Special Education

Highly Engaging Science for Students in Special Education

By integrating age-appropriate modifications, special education teachers can design high-interest, standards-aligned science units.

July 10, 2024
kali9 / iStock

Many high school special education teachers have access only to materials geared toward young students, which makes it difficult to provide all students with an age-appropriate science experience. However, teachers can provide a high-level integrated science experience for students with significant disabilities. Chelsie, the science expert, and Sara, the special education expert, spent a year developing this comprehensive model to make science accessible to each student in the high school setting. 

To illustrate the process, we’ve designed a high-interest unit about squirrels to explore this question: How do traits of a species and their environment impact survival? Special education teachers know that these types of cross-curricular lessons require careful planning, modification of standards-based lessons, and the integration of assistive technology. When teachers are intentional about practicing cross-curricular skills to learn science, students gain valuable knowledge and skills.

3 Steps to Adapting Science Content

1. Standards-based integrated unit planning. First, you need to obtain all alternative assessment standards applicable to your state. Our squirrel-themed unit identified three science standards from the Iowa Core Essential Elements Standards to drive the learning. Having a small number of standards makes the task seem manageable and cognitively appropriate for students. To build a unit around the standards, look for themes that align with student interests.

For this unit, the focus is on squirrels. Squirrels are of high interest to students and an animal they can easily identify. While learning about the genetics of squirrels, students are reading and writing, as well as conducting research that requires calculations and modeling. This model uses a science concept that requires cross-content skills to support new science learning.

As this is an integrated unit, it is important to review other content standards. Alternative math and English language arts standards are vital to support the lessons and tasks being developed. To further enhance the lessons in your unit, infuse 21st Century Skills and alternative social studies standards. Integration of several different core standards into one lesson of the squirrel unit allows the teacher to monitor different skills during a single task or activity. This multistandard approach maximizes instructional minutes.  

Current individualized education program (IEP) goals can be targeted as well. Teachers are tasked with not only addressing student IEP goals but also designing and delivering specially designed instruction. By keeping student goal areas in mind as you create your own unit, you will be able to provide meaningful and engaging lessons without losing valuable instructional minutes.

For example, another lesson in the unit targets students with reading comprehension goals. We were able to modify a text not only to be used for the lesson but also to monitor progress. There are several opportunities for students to engage with media in the mode of video, pictures, charts, and varied readings that are age-appropriate and may also be used for comprehension progress monitoring.

2. Modifications. Modifications should support the student’s communication needs and will be age-appropriate. Sometimes modifications to media and other sources become more juvenile. This can be common, especially for students on the alternative assessment. We sought to find age-appropriate materials and make the necessary modifications to those materials rather than finding materials at their instructional level.

As you explore the unit, notice that there are modifications made to some tasks, and the teacher handbook makes further suggestions on modifications for each lesson. Use your judgment, and make additional modifications that hold true to the targeted standards. This specific unit was written at the high school target level but offers assessment points at each level in the Dynamic Learning Maps.

Modifications of quality sources, rather than the use of elementary or juvenile sources, will allow students to verbalize, write, or draw responses to questions at a high level. Another modification to consider when using age-appropriate sources is to allow for a choice of response styles. For example, if an exemplar text only has a written response, that does not mean you discard it. Instead, consider whether the student needs generated responses, fewer choices, visuals, oral responses, or other alternatives to access the text. 

As you continue to create, consider using class and small group discussions. Incorporate model building, hands-on activities, and movement. Modifications will not change the achievement target but allow for differentiation for your students and their learning needs. For example, the Hungry Squirrels game could be played at many different scales using 2D and 3D materials, with sound added to the materials, or adjusted for students’ physical abilities. 

3. Integration of assistive technology. Finally, assistive technology is an important part of how students can access science lessons and demonstrate their knowledge. This is a low-technology supported unit. The low-technology focus was intentional to support accessibility for most classrooms. 

We created a communication board specific to the unit using subscriptions and symbols we had access to. We also included sensory bins for students who would benefit from a sensory break that is tied to the unit’s theme. If you have low-vision students, additional prompts and color contrast for multimedia and online content can increase accessibility.

Following these three steps, teachers can create an age-appropriate, carefully planned, modified, standards-based unit with integration of assistive technology that is engaging for all students.

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Filed Under

  • Special Education
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Science
  • 9-12 High School

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