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Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities
2012, Vol. 37, No. 3, 139-152
Reconciling an Ecological Curricnlar
Framework Focusing on Quality of Life
Outcomes With the Development
and Instruction of Standards-Based
Academic Goals
Pam Hunt
San Francisco State University
John McDonnell and Margret A. Crockett
University of Utah
Tbe ecological framework for curriculum development
for students witb severe disabilities emerged in tbe late
1970s in response to tbe concerns of advocates and researcbers tbat traditional developmental and academic
curricular approacbes for tbis group of students bad not
lead to significant improvements in tbeir quality of life
(Brown et al., 1979). In contrast to developmental and
academic curricular models tbat focused on teacbing students a predetermined sequence of skills, tbe ecological
framework was structured to identify and teacb tbe routines, activities, and skills tbat students needed to learn
to support tbeir full participation in bome, scbool, work,
and community settings. Tbe educational planning process was dynamic and took into account a number of factors including tbe students’ and tbeir family’s preferences,
needs, and resources; tbe opportunities and supports tbat
were available to tbe students in tbeir community; and
tbe students’ long-term goals and aspirations. Educational
goals were not driven by a specific curricular sequence
but ratber were based on a student’s individual needs.
Tbe effectiveness of an educational program was evaluated in terms of its impact on promoting a student’s use
of commtinity resources, ability to live wbere and witb
wbom be or sbe cbooses, opportunity to bave paid employment in typical businesses and industries, and bis or
ber independence and autonomy. .
The emergence of the standards-based reform movement has raised a number of issues related to the design of
educational programs for students with severe disabilities,
and a debate has arisen that presents an “either/or” choice
between the general education curriculum and an ecological curricular framework that has traditionally guided curriculum development. In this paper, the authors propose
that, to adequately meet the needs of students with moderate to severe disabilities, an ecological approach focusing on quality of life outcomes must be reconciled with
the development and implementation of standards-based
academic curricula. To accomplish this reconciliation, the
authors recommend that individualized education plan
teams engage in a process that allows them to work within
an ecological curricular framework to develop standardsbased goals that reflect meaningful knowledge and skills
that are tailored to students’ individual needs and applicable to their everyday lives. They propose that quality of
life goals expand beyond home, friendships, community
participation, and work to include academic goals that are
life enriching and promote lifelong learning that can be
linked to a broader range of subject area domains in the
core curriculum. In addition, they suggest instructional
approaches that promote effective instruction and generalized outcomes for both academic and functional skills.
Finally, they outline a number of issues that require
additional reflection, discussion, and research.
As tbe ecological framework took root as tbe predominate approacb for developing curriculum for students
witb severe disabilities (cf.. Ford et al., 1989; Neel &
Billingsley, 1989; SaUor et al., 1989; Wilcox & Bellamy,
1987), it soon became clear tbat simply making students more competent in typical settings was insufficient to meet tbe broader goals of full acceptance and
membersbip in tbe community. As a result, tbe expected
outcomes of tbis approacb to curriculum development
expanded from increasing students’ presence and participation in tbe community to tbe development of positive
DESCRIPTORS: ecological curricular framework,
standard-based academic goals, quality of Ufe, instructional strategies, generalization
Address all correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Pam
Hunt, Department of Special Education, San Francisco State
University, 1600 HoUoway Ave., San Francisco, CA 94132.
E-mail: hunt@sfsu.edu
Hunt et al.
social relationships and friendships (Giangreco & Putnam,
1991). The result was that advocates and researchers
began to emphasize the need for students to attend their
neighborhood schools, participate in the instructional
and extracurricular activities of general education classes
and the school, and develop meaningful friendships with
peers without disabilities. As a result, social connectedness became as important in denning students’ quality of
ufe as having satisfying work and a comfortable home,
being able to use the resources of the community, and
having control over one’s life.
Research examining the posfschool outcomes of young
adults with severe disabilities has repeatedly affirmed the
benefits of the ecological approach to curriculum devel-j
opment. For example, research indicates that educational
programs that are anchored to the routines, activities
and skills needed to participate in the community and
are focused on fostering social connectedness improve
students’ adjustment to employment (Benz, Lindstrom
& Yovanoff, 2000; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Phelps d
Hanley-Maxwell, 1997; White & Weiner, 2004), indej
pendent living (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Stancliffe 8¿
Lakin, 2007), and development of social relationships
with peers without disabilities (Chadsey, 2007). Given!
these outcomes, it is not surprising that an ecological
approach to curriculum development continues to enjo>
strong support from the field today (Dymond & Orelove,
2001; McDonneU & Hardman, 2010; Wehman, 2006).
The emergence of the standards-based reform movement in the late 1990s has raised a number of issue:
related to the curriculum and the design of education;
programs for students with severe disabilities. The focu
of this movement was to ensure that (a) schools, districts,
and states establish high academic expectations for stu
dents; (b) students who are at risk of school failure and
those with disabilities have equal access to the general
education curriculum; (c) curriculum, assessment, and instruction are aligned to increase school, district, and state
accountability for student achievement; and (d) educational resources are allocated in ways that maximize
learning for all students (McGregor, 2003; McLaughlin
& Tilstone, 2000).
The standards-based reform movement culminated
with the passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
Act in 2001. NCLB requires states to establish rigorousi
academic content and academic achievement standards
for all students in the areas of reading/language arts,
mathematics, and science. Academic achievement standards must be aligned with the state’s academic content
standards and be incorporated into a comprehensive
assessment system that allows states to evaluate students’ “adequate yearly progress” toward mastering the:
academic content standards.
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA) was amended in 2004 to align it with the key
elements of NCLB (Yell, Shriner, & Katsiyannis, 2006).
Of particular importance is the requirement that individ-
ualized education plan (IEP) teams must determine how
students with disabilities will participate and progress
in the general education curriculum. Furthermore, the
law requires that students with disabilities participate in
the statewide assessment system or an alternate assessment to determine fheir adequate yearly progress toward
meeting the state’s academic achievement standards in
reading/language arts, mathematics, and science.
Given the broad support in the field for an ecological
approach to curriculum development, if not surprising
that the enactment of these mandates has resulted in
on-going discussion among advocates and researchers
about which curricular approach should drive the development of students’ educational programs. Some researchers have suggested that the emphasis in IDEA on
participation and progress in the general education curriculum reinforces the idea fhaf all students can leam
complex academic skills (Browder, Wakeman, et al.,
2007; Thurlow, 2002). Indeed, there is a growing body
of research that supports this argument and provides
empirical evidence that these students can learn skiUs
drawn from the general education curriculum when provided explicit and systematic instruction (Browder, Trela,
& Jimenez, 2007; Dymond et al., 2006; Jimenez, Browder,
& Courtade, 2008; McDonnell, Johnson, Polychronis, &
Riesen, 2002; Ryndak, Morrison, & Sommerstein, 1999).
Other researchers have argued that these mandates
raise a number of questions abouf the design and implementation of students’ educational programs (Ryndak,
Alper, Hughes, & McDonnell, 2012; Lowrey, Drasgow,
Renzaglia, & Chezan, 2007). First is whether alternate
assessments will drive the selection of goals and objectives and will result in a loss of individualized IEPs that
are specifically tailored to students’ educational needs.
This is based on fhe concem that teachers will no longer
take a person-centered approach fo the design of IEPs
and will essenfially begin to “teach fo the test.” Second
is whether fhe focus on fhe general educafion curriculum and high-stakes testing will lead IEP teams fo
abandon an ecological approach fo curriculum development altogether as a basis for designing studenfs’ educafional programs even fhough it is not required in fhe
law. The result would be a dramatic shift in fhe focus
of educational programs for sfudenfs away from teaching functional routines, activities, and skills that improve
fheir performance in typical settings fo teaching isolated
reading/language arfs, mafhemafics, and science concepts
and skills. Third is fhe concern fhaf all studenfs, especially
those with severe disabilities, have significant difficulties generalizing skills from academic fo natural performance settings (Homer, McDonneU, & Bellamy,
1986; Rosenthal-Bloom & Malek, 1998). Finally is fhe
concem regarding fhe lack of research evaluating fhe
impacts of students’ participation in the general education curriculum and alfernafe assessments on either
fheir short-term academic achievement or long-term,
posfschool oufcomes.
