Abstract

Progress in including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in general education environments has been unquestionably slow during the past quarter century. Systematic approaches to identifying and arranging supports are needed to accelerate this outcome. In this article, we propose an approach to understanding students by their support needs in relation to curricular demands, instructional strategies, and participation requirements as a means to enhance the capacities of schools and general education classrooms to educate all students.

Historically, the most common conceptualization of disability has been that it is a pathology within a person (Pledger, 2003). Such an orientation called on educators of children with disabilities to devote their efforts to removing the pathology or “fixing” children so they could function more like children without disabilities. The ultimate goal was for children with disabilities to progress to the point of being capable of participating independently in all aspects of childhood life (including attending schools and classrooms alongside their same-age peers). Independence was defined as participating without any (or very minimal) supports beyond what most children need. Because the supports they needed to be successful were absent from general education schools and classrooms, students with the most significant disabilities were judged (and destined) to be children who were never going to be “ready” (i.e., sufficiently independent) to be educated alongside their classmates without disabilities. Thus, the general education classroom has not traditionally been perceived to be a setting that was congruent with the needs of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

It is easy to forget that self-contained classrooms and other restrictive educational settings were established within educational systems to provide a place to educate students for whom general education classrooms were perceived to be unsuitable. The demands of general education classrooms and the lack of personalized supports available in them were considered to be overwhelming barriers to including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. School districts were encouraged to offer children in local communities a comprehensive system of special education services by providing a cascade of placement options (Deno, 1970).

An alternative understanding of disability, the social-ecological perspective, has gained prominence during the past quarter century (e.g., see Luckasson et al., 1992; World Health Organization, 2001). The social-ecological perspective holds that disability is best understood in terms of the fit between a person's competency and the demands of the typical environments in which the person functions. Understanding disability this way focuses professional efforts on transforming the context by either altering the environment to make it more accessible to a person with a disability or introducing personalized supports that enable the person to function successfully in that context. With regard to children in schools, a social-ecological understanding of disability requires educators to focus their efforts on fixing the context in which the child functions (i.e., fix the mismatch between the child and the general education classroom, general education curriculum, and instruction) as opposed to concentrating efforts on fixing the child (Thompson, Wehmeyer, & Hughes, 2010).

Focusing on support needs does not suggest that student learning or behavioral characteristics be denied or disregarded. Impairments and limitations, however, are not considered to be the most salient characteristic of children with disabilities and, therefore, should not be the primary target of professional efforts. According to a social-ecological conceptualization of disability, the most salient difference between children with disabilities and the general population of children is that children with disabilities need extra supports to successfully participate in daily life activities in schools and other typical settings. Educators are called upon to prioritize their efforts on transforming environments, tasks, activities, curriculum, and instruction so that students with disabilities can meaningfully and fully participate.

Thompson et al. (2009) defined support needs as “a psychological construct referring to the pattern and intensity of supports necessary for a person to participate in activities linked with normative human functioning” (p. 135). Like other psychological constructs, the intensity of a person's support needs (just as the intensity of someone's motivation, courage, or shyness) must be inferred because it is not directly observable. Research findings have shown that support needs is a construct that has a reciprocal relationship with, but is distinct from, constructs associated with personal competence such as adaptive behavior and intelligence (Thompson & DeSpain, 2016). The premise of this article is that careful and systematic consideration of the support needs of children can provide educators with new ways to organize their thinking about how to enhance the capacities of general education environments to educate students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and to facilitate personalized learning.

Inclusive Education for Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities

Swimming Through Porridge for 25 Years

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines students with the most significant cognitive disabilities as the approximately 1% of the student population who require alternate assessments to measure the extent to which they are making adequate yearly progress in school. By federal definition, large-scale assessments that are used to measure the progress of the other 99% of students would not be accessible for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, even if provided with accommodations (IDEA, 2006 34 C.F.R. § 300).

