Understanding Collaborative Team Teaching: Is It Right for Your Child with LD?

For many parents of children with learning disabilities and differences, determining where to place their kids in school is one of the toughest desicions they face.

While the principal objective of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is to find a setting — known as the least restrictive environment (LRE) — in which the student will flourish, the process can be daunting. Parents may not even know about all the various instructional models — let alone which one will enable their child to succeed. The LRE terminology itself can be convoluted (there are multiple “collaborative” teaching models, for example), a circumstance that may add stress to an already overwhelming experience.

What Are Some Options?

Depending on your child’s disability, she may end up in a mainstream class, in a special education out-of-district program, or anywhere in between. The decision is ultimately made by a child study team — often assembled by a district board of education and typically made up of a psychologist, a learning disabilities consultant, a speech or language therapist, and/or a social worker — with input from the child and her family.

Follow this link for a series on Noodle about who's who on a disability specialist team.

The Mainstream Model

A mainstream setting follows a district’s established curriculum with no modifications and no aide in the classroom. A student with special needs will be placed there based upon her skills. This setting serves as a way to challenge the student and to provide her with positive behavioral reinforcement. Though most families comprehend what the mainstream model entails, a lot of confusion surrounds the collaborative team teaching model — especially among parents of non-disabled kids, who may not understand why there are two teachers in one classroom.

Find out how you can be an advocate for an inclusive classroom.

The Collaborative Team Teaching Model

Six different (but related) collaborative models in which two teachers work with a class of students have become predominant among special education teachers.

  • Team teaching: Both teachers present material to the whole class together, though one may make notes as the other speaks.
  • One teaches, one observes: As one instructor teaches the class in a traditional fashion, the other observes the students to gauge their learning and attention.
  • One teaches, one assists: One educator leads the class (again, in a traditional way) while the second moves around the room providing group or individual attention.
  • Station teaching: Instructors are stationed at different points around the room and students move between them.
  • Parallel teaching: Each teacher presents the same basic material, but each in a different way. The class may be split in half with teachers alternating between the two sections.
  • Alternative teaching: One instructor presents material to the majority of the class while another works with a small group in a separate section of the classroom on an entirely different lesson.

This article will focus on the collaborative team teaching model. In my experience, I’ve found that high schools tend to prefer using this approach, while elementary schools may employ any of those six.

Collaborative team teaching provides individualized attention for students with learning disabilities and differences. Each teacher works with the whole class, but the special education teacher is tasked with reinforcing math or language skills that may hinder students’ learning. Some of their strategies may include showing the class techniques for organizing material visually, providing oral (in addition to written) directions and prompts for assignments, and distributing a writer’s checklists to students. These checklists provide students with reinforcement on the basics of composition: remembering to capitalize the first letters of sentences, making sure there are spaces between words, using strong topic sentences, and indenting paragraphs, to name a few.

When executed correctly, the curriculum, textbooks, and pacing of a collaborative team taught classroom are the same as in a mainstream class. Having a special education teacher in the room, however, provides additional individualized attention for students with learning disabilities and differences.

This model has the added benefit of helping a student without disability who may be struggling — or a student who has not yet been diagnosed with something like dyslexia, ADHD, or dyscalculia.

The team teaching collaborative model also employs differentiated instruction — a responsivity to students’ varied learning needs — to ensure that everyone in the class is challenged without being discouraged. An example of this might be a simple reading comprehension test. Teachers may ask that some students write analytically in response to a passage, while students with weaker language or writing skills may work on refining and structuring their writing.

The Resource Room Model

An alternative to the team teaching collaborative model is the resource room model, which is more restrictive. Generally it is staffed by a special education teacher (and sometimes a teacher’s aide) and will serve no more than ten students with IEPs at any given time. This setting allows students to receive individualized attention; each student has the opportunity to work one-on-one with a teacher to refine key skills.

In a resource room setting, the curriculum is meant to be as similar to a mainstream class as possible; the big difference is that the pacing may adjusted to meet the needs of the learners. In addition to altering the pacing, teachers will sometimes modify texts and resources to facilitate student comprehension.

What If Your Child’s Placement Isn’t a Fit?

While placement is a very difficult decision for a family and school to make, keep in mind that it is not — and need not be — permanent.

If a child is not successful in a team teaching collaborative classroom, the option exists to move her into the more restrictive resource room or into an environment that features a different collaborative model. On the flip side, if a student in a resource room has been successful, and her skill set has grown to the point that her current curriculum is not challenging enough, then a collaborative model could prove to be a great fit.

When discussing this decision, you should consider your child’s disability and her academic success up to this point. She should also undergo an updated battery of tests from the child study team to assess her current levels of performance. Talk candidly with the members of the child study team, the guidance department, and your child to come up with a plan that will allow her to thrive.

Follow this link to find more advice and answers from Julie Gordon.