Ecological Curricular Framework and Academic Goals
Although it appears that NCLB, and subsequently
IDEA, will be amended in the next Congress, it is likely
that some form of high-stakes assessment linked to
the general education curriculum will remain a central
element of both laws. The result is that IEP teams will
continue to be required to design education programs
that will allow students to master rigorous academic
knowledge and skills drawn from the general education
curriculum. It is also true that students with severe disabilities win continue to need educational programs that
support their acquisition of functional routines, activities,
and skills that are necessary to live, work, and participate
in the community. We suggest that it is time to move beyond casting the debate as a choice between the general
education curriculum and an ecological curricular framework. Instead, we propose that, to adequately meet the
needs of students with severe disabihties, an ecological
approach focusing on quality of Ufe outcomes must be
reconciled with the development and implementation of
standards-based academic curricula.
To accomplish this reconciliation, the authors propose
that an ecological approach to curriculum development
become the overarching framework for all curriculum development activities; that is, consideration of high-priority
goal areas associated with quality of ufe outcomes for
individual students must guide the selection of IEP goals
and the development of curricular and instructional approaches, activities, and contexts. In addition, we recommend that IEP teams engage in a process that allows
them to work within an ecological curricular framework
to develop standards-based academic goals that reflect
meaningful knowledge and skills that are tailored to a
student’s individual needs and applicable to their everyday life. Finally, we suggest instructional approaches and
strategies that promote effective instruction and generalized outcomes for both academic and functional skills.
Working Within an Ecological Curricular
Framework to Develop and Teach
Standards-Based Academic Goals
With an overarching ecological curricular framework,
the question that drives all curriculum development activities is this: What can we teach students and how can
we arrange educational environments to increase quality
of life outcomes; connect the students to their worlds of
home, school, and community; and increase postschool
outcomes of full access and social participation, employment, and independent living (Ayres, Douglas, Lowrey,
& Sievers, 2011; Ford et al., 1989; Sailor et al., 1989;
Tumbull, Turnbull, Wehmeyer, & Park, 2003)? The focus
is on curricula that are relevant to students’ individual
lives and interests and are, therefore, meaningful and
A variety of student and family-centered assessments
are implemented to identify individualized, high-priority,
quahty of life goal areas as the first step in the overall
assessment process. Ecological assessments include, for
example, ecological inventories (Brown et al., 1979;
Brown, Lehr, & SneU, 2011), functional assessments
(Dunlap & Carr, 2007; Homer, Albin, Todd, Newton, &
Sprague, 2011), family interviews and collaborative
planning processes (Childre, 2004; Giangreco, Cloninger,
& Iverson, 1998; Hunt, Soto, Maier, & Doering, 2003;
Mortier, Hunt, Desimpel, & Van Hove, 2009; Tumbull &
Turnbull, 1997), and person-centered planning (Falvey,
Forest, Pearpoint, & Rosenberg, 1997; Mount & Zwemick,
1988; Vandercook, York, & Forest, 1989).
Individualized quahty of life goals identified through
these types of assessment activities address, for example,
communicative and social competence; the development of positive social relationships and friendships;
increased independence within classroom and school, community, and vocational routines; and self-determination,
self-management, and problem-solving skills. While historically, outcomes associated with quality of life goals
have been deñned in utUitarian terms—access and social inclusion, interpersonal relations, postschool employment, and independent living—we propose that the
definition of quality of life outcomes be broadened to
include the acquisition of knowledge and skills that are
good in and of themselves—for example, academic content knowledge that is life enriching because it opens up
a student’s understanding of the physical, historical, and
social/political world; or knowledge associated with culture and citizenship and the impact of both on a student’s
role in the community; or academic skills that increase
the students ability to become a lifelong leamer. To do
this, procedures for ecological assessments such as personcentered planning and ecological inventories would be
expanded to allow for the identification of quality of life
outcomes associated with academic content knowledge
and skills; that is, academic content and skills that are
(a) functional, if taught or practiced in a variety of natural
contexts (e.g., reading, writing, and mathematics skills);
or (b) life enriching because it introduces the worlds of
art, literature, science, history, and culture; or (c) of high
interest to the student.
AU members of the educational team contribute to
the identification of quality of life goal areas that will be
the focus of a student’s educational plan, with family
and student preferences clearly represented (Halvorsen
& Neary, 2009; Hunt & McDonneU, 2007; Ryndak, 2003;
Tumbull & Tumbull, 1997). All potential areas are considered, for example, communicafion, social interacfions and
friendships, independence and access, self-determination,
and academic content areas, and although team decisions
weigh some areas more highly than others for individual
students, IEP goals representing any of the areas have
equal standing in the student’s educational plan.
Reconciliation Process
Reconciling an ecological curricular framework with
the current emphasis placed on achievement in academic
Hunt et al.
subjects reqtiires the identification of a process for developing and teaching standards-based goals that reflect
meaningful knowledge and skills, individualization, and
application and generalization to everyday life. Narrowly
constructed content standards limited to core academic
subjects present formidable challenges to the development of educational goals that will impact students’ quality
of life and increase postschool outcomes of employment
and independent living (Dymond, Renzaglia, Gilson, &
Slagor, 2007; Ford, Davem, & Schnorr, 2001; McDonnell,
2010; Turnbull et al., 2003), and the usefulness of altemate
assessments in helping IEP teams make decisions based
on empirical evidence and logically sequenced curricula
is limited (Kohl, McLaughlin, & Nagle, 2006; McDonnell,
2010). A process is needed that would allow educational
team members to work within the standards frameworks
that their states currently offer to develop academic goals
for students with severe disabilities that reflect meaningful outcomes and that are taught in ways that promote
generalization to the students’ daily lives, and a number of
recent publications have provided very thoughtful analyses of the steps that educational team members can follow to select and teach standards-based academic content
that will impact the quality of students’ lives now and
in the future (e.g., Browder, Spooner, Wakeman, Trela,
& Baker, 2006; Browder, Wakeman, et al, 2007; Ford
et al., 2001; Kleinert & Thurlow, 2001; McDonnell, 2010;
Ryndak, 2003). We build on this body of work to offer
a process that differs only in its emphasis; that is, we
propose that each step of the process—from goal identification to instruction—be driven by the high priority,
quality of life goal areas identified by families and other
members of the educational team. The steps that we propose are outlined below.
Step 1: Identify Quality of Life Goal Areas
for Individual Students Through Family and
Student-Centered Assessment Activities
The quality of life goal areas for individual students
identified through the student and family-centered assessment processes described above both anchor and
drive the process for identifying and teaching standardsbased academic goals (Ayres et al., 2011; Downing, 2006;
Dymond et al., 2007; Ford et al., 2001). Quality of life goal
areas include, for example, communicative and social
competence; the development of posifive social relationships and friendships; increased independence within classroom and school, community, and vocational routines;
and self-determinadon, self-management, and problemsolving skills. In addition, quality of Ufe goal areas include academic content knowledge and academic skills
that are life enriching, increase access and independence
in ctirrent and ftiture environments, or increase the student’s ability to become a ufelong leamer. Student interests and preferences are a key consideration in identifying
academic content areas that will enrich the student’s life.
Table 1 includes a description of the quality of life goal
areas that were idenfified by educational team members
for three students—Manuel, Sarah, and Jamal.