With few exceptions, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are a subset of students from the following four IDEA disability categories: intellectual disability, deaf-blindness, autism, and multiple disabilities (Kleinert et al., 2015; Wehmeyer & Shogren, 2017). Today's students with significant cognitive disabilities are the same students, percentage wise, who Brown et al. (1991) focused on when taking the position that students “who function intellectually within the lowest 1% of the school age population” (Brown et al., 1991, p. 39) should spend the vast majority of their school day in the same classrooms and schools attended by their same-aged peers. Although the Brown and colleagues article is over a quarter century old, we chose to revisit it because it is evident that the authors were striving to provide a closing argument for inclusive education based on their years of experience in confronting a wide range of questions and skeptics. For example, they briefly recapped prior debates concerning the education of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, noting that Goldberg and Cruickshank (1958) first debated whether students with the most significant cognitive disabilities could and/or should be educated at all. Once it was settled that education was justifiable, the debate progressed to whether separate schools should be established exclusively for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities (Burton & Hirshoren, 1979, called this the “cluster approach”), or if self-contained classrooms, based in general education schools, were better (Sontag, Certo, & Button, 1979). Brown et al. (1991) pointed out that self-contained classrooms, although a step in the right direction, continued to segregate students with the most significant cognitive disabilities from their same-aged peers.

Efforts to include students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in general education classrooms began in earnest in the 1980s; by the end of the decade, it had been demonstrated that including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in general education environments was both beneficial and workable (e.g., see Raynes, Snell, & Sailor, 1991). Brown and colleagues (1991) concluded that the “end of the arduous placement journey is imminent” (p. 39) and any further debate between the appropriateness of “inclusive classrooms” versus “special classrooms” could now, as of 1991, be put to rest. Inclusive education no longer needed to be viewed as a cutting-edge concept. Rather, it was a logical concept whose time had come.

In terms of practice, the available evidence suggests that progress over the past quarter century has been quite limited. Findings reported in the Seventeenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (1995), which provides placement data from the 1992-93 school year, compared to placement data from 2015 as reported in the Thirty-Ninth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2017) suggests that expansion of inclusive schooling opportunities has proceeded at a snail's pace for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Comparing data between these two IDEA reports requires several caveats. For example, the descriptions of placement categories changed between the 1995 and 2017 reports, and the alignment between the 1995 placement categories (i.e., regular class, resource room, special class, separate school, and residential) and the 2017 categories (which go by percentage of time in general education classrooms) is imperfect. Moreover, there has been categorical drift among the four disability groups that comprise students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The change is most dramatic in the autism category, which comprised less than 1% of students served under IDEA according to the 1995 report, but 9.1% in 2017. Conversely, the percent of students with intellectual disability was reduced from 11% in 1995 to 6.9% in 2017.

Although students from these two samples are not entirely equivalent, it is evident that the percentages of students from the four disability groups who were educated in the least restrictive option (i.e., the “regular class” or “80% or more”) were low in the early 1990s and remain low today. Data suggest the “special classroom” and “resource room” models of Deno's (1970) cascade are the most common placement options for today's students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, just as they were a quarter century ago. Moreover, these findings are corroborated by other data sources and researchers. In investigating students who took the alternate assessment in 15 states during the 2010-11 school year, Klienert and colleagues (2015) reported that “93% were served primarily in self-contained classrooms, separate schools, or home, hospital, or residential settings” (p. 322). Kurth, Morningstar, and Kozleski (2014) investigated placement trends for 2004-2012 using data from state performance plans and the Data Accountability Center, and concluded that students with low-incidence disabilities were (a) among the most likely to be placed in the most restrictive settings and (b) very few students transitioned to less restrictive settings after initial placement. Therefore, based on the best data available, it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that progress including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in the general education classroom has been unquestionably slow in the United States over the past quarter century. The critical question is, “Why should the next 25 years be any different?”

An Expanding Knowledge Base

It would be dubious to suggest that the slow adoption of inclusive education by schools was due to insufficient information and/or knowledge on how to shift from providing special education services and supports in primarily segregated settings to inclusive settings. The professional literature is replete with qualitative and quantitative research findings on implementing inclusive educational practices, and multiple practitioner-focused books on inclusive education strategies are available (e.g., Kurth & Gross, 2015).

