Students with significant disabilities deserve to (and can) learn academic skills from the general education curriculum along with the functional skills needed to master daily living. Teachers and paraprofessionals should ensure they provide a balance of these skill areas in a child’s educational program. The challenge of providing high-quality academic instruction can be addressed in part by utilizing evidence-based best practices to target academic skills. —Ayla Reau
Why Focus on Academic Skills?
Authors Cannella-Malone, Dueker, Barczak, and Brock list three compelling reasons for a focus on academic skills.
- A focus on academic skills can lead to improved outcomes in adulthood as “increased literacy and mathematical competencies that can expand job opportunities, broaden leisure skills, and promote independent living.”
- Students with significant disabilities are capable of making progress in the general education curriculum.
- All students with disabilities should have access to academic instruction since all students deserve to have access to inclusive and quality education.
The authors conducted a systematic literature review of 225 experiments in 222 articles published in 54 peer-reviewed journals between 1976 and 2018 in order to analyze academic instruction for students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities across all areas of academic content.
The increased focus on academic outcomes for all students across the years has led to an exponential increase in the number of studies in this field. With regard to students with significant disabilities, research has shown that it is possible to teach both academic and functional skills effectively and “in a way that promotes positive post-school outcomes for students with disabilities.”
A majority of the participants in these studies of academic interventions have moderate disabilities. While students with severe and profound disabilities have had the least attention paid to them with regard to academic instruction, they are known to have the worst post-school outcomes. It could be argued that “access to functional reading, writing, math, science, and social studies could have a dramatic impact on outcomes for these students.”
Content and Instructional Strategies
Studies disproportionally focus on reading skills, with a majority of studies targeting sight word instruction. “However, there are a growing number of studies moving beyond simple, rote targets and focusing on more complicated skills such as reading comprehension across content areas, essay writing, and math word problems.”
While the authors identified 16 instructional strategies used to teach academic skills, the studies mainly focus on five—reinforcement, prompting, time delay, modeling, and visual support. The 16, in order of reported use, are:
- Visual support
- Time delay
- Technology-aided instruction
- Least-to-most prompting
- Discrete trial training
- Peer-mediated instruction
- Naturalistic intervention
- Video modeling
- Graduated guidance
- Early reading intervention
- Most-to-least prompting
- Varied error correction
A majority of studies did not frame academic instruction within a functional context. The authors recommend that “a shift from targeting single skills to teaching relevant skills within a functional framework would likely increase the efficiency of instruction and potentially have a more powerful impact on students.”
Most studies used only a one-to-one format for instruction, with a few using small groups alone or in combination with one-to-one. Most also occurred in a self-contained special education classroom. The authors “found the lack of focus on teaching academic skills in general education surprising given that previous research has shown that students make more progress in the general education curriculum when instruction is provided in the general education [classroom] setting.”
Since students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities can acquire and make progress with academic skills across content areas, teacher training should ensure that new teachers engage with both functional and academic content. Educators should also be using evidence-based practices such as reinforcement, prompting, time delay, visual supports, and modeling to teach academic skills. There is also additional research that supports the effective use of these strategies by paraprofessionals who assist teachers in providing academic instruction.
Cannella-Malone, H. I., Dueker, S. A., Barczak, M. A., & Brock, M. E. (2019). Teaching academic skills to students with significant intellectual disabilities: A systematic review of the single-case design literature. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 1744629519895387.
Summary by: Ayla Reau—Ayla is excited to help continue to grow the MARIO Framework, seeing the potential for it to impact all students across any educational context.
Researcher Scott Dueker participated in the final version of this summary.
Research suggests that teacher reprimands do not decrease students’ future disruptive behavior or increase their engagement levels. Instead, teachers should focus on proactive classroom management strategies, such as explicitly teaching classroom expectations, using behavior-specific praise, and reinforcing positive behavior as a way to encourage desired behavioral outcomes in the classroom. —Jay Lingo
Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (EBD)
“Many teachers resort to using reprimands in attempts to stop disruptive student behavior,” particularly amongst those students with emotional or behavioral challenges.
Students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) may experience many challenges in school and often present commonly identified characteristics including aggression, attention and academic problems, antisocial behavior, low classroom engagement, high rates of disruptive behaviors, and mental health challenges.
