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SPED Classroom Foundation: The Students

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

New to teaching SPED & feeling lost & overwhelmed? Not sure where to start, but know that there are no less than 238729837 things to do? The SPED Classroom Foundation blog post series is for you! For posts related to the SPED Classroom Foundation series, click here.


Two separate times in my career, I've inherited a classroom that contained 10 years' worth of the previous teacher's stuff that was 'donated' upon their departure.

I'm not kidding. TWICE.

Who does that happen to? Me, and probably you, too.

What did it mean? I was the winner of sifting through it all to try and decipher what needed to stay & what needed to go.

In the words of Uncle Jesse, "Have mercy!"

From schedules & notes to methods & systems, it can be overwhelming to start at the beginning when there's so much noise around you. It's important to take a step back and refocus for a second. Why are you here to begin with? What's your purpose?

The students.

No matter what our role is, we're in education for the students.

The students are what drives our passion and our 'why.'

They're the reason we show up.

Set aside the stuff and things, the systems of former teachers, the well-meaning comments from others, and the length of the inevitable to-do list that lies ahead. Politely nod and smile to those that are also working during the summer and want to pop in to share their two cents about your classroom, which they likely know little about.

Put a pin in all of it.

If you're stepping into a new teaching position, inheriting a classroom for the first time, or are building a classroom from scratch, an important step is to familiarize yourself with the needs of the students you will be supporting.

Chance are, you don't have a master schedule readily available until mid-August, but one perk of teaching SPED is that you typically know what student's you'll have, at least in some capacity.

An obvious solution to getting to know your students is to meet them in real life & having conversations with them and their families. Still, because it's summertime when you're reading this (likely as you're spending hours of your summer off the clock but in your classroom), that's not feasible.

Here are some ideas to help you lay the groundwork of getting to know your students so that you can know how to plan, what to plan, and begin developing a vision for your classroom.

Specific disability information

With intention, a SPED (or SPED-supported) classroom will have students with varying needs & levels of required support. Taking the time now to learn about each student's identified disability can help you best prepare for your students. Learning about a student's disability can be done by reviewing the student's Full and Individual Evaluation (FIE) and a student's most recent Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP). Both of these pieces provide you insights through various lenses:

  • The FIE provides a summary of how the student qualified to receive special education services.

  • The PLAAFP gives you information about the aforementioned disabilities have impacted the student's learning during the last ARD year.

Questions to consider when learning about a student's specific abilities:

  • What does (insert disability) look like in general?

  • Are there evidence-based practices that lend well to the success of students with that exact disability?

  • In what areas might the disability impact the students learning in my classroom?

  • What do I (the teacher) need to learn about best practices related to the specific disability?

IEP progress report

Another great way to get to know your upcoming students is by reviewing their most recent progress. Several sources would gauge progress, but I'm referring specifically to students' IEP goal progress in this instance. We know that students with disabilities are assured FAPE, equitable access to the curriculum, and are accountable for learning content. We also know that what makes specially designed instruction unique is that by design, SPED focuses the instruction and intervention on a student's specific areas of need. We get to pinpoint specific struggles for our learners and address those struggles in the form of IEP goals. The name of the game is to understand the deficit(s), then provide tools, interventions, and instruction so that learning takes place in the most challenging of content areas.

So when I say that reviewing IEP progress is important, I mean it's SUPER important. Understanding how a student is progressing on difficult skills can help you plan instruction and interventions to help them meet their goal(s).

Accommodations, modifications, & schedule of services

Another great way to get to know your students is by familiarizing yourself with their unique accommodations & schedule of services written in the IEP.


Many (or all) of your students will have accommodations. Sometimes they're broad and generic, but sometimes they are particular to a program, device, strategy, etc. Knowing the accommodation needs of your student helps plan how you will teach. Remember that providing accommodations to students is non-negotiable and is a part of the legally binding IEP document. If you have questions about what a specific accommodation looks like in the classroom, ask.

Schedule of services

The IEP schedule of services is important because it tells you exactly what services and supports the student needs to succeed. Familiarizing yourself with this piece of the IEP may not necessarily help with planning instruction, but it will help guide you with what to plan.

Previous teacher, therapist, and support staff consult

Another obvious suggestion is to consult with previous teachers, therapists, and support staff. Many times, there is so much value in the experiences that other educators have had with a particular student. If possible, and keeping student confidentiality in mind, visit previous teachers to learn more about what & how: what the student needs to learn and how the student has been successful. Some questions that can help guide those conversations are as follows:

  • What does the student need to be included & successful?

  • What do you wish you knew about the student's abilities when they first arrived in your class?

  • How did the student find academic success while in your class?

Paper student vs. real-life student

We've all read about a student on paper and then met the student in real life and said, "WHOA. That's not the same student!".

There's value in getting to know your students on paper, but there's so much more value in getting to know them in person. The paper version of a student can be helpful, objective, and insightful. Still, it absolutely doesn't replace the value of getting to know your students in real life when the opportunity presents itself.

Some of the things mentioned above may be pretty straightforward, but I've found that the process of getting to know your individual students gets missed from time to time.

How? I don't know, but it does.

As a new(er/ish) SPED teacher, be sure to carve out time to get to know your student. This step is a HUGE key foundation to the success of their school year.

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