The research evidence on the positive outcomes associated with inclusive educational opportunities is persuasive. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities experience positive outcomes in general education environments related to academic and social skills (e.g., Fisher & Meyer, 2002) and have been able to progress in the general education curriculum across multiple domains (e.g., Browder, Hudson, & Wood, 2013; Spooner, Saunders, Root, & Brosh, 2017). Moreover, students with intellectual disability educated in general education classrooms have greater access to the general education curriculum and academic goal attainment (Matzen, Ryndak, & Nakao, 2010; Roach & Elliott, 2006; Wehmeyer, Lattin, Lapp-Rincker, & Agran, 2003) than students in more restrictive settings. Cole, Waldron, and Majd (2004) found that students with disabilities receiving content instruction in the general education classroom with supplementary aids and services in place made greater progress on reading and math assessments than comparable students in self-contained settings. Soukup, Wehmeyer, Bashinski, and Bovaird (2007) observed students with developmental disabilities in general education classrooms and a comparative sample of students in self-contained settings, and found the students in the self-contained classrooms were not working on general education curriculum standards in any of the observation intervals (they were working on activities not linked to the general education curriculum), whereas students in the inclusive classrooms were working on general education curriculum standards for approximately 90% of observation intervals.

Research in regard to longer-term outcomes, although sparse, has also been compelling. Over time, students with disabilities who were effectively supported in general education settings and activities demonstrated growth in academic achievement (Dessemontet, Bless, & Morin, 2012; Kurth & Mastergeorge, 2012), increased communication skills (Foreman, Arthur-Kelly, Pascoe, & King, 2004), expanded social and interpersonal skills (Carter & Hughes, 2005; Fisher & Meyer, 2002), and enhanced self-determination (Hughes, Cosgriff, Agran, & Washington, 2013; Lee, Wehmeyer, Soukup, & Palmer, 2010) and employment skills (Test et al., 2009; White & Weiner, 2004). Data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (which followed students as they transitioned from school to postschool environments) showed a positive correlation between greater access to general education classrooms and postschool employment and independent living outcomes (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Levine, & Garza, 2006). Jackson, Ryndak, and Wehmeyer (2010) argued that, in examining the literature pertaining to context, curriculum, and learning, there was a compelling case to be made for inclusive education as an evidence-based practice.

McDonnell and Hunt (2014) pointed out that, during the past 3 decades, inclusive education research has evolved to “whole-school restructuring to create inclusive school communities in which all students are valued members” and “to designing educational arrangements to promote membership and achievement of all children, regardless of their differences” (p. 156). They highlighted work related to collaborative teaming, sharing of fiscal and staff resources, and strategies that promote community building and social support networks, differentiated instruction, and principles associated with universal design for learning (UDL; Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014) as components of a comprehensive approach to inclusive education. Unfortunately, despite the introduction of comprehensive, system-level approaches to inclusive education as well as an expanded knowledge base, the opportunities for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to attend the same classrooms attended by their same-aged peers without disabilities have remained limited.

Understanding Student Support Needs: It is Time to Dig Deeper

Careful and thorough consideration of student support needs can provide new ways to organize thinking with regard to enhancing the capacities of schools and classrooms to educate students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and can become foundational for implementing personalized learning. The focus of this article is on professional practice at the individual student level that is guided by a supports-based perspective; namely, what environmental and contextual changes and personalized supports are needed to enable a student to receive a high-quality education in general education settings. Nothing is more essential to expanding inclusive educational opportunities than the quality of problem solving that goes into identifying and arranging supports within the context of what content is taught, how content is taught, and where content is taught.

What, How, and Where of Teaching

What to teach?

With regard to “What to teach?,” at one time the general education curriculum was considered to be nonaccessible and inappropriate for children with the most significant cognitive disabilities (e.g., see Burton, 1974). The inaccessibility of it justified separate settings and separate pedagogies. Simply put, the logic was that, if what was being taught in a general education classroom was not relevant to a learner, then there was no reason for that learner to be in that setting. Putting a child for whom academic instruction was irrelevant in a classroom focusing on academic instruction, so the argument went, would make no more sense than putting a graduate student who was studying dentistry into a classroom where musical composition was the focus of instruction.

