How to Work with Students with Disabilities

Sandra Burns
Sandra Burns
Elementary school principal; M.Ed. in Educational Leadership
Teacher sitting playing guitar to a group of students with disabilities.

What are Disabilities?

Schools are often the very first encounter where children experience academics, structured routine, and social and emotional learning. For some students, hard work and following the school rules may not be enough to be successful in the classroom. At times, this is when the thought of a disability comes into conversation. A specific learning disability is a disorder that unfortunately inhibits the student’s ability to process and retain information. Some of the most common disabilities that educators see in their classrooms are ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and processing deficits.


ADHD is a learning disability although there is great discussion about this. Students with ADHD have difficulty paying attention, staying on task, can be easily distracted, and often have difficulty in traditional school settings. Often lack of focus spills over into the child’s learning as well as sometimes behavior concerns.


Dyslexia is also common within the regular education and special education classroom setting. Defined by the Mayo Clinic, dyslexia involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. Students at times struggle with phonemic awareness, which results in the challenge to recognize the way words break down according to sound. Similar problems can occur with phonological processing. Students cannot distinguish between similar word sounds. Ultimately this slows down the rate of fluency as well as comprehension when our students are trying to read.


Dyscalculia is evident in some areas of learning as well. It is a disorder that specifically affects a student’s abilities in math, from an inability to order numbers correctly to having limited strategies for problem solving.


Dysgraphia is also a disability that is easily visible in a classroom. Dysgraphia is related to the physical act of writing. These students often cannot grip a writing utensil, and their posture may be tense while trying to write. This often causes discouragement that gets in the way of the student’s academic performance. Students tend to have trouble organizing their thoughts coherently, and this shows in their writing and sentence structure.

Processing Deficits

Processing deficits are connected to learning disabilities. When students exhibit a processing deficit, they have trouble making sense of sensory data. This makes it hard for students to perform in a regular education classroom without types instructional supports incorporated into their day. These deficits are most often auditory or visual, resulting in our students struggling without imbedded supports in the classroom.

How to Identify a Disabled Student

Some students tend to struggle in the classroom more so than others. Teachers are faced with the responsibility of having adequate data to show just how much a child is having difficulty keeping up with the grade-level content. Artifacts of classroom work, state assessments, observations, parent input, and any other material that a teacher can provide will drive the conversations that take place based on the concerns of the student’s academic progress or behavioral issues.

Most school districts have tiers in place that help gather the necessary data to determine if a student may need more supports in the classroom to be successful. Data-driven conversations with interventions in place should drive the direction that the team will take. Once conversations, interventions, and data are gathered, the recommendation may be for the student to receive an evaluation completed by the school psychologist to determine if they have a disability. The evaluation will disclose relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the student.

To qualify, a student must have one of the identified disabilities (there are 13 total) that may adversely affect their educational performance. Every school has the ultimate legal responsibility to complete the evaluation process with the parents’ written permission before the evaluation may be conducted.

Teaching Strategies for Working with Disabled Students

For some students, providing the appropriate modifications and accommodations they need is the only way they will be successful in their school experiences. While there are a ton of teaching strategies to help accommodate our students, there is one strategy that must be the starting point in our classrooms.

Differentiated instruction is a must when teaching regular education and special education. We have to start where each child is in his or her learning process in order to authentically meet their academic needs and help them grow. With a classroom full of children at different stages of learning, this certainly can sound overwhelming. While differentiating instruction is not easy, it is important to understand that it will lead to student achievement.

As teachers differentiate, content can be provided in mini lessons. Regardless of what age or content is being taught, some students will understand a lesson quickly and others may not. By breaking into groups, a teacher is given the opportunity to reteach the concept to the struggling students and meet with another group to broaden their understanding of the concept. Mini lessons can be broken down and the focus should be skill-based pairing students into the appropriate leveled groups.

Accommodations require making alterations in the way tasks are presented that allow students with learning disabilities to complete the same assignments as other students without disabilities. It is important that educators realize that this does not alter the content of assignments, give students an advantage, or change what an assessment measures. It does, in fact, level the playing field for all students.

There are several practical accommodations that can be used when working with students with disabilities. Breaking tasks into smaller steps or adding extended time on tasks and slowly increasing the time allotted for certain tasks is an accommodation that students can benefit from. Reducing the amount of information on a page and allowing for adequate white space and a clean, distraction-free layout can make an assignment seem less confusing. It is important to not alter the content, but a much less busy canvas can seem less overwhelming.

Allowing students a choice is always a great strategy. Instead of traditional pencils and full-size sheets of paper, offer the student the opportunity to choose the materials with which they can best demonstrate understanding, which ultimately will lead to the desired outcome that the teacher is looking for. For example, one student may choose their favorite red colored pencil and a half-sheet of paper, while another student chooses their favorite pen and a pink piece of paper. Changing up the writing materials can be an effective strategy to get the desired outcome: students were more engaged and excited to complete the task at hand.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to knowing our students, following their IEPs, and meeting all of their educational needs. Most accommodations will be tried over and over, and trial and error will lead educators to what will work best for each individual student.

*Updated December, 2020
graduate program favicon

Looking for a graduate program?