Special Educator Tools I Bring to My Higher Ed Classroom

Written by Kess Ballentine on September 13th, 2022


Before I worked in higher education, I was an elementary special educator. I taught second grade and K-5 special education over 3 years in North Carolina's public schools. Through that work and lots of tutoring, I have worked with children and adults with a wide range of (dis)abilities. Now I teach exclusively adults, primarily graduate students in social work. Every time I work with my students, I am thankful for the extensive pedagogical toolbelt my training and experience in special education brings me. Here are 5 key tools I brought from my special education classroom to my higher ed classroom.

#1 Universal Design: Universal design is an umbrella term for practices that support people regardless of their (dis)ability. A classic example is curb cuts which help people using wheelchairs, people pushing strollers or other rolling items, new walkers with unsteady toddler legs, people who might be at extra risk of falling, and more. When applied to learning, universal design is an attempt to provide information in multiple ways, give students multiple methods by which to demonstrate learning, and support engagement.

For example, this week in my classroom we discussed how people understand justice. The students read, wrote, spoke, listened, and did a group activity exploring different justice frameworks. They were engaged in multiple ways at multiple levels of learning through lecture, discussion, and doing an exercise to try to plan how to use a justice framework to respond to a practice vignette involving a social injustice. In a simpler example, I provide multiple ways for students to ask questions – they can raise their hand, send an email, talk to me during break, or write it on their check-in/check-out ticket. This way students who have executive functioning disorders or a traumatic brain injury and might struggle to keep a question in their mind have a spot to write it down. Meanwhile, students with anxiety can submit their question quietly rather than in front of the whole class.

There are many supports that we can build in that benefit all our students! But many of these interventions also improve our experience as instructors. By building policies consistent with universal design principles, it means there is less work to do when accommodations come in from Student Disability Services. Additionally, inclusive classrooms are more accessible for learning which means your students are more likely to be able to be engaged and feel supported in their learning – improving relationships and making your classroom a more positive place where everyone can thrive. You can learn more about Universal Design for Learning here.


#2 Structured Activities: Starting graduate school after being a trained teacher was an interesting experience. At the elementary schools where I worked, we constantly talked about how to "maximize instructional time" and regularly evaluated how much time we were losing to transitions. We had creative solutions to speed up our students' transition from the carpet to lining up for recess where research showed us we could lose literally days of instruction per school year – add it up across the day and lost instructional time became an enemy.

In some of my graduate classes, the instructors had seemed to never have heard of the risks of transitions and sometimes seemed not to value "instructional time." I would peek at my watch and see significant time lost calling people back to attention or getting into small groups. Activities would begin and we students would spend half the time figuring out what steps to take. I think sometimes there is an

assumption that adult students don't need as much structure as kids. I disagree, adults benefit from structure too! In my classroom I regularly use structure to support classroom success.

I use small group activities in nearly every class. Instructions are clearly written on a slide with a timer. Students are assigned roles and can quickly fall into the work without worrying about logistics which are clearly articulated on the slide. For example, instead of deciding how to research a topic and who will present, 4 questions are pre-determined to structure their research and they are each expected to present one slide at the end of the activity. A quick hand clap brings my classroom to silence for an announcement. By building in predictable routines and structures, students can participate in a variety of activities across a single session with little time or energy lost on clarifying instructions. Few questions are about how to do the activity and many more are about the content. I encourage faculty who want to build classroom routines and vary their classroom activities to invest some time learning some basic cooperative learning structures like these to make both planning and implementing engaging learning easier.


#3 Direct Instruction: Direct instruction is commonly used in special education. In short, it is a method by which you take a complex and nuanced task, like making friends or writing a paragraph, and break it down it to individual steps that students can master over time, ultimately mastering the whole task.

In my experience as a student in higher education, direct instruction is often lacking, particularly outside of tasks with obvious steps like finding an integral or completing a lab experiment. In many more higher education tasks we say things like "write a paper," "complete a literature review," or "do a group project with XYZ outcome." These are incredibly complex tasks with which most students struggle. Most students regardless of (dis)ability level are never explicitly taught how to do these tasks and benefit from modeling these tasks and exploring a variety of approaches to completing them.

