Strategies to Engage & Communicate with Special Education Students

Instructor: John Hamilton

John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

Are you interested in actively engaging your special education students? The following lesson will show you ways to communicate with them and use hands-on strategies instead of just teaching on a chalkboard or from a textbook.

Communication Strategies for Special Education Students

It was John Evans who once said ''every student can learn, just not on the same day, or in the same way.'' This timely advice seems quite appropriate to the challenges special education students, their parents, and their teachers face each day.

So what are some ideal active learning strategies to both communicate with and engage these wonderful special education students?

The Power of Music

Nancy has noticed many students are learning about the American Revolution due to the popularity of the Hamilton musical. She wants to implement a similar technique to teach her special education students about the environment. Nancy decides to read the popular Dr. Seuss book The Lorax, which was released in 1971 to her students. She follows up by showing them The Lorax movie, complete with songs, which was released in 2012.

Nancy passes out preprinted worksheets with the words and songs from the book and movie to her students, so they can follow along.

First, she reads the rhyming book aloud, while her students listen intently. Then, she begins to read short passages, and asks the students to rhyme them aloud for her.

Later she shows them the movie. Afterward, she asks them which was their favorite part. Once again, she allows them to participate, by singing, drumming, and tapping their hands and feet.

Lastly, Nancy reviews the entire lesson on the environment with her students and requests that each student name one more unknown fact about our planet they would like to learn.


The acronym PBIS stands for ''positive behavioral intervention and supports''. While it can be an effective educational tool for all students, many educators believe it is ideal for special education students with individualized education programs (IEPs), as well as 504 plans. Examples of methodologies include:

Pre-correcting and Prompting

The general idea of pre-correcting and prompting is to prevent undesirable behavior from ever happening in the first place.

A prompt reminds students of how they are expected to behave in a familiar situation. For instance, before heading on a field trip to the local dinosaur museum, Bill might say, ''remember not to run in the building, and don't touch any fossils unless the tour guide says it's okay to do so.''

At first glance, a pre-correction may look just like a prompt, but it is used for new situations instead of for familiar situations. For example, when having an astronaut visit as a guest speaker for the first time, Bill might say, ''I know you are excited to meet a real astronaut, but stay in your seats and don't interrupt her until she finishes speaking.''

Respectful Redirection

Nancy is having trouble getting a special education student's attention. She wants to do so without making a big scene, and possibly upsetting the child or the other children. Nancy can use respectful redirection, which may be referred to as an error correction too.

For example, one student in the class has a habit of interrupting when other students are speaking. The teacher quickly uses a calming tone, concise wording, and neutral body language to say, ''I appreciate your enthusiasm, but in this classroom, we always speak one at a time and wait our turn.''

Nonverbal Signals

Bill is teaching his science class about the differences and similarities between amphibians and reptiles. Instead of just lecturing, he wants his students to ask questions and become actively engaged in the learning process. However, he doesn't want the students to become too loud and disruptive.

Bill decides to use a type of PBIS known as nonverbal signals or silent signals. For example, at the outset of class, some students are still standing and talking. Bill uses American Sign Language (ASL) for 'sit' to convey his message. One student replies by holding up three fingers in the shape of the letter 'W', requesting a drink of water. Bill simply nods his head to give a positive reply.

During his lecture, a student displays a ''thumbs down'' signal to say they don't understand, and Bill replies with one index finger in the air to say ''hold that thought'' until he has finished his current words.

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