. If her teacher has not considered this, you must ask for one right now.

Apart from federal, state, and district standards, this is the most important component of any classroom. All behavior is communication. Many students with complex learning needs are not capable of expressive speech, but of course this does not mean they are incapable of communicating.

There are now many options available to parents of children with complex needs and disabilities. For example, your child may be able to use Picture Exchange Communication Systems (or PECS). This very specific support allows her to select picture icons from an array of choices and build sentence strips to communicate with you and her teacher. This may take the form of laminated pictures or more sophisticated electronic devices.

Another alternative is a Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD), which provides a way of showing pictures to a student with communication delays. Your child can manually scan the pages — typically PODD is in hard copy — with her eyes or hands and select images that match her intended message. This is often a precursor to more advanced instruments.

Higher-tech tools include specialized augmentative and alternative communication devices, and these may take the form of touch-screen displays or even speech-generating machines to allow your child to create sentences or answer questions in class.

The actual medium does not matter as much as communication itself. Though all of these suggestions are vital, communication is the key to a successful classroom environment when it comes to students with complex learning needs.

Remember that you are your child’s best advocate when it comes to her education. If you’re dropping her off on the first day of school and her classroom doesn’t seem to meet some or any of these criteria, you should make it a point to raise the issue with her teacher or the school’s administrators. If she isn’t comfortable and able to express herself, she won’t be able to maximize her learning.

For more advice, check out articles about education for children with complex learning needs and more advice by Noodle Expert Tim Villegas.