Academics and Low Incidence Disabilities

1170296_untitledOne of the fundamental shifts No Child Left Behind (NCLB) caused in Special Education was accountability for teaching reading, math, science, and social studies.

Traditionally many Special Ed classrooms focused on life skills – the functional skills students with intellectual disabilities need to live as independently as they can. Academics were not the focus. Because students in SPED are now tested and factored into schools’ AYP calculations this has changed.


Most mainstream publishers responded to this by “dumbing down” their existing textbooks and materials or adding a few accommodation and modification tips. Special Ed publishers had catalogs full of life skills products but were short on academics. The result has been a gap in resources to help educators teach academics and functional skills side by side.

With the exception of a couple of states, there also has not been any clear guidance on an appropriate scope and sequence for teaching academics to students with low incidence disabilities.

From what we understand of the priorities of the new administration, no matter what happens to NCLB in the reauthorization, this challenge will remain.

At root the mainstream publisher approach doesn’t work because just taking the reading level down and providing some additional guidance in the Teacher’s Guide doesn’t solve the specific needs of these students. This may work well for students who are 1-2 grade levels behind – but any more than that and this approach breaks.


There are a three primary reasons.

First – these students move at a different pace. Even when the accessibility of the materials is improved, the pacing remains the same as the mainstream materials. In many cases this isn’t realistic. These students need to practice a skill 100 times not 10 in order to master it and retain it in long term memory.

Second – the repetition required for SPED isn’t accounted for in the mainstream materials – not even close. As one of the speakers at this year’s CEC stated “[students with intellectual disabilities] get bored too.” This is why many of the life skills products traditionally have been engaging games or hands-on activities that stand up well to repeated use. Doing a worksheet for the 50th time isn’t a lot of fun.

Third – even where highly qualified teachers are available, the person working directly with a student is often a paraprofessional. If the student has been mainstreamed, then the regular teacher may not be aware of the recommended differences in instructional approach. In both cases, instructional materials require more teacher scaffolding to be effective than that found in regular education products.


At PCI we are tackling this on multiple levels to help schools meet this challenge.

1. We are publishing comprehensive curricula that address the academic standards and seamlessly integrate life skills objectives. For example, our Environmental Print series coming out this summer teaches the meanings of common signs found around a community using stories and symbols while also addressing language arts standards. Students learn about main character and what to do when they see a Stop sign at the same time.

 Images Reading SealThe PCI Reading Program is another option for those students who have not had success with Phonics or Whole Language instruction. It is a sight words program tailored specifically for students with developmental disabilities, autism, or significant learning disabilities.

Both programs come with direct instruction support for when the materials are being used by paraprofessionals.

2. Our new Academic Curriculum Framework is a curriculum framework aligned to states standards that provides guidance to educators about what should be covered in every grade for students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities.

3. For more specific needs, we create turnkey kits of materials aligned to standards that help address Language Arts, Math, Science, and/or Social Studies. Since we distribute over 7,500 products from 200 publishers in the Special Education space we can assemble a complete kit to fit virtually any need. We’ve even put a Turbo Solutions Builder on our website to allow educators to build these kits on their own.

We are finally starting to close the gap in materials and guidance to help educators meet the twin goals of teaching academic skills and life skills to low incidence populations.

Note: This post is related to my role at PCI Education.