“The ways in which teachers and students interact can affect outcomes for students with EBD. There can be positive outcomes if the teacher–student interactions are positive and teachers have been able to increase the on-task behavior, or engagement, and decrease disruptions of students in their classrooms.”
While teacher reprimands may suppress misbehavior momentarily, they do not appear to be effective in decreasing students’ disruptive behavior or increasing their engagement over time. Limitations and implications are also discussed.
Reprimands: How Effective Are They?
Caldarella et al.’s study emphasizes that the “ways in which teachers and students interact can affect outcomes for students with EBD. Teachers who deliver low rates of negative feedback (e.g., reprimands) and high rates of positive feedback (e.g., praise) may be particularly effective with students with EBD when providing multiple teaching and learning opportunities that enhance students’ engagement.”
Furthermore, reprimands have been linked to escape-motivated behaviors, aggression, and further disruptive behavior. The use of reprimands for students with or at risk for EBD can be especially problematic, given the specific challenges faced by these students. The current study found that teacher reprimands did not appear to decrease future disruptive behavior or increase future engagement for students at risk for EBD, or vice versa.
The results of the study show that although they may temporarily suppress misbehavior they do not result in long-term positive behavior change. This might be because reprimands do not directly teach students the skills needed to improve their behavior, and thus, students may continue to exhibit negative behavior and continue receiving reprimands. Another problem is that reprimands are reactive: a student acts disruptively and a teacher reprimands the student.
The Alternative to Reprimands
Instead, the focus should be on effective teaching techniques and proactive behavior management strategies to decrease disruptions and increase engagement.
“Reprimands are meant to stop misbehavior. However, in the current study, teacher reprimands did not appear to help decrease future classroom disruptions or increase future engagement of students at risk for EBD.” This should not be surprising, as harsh reprimands in schools have been associated with negative side effects such as anger, fear, escape, and avoidance rather than improved student behavior. In addition to being harmful to teachers and their students, reprimands prove less effective than positive classroom behavior management strategies. “Teachers who use reprimands also report higher levels of emotional exhaustion than their peers who do not.”
Given the findings of the current study, along with those of previous researchers, it is recommended that teachers replace reprimands with proactive classroom management strategies, such as clearly teaching classroom expectations, reinforcing positive student behavior, and using behavior-specific praise, as primary responses to student misbehavior and disengagement.
Caldarella, P., Larsen, R., Williams, L., Wills, H., & Wehby, J. (2020). “Stop Doing That!”: Effects of Teacher Reprimands on Student Disruptive Behavior and Engagement. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, Vol. 23 (2). DOI: 10.1177/1098300720935101.
Summary by: Jerome Lingo— Jerome believes the MARIO Framework is providing structure and common meaning to learning support programs across the globe. Backed up with current research on the best practices in inclusion and general education, we can reimagine education…together.
Strong interview performances are an essential part of obtaining employment and internship opportunities in today’s society. However, research indicates that those with disabilities face increased barriers in performing well on interviews, suggesting that transition-age youth who receive special education pre-employment services (Pre-ETS) may benefit from explicit interview training in high school as a means to increase vocational outcomes. — Taryn McBrayne
Transition-Age Youth and Interview Training
Transition-age youth (TAY) are defined in this article as those who are between the ages of 16 and 22 and who qualify for special education services. Often transition-age youth receive school-based support to assist with the transition from high school to adult life. However, data suggests that employment rates remain low amongst TAY in the United States.1 In their article, Smith et al. (2021) “aim to fill key gaps in the literature on job interviewing in TAY receiving special education pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS) . . . at schools in urban, suburban, and rural locales.”
In their study, the researchers collected data from 47 schools across Michigan, Illinois, and Florida and evaluated “vocational interview history and outcomes among TAY prior to their school-level implementation of either Virtual Reality Job Interview Training (VR-JIT) or Virtual Interview Training for Transition Age Youth (VIT-TAY).” As part of the study requirements, teachers and/or administrators at the selected schools were asked to complete two surveys on behalf of each TAY: 1) a survey focused on student demographics, including the appropriate disability category as determined by the 13 disability categories according to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and 2) “TAYs’ employment histories with regard to their current and lifetime employment at competitive and integrated jobs.” Both descriptive and inferential analyses were used to assess the collected data.
The results of the study can be summarized as follows:
- The researchers observed that the age of TAY was an independent variable that affected outcomes.
- “88.8% of TAY who were currently employed interviewed for their job,” which supports the need for interview training as part of Pre-ETS.
