Rigor for students with special needs

12/18/2013  |  Barbara Blackburn, Ph.D.

Author’s Note: A special thank you to Brad Witzel, my co-author on Rigor for Students with Special Needs, who was instrumental in the completion of this article.

Approximately three to six percent of all school-aged children and adolescents are believed to have developmental reading disabilities. In fact, almost 50 percent of children receiving special education have learning disabilities. Just because a student is labeled learning disabled or at-risk, it does not mean he or she is incapable of learning. Students with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence. Therefore, their success in school is not a matter of inability, but a matter of finding the appropriate teaching strategies and motivation tools, all of which we can control as a teacher.

Defining Rigor

Is rigor for students with special needs different from other students? No. Students are still expected to meet the Common Core State Standards, and should still be taught with rigorous instruction. Rigor is “creating an environment in which ...

  • each student is expected to learn at high levels,
  • each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels and
  • each student demonstrates learning at high levels.”

What does this look like for students with special needs? Let’s examine each of the key areas.


In a classroom with high expectations, students are expected to understand material at a complex level and to demonstrate that understanding. However, teachers may not ask students with special needs higher level questions or expect higher level answers. Or, they may not provide enough wait time for students to answer appropriately. Therefore, we must provide those opportunities for all students, including those with special needs.

On the other hand, too often after experiencing repeated failure over years, special needs students develop a learned helplessness, knowing that they will fail, despite even good scores on tests and assignments. Learned helplessness is a process of conditioning where students seek help from others even when they have mastered information. See if this example looks familiar:

A student is asked to solve a direct reading comprehension problem, but he immediately raises his hand. When the teacher comes over, the student says he needs help. So the teacher reads the paragraph to the student and re-explains the question. The student still doesn’t answer the question. Next, the teacher re-explains a regularly used comprehension strategy with the student. Finally, the teacher walks through the strategy and may even solve the problem for the student.

While this scenario sounds justifiable, and maybe even familiar, the teacher is reinforcing the student’s learned helplessness, which is evidence of low expectations. This exchange undermines the student’s independent ability to solve the problem.

In a classroom of high expectations, instead of running to the rescue of students who can succeed without us or even refuse to help such students, it is important to find ways to teach students to gain independence in their problem-solving. In other words, find out why the student is behaving in a certain way and plan a response that best builds academic success and independence. One way to help is to teach students how to learn and succeed without instantly making excuses and asking for help by following these steps.

  1. Determine if learned helplessness exists
  2. Explicitly model the student the preferred academic behavior
  3. Teach the student a strategy for displaying the preferred academic behavior
  4. Provide practice for the strategy
  5. Set a cue to remind the student to initiate the strategy
  6. Allow the student to succeed
  7. Facilitate the student’s problem solving strategy

By insisting students learn and practice problem solving independently, teachers demonstrate high expectations in the classroom. However, there is also a need to balance high expectations with support as needed.

Support and Scaffolding

Along with higher expectations, it is critical to provide appropriate support and scaffolding. Accommodations are changes that can be made to the way students with disabilities are instructed and assessed. The changes can be made to instructional methods and materials, assignments and assessments, learning environment, time demands and schedules, and/or special communication systems.

For example, a student who struggles with long division may actually have difficulty with multiplication facts. By providing support with multiplication facts through additional interventions and/or multiplication accommodations, a teacher may improve the student’s belief in their knowledge of mathematics. Subsequently, this minor success in mathematics can be applied to solving long division problems. Thus, it is important to determine where a student is struggling and why. Using that information, you can develop a plan for remediating the area of weakness and supporting the student as she learns. Below is a sample analysis of a student’s difficulty with a math skill.

A key part of the definition of rigor is that appropriate scaffolding is used so that students can be successful at higher levels of learning. Accommodations are simply another type of scaffolding. Let’s look at another example of providing accommodations to reach higher levels of learning.