Step 2: Identify Priority, Grade-Level Content
Standards From State Standards Frameworks
With individual student’s quality of life goal areas in
mind, teachers consider the grade-level content standards
in the major domain areas for academic subjects (e.g., in
language arts, academic domains might include reading,
writing, speaking and listening, and language; Nafional
Govemors Association Center for Best Practices & the
Council of Chief State School Officers, 2011). Their task
is to identify standards that are a priority because they
represent “big ideas” or key content in each of the domains (Browder, Spooner, et al., 2006; Browder, Spooner,
& Jimenez, 2011) that will support the student’s ability to
achieve his or her life goals. Typically standards are selected from at least language arts, mathematics, science,
and social studies frameworks. Table 1 describes the priority grade-level standards that were selected for Manuel,
Sarah, and Jamal within a major domain area for science,
language arts, and mathematics. The students’ general
educafion teachers provided guidance in idenfifying key
standards; however, the student’s quality of life goal
areas were the most important considerafion.
Step 3: Identify the “Critical Function” of
Each Selected Standard in Terms of Enriching
Students’ Lives
It is a daunting task for educational team members
to take the next step)—that is, to identify performance
outcomes linked to these priority academic content
standards—without first translating them into their “critical funcfions.” Kleinert and Thurlow (2001) have suggested that team members look beyond the “form” of an
academic content standard to the “function” of the standard in enhancing the student’s quality of life. For example, a 5th-grade reading standard for literattire included
in the “Key Ideas” section of the Common Core State
Standards for Language Arts is the following: “Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how
they are supported by key details; summarize the text.”
This standard was selected by Sarah’s educational team
as an educational priorify (see Table 1). The team members then translated the standard into its critical funcfion:
“accessing and comprehending main ideas in a meaningful, accessible text.” When the standard was translated
into its crifical funcfion, the quaUty of life goal areas for
Sarah could be naturally and logically linked to the standard, and individualized performance outcomes could
be developed (see Table 1).
Step 4: Identify Meaningful, Individualized Performance
Outcomes Associated With the Critical Function of
Selected Standards That Reflect the Student’s Quality
of Life Goal Areas and Current Level of Symbol Use
When educational team members link the student’s
high-priority goal areas and current level of symbol use
Ecological Curricular Framework and Academic Goals
to the critical function of the content standards, the
individualized performance outcomes that the team
identifies through this process become what Ford et al.
(2001) call foundational skills—”skills that open doors
for people…skills that provide the basis for interacting
with people and information in a multicultural society,
successfully navigating the tasks of living, solving problems, and making contributions” (p. 217); or content
knowledge that is life enriching because it opens up a student’s understanding of the physical, psychological, social, or intellectual world; or skills that represent earlier
abilities needed to move through a sequenced curriculum.
The critical function of selected grade-level standards
from each academic domain is the point of reference
(Browder, Spooner, et al. 2006; Browder, Wakeman,
et al., 2007); however, for language arts, skills from
earUer grades are part of a continuum of skills that culminates in grade-level proficiency. Therefore, for emergent and beginning readers, the extended grade-level
standards may align with emergent skills associated with
earlier grade standards; however, we propose teaching
those earlier skills using grade-level materials and activities that are adapted to allow access by emergent and
beginning readers (e.g., adapting grade-level literature to
reduce pages and text, simplify vocabulary, and include
picture icons and objects to promote comprehension of
written text), thereby making it possible for emergent and
beginning readers to share in the same literature experiences as their peers.
For mathemafics, skills addressed at earlier grades may
be needed to access grade-level content (e.g., counting
for standards in the measurement and data domain);
however, if skills addressed by early grade standards are
considered to be prerequisites to moving on to current
grade-level standards, then students are subjected to
13 years of leaming to count, identify shapes and pattems,
match colors and sizes, and group objects. We propose
that when mathematics skills associated with earlier
grades are needed to access grade-level content, those
skills are addressed in the context of teaching the gradelevel content (e.g., teaching counting in the context of
teaching skills associated with a measurement-related
standard). Finally, we propose that all mathematics instruction be contextualized for meaning (i.e., story-based
lessons or taught during functional and motivating school
and community activities), that grade-level activifies and
materials be adapted to allow access by beginning mathematics leamers, and that mathematics instructional contexts provide motivating opportunities for commtinication
and literacy development (e.g., reading mathematics story
problems with adapted text and added picture icons and
objects to promote comprehension; using picture icons on
a communication board to request mathematics materials
and respond to mathematics comprehension questions).
For science, history, and social studies, we propose that
performance outcomes address priority grade-level content standards with individualization for each student (e.g..
in the targeted content, instructional approaches used, and
adaptafions and modifications) that will provide the
student with access to life enriching knowledge and experiences in each of these academic areas. In addifion, instructional contexts should be designed to provide motivating
opportunifies for instruction of communication, social, literacy, and self-management and choice-making skills.
Finally, performance outcomes are identified by educational team members after first considering not only the
student’s high-priority, quality of life goal areas but also
his or her current level of symbol understanding and
use (Browder, Ahlgrim-DelzeU, Courtade-Little, & Snell,
2006; Mirenda, 2005). Any approach to the development
of educational goals for students with severe disabilities
must take into account that they are a very heterogeneous group. This diversity is refiected in the continutim
of symbol use that characterizes this population of
students—from students who are leaming that symbols
have meaning and are currently communicating with
presymbolic behaviors (e.g., facial expressions, body
movements, vocalizations, and gestures) to students who
understand and currently communicate with concrete
symbols (e.g., words, objects, photos, concrete graphic
icons), to students who understand and communicate (or
are leaming to communicate) with a variety of abstract
symbols (e.g., words, signs, abstract graphic icons). The
student’s current level of symbol use is a critical factor
in the development of individualized performance outcomes. For example, performance outcomes associated
with the critical function of “accessing and comprehending the major themes of a meaningful, accessible text”
might take form for a student who is learning that symbols have meaning through performance outcomes that
include selecting books and other reading materials, tuming pages, and attending to the pictures on each page and
identifying characters in the story or answering questions
about the story by pointing to the pictures; attending to
short stories read by peers; and inserting repetitive lines
in stories or poems at appropriate times using a voice
output communication aid. The critical function of the
standard might come to life for a student who understands
and currentiy communicates with concrete symbols (photographs and concrete graphic icons) through performance
outcomes that include following stories and other text as
they are read with photos and graphic icons on a
commtinication board; answering questions about a story
or other text and predicting what wül come next by pointing
to appropriate symbols on a communication board; and
summarizing the story or other text by arranging three
pictures in the order in which the ideas that they represent
appear in the text. For a student who understands abstract
symbols and communicates using abstract graphic icons
and a high-tech, voice output communication aide and
a variety of low-tech communication boards, performance outcomes associated with reading adapted, gradelevel Uterattire might include describing the attributes
of the major characters, answering comprehension and
Hunt et al.
Table 1
Decisions Made by Educational Team Members at Each Step of the Process for Identifying and
Teaching Standards-Based Academic Goals
Student/grade/current level of
symbol understanding and use
Manuel; 1st grade; learning that
symbols (objects/photos)
have meaning and currently
communicating with facial
expressions, body movements,
vocalizations, and gestures
Quality of life goal areas identified
through family and student-centered
(a) Communication using presymbolic
behaviors, objects, and photos to
express wants and needs, share
information, make choices, and
interact socially; (b) development
of positive sodal relationships and
friendships; (c) actively participating
in academic instructional contexts
and increasing comprehension
of concepts relevant to the
student’s daily life; (d) increasing
independence in classroom and
school routines
subject and
Science: life
Priority grade-level standard
Step 2
1st grade life sciences standard
(CA Curriculum Frameworks):
“Plants and animals meet their
needs in different ways.”