The 1997 IDEA amendments were a milestone in educating students with the most significant cognitive disabilities because, legally speaking, educators were now mandated to ensure that all students receiving special education services were involved with and made progress in the general education curriculum. “All means all,” and promoting the so-called “access to the general education curriculum” mandates meant receiving instruction in the same content taught to students without disabilities at the same age/grade level. The law was silent, however, with regard to where such access should occur. Any student, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, could theoretically have access to the general education curriculum by receiving instruction outside the general education classroom. However, as discussed earlier, there is clear evidence suggesting that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are significantly more likely to be involved with age- and grade-appropriate general education curriculum content in general education classrooms (e.g., see Soukup et al., 2007). Further, ensuring that a child with the most significant cognitive disabilities is involved in grade-level content is not the same as requiring that all children within a classroom demonstrate the same level of achievement/content mastery. Learning objectives must be personalized.

It is also important to note that the 1997 IDEA mandates clearly stated that students should be involved with and progress in the general education curriculum, as noted previously, as well as receive specially designed instruction (special education) addressing the student's unique educational needs that are not part of the general education curriculum. Wehmeyer and Shogren (2017) pointed out that any debate between accessing the general education curriculum and teaching functional life skills is a false dichotomy—IDEA never called for an “all or nothing” approach.

By requiring schools to ensure that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are involved with and progress in the general education curriculum, the 1997 IDEA amendments fundamentally ended any meaningful justification for excluding students from general education classrooms based solely on the content of the general education curriculum. Scholars investigating teaching content associated with general education literacy and mathematics to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities have made such justifications indefensible from a research standpoint as well. For example, Browder, Hudson, and Wood (2013) showed that middle school students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who were emergent readers could demonstrate comprehension of text. Spooner and colleagues (2017) presented a conceptual model for teaching mathematical problem solving to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities based on research from a multiyear project that revealed that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities could display the types of higher-order thinking skills that were needed to progress in mathematics. Kingston, Karvonen, Thompson, Wehmeyer, and Shogren (2017) provided an overview of the Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) Alternate Assessment System, which was designed to assess the current knowledge and skills of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in relationship to general education learning standards. Specifically, general education learning standards are divided into essential elements (i.e., grade-level specific expectations that specify what students should know and be able to do) and then further divided into very precise concepts and skills called nodes. Nodes are indicators of conceptual knowledge, and they are not simply subskills in an extensive, linear behavioral chain. What is particularly exciting about the DLM learning maps is that the nodes and essential elements are interconnected, creating multiple pathways (i.e., learning maps) that students can take to progress in the general education curriculum.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, 2017 (Endrew F.), has important implications for educators in regard to the learning expectations for and learning opportunities offered to children receiving special education services, including those with the most significant cognitive disabilities. In ruling that students have the right to more than a merely “de minimis” education, the Court effectively created a higher substantive standard for students with disabilities. According to Endrew F., students have the right to an education that enables them to make progress on appropriately ambitious goals and curriculum (Turnbull, Turnbull, & Cooper, 2018; Yell & Bateman, 2017). An educational system that does not offer students with the most significant cognitive disabilities access to the general education curriculum or ample opportunities to learn alongside their same-aged peers could hardly be considered ambitious as called for in the Endrew F. judgement. For students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, ambitious goals can only be developed and ambitious instruction can only be delivered when efforts have been made to identify and arrange the supports that students need.

Figure 1, the General Education Supports Planning Model, illustrates a supports-based perspective to answer the question “What should I teach a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities?” First, what is being taught in the general education curriculum for the student's grade/age level must be understood so as to identify the (a) learning targets for a student within the general education curriculum and (b) learning goals that are important to the student that are not addressed in the general education curriculum. As was alluded to earlier, having high expectations for every student in a classroom is not the same as having the same achievement standards for every student. Students will differ in the depth and breadth of their knowledge and skills following instruction, and for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities it is essential that educators prioritize learning goals that are directly related to the general education content being taught while taking into account the student's present level of performance and future curricular demands. Also, learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities may benefit from instruction outside of the general education curriculum (as might many other students, but that discussion will be left for a different time).

Figure 1

General Education Supports Planning Model. UDL = universal design for learning.

Figure 1

General Education Supports Planning Model. UDL = universal design for learning.