In my classroom, where we often do such complex tasks, I take two key steps to improve student success and reduce their anxiety when tackling these more challenging projects.

First, I break down assignments into more detailed steps. I consider how I would tackle the assignment, and I write general steps in my syllabus. I often will include milestones through the semester to help students break down multi-week projects.

Second, I acknowledge the "implicit" skills embedded in the assignment. I then directly teach – or provide resources on – how to succeed in implicit curriculum tasks.

For example, in one of my classes we have a fairly challenging team project that takes half the semester. In most of my group projects in my various degrees I was one of those students who spent most of the semester doing a bigger chunk of work while being annoyed with at least one of my – from my perspective – less involved group mates. Since teamwork is a critical skill for my students who are future social workers and will commonly work on teams, I take active steps to prevent this. Students do self-reflective activities to examine their strengths and areas for growth around teamwork skills. We actively discuss how their team processes are going and at the end of the semester they evaluate not only the success of their team's product, but also their growth as a teammate. This instruction takes very little additional time but helps draw out the "implicit" curriculum so that it becomes an explicit part of their learning. My students experience much less anxiety around their team projects and have many more resources through the semester to address common teamwork challenges, lessons I expect will help them throughout their careers.


#4 Growth-Oriented Practices: In special education, sometimes the arbitrary requirements the government set for students to achieve by a particular grade level were simply irrelevant for an individual students' growth and trajectory. This was hard to handle particularly when a student was growing by leaps and bounds but a standardized test told them they were 2 years behind an arbitrary trajectory. To cope, I worked to develop a focus on growth over arbitrary outcomes. Many assessments in higher education focus solely on the final outcome, like a grade based on a final paper or exam. Though these certainly have their place, they do little to support the individualized growth of students.

In my classroom I consider how to integrate and assess growth, acknowledging that all of my students come into graduate school at different places and with different goals. To do this I ensure that I am using regular formative assessment (i.e., checking for learning with low/no stakes assignments), provide regular individualized feedback, and build some growth measure into their actual grade for the course, such as a journaling activity or a pre-post self-assessment. I find that these processes help create a growth atmosphere in my classroom where students are less concerned (though still caring) about their grade and more focused on their learning.


#5 Creativity: As human beings, we are incredibly adaptable. If you yourself experience a chronic disability, live with someone who does, or have ever had an acute disability like a broken leg you know that creative solutions help us make our way through the world. Traditional classrooms sometimes squash creativity in favor of rules or rigid expectations. Though this is sometimes necessary for a particular task, more often it is a vestige of the inflexible academic spaces that work to exclude some groups of people from education, including people with disabilities.

Instead, I find the creativity I have learned along with my loved ones and students with disabilities is a great skillset for the classroom. By supporting creative solutions to classroom problems, we not only create an inclusive classroom we also help students feel the joy of learning. When students are unfettered by rules and supported in their creativity, they can create amazing work. For example, I have an assignment where students examine an area of social welfare policy by building their own "mini-syllabus" that must include at least 2 multi-media or experiential learning sources. Across the semester they meet in expert group areas –like "child welfare policy" – to share and discuss. They journal regularly and close the semester by writing an op-ed or a piece of public testimony. Meanwhile, I build in structure, like providing a bank of resources in various big topic areas and giving verbal recorded feedback on their journals, to help students focus their study. Through this activity students read, watch, listen to, and participate in so much more content than I would have ever assigned and they really enjoy it because they have a lot of power in the learning and can explore while getting to "nerd out" in their expert groups.

Examine your classroom policies and practices. Are there places where you can build in more choice? How much do you expose students to creative solutions others in their field have used to solve problems? Do you include any art, poetry, or music? Can you invite students to share their creative tips and tricks for completing their work? Can you create imaginative scenarios for students to test their learning? These types of learning activities invite a wider range of students to leverage their individual strengths more readily in your class while also deepening learning by exposing students to diverse ideas and encouraging them to extend what they are learning far beyond the rote. Plus adding creativity in your classroom is one of many ways to bring fun into higher ed- which sometimes is lacking!


Kess Ballentine

To read more about Professor Ballentine's contribution to the School of Social Work, her biography, teaching interests, and more, please find her page here: https://socialwork.wayne.edu/profile/hj1448