Sarah; 5th grade; currently
communicating with some
concrete words, photos, and
graphic icons
(a) Communication to express wants
and needs, share information,
make choices, and interact socially;
(b) development of positive social
relationships and friendships
with peers; (c) development of
self-monitoring and problem-solving
skills to increase active, positive,
and productive engagement;
(d) life enrichment through the
development of emergent literacy
skills and motivating academic
content knowledge; (e) increased
independence in classroom and
. school activities
Language arts:
5th grade reading standard for
literature {National Common
Core Standards for LA):
“Determine two or more
main ideas of a text and
explain how they are
supported by key details;
summarize the text.”
Jamal; 10th grade; communicating
with one-syllable written
words and concrete to
abstract graphic icons
(a) Commtinication to engage in
conversation turn-taking with peers
and to share feelings, information,
and perspectives with others;
(b) development of positive
social relationships and friendships
with peers; (c) development of
self-management and problem-solving
skills; (d) life enrichment through
gaining meaningful academic
content knowledge and the
development of reading and writing
skills; (e) increased independence
within community-living contexts
and activities
Math: number
and quantities
10th grade reading standard
for number and quantities
{National Common Core
Standards for Geometry):
“Use units as a way to
understand problems and
to guide the solution
of multi-step problems;
choose and interpret
units consistently in
formulas; choose and
interpret the scale and
the origin in graphs and
data displays.”
Each of the student’s individualized, quality of life goal areas is addressed through instruction of skills identified in the academic
IEP goals.
prediction questions as the story is read, and summarizing
the story using software tbat incorporates icons.
Step 5: Generate the IEP Goals and Objectives to
Address the Performance Outcomes
Tbe academic performance outcomes—witb associated assisfive tecbnology, AAC devices, and contextual
adaptations—are included as goals on tbe student’s
IEP along with those relevant to the student’s quahty
of life goal areas that are not academic in nature (e.g.,
communication, social, self-determination, and community and vocational activities goals). All goals describe
observable and measureable performance outcomes
that address quality of life goal areas and performance
criteria tbat include generalization across multiple natural
Ecological Curricular Framework and Academic Goals
Critical function of
the standard
Individualized performance
Step 3
Understanding the difference
between people, animals,
and plants and that living
organisms need different
things to thrive
Step 4
Identifying the difference
between people, animals,
and plants by sorting
examples and photos of
each into the appropriate
category and demonstrating
an understanding that people
and animals need food and
water to thrive and plants
need water and light by
matching the organism to
the items needed to thrive.
IEP goal to address the
perfonnance outcome
Examples of instructional
activities that provide
meaning and context
Step 6
During science lessons and in
Community and school
community settings during
activities with a small group
school and family activities,
of peers to ñnd and take
Manuel will discriminate
photos of people, plants,
between people, animals,
and animals; working with
and plants by sorting actual
peers to sort the photos into
examples or photos of each
the appropriate category
into the appropriate category
and match the groups of
and will demonstrate an
organisms to the items
understanding of the basic
needed to thrive; growing
needs of each by matching
a plant in the classroom or
the organism to the items
school garden and providing
needed to thrive (food,
it with water and light
water, light).
Accessing and comprehending Following stories and other
Given a variety of grade-level
Shared reading of adapted
main ideas in a meaningful,
text as they are read in a
stories and poems adapted
grade-level stories and
accessible text
shared reading context with
to Sarah’s reading level, she
poems in small group
photos and graphic icons
will (1) follow the texts as
instructional contexts
on a communication board;
they are read in a shared
in which students are
answering questions about
reading context with photos
supported to talk about
the text and predicting what
and graphic icons on a
the story and make
will come next by pointing
communication board;
predictions, point to .
to appropriate symbols on
and track the print, and
(2) answer questions about
a communication board;
ask questions and make
the text and predict what
summarizing the text by
comments about the story;
will come next by pointing
arranging three pictures in
acting out scenes from
to appropriate symbols on
the order in which the ideas
stories with classmates
the communication board;
they represent appear in
using a voice output
and (3) summarize the text
the text
communication aid;
by arranging three pictures
participating in shared
in the order in which the
reading activities with
ideas they represent appear
family members
in the text.
Using the measurement
Using measurement strategies
Jamal will use measurement
Purchasing items at school
of quantities to solve
and tools to solve problems
strategies and tools to solve
and in the community using
problems and understand
including (1) using the
problems by (1) using the
the “doUar-up” method;
data displays that provide
“dollar-up” method to purchase
“dollar-up” method to
selecting and preparing a
useful information
items, (2) using measuring
purchase items in school and
simple meal with peers by
cups and spoons to measure
the community, (2) using
reading and fallowing the
ingredients to complete each
measuring cups and spoons
steps of an adapted recipe
step of a simple recipe; and
to measure ingredients to
in home econ. class & eating
(3) using a scale to measure
complete each step of a
the meal while conversing
current weight to compare
simple recipe during econ.
with peers; practicing cooking
to a height/weight chart
class and at home; and
and conversation skUls at
mealtime with parents at
(3) using a scale to measure
home; measuring weight each
current weight, record it on
week in gym class, recording
a graph, and compare it to
on a graph, and comparing
a height/weight chart during
to a height/weight chart
gym class and at home.
Step 6: Teach These SkiUs Within and Across
Meaningful Activities That Provide Context
and Motivation and That Are Relevant to
the Student’s Daily Life
Ensuring fhaf whaf sfudenfs are learning is meaningful and enhances fhe qualify of their life will require
IEP feams fo design insfrucfion so fhaf if maximizes
students’ rate of skill acquisition and promofes fhe gen-
eraüzafion of skills fo typical performance condifions
and settings.
Recent research has demonstrated fhaf sfudenfs wifh
infellectual and developmenfal disabilifies can be faughf
a wide variefy of complex academic skills selecfed from
the general educafion curriculum (Bradford, Shippen,
Alberto, Houchins, & Flores, 2006; Jimenez et al., 2008;
McDonnell ef al., 2006; Neef, Nelles, Iwata, & Page,
Hunt et al.
2003). These studies also showed that students were able
to generalize these skills to other sdmulus materials,
tasks, and settings in the school; however, there are few, if
any, studies that have validated specific strategies for
promoting the generalization of complex academic skills
to the functional routines and acfivities completed by
students on a day-to-day basis.
While much more research will be needed to fully
address this issue, we suggest that IEP teams can improve the likelihood that students will use academic
knowledge and skills to meet high-priority hfe goals if
they employ four general strategies, including (a) teaching skuls in multiple ways during the school day; (b)
incorporating authentic tasks into instruction; (c) incorporating student-directed activities into instruction; and
(d) embedding academic skills into the instruction of
functional routines and activities in home, school, and
community settings.
Teaching skills in multiple ways during the school day
Historically, instruction for students with severe disabilities was done in one-to-one, massed practice teaching formats (Duker, Didden, & Sigafoos, 2004). Although
students are likely to continue to need individualized instruction that provides a high number of opportunities
to respond, IEP teams may need to combine multiple instructional approaches into comprehensive teaching
packages that are implemented throughout the school
day to achieve this outcome. This approach is not intended to replace students’ participation in the leaming
activities provided by the classroom teacher but rather
to supplement these activities to increase the efficacy of
Research over the last decade has vahdated a ntimber
of student-specific instructional strategies that can be used
to teach academic skills to students in general education
classes (Hunt & McDonnell, 2007). These include the
use of accommodations and modifications (Fisher & Frey,
2001), student-directed leaming (Agran et al., 2005), and
embedded instruction (McDonnell et al., 2002).
Instructional strategies that are used with all students
in the class are also effective in promofing the acquisition of academic skills by students with severe disabihfies.
These include cooperative learning (Cushing, Kennedy,
Shukla, Davis, & Meyer, 1997; Hunt, Staub, AlweU, &
Goetz, 1994), peer-mediated instruction (Kamps, Barbetta,
Leonard, & Delquardri, 1994; McDonneU, Thorson,
AUen, & Mathemaficsot-Buckner, 2000), and heterogeneous smaU group instruction (Rankin et al., 1999;
Schoen & Ogden, 1995).