Curricular adaptations involve adapting instructional content by adding supplementary goals, simplifying goals, or introducing alternative goals (Janney & Snell, 2013). As Figure 1 shows, curricular adaptations are the supports that educators need to provide to (a) make the general education curriculum accessible and to (b) identify additional content that is important for a student to learn. Curricular adaptations most certainly fall under the definition of “supports” because they address the mismatch between the environmental demands (in this case, the general education curriculum) and the student's present level of functioning. Settling the question of “What to teach?” by introducing supports (i.e., curriculum adaptations to identify meaningful content to teach) prepares educators to successfully confront the question of “How to teach?”

How to teach?

“How to teach?” is the question of pedagogy. Traditional divisions between general education practices and special education practices have mistakenly led to the assumption that there are distinct types of children who need different pedagogies to learn. Now we know that multiple pedagogies can be used successfully with many different children; the challenge for educators is finding the right combination of pedagogies for each student. Tailoring teaching methods to the needs of diverse learners is the essential component of differentiated instruction (Lawrence-Brown, 2004). Moreover, providing multiple pathways to learning and success in schools and classrooms is the defining characteristic of inclusive education.

“How to teach?” cannot be completely separated from “What to teach?” because content influences teaching methods. Prior to recent years, conventional wisdom held that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities were not able to learn conceptual academic material and were limited to learning distinct and functional academic-related skills, such as reading and writing one's own name (literacy) and identifying coins (math). Furthermore, special education pedagogy, based on the principles of applied behavior analysis, was structured to teach observable and measurable target behaviors to mastery (e.g., see Alberto & Troutman, 2016). This is quite different than the instruction used in general education classrooms, which is intended to foster conceptual understanding of curricular content.

It is ironic that most of the teaching practices advocated by general educators call for taking the exact opposite approach to instruction that educators of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities have been encouraged to take. General education teachers focus on conceptual instruction first, with the more observable and measurable practical applications of knowledge addressed after students demonstrate they understand fundamental concepts. For example, teaching practices advocated by math educators stress the need for conceptual learning (e.g., understanding the relationship between quantity and numbers, understanding problem-solving strategies) to develop efficient strategies for learning computational processes. That is, math educators approach their instruction from the standpoint that demonstrating a command of operations and the practical application of math skills will follow conceptual learning (Lambert & Tan, 2017).

Although best practices in general education literacy instruction have been debated for years, the goal of conceptual mastery (i.e., develop fluent readers that master word recognition to the point where they can be presented with text and automatically make sense out of it) has never been questioned. Pearson (2004) pointed out, the great “reading wars debate” of the 1990s has abated, and today's scholars and practitioners recognize the benefits of a balanced approach to teaching reading that includes phonics-based instruction as well as the literature-based approaches championed by whole-language advocates. Whatever an educator's approach to teaching reading, there is widespread agreement that learning to read fluently with a high degree of comprehension is essential to future learning. Thus, no matter where one's sympathies may lie in regard to the “phonics v. whole language” issues, reading educators do not advocate for teaching beginning readers to read by having them memorize one sight word at a time.

In contrast, educators of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities have traditionally approached literacy instruction by teaching reading skills outside of the context of higher-order literacy goals. Browder et al. (2009) reported that literacy intervention research involving learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities primarily addressed vocabulary instruction with a particular emphasis on functional sight words and picture recognition. A review of the reading instruction literature with students with the most significant cognitive disabilities by Roberts, Leko, and Wilkerson (2013) revealed the “sight word” approach (i.e., time delay procedures to teach word and picture recognition such as names on signs, labels, and other objects in the environment) to be the only reading strategy that had been “empirically validated as a method for teaching word recognition to individuals with significant cognitive disabilities” (p. 313). Thus, research in the field of special education has traditionally focused on teaching students with the most significant cognitive disabilities individual vocabulary words using teaching strategies that are collectively known as systematic instruction. Systematic instruction is characterized by explicit instruction using prompting and prompt fading techniques across repeated instructional sessions/trials (Collins, 2012).

Although it is encouraging that an evidence-based practice (i.e., systematic instruction) has been validated for teaching sight words, the findings from these literature reviews (i.e., Browder et al., 2009; Roberts et al., 2013) highlight concerns regarding the limited scope of literacy instruction for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Within the field of special education, the dominant perception has been that instruction across literacy components emphasized in general education (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension; National Reading Panel [NRP], 2000) is not applicable for teaching learners with significant cognitive disabilities. Recently, however, there has been an increase in literacy intervention research addressing the range of literacy components set forth by the NRP (2000).