- It was found that “TAY with a specific learning disability had greater odds of ever having been employed as compared to TAY with other disabilities,” including autism and intellectual disability. Such findings suggest that “autistic TAY and TAY with intellectual disability may need more intensive and individualized interventions and supports within Pre-ETS.”
- “TAY with emotional disturbance . . . had greater odds of ever having been employed.”
- In regards to internship opportunities, the data found that “21.7% of TAY were currently in an unpaid internship and 8.3% were currently in paid internships,” with TAY with a specific learning disability having lower odds of unpaid internships compared to others.
- “Approximately 30% of unpaid and paid internships were obtained after completing an interview, which did not differ across the diagnostic subgroups.”
Although the focus of the study was on interviewing and vocational outcomes, Smith et al. (2021) and Sullivan & Artiles2 (2011) note the importance of further investigating the prevalence of racial disparities among the disability categories indicated in this study in the future.
Smith et al. (2021) also outline limitations in their study. The authors emphasize that the results of their study may not be largely generalizable due to the fact that their study did not sample a nationally representative group, both in terms of geographic location and a school’s access to resources. In addition, Smith et al. (2021) acknowledge the possible presence of selection bias in their study given that schools who agreed to participate in the study may have been better prepared to conduct interviews with their students and prepare TAY for these interviews.
Ultimately, the authors conclude that the results from their study reinforce the “importance of implementing evidence-based job interviewing skills training within pre-employment transition services.”
Summarized Article: Smith, M. J., Sherwood, K., Blajeski, S., Ross, B., Smith, J. D., Jordan, N., Dawalt, L., Bishop, L., & Atkins, M. S. (2021). Job Interview and Vocational Outcomes Among Transition-Age Youth Receiving Special Education Pre-Employment Transition Services. Intellectual and developmental disabilities, 59(5), 405–421. https://doi.org/10.1352/1934-9556-59.5.405
Summary by: Taryn McBrayne — Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students to regularly make use of this power.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Persons with a disability: Labor force characteristics 2019. (USDL-20-0339). Author. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/disabl.pdf
- Sullivan, A. L., & Artiles, A. J. (2011). Theorizing racial inequity in special education: applying structural inequity theory to disproportionality. Urban Education, 46(6), 1526–1552.
Key Takeaway: Teacher language within general and special education classrooms differs for students with autism, resulting in potentially negative impacts. Numerous studies have shown that open-ended questioning and language-rich environments are linked to positive academic achievement and communication development, especially for students with disabilities like autism who may struggle in these areas. —Amanda Jenkins
By analyzing six types of teacher language (open-ended questions, language models, close-ended questions, directives, indirect requests, and fill-ins), Sparapani et al. (2021) found that teachers generally use more directives and close-ended questions when interacting with students with autism, “potentially limiting their opportunities to engage in rich exchanges that support learning and development.”
The study looked at teacher language in kindergarten to 2nd grade general and special education classrooms and found that while special education classrooms had more language usage overall, both settings had language that consisted primarily of close-ended questions and directives (69% in special education classes, 60% in general education). Open-ended questions were rarely asked in either setting to students with or without autism. Numerous studies and research have shown open-ended questioning fosters active engagement, improves communication skills, decreases problem behaviors, and increases academic growth.
As Sparapani et al. state, “These data might suggest a need for teachers to include scaffolds, modifications, materials, and/or other adaptations into classroom activities rather than rely on oral language, such as the use of directives and/or close-ended questions, for students with limited language and lower cognitive skills.” More research and development needs to be done to provide teachers with an understanding of the impact their language and questioning practices have on their students.
The authors also indicated that teacher language is related to the individual student’s symptom severity, vocabulary skills, and cognitive ability. The study used multiple standardized tests to determine base-line levels of functioning and skills of the individual participants. Then the researchers focused on the individual student experiences in general and special education settings through the use of video observations and analysis. In both settings, students exhibiting more severe autism symptoms were addressed with mostly directives and significantly less open-ended questions. Special education teachers were more likely to address individual students and general education teachers addressed students in groups more often. As Sparapani et al. state in the findings, “the language environment within special education classrooms may not adequately prepare students for the linguistic and social pragmatic directives within general education classrooms . . . [and] may create an instructional barrier for learners with autism who transition between settings.”
