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Wednesday 22 July 2015

The Importance of Using an Evidence-Based Curriculum in the Special Education Classroom

I am so excited to collaborate with one of my favourite special education bloggers to bring a series on finding the right curriculum for your special education classroom! I read have Chris' blog for over a year now and was beyond thrilled when she invited me to join her Facebook group for special education bloggers when I first started this blog! I mean seriously, Christine Reeve asked me to join her group?! Shut up!  She was somewhat of a celebrity to me then and now she has become a great mentor. Her willingness to help out fellow SPED teachers with their teaching practice, their blogs and TPT stores is truly selfless and so appreciated by myself and several others. She is so supportive and encouraging, not to mention knowledgeable! I honestly can't say enough about her! Suffice to say, that when I approached her about teaming up to write a series of posts on alternative curriculums, I was nervous! But, she immediately agreed and was so encouraging! So, without further ado, I present to you our series on finding and using a developmentally appropriate, evidence-based alternative curriculum for students with special needs.

The Ontario curriculum is rigourous and jammed full of learning expectations.  Every year, teachers and students struggle to get through it all.  Though most of the Ontario Curriculum expectations are abstract and schematic, collectively they constitute a one-size fits-all approach that, in practice, has severely limited the learning outcomes of students with special needs.  For students with mild learning disabilities, autism, down's syndrome, multiple  disabilities, etc., how does the Ontario curriculum suit them?

To ensure that all students with special needs can engage in meaningful learning experiences, the Ministry of Ontario has outlined three different levels of accessing the curriculum; Accommodations, Modifications and Alternative Skills Areas.

Accommodations are the special teaching and assessment strategies, supports and/or individualized equipment (including technology) that are required to enable a student to learn and demonstrate learning. Accommodations do not alter the provincial learning expectations for the grade level.
For subjects that are accommodated only, there should be a list of Instructional Accommodations (different ways of teaching or presenting materials) Environmental Accommodations (e.g. seating, cuing, hallway routines) and Assessment Accommodations (including use of technology). These accommodations may be common to all subjects, or may vary from subject to subject, in which case the subjects should be listed separately.
Modifications refer to the changes made to the age-appropriate grade level expectations for a subject or course in order to meet the needs of the student.
Modified (MOD) is the term used on the IEP form to identify subjects or courses from the Ontario curriculum in which the student requires modified expectations – expectations that differ in some way from the regular grade expectations.
Modifications may involve either raising or lowering grade level expectations. For the core subjects, such as Math and Language, the expectations may be taken from a different grade level (higher or lower). For content subjects, such as Social Studies or History, the modifications may include significant changes to the number and/or complexity of learning expectations in the regular grade level curriculum.
For each subject that is modified, even partially, a Program page of the IEP gets filled out with Current Level of Achievement, an annual program goal, and Learning Expectations for each reporting period (report card term).

At the secondary level, a student might be working in a subject on almost all the course curriculum expectations, but the complexity or number of expectations might be modified in a few areas. In this case the IEP would indicate “the student will do all the curriculum expectations except …”. The school principal would decide how much modification could be allowed in order for the student to get credit for the course.
Alternative skill areas (ALT) are based on expectations developed to help students acquire knowledge and skills that are not represented in the Ontario curriculum. Alternative skill areas are listed on the Program page of the IEP, and have the current level of achievement, an annual program goal, learning expectations, teaching strategies and assessment methods. Alternative programs are provided in both the elementary and the secondary school panels.
Examples of alternative programs include: speech remediation, social skills, orientation/mobility training, and personal care programs. For the vast majority of students, these programs would be given in addition to modified or regular grade-level expectations from the Ontario curriculum. They must be directly taught by a designated person.
Alternative courses, at the secondary school level, are non-credit courses. The course expectations in an alternative course are individualized for the student and generally focus on preparing the student for daily living. School boards must use the “K” course codes and titles found in the ministry’s Common Course Code listings (click here to access the page) to identify alternative courses. Examples of alternative courses include Transit Training and Community Exploration (KCC), Culinary Skills (KHI), and Money Management and Personal Banking (KBB).

So where do students with severe disabilities fit in?  Some of these students in primary and junior grades, who are working on basic academic skills in reading, spelling and math, may be working toward modified curriculum expectations, from a lower grade level, on some parts of their subjects. Only those parts of the subject would be evaluated according to modified expectations, and therefore have the IEP box checked off on the provincial report card.  Many of those students, however,  would have most of their learning expectations based an alternative curriculum.  Their IEPs would focus on skills that are not represented in the Ontario curriculum.  But, if they aren't in the Ontario curriculum, what do you teach them?

Luckily for us, there are many commercially available curriculums on the market for students with special needs.  Throughout this series, Chris and I will be discussing 5 of them that we have used throughout our careers.  Each week, we will feature a different curriculum, discuss how it is used, and the pros and cons of each.  To start off the series, today we will be discussing the importance of using an evidence-based alternative curriculum.

Some of you may be wondering why you should use a curriculum written by someone else.  You're probably thinking, "I'm a teacher, I studied child development, I know what children need to learn, I can make my own curriculum".  If you choose to do that, I wish you all the success.  Maybe one day you could get it published and then other SPED teachers like myself could buy it and use it in my classroom.  But, chances are that this won't happen.

All of the commercially available alternative curriculums that I have used are written by teams of child development specialists, Board Certified Behaviour Analysts, Speech-Langauge Pathologists, and Child Psychologists that hold Master's degrees and Ph.D.s.  The curriculums are based on research and are revised over the years after extensive testing and use.  They have been used in research studies and headstart projects throughout the world.  Can you say the same about your curriculum?  Most likely, not.  So, I encourage to take a look at the commercially available curriculums available and find one that will meet the needs of your students.