The research focusing on teaching students with the most significant cognitive disabilities grade-appropriate skills that align with the general education curriculum has produced encouraging findings. For example, shared story reading, whereby problem-solving skills are systematically taught to develop student comprehension (Hudson & Test, 2011), has been established as an effective strategy to teach a range of comprehension skills to learners with significant cognitive disabilities. Also of significance are recent efforts to apply conceptual learning of grade-appropriate reading content within general education settings (e.g., Courtade, Lingo, Karp, & Whitney, 2013; Hudson & Browder, 2014; Wood, Browder, & Flynn, 2015), with these demonstrations providing preliminary evidence that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can benefit from grade-appropriate content when instruction aligns not only with established practices within the field of special education (e.g., systematic instruction) but also with practices traditionally used to teach students without disabilities. This shift from functional skills to skills with an academic emphasis further supports the idea that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can meaningfully access and benefit from instruction that focuses on multiple literacy components (Afacan, Wilkerson, & Ruppar, 2018) and makes accessible conceptual skills that are inherently embedded within the general education literacy curriculum.

Similar advances have been made in mathematics instruction for learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities. In their literature review of research involving mathematics instruction for learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities between 1975 and 2005, Browder, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, Harris, and Wakeman (2008) found that a majority of research focused on basic skills, such as numbers and computation (e.g., matching numbers, rote counting) or measurement (e.g., money skills). Since 2005, multiple studies have appeared in the professional literature that address more advanced mathematics skills (e.g., algebra, geometry) that target the types of conceptual, higher-level thinking skills (e.g., problem solving) that are advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000). Such skills are critical to advanced mathematical learning and are aligned with the general education curriculum (Spooner, Root, Saunders, & Browder, 2018). Most recently, and based on their preliminary research, Spooner et al. (2017) proposed a conceptual model for teaching mathematical problem solving to promote access to the general education curriculum. Their model incorporates best practice for teaching mathematics to learners with significant cognitive disabilities (i.e., systematic instruction), best practice for teaching problem solving to students with high-incidence disabilities (i.e., schema-based instruction; Jitendra et al., 2015), and additional supports such as assistive technology.

It is an exciting time for educators who take up the challenge of “how to teach” students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in general education classrooms, as the toolbox of instructional strategies appears to be on the verge of rapidly expanding. Returning to Figure 1, from a supports-based perspective, the first step in formulating an instructional approach is to gain an understanding of the pedagogies currently used in the general education classrooms that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will be attending. In many classrooms, there will be multiple instructional approaches that are readily accessible to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities with only minor support. Instructional planning, however, should not be limited to adapting instructional approaches used by general education teachers in efforts to make their instruction accessible. It is equally important for educators to make use of the evidenced-based methods for instructing students with the most significant cognitive disabilities that have been established through decades of research in the field of special education. Many general educators will not be familiar with these methods, and it will be up to educators with special education backgrounds to educate their colleagues on how these methods could be applied in the general education context. For example, although the visual schedule approach was developed by researchers with TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related handicapped CHildren; e.g., see Mesibov & Shea, 2010) in a clinic-based program serving children with autism spectrum disorders, Banda, Grimmett, and Hart (2009) showed how visual schedules could be used successfully in general education settings.

As Figure 1 shows, from a supports-based perspective, it is vital that educators identify instructional supports to make general education instruction accessible and maximize student achievement. Janney and Snell (2013) indicated that instructional adaptations involve “individualization of the way the teacher teaches and/or the way in which the student practices and demonstrates learning” (p. 78) and they distinguish these from alternative adaptations, which are “learning activities that are coordinated with classroom instruction but are designed to address individualized learning priorities using student specific methods and/or materials” (p. 83). Both classes of adaptations are prime examples of supports because they are modifying the environmental demands (i.e., the instruction) to make classroom instruction accessible to the student. Educational teams adopting a supports-based approach will identify instructional strategies that make general education instruction accessible and will embed evidenced-based practices into daily teaching and learning activities. Doing so will position them to address the third question in Figure 1, “Where to teach?”

