“Education is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of discrimination and poverty that children with disabilities often face.” –Global Partnership for Education

Teachers, staff, and school administrators play an important role when it comes to the wellbeing of school-aged children with special needs due to disabilities. Not only do these children have to learn how to effectively handle their disability, they are often faced with the additional challenge of navigating a school system that is not always tolerant or understanding.

How can the people who interact with children with special needs in a scholastic setting—the teachers, paraprofessionals, and school administrators—build an atmosphere of acceptance and empathy that allows children with disabilities to flourish? What steps can be taken to help these disadvantaged kids appreciate learning, instead of dreading it?

While there is no “silver bullet” answer, classrooms can try several different best practices to help aid students with disabilities in their development. Please note that the focus of this article is on children with learning, social, and behavioral challenges due to brain disorders or mental health issues, not physical disabilities. These challenges range from Autism Spectrum Disorder to ADHD to Down Syndrome to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Although each special needs’ issue requires a different approach, many children with emotional or behavioral disabilities thrive in a similar environment—one that is nurturing, stable, and supportive.

Use the following guidelines as a starting point, keeping in mind that each child is unique and what works for one student may not work for another. Ultimately, getting to know each child, developing an understanding of their challenges, and working with them to foster learning and growth are the keys to creating a welcoming academic environment for kids with special needs.

1. Recognize the Disability

First and foremost, it is important to understand and recognize that children with disabilities have disabilities. This seems reasonable and obvious, but oftentimes school staff may unintentionally forget this key fact, especially since many times the types of disabilities that cause children to struggle emotionally, socially, and behaviorally in school are those that are invisible to the naked eye, making it hard to remember that those students do have true disabilities. These invisible disabilities differ from something like Down Syndrome or physical disabilities, where there are physical signs and reminders the child is challenged with a unique need.

If teachers and staff are not mindful of the presence of a disability, they may move into thinking that a special needs’ behavior is the result of willful decisions and what may be seen as lack of compliance with authority. A meltdown from a child with a disability may be viewed as a temper tantrum (a willful choice trying to get one’s way), but it is instead often a child’s response to being overwhelmed by their environment or the expectations of others they feel they cannot meet. Tantrums typically end when the child has received what they want, but a meltdown requires a full expenditure of the energy and may require learned, practiced calming procedures and routines to alleviate. Similarly, tantrums usually halt after early childhood, while meltdowns due to disabilities can span a longer time period into teenage years or even over a lifetime.

2. Create Stability

Most students thrive on stability. Consistency in lesson structure, routine, and people in the classroom helps to reduce anxiety and stress. When students know they’ll be in a classroom with the same group of kids, the same teacher, and the same paraprofessionals, kids with special needs tend to feel safer and more open to trying new things and stretching themselves. If their atmosphere is ever-changing (i.e. they are assigned a new desk each month or they have to work with several different paras), they may act out or refuse to do their work.

3. Set Clear Expectations

If you are a classroom teacher, you likely have a set of class rules and expectations. These expectations are especially helpful to children with disabilities, as they define clear parameters of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Make sure your classroom guidelines are straightforward and leave little room for interpretation. You may want to have a one-on-one meeting with each of your kids with special needs at the beginning of the year to make sure that both the rules and their consequences are understood.

4. Reinforce Positive Behavior

Many children with special needs enjoy or require attention and it’s much better to reinforce good behavior with positive attention, rather than only to point out negative behaviors. Teachers can lead by example in the classroom by giving plenty of praise to their students with disabilities when they’ve completed an assignment correctly, volunteered to answer a question, or collaborated effectively in a group. But sometimes it may be as simple as rewarding a child for being able to sit at their desk appropriately. Being mindful of whatever the child is accomplishing and rewarding that behavior can be very powerful. Teachers can also encourage positive actions by setting up a system of rewards or recognition for all students.

Some disabilities impact children so that they have a harder time understanding behavior/consequence paradigms as they may occur in the future; being aware of which students struggle with anticipating cause and effect is critical in learning to stay in the “now” with those students. Children with unique needs may require their own rubric and their Individual Education Plan and Positive Behavior Support Plan should guide what kinds of supports and aids are put in place to match each child’s specific needs.

5. Create a “Distress Strategy”

When a child with disabilities begins to exhibit signs of anxiety, anger, or frustration, it’s a good idea to have a plan in place to swiftly handle their distress without amplifying the problem or distracting the other students. One strategy teachers can implement is to develop a special signal that can be used when the student is feeling upset. When the teacher uses the signal, it can serve as a private message to the student to remind her that she has the ability to reduce her anxiety through breathing techniques, a mantra, or other calming methods that have been established and practiced by the student with the teacher’s support.

The advocacy group “Understood” focuses on learning and attention issues in children. They reinforce the validity of using a distress signal by acknowledging that, “Children with learning and attention issues often need visual cues to bring them back to focus on the problem and think about ways to overcome obstacles. It’s important for them to feel they’re an active part of the process and that they can control the situation.”


It’s time to take a different approach with our school-aged kids with disabilities. Instead of seeing them as a liability or a burden in the classroom, let’s start to view them as the uniquely gifted students that they are. Each child brings their own set of talents and own distinct personality into the classroom. They laugh; they find enjoyment in different people, activities, and objects. They are part of the fabric of our nation’s future. Shouldn’t we take the time to understand them and do our best to help them succeed in the classroom?

Contact me to continue the conversation.

Further Reading and Resources:


Global Partnership for Education: Children with Disabilities

PBS: Teaching Strategies

Teaching Vision: Special Needs—Teacher Resources

Teachnology: Disabilities Guide

Understood: Come up with a frustration signal