Teaching Students with Moderate & Severe Disabilities

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  • 0:04 FAPE
  • 0:42 Individually Designed…
  • 2:29 Least Restrictive Environment
  • 4:52 Team-Based Approach
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bethany Calderwood

Bethany has taught special education in grades PK-5 and has a master's degree in special education.

As the number of students with moderate and severe disabilities in our schools increases, educators must be prepared to meet their needs. Learn about three areas to consider when programming for students with moderate and severe disabilities.


All students deserve an education, and according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), individuals with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). For a student with moderate to severe disabilities who might be functioning several grade levels behind their peers, what does this look like? How can you include a student who communicates with two-word phrases with peers who are learning to write essays? How does a student with severe physical and intellectual impairments participate in an age-appropriate curriculum? These considerations are crucial for teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities.

Individually Designed Instruction

As your school system designs programming for students with significant disabilities, there are several important concepts to address.

Students with moderate to severe disabilities have significant needs that impact their performance of school tasks, needs that are very different from other children of the same age. The first step is to evaluate their performance in the areas of cognition, communication, motor ability, adaptive behavior, and social and emotional skills. Identify specific challenges in these areas that prevent students from making progress in the general curriculum. Assign goals to target those challenges, and make a plan to address those goals.

IDEA requires that all students have access to a general education curriculum appropriate to their age and grade. This can seem difficult when a student is functioning intellectually several years behind others of the same age.

There are two approaches that can be used to address grade-level curriculum.

  1. Access skills are skills that are necessary to participate in learning activities. For example, a non-verbal student may have speech and communication goals, because communication is essential to classroom participation. Another student may have goals related to motor function as the ability to move safely around the school and use school tools are tied to curriculum access.
  2. Entry points are goals that address academic concepts related to grade-level curriculum, but at a lower level. For example, a student whose classmates are working on multiplication might have a goal relating to prerequisite skills, like basic number identification and concepts. In English language arts, a student whose classmates are working on setting and theme might have a goal related to answering basic listening comprehension questions about a story.

Least Restrictive Environment

The law that guarantees FAPE specifies that students be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The intention of the LRE is to provide students with disabilities access to the same learning opportunities as their non-disabled peers in surroundings that minimize the impact of their disabilities. Defining the LRE for specific students is not always easy. However, a disability cannot be used as a barrier to keep students from age-appropriate learning experiences. Schools need to consider how to meet disabled students' needs with as little separation as possible while still allowing them to address and progress on their individualized goals.

When deciding on an LRE, we look at inclusion, or the extent to which students are educated with their typically developing peers. Some students, due to the nature and severity of their disabilities, have needs that cannot be met in a general education classroom.

A well-equipped school system will have a range of options. Here are some possibilities.

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