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How to Use Scheduling to Support Students with Special Needs

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March 23rd, 2017

In our previous postwe explored the issue of students with disabilities and how to best serve this vulnerable group. The following post provides some insights and ways to support those particular students through scheduling.


As educators, we always want to provide our students with the least restrictive learning environment. For many students, the least restrictive environment may be a Special Education classroom, a Co-taught or Push-in model, or a Learning Center for extra support.

However, intentional scheduling decisions may provide additional avenues for support that don’t rely on traditional Special Education services. In fact, a combination of creative solutions and staff buy-in can lead to better services for students and better use of resources.

The following three examples and related stories illustrate how educators can use scheduling to improve services to students with special needs.

1. Build student schedules that match the student’s biological clock

Many of the schools I visit follow this advice to some extent: Build a student’s schedule in a way that complements his or her unique needs and personality. Some students with special needs burn out by mid-day, so it’s in the student’s interest to have academic classes in the morning.

Perhaps the student’s transportation is unreliable in the morning, so a more flexible teacher should be scheduled for first period. A school’s special education staff should work with site leaders to collaborate on the master schedule when planning course offerings that meet the needs of students. Here’s an example from my own scheduling experience:

My staff quickly learned that Jacob (7th grade) did not do well on hot days. Due to some sensory issues, he was emotional, exhausted and unable to learn by the end of the day. We tried to schedule PE for him near the end of the day, but many days he didn’t make it past lunch without running out of steam. In planning the schedule for his 8th grade year, we decided to schedule his PE course for FIRST thing in the morning. On cool days, he was able to participate fully. On warmer days, his parent elected to bring him to school later, or he worked in the learning center to avoid the heat. We set up his schedule so that he would spend the afternoons in air-conditioned classrooms with very brief transitions between buildings. Knowing Jacob’s needs allowed us to program a schedule that worked best for him during California’s hottest months.

2. Use micro-targeted instruction to replace traditional push-in or sheltered classes

When a general education classroom doesn’t provide enough academic support for a learner, the next option is to add additional supports or services. Why not make the general education classroom more supportive for all learners, not just the ones with an IEP?

Micro-targeted scheduling allows a teacher to cover general education instruction and address social-emotional or other learning needs at the same time. A creative administrator, a passionate educator, and some smart scheduling can improve services to fragile learners of all types.

Micro-targeting works when educators group students with similar needs in a general education classroom, and give the teacher the freedom that he or she needs to adjust instruction and classroom routines to match the student group. Sites may only micro-target 10 percent of the classes on their master schedule, but it can be impactful for struggling learners. For example:

Success High School has 8-10 sections of Biology on the master schedule. Biology is a general education course for 9th grade. The assistant principal and the course team have decided to target a single group of students: students who struggle with learning new vocabulary.

Mr. Tang has volunteered to take the micro-targeted section of Biology. The team identifies students who would benefit from additional support, and they’re all scheduled into Mr. Tang’s 3rd period. The course uses the same course number, earns the same credits, and is indistinguishable from the outside.

Inside the classroom, Mr. Tang has developed assignments and procedures that reinforce important vocabulary acquisition skills. He adjusts his instructional and grading practices to best meet the needs of his special population. Students are still held to the same performance expectations and summative measures as everyone else—the only difference is that Mr. Tang is able to provide targeted instruction that matched student need.

Micro-targeted General Education courses could replace some Special Education services. Many of learners need intentional strategies and grading practices that align with their special needs.

3. Assign your Special Education staff where they’re needed most

An additional way to leverage resources to place students in the least restrictive environment has less to do with scheduling and more to do with facilities management. Mixing Special Education services with the General Education classes is one of the easiest ways to blur the lines between General Education and Special Education services.

I visit dozens of secondary sites every year. Unfortunately, the pattern is clear: a vast majority of sites have Special Education classes all clumped together on campus. Even worse, these classrooms are in the basement, the “old” building, or in portable classrooms out back.

This practice sends a clear message to the students who access Special Education services, and it isolates the service providers from the General Education classes they serve. Sprinkling special education classrooms around campus assists in blurring the line between General and Special Education. Here’s an example of how this practice worked for my staff:

As my site transitioned from a Pull-out to a Push-in model, we also placed the Special Education Learning Center in the same hallway as the ELA, history and science courses. Situating the Special Education staff in the same wing allowed them to visit multiple classrooms during the same class period. Students were able to access the learning center for support, scheduled learning center time, and drop-in assistance. It stopped being an OR, and it became an AND.

A good illustration pertains to Jacob, one of my students with sensory issues. He was able to step out of the classroom and into a supportive environment for 5-10 minutes, regain his composure, and still make it back to the class for the end of the period. Resource staff was also able to support learners who were not Special Education students. Additionally, the location of the learning center made it easier to transition to the MTSS model and provide appropriate support to all learners. In other words, “There was a softer line between types of service.”

If your goal is fluid and flexible support services, start by placing the “support” in a prominent, accessible way.

These strategies require collaboration between teachers, classroom support staff, and site leadership. If all staff have a common goal and understand how they can contribute, small changes like the ones outlined here can be implemented.

The ultimate goal is clear: place each student in the least restrictive learning environment. Not only can it save the site money, but it will also be very beneficial to students.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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