Where to teach?

Figure 1 shows that, from a supports-based perspective, the question “Where to teach?” should be addressed after “What to teach?” and “How to teach?” have been answered. When supports have been introduced to (a) ensure the curriculum is accessible (curricular adaptations), and (b) ensure that instruction will be meaningful and have the best chance of maximizing student learning (instructional supports), then answering the “Where to teach?” question will be relatively straightforward. There is no need to teach content in a separate setting when it is being taught in the general education classroom. With that said, many students, with and without disabilities, in today's schools receive supplemental instruction that goes beyond the instruction offered to the entire class, and this is often provided to students individually or in small groups. Supplemental instruction is a common practice in schools that have adopted multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) frameworks (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2012). Depending on a number of factors, including the physical space and facilities of the classroom and school, it may make sense to offer supplemental instruction outside of the general education classroom. The ways that supplemental instruction is delivered should be consistent across students with and without the most significant cognitive disabilities. For example, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities should not be removed from the general education classroom more often than other students who are receiving supplemental instruction.

Content outside of the general education curriculum is frequently best taught within a general education setting as well. Take the case of a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities who has learning goals related to social skills that are outside of the general education curriculum. There is often no better place to work on social skills goals than in general education settings where a diverse array of adults and peers provide rich opportunities to socialize and communicate. Embedded instruction, which involves distributing teaching and learning opportunities across natural settings over the course of a day (McDonnell, Johnson, & McQuivey, 2008), is a successful approach to teaching content outside general education curriculum within general education settings.

There may be compelling reasons why some instruction should be provided outside the general education setting (e.g., community-based instruction), and we share Brown et al.'s (1991) sentiment that being “based in” a general education class is not the same as being “confined to” a general education classroom. We are reluctant to advocate taking options off of the table, as the foundation of support planning rests on the student's unique needs and circumstances driving decision making. However, it is important to acknowledge that instruction outside of the general classroom can benefit all students and is not specific to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Thus, the focus should be on providing the most appropriate supports to enable students to make progress toward meaningful, individualized learning goals.

Table 1 shows a typology of supports based on function (or purpose). Included are categories (i.e., curriculum adaptations and instructional supports) and subcategories (e.g., instructional adaptations) of supports we have already introduced, as well as a third broad category of supports, participation supports. Participation supports function to promote a student's full engagement in educational settings and activities. We've divided participation supports into three subcategories: accommodations, modifications, and personalized supports.

Table 1

Categories, Functions, and Forms of Support

Categories, Functions, and Forms of Support
Categories, Functions, and Forms of Support

Accommodations refer to supports that provide students with access to content taught in the general education curriculum and classroom, but do not change the difficulty level or the performance expectations. Based on this definition, accommodations would include technologies that promote access and participation such as computer hardware that has been adapted (e.g., special switches, keyboards, pointing devices), task accommodations such as allowing a student to take extra time to complete assignments and tests, environmental arrangements such as preferential seating (e.g., desk close to the projection screen), and materials developed specifically for a child such as visual schedules that provide cues for when transitions to new activities occur. Accommodations are analogous to what people informally refer to as “workarounds” or “life hacks” because the destination (i.e., core expectations for student performance) does not change; what changes is the process for reaching the destination.

In contrast, modifications involve changing what is being expected of a student during or following a classroom activity or lesson. Examples include assigning a film or providing video supplements in place of assigning reading from a textbook; allowing a research report to be presented via a PowerPoint presentation rather than a written term paper; and providing test questions to a student verbally and in simpler language than what is on a written examination given to most students in the class, and requiring less in-depth responses.

The third subcategory, personalized supports, includes supports that are directly intended to promote greater engagement in activities at school, whether the supports are learning activities, co-curricular activities, or other types of activities in the school setting. Personalized supports can be provided by a person (e.g., paraprofessional, peer) or a technology (e.g., communication device, self-monitoring checklist). For this type of support, it is particularly important to ensure the support is not overly intrusive (e.g., the paraprofessional who hovers over the student all day and completes tasks for the student that student could complete), and does not displace other supports a student needs due to convenience (e.g., curricular adaptations are overlooked because, with peer support, the student is sufficiently occupied during classroom instruction, despite not benefiting from the instruction). Moreover, students should be encouraged to manage and direct their personalized supports, as this is consistent with developing self-determination skills (Soresi, Nota, & Wehmeyer, 2011).