Although these strategies are effecfive when they are
used alone, we believe that a more beneficial approach
is to combine strategies into comprehensive instructional
packages. Beyond increasing the rate of acquisition, this
approach would also enhance the probability of skiU
generalization because it would provide students with
opportunities to use the skiU across a variety of conditions
and contexts throughout the school day. This approach
would be parficularly effective if each strategy employed
different materials and required the student to apply
the skiU in different ways. For example, Manuel could
be taught to differentiate between people, animals, and
plants by placing pictures in the appropriate category
during a heterogeneous smaU group instmctional format
with peers who were working on related content from
the same unit; pointing to a picture of a person, animal,
or plant during embedded instruction distributed throughout classroom routines and activities; and peer supported
instrucfion during coUaborative science activities like
those described in Table 1. This is only one example of
how several validated practices could be combined to
provide students with effective instruction. The possible
combinations of these strategies are many and would
need to be tailored to students’ parficular leaming needs,
the skUls being taught, and the instrucfional and social
context of the general educafion classes.
Incorporate authentic tasks into instruction
Cognitive psychologists have argued for weU over two
decades now that instruction on academic knowledge
and skiUs needs to move beyond text-based leaming
activities to include authentic learning activities that Unk
student learning to real world problems (Berryman,
1993; Brown, Colhns, & Duguid, 1989; Resnick, 1987).
They argue that this approach increases the motivation
of students to learn difficult concepts and operations
because it is more meaningful to them and equaUy
important because it increases the likelihood that
students will be able to “transfer” or generahze new
knowledge to everyday activities task.
Increasingly, special educators have also acknowledged
the limitations of teaching approaches that only require
students to make discrete responses to teacher-directed
instructional trials. Studies have shown the utility of
“anchored instruction” for students with learning disabUities in language arts and mathematics (Bottge, Heinrichs,
Chan, & Serlin, 2001; Reith et al., 2003) and “funcfional
application” of academic content knowledge for students
with severe disabilities to support their generalization
of these skills to typical performance settings (Browder,
Spooner, et al., 2006; Browder et al., 2009). For example,
in addition to the instruction that Jamal would receive
on interpreting units of a scale displayed on a graph
during his geometry class, he could apply these skiUs by
weighing himself in the men’s locker room or at home
and recording it on a graph. He could use this information to analyze his progress toward meeting a healthy
weight goal. SimUarly, Sarah’s teacher might extend instruction beyond small group instruction on questions
about the main ideas in text or predicting what would
happen next using her communication board to include
shared reading activities with a peer in the hbrary and
with famUy members. These acfivifies would not only be
used to reinforce her ability to gain meaning from text
Ecological Curricular Framework and Academic Goals
but also to increase her motivation to read as a way to
gain knowledge or for recreation.
Extending instructional activities beyond traditional
teaching formats and incorporating “authentic” learning activities into instruction creates opportunities for
students to use knowledge and skills across a variety of
contexts and to use materials and responses that more
closely reflect typical performance conditions. Anchoring instruction to activities that are important to students allows them to see the link between instruction
and their day-to-day activities.
Incorporate student-directed learning activities
into instruction
The ability to independently analyze complex problems, create solutions, and communicate ideas to others
is widely recognized as a crifical indicator of a student’s
mastery of academic knowledge and skills (Council of
Chief State School Officers/National Govemors Associafion, 2010; National Reading Panel, 2000). Inherent in
the independent use of knowledge and skills is the ability
to generalize concepts, operations, and processes to new
problems and situations. Furthermore, these abilifies also
provide the basis for students to become self-directed,
lifelong leamers and to confinue to use their knowledge
and skills to increase their independence and autonomy.
The basic principle of independence, autonomy, and
self-directedness is one of the primary values underlying
educafional programs for students with severe disabilities
(McDonnell & Hardman, 2010; Snell & Brown, 2011).
There has been extensive research conducted on instrucfional models that are designed to help educators to
teach students to achieve their own leaming goals using
self-regulated problem-solving strategies such as the
Self-Determined Leaming Model of Instrucfion (Agran,
Cavin, Wehmeyer, & Palmer, 2006) and cooperative
leaming (Cushing et al., 1997; Hunt et al., 1994).
Student-directed learning strategies help students to
leam to control their own learning and work as part of a
team to independently solve problems. Activifies such
as working with peers to plan, purchase, and prepare
a simple meal during home economics class would
not only provide Jamal with opportunities to learn the
“dollar-up” strategy and to use measuring cups but
provide opportunities to learn a variety of planning,
problem-solving, and communicafion skills necessary for
success in a variety of acfivifies and settings. These strategies also provide a framework for students to adjust the
application of their knowledge and skills to variations
in sfimulus and response conditions.
Embed academic instruction in daily routines
and activities
A final strategy that teachers can use to promote
generalization is to embed explicit instrucfion on academic knowledge and skills in instrucfion on daily roufines and acfivities (McDonnell, Johnson, & McQuivey,
2008; Snell & Brown, 2011). This approach has been used
for decades to help students to be more independent
in home, community, and work settings; for example,
embedded instruction has been used to teach students to
count money within the context of learning to shop for
groceries or buy a meal at a restaurant (Colyer & Collins,
1996; Test, Howell, Burkhard, & Beroth, 1993).
Providing embedded instrucfion to students within the
on-going routines and activities of the general education classroom and school is also an important way
to support the mastery and generalization of academic
knowledge and skills. A very simple example would be
to provide Jamal with embedded instrucfion on using
the “dollar up” strategy when purchasing items from the
school store or purchasing lunch at school. Similarly,
Sarah could be provided instruction on pointing and
tracking printed instrucfions each fime the class was
asked to complete a worksheet or workbook page.
The current emphases in NCLB and IDEA on
students’ with disabilities parficipation and progress in
states’ core curricula have created both opportunifies
and challenges. On one hand, this mandate has reinforced
the expectafion that students with disabilifies, including
those with significant disabUifies, can learn complex academic content. It has also broadened the definifion of
what parficipation in the core curriculum means and thus
has allowed many students who may have been previously excluded based on their classification to access
instrucfion on academic knowledge and skills. On the
other hand, this mandate has created new challenges
for IEP teams in identifying academic content that is
both afigned with grade-level content standards and
that has a clear impact on the students’ immediate and
future qualify of life. It has also pushed the limits of our
current instructional technology to identify strategies
for promoting the generalization of the knowledge and
skills that students’ learn in school to day-to-day performance contexts and settings.
It is not uncommon for divisions to surface in our field
whenever new poUcies force a rethinking of educational
practice. In the current context, these divisions have occurred between proponents of ecological frameworks
of curriculum design and those who support the development of students’ educational programs based primarily, if not solely, on state core curriculum (e.g., Ayres
et al., 2011; Browder, Wakeman, et al., 2007). Although
both sides of the debate make important points, our
concern is that by framing our discussion as an “either/or”
choice we miss the opportunifies to take advantage of
the beneficial features of both approaches.
In this paper, we have proposed an educafional planning process that attempts to blend ecological frameworks for currictilum design and state core curricula in
a way that takes into account the traditional values of the
field of severe disabilities including individualization,
self-determinafion, inclusion, and a focus on improving
Hunt et al.
Students’ quality of life. We buud on previously proposed
planning procedures that focus on extending the academic content standards in ways that allow the students
to access the content based on their symbol use and
learning strengths (Browder, Ahlgrim-Delzell, et al.,
2006; Ford et al., 2001; Kleinert & Thurlow, 2001;
Thompson, Quenemoen, Thurlow, & Ysseldyke, 2001).
