first time teaching student with intellectual disability

Welcome to a new school year!

A new year brings about lots of things – anticipation of the first day back, excitement for all of the great lessons you’ve planned, and eagerness to get to know your new class. If you’re a teacher who has a student with intellectual disability in their class for the first time, you might also be experiencing a healthy dose of nerves. That’s perfectly normal and natural. I’ve come up with my top 9 tips for starting your year right to help you on your way.

  1. Get to Know Your Student

It can be easy to get bogged down in research and advice about the best approaches for teaching students with intellectual disability. Of course, this stuff is still important – but the MOST important thing is to get to know your student as an individual. What are their strengths, difficulties, interests and dislikes? What is their personality like? Labels don’t define people so it’s important that you get to know your students on a personal level instead of making assumptions based on their diagnosis. By getting to know your student’s interests you can ensure learning opportunities are targeted and highly engaging.

  1. Parents Are the BEST Resource

No one is more of an expert in a child than their parent. Not sure what the best approach to supporting a behaviour is? Ask Mum or Dad. 90% of the time it’s something they have already had to deal with so they’ll be able to tell you what has worked (and what hasn’t!) in the past. This is also a great way to ensure consistency across contexts, so make sure you’re communicating openly and that everyone is on the same page.

  1. Get Creative!

I was once told “Forget thinking outside the box. Think like there is no box!”. I won’t lie – at the time Amanda and I had quite a giggle, but the truth is this is some of the best advice going around. Don’t be scared to modify tasks and routines, try new approaches and give things a go. Don’t expect that everything you try will be a huge success. There might be situations where you’re back at the drawing board four or five times until you figure out what works and that’s ok!

  1. Never Underestimate the Power of Visuals

There’s lots of research that suggests students with intellectual disability are visual learners. We know, for example, that students with Down syndrome have significantly better visual short term memory than verbal short term memory. This means it’s vitally important to include visuals in our day. Student having difficulty remembering where things go? Visual labels on your drawers and cupboards! Student having difficulty staying on task? First-Then chart! Student unsure of behaviour expectations? Instructional poster!

Visual supports are some of my favourite things and they’re the best opportunity to let your creativity shine.

  1. Make It Hands-on

Students with intellectual disability can often have difficulty with abstract concepts – think mathematical concepts such as time and money. By providing context through the use of hands-on concrete materials you can support learning and task completion. Maths manipulatives will become your new best friend!

  1. Don’t Forget to Plan for Transitions

You spend so much time planning your lessons and activities but have you included plans for transition times? There’s research that suggests up to 25% of a school day is spent in transition so if you haven’t yet it’s time to start. Have you planned how you will give warning time as an activity is ending? Sand timer or visual clock! Have you planned how your student will learn the routine? Visual mini-schedule or peer buddy! Have you planned how your student will know what to do next? Visual schedule or First-Then chart!

  1. Be a Role Model for the Other Students

I often hear both parents and educators share their concerns for a student with intellectual disability being accepted by their peers. The best way we can teach kids about acceptance is to show them what it looks like. So, if you want the other students in your class to treat someone like everybody else that’s exactly what you need to do too!

  1. Ask for Support

I know you have high expectations of yourself, and that’s wonderful, it really is! But don’t forget that you’re not in this alone. No one expects you to have all the answers. Be proactive and ask for support if you need it – from parents, other teachers, your Principal, disability organisations, Illume Learning! We’re all here to help.

  1. Remember Why You’re a Teacher

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I suspect it’s because you love kids and care deeply about them getting a great education and experiencing success. All of this applies to our students with intellectual disability, sometimes even more so. Just you wait until the day your student masters something you’ve been working on for weeks (or months) … if we could bottle that feeling we would.

So there you have it - my top 9 tips for starting the year right! You’ll do just brilliantly, I know it.

🙂 Rachel

Not your first time working with a student with intellectual disability? Share your best tips by commenting below!

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