As special education policy focuses on creating a least restrictive environment and as inclusion/collaborative classroom models increasingly become the norm, students with autism are spending more of their academic time in the general education setting. This study highlights that it is the teachers and paraprofessionals responsibility to monitor the language used in their teaching practices and to ensure a language-rich classroom experience. Best practices, such as using open-ended questioning and language models, give all students the opportunity to develop academic and communication skills vital to success.
Sparapani, N., Reinhardt, V. P., Hooker, J. L., Morgan, L., Schatschneider, C., & Wetherby, A. M. (2021). Evaluating Teacher Language Within General and Special Education Classrooms Serving Elementary Students with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Published. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05115-4
Summary by: Amanda Jenkins—Amanda strives to help students effectively communicate their strengths, weaknesses, and goals, and believes the MARIO Framework provides the structure and foundational skills for students to take ownership of their learning, inside and outside of school.
Key Takeaway: High expectations play a vital role in developing future success in students. For learners, frequent educational and vocational discussions with friends, family, and teachers during adolescence can be incredibly important in fostering their aspirations and transforming them into reality. —Emmy Thamakaison
Lynette Vernon (Edith Cowan University) and Catherine Drane (Curtin University) share their retrospective, cross-sectional study examining the association between student characteristics (ie. socio-economic status (SES), gender) alongside discussions with influential figures (ie. family members, friends, teachers) and expectations to attend university, receive vocational/technical education, or go into full-time employment after secondary school.
SES’s contributions to the development of future aspirations have long been debated, in particular, the suggested relationship between lower SES and lower educational and vocational aspirations. Vernon and Drane present their arguments against this as their results revealed that “career and educational aspirations for students, predominantly from low SES background were high” but found that often “the missing element is the knowledge of how to make these aspirations concrete and obtainable.”1
- Compared to students with higher SES, those with lower SES tend to engage more frequently in Technical and Further Education (TAFE) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) discussions and less frequently in university discussions.
- Students discuss their aspirations with their parents and peers more than their teachers and counsellors. Therefore, it is vital for these high-impact influencers to “have the necessary up-to-date knowledge and skills to provide the relevant information around educational opportunities.” However, parents of students of lower SES may lack the prerequisite knowledge as they may not have experience with university and/or TAFE/VET pathways. Thus, informative parental support and discussions with multiple influencers may be beneficial to maintaining high aspirations.
Apart from SES, other factors such as gender, academic year level, and first-in-family (to attend university) status are considered “important predictors” for students’ vocational and higher education expectations.
- University discussions affected female students more significantly in terms of their expectations to receive higher education.
- Those with first-in-family statuses engaged in discussions about university more frequently than those whose family members have attended university, indicating “their capabilities of resilience, motivation, and tenacity to explore university pathways.” However, first-in-family status was not associated with TAFE/VET expectations.
- Vernon and Drane found that year level (grade level) indirectly contributed to the pathways between discussions on university, TAFE-VET, or full-time employment expectations.
Regardless of individual characteristics, frequent discussions about students’ futures allows the maintenance of their aspirations and sets them on the path to reaching their potential.
- As one of the main confidantes for a student, parents are encouraged to “provide the reality context for their children around their educational desires” in the discussions.
- Teachers remain largely untapped for valuable aspirational discussions. Prioritizing career education in a school setting and promoting teachers as a “positive, knowledgeable, and accessible resource” can therefore go a long way in “empowering [students] to pursue their desired education and career pathways”.
Ultimately, this research encourages policy-makers, teachers, and influencers to recognize the importance of discussions around educational and vocational pathways. Adolescence is a critical transitional period as students decide what they will pursue beyond secondary school. While individual factors influence future expectations differently, increasing the frequency of quality discussions with influential figures can “provide the opportunity for all students to practice and develop their capacity to aspire and meet their career [and educational] expectations.”
Vernon, L., & Drane, C. F. (2021). Influencers: the importance of discussions with parents, teachers and friends to support vocational and university pathways. International Journal of Training Research, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/14480220.2020.1864442
Summary by: Emmy Thamakaison — Emmy is a recent high school graduate attending Stanford University and is an enthusiastic advocate of MARIO Framework.
Research author Lynette Vernon, Ph.D., was involved in the final version of this summary.
- St. Clair, R., Kintrea, K., & Houston, M. (2013). Silver bullet or red herring? New evidence on the place of aspirations in education. Oxford Review of Education, 39(6), 719–738. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2013.854201