We argue that to make these procedures relevant, planning must begin with a clear articulation of the students’
life goals based on one or more person-centered planning processes. These life goals are intended to be more
than referents in the planning process but in fact should
be the primary consideration in selecting appropriate
core content standards and in designing the extension of
those standards to accommodate students’ unique educational needs (Bambara, Wilson, & McKenzie, 2007;
McDonnell & Hardman, 2010). To unify ecological curricular frameworks and core state curriculum, the IEP
team needs to expand the potential life goals beyond
home, friendships, community participation, and work
to include academic goal areas that enhance students’
ability to become more critical thinkers, expand their
understanding of culture, society, and community and
to become lifelong learners. Accepting that education is
more than simply pursuing utilitarian outcomes—and
includes the development of the student as a person,
friend, family member, and citizen—allows IEP teams to
think more broadly about what access to the state core
curriculum means and how the content standards may or
may not benefit students’ quality of Ufe.
In addition to embracing a planning process that
broadens our traditional definition of education, IEP
teams must also begin to think of teaching as a multilayered process that relies on instructional packages
consisting of several instructional approaches and strategies. IEP teams need to think more systematically
about how research-vaUdated practices can be combined to supplement the instruction students receive
from the classroom teacher to promote the acquisition
and generalization of academic knowledge and skiUs.
Research has clearly shown that students with severe
disabilities can learn complex academic knowledge and
skills when provided systematic instruction (Hunt &
McDonnell, 2007), but we also know that a “train and
hope” approach to instruction wUl not lead to students’
application and use of academic knowledge and skUls
in day-to-day activities and settings. Teaching knowledge and skills across the day in different contexts, with
different materials, and within various instructional formats seems to be a good first step toward achieving
these outcomes.
Areas for Future Research
Continued progress toward reconciling ecological
frameworks to curriculum design and states’ core curricula
WUl require additional research in a number of different
areas. One critical issue that needs to be addressed is the
impact that the mandate for students to participate and
progress in states’ core curricula has on the design of their
educational programs. While there are a number of potential issues, the following are of particular importance:
• Assess how IEP planning procedures that seek to
address academic core standards impact the content
and organization of students’ IEPs. Other than anecdotal reports, we have little information on how these
procedtires may affect the content of students’ IEP
goals (i.e., functional or academic core standards);
the breadth and depth of the core curricular domains
(i.e., language arts, mathematics, and science) represented in students’ IEP goals; the range of adaptations and modifications used by IEP teams to support
student’s access to academic content standards; or
whether IEP teams are structuring IEP goals and/or
objectives in ways that anchor targeted academic content standards to day-to-day activities or settings.
• Evaluate the impact of states’ alternate assessments
on the development of students’ IEPs. The question
is whether IEP teams are exercising their discretion
to include goals that are both functional and that
are based on academic core standards; or do they
develop IEPs that simply refiect academic content
standards because of the structure of mandated alternate assessments.
• Examine the process that IEP teams use to extend
academic core standards for students who do not currentiy use symbols to communicate. Areas of interest
would include the extent of alignment between the
extended standards developed by the IEP team with
the grade-level academic content standards; the aUgnment of the academic performance outcomes developed by the team and the “critical function” of
the grade-level academic content standards; and the
vaUdity and reliabiUty of the measures used to assess
progress in mastering the knowledge and skills identified in the extended content standard.
• Determine the social validity of these planning processes from the perspective of students, parents and
families, teachers, and administrators.
There is also a significant need for additional research
on instructional approaches that promote acquisition
and generalization of academic knowledge and skiUs. In
general, researchers need to expand the range of dependent variables used to vaUdate instructional strategies
to include direct measurement of students’ appUcation
and use of academic knowledge and skiUs outside of
school. In addition, we need to look closely at the relative
impact of instructional packages over single instructional
strategies in promoting student learning and their use
of skiUs in day-to-day activities and settings. It seems
unUkely that students wiU make significant progress in
states’ core curricula unless they receive supplemental
instruction beyond what is provided by the classroom
Ecological Curricular Framework and Academic Goals
teacher. We also need to begin to examine bow to ancbor instruction provided to students in schools to reallife problems and contexts. This could include looking
more closely at the nature of the academic tasks (e.g.,
story problems, activity-based learning, student-directed
vs. teacber-directed), instrucfional materials (e.g., use of
technology), and tbe expanded use of experienfial learning strategies sucb as service learning.
Finally, there is a critical need to examine tbe longterm effects of students’ participation and progress in
tbe core curriculum on postscbool outcomes (Ryndak
et al., 2012). While tbe benefits of ecological curricular
frameworks when paired with systematic instruction
and adequate postschool supports are well established,
it is still not clear bow students’ access to tbe general
education curriculum through extended academic content standards impacts students’ employment, bome
life, social connectedness, self-determination, and perceived quality of hfe. Adequately addressing tbese issues
will require comprebensive longitudinal studies that follow students from school into adulthood. In spite of the
significant methodological challenges associated with tbis
kind of research (e.g., measuring social cotmectedness
or quality of life), it seems unlikely that we will achieve
any understanding of bow to improve educafional programs for students with severe disabilities without tbis
Final Thoughts
Tbe purpose of tbis paper was to propose some modest
steps tbat IEP teams could use to plan and carryout
students’ educational programs based on botb ecological
frameworks for curriculum design and states’ core curricula. Otir primary message is that ecological curricular frameworks and states’ core curricula will work best
together when they are used to achieve clearly defined lifegoals that are based on the needs and preferences of individual students. It makes little sense to teach funcfional
routines or activifies to students that are not directly
linked to outcomes that will enhance an individual’s quality of life. The same expectation must also be applied
IEP goals that are focused on academic knowledge and
skills tbat based on academic content standards.
As we pointed out earlier, tbere is a significant need
for additional research focused in this area. However,
as important as research is, we also believe tbat it will
do httle good if, as a field, we cannot come to some
agreement on three key issues. First, what is the fundamental purpose of education for students with severe
disabilities? Tbe ecological framework of curriculum design bas largely taken a utilitarian approacb to defining
expected educafional outcomes for students including
employment, social connectedness, community participafion, and so on. The expectation that students with disabilities parficipate and progress in tbe general educadon
suggests that educadon should be more than just developing narrow disciplinary knowledge or tbe skills necessary
for career and employment. The argument is that educadon is not simply about helping people to live better by
achieving important but obvious tangible quality of life
outcomes (e.g., where and how they work. Uve, and play)
but creating tbe possibility of continued growtb and development as a person, fostering and expanding their tinique
interests and talents, and maximizing their pardcipadon
in their commtinides as citizens. Reconciling ecological
frameworks for curriculum design and state core curricula
requires us to define addidonal outcomes associated witb
expanding tbe students’ awareness and understanding of
tbe pbysical, bistorical, and social/polidcal world in wbicb
tbey Uve so tbat tbese kinds of outcomes can become an
integral part of tbe educadonal planning process.
Second, we need to resolve wbat it really means for
students witb severe disabihdes to pardcipate and progress in states’ core curricula. At tbis point, IEP teams
are required to review and select academic content standards from the core curricula in language arts, mathematics, and science that are appropriate to the student’s
educational needs. This approach raises a number of
important questions sucb as tbe following: Does tbis
sampling approach to selecdng standards for individual
students represent meaningful “participation” in tbe curriculum? If we do not expect students to pardcipate and
progress in all of tbe standards, then what do we expect
and why? How does holding IEP teams, schools, and
districts accountable on a small subset of grade-level academic content standards that differ across students contribute to improving educadonal quality and increased
accountability? Our concem is that the importance of
students leaming academic knowledge and skills will
be lost if tbe decisions that IEP teams are making are
driven by team member preferences or arbitrary gtiidelines, ratber tban what is in the best interest of students.
To address this concem, we propose tbat consideration
of eacb student’s quahty of life goal areas drive tbe selecdon process.