Why do I feel so strongly about this?  In my current and previous positions, I have consulted to a number of different classrooms, both inclusive and congregated.  I have consulted on students with a variety of needs, at various levels of functioning.  And I have seen the differences in student achievement between using an evidence-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum, and ones where the teacher or EA had made up the curriculum.  And this is what I have found...

Restricting students to curricula beyond or below their cognitive capacities substantially lowers their achievement.

When teachers or EAs try to make up their own curriculum, it is ultimately too difficult or too easy for the student and/or not functional and therefore, the student doesn't make meaningful gains in their learning.  For some students, they are stuck in a developmental level far lower than their chronological age, simply because they are not being taught new skills.  And in some cases, the students even regress because they are not challenged enough.

On the flip side, I have seen students being taught skills that are way above their cognitive level.  In these situations the students often get frustrated and this frustration leads to an increase in off-task, inappropriate, self-stimulatory or aggressive behaviours.  These students also do not make any progress and sometimes regress in their abilities.

I consulted to two high schools this year and observed both of these situations.  In the one school, a student I had worked with in elementary was now in grade 12 at the high school.  I was shocked when I started working with him at the lack of progress he had made in his 4 years at the high school.  His communication skills and reading level had both dropped significantly because he was not being taught new skills.  

In the other high school, I worked with two girls with Down's Syndrome who were in grade 10.  Both of the functioned around the same reading level, so they were paired for literacy instruction.  The EA assigned to work with them during that period designed the curriculum and chose to do a novel study with them that was way above their abilities.  The result was a drop by 3 levels in their reading scores in one year.

Using an evidence-based assessment and curriculum assists you in developing educational programs that are developmentally appropriate and functional for the students you teach.  They allow you to assess the student's current level of functioning and then design and educational program that is appropriate for them, challenges them and teaches them new skills.  

Most of the curricula we will be discussing arrange skills in a developmental sequence that is norm-referenced.  Meaning, that they are sequenced according to neuro-typical child development.  This allows you to easily understand your student's level of cognitive functioning.  When you are able to say to EAs and parents, "She functions around 18 months for most skills.", this helps you and them understand the types of skills the student should be taught.  Qualifying cognitive functioning in terms of months or years, is more easily understood by others, rather than percentile scores.

Using a developmentally sequenced curriculum also allows you to easily identify gaps in learning and any pre-requisite skills necessary for target goals.  In a grade two classroom that I consulted to this year, I worked with a little boy who was struggling with subtilizing and addition.  The teacher and EA in the room were trying various strategies with him, but he wasn't making any progress.  He had many other issues, but I will just use this example.  It wasn't until I asked them if he could identify numbers, that they realized they didn't know.  They just assumed he did based on his report card.  So, we tested him on number identification and he could not name or identify any numbers past 5.  He also could not count objects past 4.  He was missing these crucial pre-requisite skills needed for the skill they were trying to teach him.

Developmentally sequenced curricula also guide you what to teach next.  This is often a struggle for teachers, as the Ontario curriculum is sequenced according to academic years, but not in a developmental sequence within the subject areas.  Most of the curriculums we will be discussing lay out for you the sequence of teaching, making your job a lot easier!

They also include assessment and tracking tools that allow you easily monitor student progress in the form of charts.  I love the charts that come with most of these curricula because they are so easy to refer to at reporting times, team and parent meetings.  When you present these charts to parents during meetings, they can easily see the progress that their child is making.

Well, this turned into quite a lengthy post!  I hope that you found this helpful and that you will join us over the next few weeks as we delve deeper into the curricula we love (and hate) to use!  And don't forget to hop over to Chris' blog to read her thoughts on the subject.  I have also posted some Ministry of Ontario resources for those of you in Ontario, just in case you needed some summer reading!

I am also curious at what curricula you use in your classrooms.  Does your board regulate which one you have to use?  Do you have a favourite that you use?  Or, do you make up your own?  I love to hear from you and discuss it with you!  Leave me a comment below!

Ministry References and Resources

The Individual Education Plan (IEP), A Resource Guide, 2004, is a guide intended to help educators working with students with special needs to develop, implement, and monitor high-quality IEPs. Click here to access the resource guide.
Samples of Individual Education Plan (IEP) have been developed by the Council of Ontario Directors of Education and posted on the Ministry of Education website to support the development and implementation of effective IEPs in Ontario. Click here to access the samples.
The document, Individual Education Plans: Standards for Development, Program Planning, and Implementation, 2000, describes province-wide standards that must be followed in the elaboration of student IEPs. Click here to access the standards.
The document, Special Education, A Guide for Educators, 2001, includes a section devoted to the creation and upkeep of a student's IEP. Click here to access Part E: The Individual Education Plan (IEP) of the document.


  1. Thank you so much for an informative and well thought out post. I strongly believe that whenever possible you should be using a curriculum that is evidenced based because they have evidence to show they work. I do supplement with TPT items but they do not replace our core materials (Edmark for reading & Touchmath).

  2. I am excited to follow this. I feel like students who "don't fit the curriculum or testing" get left behind. I am happy to hear about alternative curriculums for our students. I teach Deaf and Hard of Hearing students and so little of the mainstream curriculums really apply to us, especially my non phonetic readers. Looking forward to following along!
    Heather Burgen

  3. Thanks for sharing this. Being a teacher, I have been associated with special education programs in nyc. I find your blog really helpful, and will definitely follow your curriculum along with recommending this to my colleagues.

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