IEP · Stronger Together: Involving Other Professionals in Your Workshop Blog Series · writing workshop

Working with Special Education Teachers: Stronger Together Blog Series

Because I began my career as a special education teacher, I feel especially aligned to the professionals within our building who work with students with IEPs. Together, I’ve curated some of their ideas and suggestions as educators work together, inspiring and empowering all children to write. 

Three Critical Mindsets to Keep at the Forefront

Even though these mindsets cross over to all content areas, I think they are crucial when it comes to writing instruction; writing is a complex process, involving memory, fine motor skills, executive functioning, and more processing skills. 

  • Approach every students with the stance of accomplishment and possibility.

By the time a student gets an IEP, there’s been a lot of struggle, and many students have convinced themselves– with a lot of adult agreement– that they can’t. The shift in approach to “Wow– look at what you’ve done!” is a huge one. Naming what’s in place surprises many students with IEPs, and it’s a critical step, but one I’m not sure I’d known about as much as I should have. Henry Ford is credited with the statement whether you believe you can or think you can’t, you’re right. Shifting the mindsets of everyone who is working with developing writers is huge. 

  • Be on the lookout for places and reasons that impede student access, progress, and learning.

Special education teachers have extensive training about what gets in the way of learning. They can offer insights about processing issues that may lead to frustration and stagnation for students. The table below is a mere sampling of possibilities, but special educators are diagnosticians, trained in thinking about and pinpointing what could impede learning progress and how to provide strategic accommodations and modifications, leading to greater student success.

Predicting barriers and planning for support is a tool I created to help writing teachers think about and plan for what could be in the way of progress. 

  • Teach the writer and not the writing.

Closely related to the principle around the Zone of Proximal Development is the reminder, credited to Lucy Calkins, to teach the writer and not the writing. Many times, students with IEPs spend precious instructional minutes striving to produce final product that looks like what other students have created. The final product might look the same, but the process might be dramatically different. Most elementary students with IEPs benefit from repeated practice of working through several pieces of writing, each piece representing an increment of improvement. That process is different than one where a student spends day after day working on the same piece and fixing whatever an adult tells them to do. What is the student internalizing and what will be retained and transferred to the next writing challenge? That is the question that should be on the forefront of any teacher’s mind, and especially on the forefront of adults who are working with students who have writing goals and objectives. Special education teachers write those goals and objectives, and they can be powerful partners when it comes to individualizing instruction for students with IEPs. 

Three Shifts in Practice

In addition to these three theoretical approaches, educators can work together and create more effective and efficient IEPs. The goals and objectives should align to the curriculum which is the specialty of a classroom teachers, but address the individual learning profiles of students with IEPs, which is the specialty of a special education teacher.  

  • Collaborate about the grade level units for writing and the standards those units address

I’m not sure I had the big picture view of how the writing curriculum would unfold over the course of the year when I was a special education teacher over a decade ago. My priorities were on learning about my students, figuring out their goals and objectives, implementing accommodations and modifications, establishing a schedule, and keeping up with the progress monitoring and reporting that each student requires– and that was across grades and subjects. The more that sort of knowledge can combine with the overall understanding of the year’s curriculum trajectory, the more systematic and intentional instruction can become throughout the year… And the more students can grow as writers!

  • Collaborate about and create tools and resources that respond to academic levels of learning

Charts and checklists are powerful tools and reinforcers of concepts, scaffolding learners as they work toward mastery. Special education teachers often have responsibility of multiple grade levels, and therefore create multiple levels of these resources. Therefore, special education teachers can serve as important bridges of strategies, resources, and information between grades. Those bridges have the power to create access for many more students than those with IEPs. 

  • Ensure that all educators know and understand vocabulary around writing instruction 

The categories of writing in terms of structure, development, and convention are at the helm of so much of my work now, but I’m not sure I understood them until my work as a writing specialist. If I’d understood them as a special education teacher, I could have written IEP goals that addressed the categories, helping students and teachers understand the progress and breakdowns, balancing content and conventions. During my time as a writing coordinator, I have created a document of sample IEP goals and objectives,which I hope is helpful for case managers as they develop meaningful goals for students.  

Collaborative Shifts

Many students who have IEPs have teams of professionals working on their behalf, developing goals and learning opportunities that enable and empower them as learners. Special education teachers, occupational therapists, technology specialists, paraprofessionals, and more, all have power and potential to create access and inspire students to write. The more these professional collaborate and learn from each other, the more the expertise expands, and the more learning happens for all students. The power to write offers people the power to share stories, connect, inform,  express opinions, and make a difference in a rapidly changing world.


Throughout the week, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We even have a book giveaway for those of you who share comments! 

  • This giveaway is for a copy Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms by Lee Ann Jung, Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Julie Kroener. Many thanks to ASCD for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms, please leave a comment on any of our blog series posts Sun., November 6th at Noon EST. Sarah Valter will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Mon., Nov. 7th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Sarah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at ASCD will ship the book to you. 
  • If you are the winner of the book, Sarah will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – STRONGER TOGETHER BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

3 thoughts on “Working with Special Education Teachers: Stronger Together Blog Series

  1. We are working towards these shifts in our thinking and practice as well as we notice that what we are currently doing to support students with IEPs is not enough. Thank you for this timely post!


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