Finally, we are troubled by tbe decoupling of students’
participation and progress in states’ core curriculum
and the effort to increase the number of students who
are educated in general classes. Obviously, the statutes
allow teachers, schools, and districts to provide students’
access to the core curriculum in separate special education settings. The quesdon is whether this makes sense
given the field’s strong commitment over the last several decades to promoting inclusive education? Furthermore, it seems logical that students’ participation in the
core curriculum should be guided by general educadon
teachers who have expertise in content area knowledge.
Wbat message does it send to otber students, teacbers,
administrators, and community members wben we accept
an approacb that allows special education teachers who
may or may not have tbe experdse necessary to teach
language arts, mathemadcs, and science content to students in separate classes? Brown versus the Board of
Education clearly established the principle that separate
Hunt et al.
education is nof equal educafion for sfudents of African
American and European American decenf. If is reasonable and appropriafe fo apply fhis same principle fo
studenfs with severe disabilities. We believe fhaf sfudenfs’ parficipafion and progress in fhe core curriculum
can and should be achieved in general educafion classes.
There are no easy solufions fo these issues, and fhe
debafe over them is likely fo be vigorous. We are nof
naive enough fo believe fhaf fhe recommendations thaf
we have made in fhis paper are fhe solufion, buf fhey
are a start. As a field we do best for sfudents and their
families when we start our discussions on policy, research, and practice with their interests in mind and by
acknowledging fhat no single approach will be effective
for all people. If we build on whaf we know works for
studenfs and confinually seek ways fo push our expecfafions, we can significanfly improve fhe qualify of fheir
educafion and lives. Reconciling fhe perceived conflicfs
between ecological frameworks for curriculum design and
sfudenfs’ parficipafion in sfafes’ core curricula provides
an exciting opportunity for us fo make fhaf happen.
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Received: June 9, 2011
Final Acceptance: November 1, 2011
Editor in Charge: Carolyn Hughes
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Collaboration Column
Kimberly J. Paulsen, Associate Editor
Defining Special Educators’ Tools
The Building Blocks of Effective Collaboration
Kristin L. Sayeski
accommodations; collaboration; special education curriculum; special education practices; special
education inclusion
he role of the special educator has changed. Similar
to general educators, we are more accountable,
more specialized, and more collaborative (Turnbull,
2005; Yell, Katsiyannas, & Shiner, 2006). To be effective in this new role, special educators need to recommit to the founding principles of the discipline and
embrace the tools that allow us to meet the needs of
students with disabilities. This requires defining the
principles and practices of the field and then determining how those principles can be translated into collaborative partnerships with general educators.
Current legislation (Individuals with Disabilities
Education Improvement Act, 2004; No Child Left Behind
Act, 2001) holds special educators accountable for content knowledge understanding. Special educators not only
must understand the material needed to be taught but must
possess additional core areas of knowledge and be expert
in the content knowledge of special education. This
knowledge includes (a) the characteristics of students
with disabilities, (b) instructional design and modification, (c) a variety of instructional strategies, and (d) core
legal processes associated with special education (see
Figure 1). Special educators who are firm in their knowledge of these domains are better able to determine the
specific roles required of them as collaborative teachers.
This article is divided into four sections. In the first
section, the relationship between knowledge of characteristics of disabilities and effective instructional practices is presented. The second section focuses on how
special educators can use their knowledge of special
education law to implement instructionally sound
individualized education programs (IEPs). The third
section addresses strategies for creating meaningful
accommodations and modifications for students with
IEPs who are served in general education settings.
The fourth section pulls each of these domains
together and outlines a plan for developing collaborative partnerships.
Author’s Note: Please address correspondence to Kristin L. Sayeski,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway, Las
Vegas, NV 89154; e-mail: kristin.sayeski@unlv.edu.
Intervention in School and Clinic, Volume 45 Number 1, September 2009 38-44
DOI: 10.1177/1053451209338398 • © 2009 Hammill Institute on Disabilities
http://isc.sagepub.com hosted at http://online.sagepub.com
Sayeski / Effective Collaboration   39
Characteristics of Students with Disabilities
Information and Facts about Specific Disabilities
ο Social and Academic Implications
ο Terminology and Language
Special Education Law: IEP Implementation
IEP “Cheat” Sheets/Instructional Planning Guides
Figure 1.
IEP Procedures and Development
Best Practice in Implementation
Accommodations and Modifications
Accommodations and Modifications
Types of Quality Instructional Supports
Instructional and Assessment Strategies
Knowledge base of special educators. IEP = Indi­vidualized Education Program.
Knowledge of Characteristics
of Students With Disabilities
What is the content knowledge of the special educator? By definition, special education is intended to provide instruction that is different in some way from the
instruction given to students without special needs.
Therefore, special educators must first know and understand the processes, language, expectations, and concepts of general education (i.e., the de facto environment).
Then, special educators must know the characteristics
and instructional needs of students with disabilities.
Finding the intersections between the general education
environment and the needs of students with disabilities
is at the heart of special education today.
The foundation of all teacher preparation programs in
special education is a study of the characteristics of individuals with disabilities. Knowing these characteristics
can assist educators in defining (and identifying students
for) special education, but more important, these characteristics guide the development of instruction. For collaborative teachers, this foundation should serve as a
funnel to contextualize communication. For example,
teachers who share a general understanding of the characteristics of students with learning disabilities can communicate better and gain a deeper understanding of the
unique needs and characteristics of the particular student
identified as having a learning disability (LD). Special
education teachers should be well versed in the general
characteristics of the populations they serve. Sharing
broad definitions and explanations of disabilities can
provide a context for helping general education teachers
who serve students with special needs to focus their attention on individual student learning behavior.
One strategy for applying knowledge of characteristics in a collaborative setting is to prepare characteristicspecific fact sheets. A fact sheet can serve two important
functions: (a) to communicate factual information
gleaned from research regarding characteristics of the
particular population and (b) to sensitize the teacher to
areas of particular concern (e.g., academics, social–
emotional needs, communication requirements). The
factual information dispels myths or assumptions (e.g.,
students with dyslexia read backward and need vision
40   Intervention in School and Clinic
Learning Disabilities Fact Sheet
Students with learning disabilities represent a varied group. Not all students with learning disabilities will experience the same challenges
or present the same needs. Research on students with learning disabilities, however, highlights general characteristics and instructional
practices that are effective across a wide-range of students.
A learning disability is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information
(NCLD, 2007). Individuals with learning disabilities will have average to above average intelligence, but experience difficulty in one
or more of the following areas: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and/or mathematics. The majority of individuals with learning
disabilities have difficulty in the area of reading (~80%).
• Difficulty with reading (learning to read and/or comprehension)
 Specific examples may include: lack of phonemic awareness, difficulty with developing vocabulary, slow reading rate,
poor comprehension and retention of material, difficulty retelling a story, difficulty identifying salient features of text
(e.g., main ideas, story grammar)
• Difficulty with writing
 Specific examples may include: difficulty expressing ideas through writing, poor penmanship, poor pencil grip,
difficulty mastering the conventions of writing (e.g., grammar, spelling, punctuation), frequent spelling errors
• Difficulty with mathematics
 Specific examples may include: difficulty learning basic facts, difficulty copying problems, difficulty comprehending
word problems, difficulty remembering multi-step computational processes
• Difficulty with pragmatics (understanding the nuances of language in a social context), which leads to difficulty understanding
jokes or informal language
Instructional Strategies
Potential “Hot Spots” or Challenges for Students with LD
• Text written above a student’s reading level
• Multi-step projects that require considerable outside-of-class time
• Lectures that require extensive note taking
• Competitive group learning formats with non-specified roles
• Discussion-oriented classes that are dependent upon “incidental” learning—picking up salient topics and content through
listening to peers and teacher interactions
Recommended Strategies
• Break large assignments into several smaller assignments with progressive due dates
• Provide copies of lecture notes (PowerPoint or overheads); assign a note-taker
• Provide alternative sources of text information (e.g., e-texts, trade books, alternative text)
• Provide extended time to read and/or complete assignments
• Require the use of an assignment notebook for tracking assignments and progress
• Vary instructional methods to include direct instruction with frequent student interactions
• Use a variety of information processing strategies such as graphic organizers, mnemonics, provide visuals for directions and
processes, ample practice opportunities
• Organize content, “chunk” information by providing frequent reviews within the lesson
• Create study guides
Figure 2.