We include positive behavioral supports in the personalized supports subcategory, as we perceive such supports as ultimately functioning to enhance a student's engagement in activities in and out of school. A critical aspect of supporting students who display challenging behaviors is ensuring clearly communicated behavioral expectations, and providing increasing intensities of supports when behaviors disrupt teaching and learning activities. In such instances, building behavior intervention plans that include information gathered from a functional behavioral assessment of challenging behaviors can be used to effectively and efficiently decrease the behaviors that are causing problems for the student, and improve socially acceptable alternative behaviors associated with success in inclusive school settings (e.g., see Walker, Chung, & Bonnet, 2017). Developing the capacity of schools and classrooms to effectively address the behavioral needs of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities through positive behavioral supports is a key to expanding inclusive educational opportunities. When behavioral needs are appropriately addressed, students experience more meaningful opportunities to access general education settings and the general education curriculum. Furthermore, they have more opportunities to develop positive relationships with same-age peers (Brown & Bambara, 2014), and teacher well-being is enhanced as well (Ross, Romer, & Horner, 2012).

Planning participation supports should begin with identifying modifications, accommodations, and personal assistance that are needed to ensure full participation and maximize learning outcomes in the general education classroom. A matrix planning approach where a student's learning goals are listed in rows, the classroom daily schedule is listed in columns, and the supports that are needed are identified in the intersecting cells is a good way to start planning how supports can be arranged and coordinated throughout a school day (e.g., see Janney & Snell, 2013).

Finally, Figure 1 highlights the critical role of the UDL framework (Meyer et al., 2014) in promoting access to learning in all school settings and activities for all children. Central to the UDL framework is the concept of designing settings, materials, and technologies to be accessible to a wide range of diverse learners, including students with significant cognitive disabilities (e.g., Dymond et al., 2006). As more settings and materials are introduced that have sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of students with significant cognitive disabilities, identifying and arranging supports for a student will be less of an undertaking because multiple means for access, engagement, and expression will already be available. In one sense, supports serve to retrofit materials, curriculum, and teaching methods that were originally designed without the needs of students with significant cognitive disabilities in mind.

Wanted: Creative Problem Solvers

The final arrow in Figure 1, emerging from the Participation Supports box to the What to teach? oval was included to signify that our General Education Supports Planning Model is iterative. Supports need to be regularly revisited and updated to maintain focus on enhancing participation and maximizing learning in general education settings. Some supports that might be perfectly reasonable and helpful at one point in time may be overly intrusive and disempowering at another. Because students' competencies and environmental demands in classrooms are always changing, supports planning will always be an ongoing endeavor. It has long been recognized that many teachers who express reservations towards inclusive education often do so because they fear that inadequate supports will be available to meet the needs of the student, as well as their own needs (see Monsen, Ewing, & Kwoka, 2014; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1996). Applying the supports-based problem-solving framework we describe in this article could provide assurance to educators that there is a systematic process by which to ensure that the supports that are needed will be provided and will be monitored on an ongoing basis.

Framing the challenge of inclusive education as the challenge of addressing the student-environment mismatch through providing a system of supports offers a conceptual foundation for educators to make a quantum leap in expanding inclusive educational opportunities and access to the general education curriculum to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Great special education supports have always been characterized by great problem solving, and great teachers have always been great problem solvers. Schools need a critical mass of educators who can correctly diagnose what is causing a person-environment (i.e., student-classroom) mismatch and creatively arrive at solutions based upon careful consideration of student characteristics (i.e., relative strengths, preferences, and relative limitations) and the tasks and skills necessary for full participation in a classroom. Can our teacher preparation programs produce such educators? Can our school districts nurture their passion and creativity? If so, perhaps the type of widespread expansion of inclusive educational opportunities for students with significant cognitive disabilities that Brown and his colleagues (1991) were envisioning over a quarter century ago will come to pass.

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