Mary Sanford teaches special-needs students at Sullivan Middle School. There are four key elements to her scaffolded instruction: chunking instruction, cycles of repeated instruction, modeling for support, and use of visuals.

Teaching Characterization to Special-Needs Students and Second-Language Learners

“My students lacked the vocabulary — for example, coldhearted, persistent, generous — necessary to describe characters and had limited exposure to working with characterization,” explained Sanford. “I needed to break down the task and introduce it one piece at a time. I approached the task knowing I needed to model for my students. I modeled my strategies, I modeled my thinking, I modeled what I wanted them to do, and then we practiced, practiced and practiced.

“Students were given a list of traits, both positive and negative. After reading the list together, students found words they would use to describe themselves. I modeled by describing things I do, and the students had to find the trait from the list that went with my behavior, such as, ‘I believed him when he said the dog ate his homework’ — gullible. When they became comfortable using the list, they were asked to write down three of their own character traits and support why they chose each trait with an example of how they behave.

“As we read several short stories, we discussed main characters and found words to describe them. We wrote paragraphs describing these characters using the new words we had learned. Using a Venn diagram, we compared two characters from the same story.

“We were then ready to create our own character. I modeled this first by creating my own character by answering a series of guiding questions on the overhead for them to see. We discussed how the answers had to blend together for the character to be believable. Each character had to have a name and a problem they were dealing with. With this information complete, the skeleton ‘Fleshing Out The Character’ from Janet Allen was filled in with what the character would do, say, plan, think, and feel [see chapter H: Help Me Understand]. We finished the project by illustrating the character. This hands-on component engaged every student. They could draw the character, but most chose to cut out body parts from magazines and put the parts together. This was fun and students had to know their character in order to put together a picture that matched their character’s description and lifestyle. We put this completed work in a safe place and will return to it later in the year when we are ready to write a short story.”

Mary also used picture books such as “Amazing Grace” and “I Wanna Iguana” to reinforce character traits. To extend learning, students read comic strips and had to “read between the lines in order to interpret the cartoon.” As you read the description of Mary’s unit, you see how she plans a series of lessons in which she chunks her instruction into small, manageable bites. She then uses an ongoing cycle of providing instruction that teaches the same concept, but in different ways. Too often, we make the mistake of teaching the concept multiple times, but simply repeating the same lesson over and over isn’t effective. She provides scaffolding through modeling and guided instruction and incorporates visual reinforcement throughout the lesson. The result? Her students with special needs are successful, confident learners.

Demonstration of Student Learning

Finally, students can demonstrate learning at high levels, although it may be in different ways. Scott Bauserman, a teacher at Decatur Central High School in Indiana, asks his students to choose a topic from the social studies unit and design a game. The finished product must teach about the topic, use appropriate vocabulary and processes, and be fun to play.

“Students have to construct the game, the box, provide pieces and a board, and write the rules,” explains Bauserman. “I received a wide variety. One game I will always remember was about how a bill gets passed into law. We spent time [in class] talking about all the points where a bill in Congress or the state General Assembly could be killed, pigeon-holed, or defeated. The student took a box the size of a cereal box, set up a pathway with appropriate steps along the way, constructed question/answer cards and found an array of tokens for game pieces. If a player answered a question correctly, he or she would roll a dice and move along the path to passage. But the student had cut trap doors at the points where a bill could be killed, and if a player landed on a trap door/bills topper, the player to the right could pull a string, making that player’s token disappear from the board. The player would have to start over. Not a bad game from a student who has fetal alcohol syndrome and is still struggling to pass his classes.”


Students with special needs are capable of rigorous work. They can live up to high expectations and demonstrate learning at high levels, as long as the instruction is accompanied by appropriate support strategies.

Barbara Blackburn Ph.D. is a nationally recognized expert in the areas of instructional rigor, student motivation, and student engagement. For more information about her speaking and writing, visit www.barbarablackburnonline.com/
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