Learning disabilities fact sheet.
correction; all students who have autism are savants).
Fact sheets should also highlight students’ skills and
abilities. For example, highlighting the variability in
challenges faced by students with LD from student to
student and even potentially uneven profiles of achievement within a student may prevent generalized lowered
expectations on behalf of the general educator. Figure 2
is an example of a fact sheet on learning disabilities.
The facts, in combination with the IEP, become the road
map for planning accommodations or modifications within
the classroom. In addition, fact sheets can provide common language. Crafting your fact sheet to reflect peoplefirst language (i.e., student with a disability, not disabled
student) or to emphasize how to label or talk about student
needs creates a starting point for mutual understanding.
Without a background in special education, a general educator can feel lost regarding how to define the challenges
that he or she is experiencing in the classroom and how to
articulate what needs to be done. Fact sheets can also provide educationally useful statements that can be used in
place of common (sometimes pejorative) language. Many
national organizations have ready-made fact sheets.
Teachers may find that these sheets are sufficient for
their needs, or teachers may need to synthesize several
publicly available resources to capture the appropriate
information. The National Diss­emination Center for
Children with Disabilities (www.nichcy.org) provides
fact sheets on a variety of disabilities.
Sayeski / Effective Collaboration   41
The second purpose of the fact sheet is to engender sensitivity on behalf of the general educator to particular areas
of concern. For example, a general education teacher who
runs a fast-paced, discussion-oriented classroom is about to
have two students with learning disabilities included. What
hot spots should this teacher consider? The general fact
sheet might include a statement such as the following:
Students with learning disabilities have difficulty with incidental learning. That is, they perform better and retain more information if it is provided explicitly and directly. Particular
instructional areas of concern may include whole class discussions, exploratory labs, or open-ended assignments. Instructional
supports for students with learning disabilities may include
providing summaries of key classroom information through
written notes, study guides, or daily written objectives.
In reviewing the fact sheet with the special educator,
the classroom teacher might be prompted to print notes
from an electronic whiteboard at the conclusion of class
discussions or create wrap-up sessions at the end of
each class to highlight key concepts. Fact sheets should
encourage discussion related to the development of
student-specific accommodations and modifications.
Fact sheets should not be used as a tool for dramatically
altering a teacher’s curriculum or method of instruction, unless it is determined that the instruction is not
meeting the needs of many students in the classroom.
General fact sheets can be useful tools for communication and sensitization, but an important caution should be
heeded prior to the development and implementation of
these fact sheets. Special educators must clearly communicate that these fact sheets contain general principles
extracted from research on the characteristics of the population at large and that not all students will present each of
these characteristics. That is, not all students with behavior disorders (BD) will demonstrate all of the characteristics listed on a BD fact sheet. These fact sheets are to
be used as a general orientation to the field and as an initial
step in the implementation of a particular student’s IEP.
When not followed by student-specific planning, the use of
fact sheets can lead to unfair generalizations or lowered
expectations. Special educators can combat these possible
negative outcomes by creating specific instruction and goal
sheets for the students on their caseloads.
Special Education Law:
Implementation of Individualized
Education Programs
In addition to possessing general knowledge of the
characteristics of disabilities, special educators should be
well versed in the legislation associated with the education of students with special needs. From identification
to IEP development to IEP implementation, special educators are an invaluable resource for those with whom
they work. Various roles that special educators can take
include serving on the Teacher Assistance Team (Child
Study), school-wide behavior management committees,
or curriculum planning committees. In these capacities,
special educators can put into place practices to ensure
that legal processes are followed.
IEP Cheat Sheets
One of the most powerful ways special educators can
ensure legally correct practices is to keep the IEP as the
guiding instructional document for their students. Serving
as the necessary complement to the fact sheet is the IEP
cheat sheet or IEP instructional planning guide. These
guides translate key aspects of the IEP into an instructional
how-to for both the general and the special educator. The
guide should contain information about the unique
strengths and needs of the student, IEP goals, and a list of
possible strategies for implementation. The studentspecific instructional planning guide allows special educators to extract the important elements of the IEP that
will provide the foundation for transforming that IEP into
instructional practices. Ideally, special educators would
create different planning guides specific to the needs of
the general educator with whom they are collaborating.
Figure 3 is an example of an instructional planning guide
created for a sixth-grade language arts teacher. A different
planning guide that includes only the specific math IEP
goals would be created for the mathematics teacher.
The instructional planning guide provides a one-page
reference for the classroom teacher. Planning guides should
contain important IEP information at a glance. Specific topics to include are (a) student name and identified disability,
(b) topic of focus (e.g., mathematics, social–emotional
domains, reading), (c) summary of relevant IEP goals and
progress markers, (d) required IEP modifications and accommodations, and (e) suggested instructional strategies.
Knowledge of Modifications
and Accommodations
When many educators think about instructional
accommodations, things such as preferential seating,
extended time on tests, or note-takers/scribes come to
mind. Although important for many students, these
accommodations do not get to the heart of instructional
delivery or to the core needs of many students with
42   Intervention in School and Clinic
IEP Instructional Planning Guide: Language Arts
Student: Katelyn Marsh
Disability: Learning Disability
Class: 6th Grade Language Arts
Classroom Teacher: Mr. Abbott
Overview of Strengths and Needs: Katelyn is a bright student who enjoys creative writing. She has difficulty with the conventions of
writing (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.). Katelyn is shy and tends not to participate in class. She does enjoy participating in her
literature circles when she is with students with whom she feels comfortable. Katelyn has difficulty with organization and following multistep directions.
IEP Goals and Progress Markers (P.M.)
Goal: Given a writing assignment, Katelyn
will write a multi-paragraph essay that
includes a clear thesis statement, supporting
examples and details, and no more than 3
spelling errors.
P.M.: Katelyn will select a graphic
organizer 100% of the time when
preparing a writing draft.
P.M: Katelyn will generate one main idea
or thesis statement for the topic 4 out of
5 times.
P.M.: Katelyn will be able to generate
supporting examples or details for each
main idea.
P.M.: Katelyn will correctly spell high
frequency words and make fewer than 5
errors per multi-paragraph writing
Figure 3.
Accommodations and Modifications
Use of pencil grips
Allow student to type homework
Reduce amount of in-class writing required (e.g., provide a copy of class notes,
reduce length of journal entries required)
• Provide a checklist for checking conventions of writing
• Divide long writing assignments into “chunks” with individual due dates; for example,
first the graphic organizer is due, then the rough draft, then the paper with teacher
checklist, and finally the finished paper
• Write daily agenda and objectives on the board
• Require a homework organizer
Modifications: (can be delivered by the general educator, special educator, or a related
service provider)
• Work on proper pencil grip
• Provide mini-lessons on grammar, punctuation, and other writing conventions
• Receive specific instruction in spelling at least 3x per week; instruction should
include work with high frequency words and instruction in spelling conventions
• Teach specific writing graphic organizers such as Story Maps, Webbing, Compare
and Contrast, or Sequence Chain

Extended time on tests
Use of the computer, if requested by student
Sample Individualized Education Program (IEP) instructional planning guide. All names are pseudonyms.
disabilities. Given the range of learners who receive
their instruction in the general education classroom for
part or all of their day, all teachers will be asked to
engage in instructional modification or accommodation
at some point in their careers (U.S. Department of
Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative
Services, 2004). Illuminating the difference between
modifications and accommodations can shed light on
the variety of ways students with disabilities can be supported in general education settings.
Modifications are a change in the objective or content of what is taught. Modifications require a dif…
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