Curriculum Planning for an Inclusive Classroom

Ask the Experts – July 2003
Curriculum Planning for an Inclusive Classroom
by Paula Kluth, Ph.D.
Q: We have a growing number of students with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome at our school. How do I plan curriculum and instruction appropriate for these students alongside my students without disabilities in our inclusive classrooms?

A: Many general educators believe that they need specialized strategies to teach students with disabilities. While it can be beneficial to know about autism before teaching students with that label, often teachers are effective when they are accepting and allow for differences in the ways students approach tasks and complete classroom work. That is, teachers are often practicing what I call “inclusive pedagogy” when they are simply engaged in good teaching. When a teacher allows students different ways to express their understanding of a novel (taking a written test, designing a piece of art related to the book), she is using inclusive pedagogy. Or when a teacher uses cooperative learning approaches and assigns students roles that will challenge them as individuals, he is using inclusive pedagogy. For most teachers using an inclusive pedagogy will simply involve expanding strategies and approaches already used in the classroom. While there is no recipe for expanding these strategies and approaches, a few simple guidelines can help educators plan lessons appropriate for the inclusive classroom.

#1: Choose Meaningful Content
When planning a lesson or unit for a diverse, inclusive classroom, the first and perhaps THE most important aspect is choosing content that is motivating and available to all. There is perhaps no better way to make sure that curriculum resonates with students than to include them formally or informally in the planning process. Even students in pre-school can participate in curriculum design by making choices about what they want to learn and bringing questions into the classroom. They may want to pursue topics that they view as central to their lives. Students in rural areas might want to investigate new farming technologies; a Native American student may want to study the storytelling traditions of a local tribe; a group of girls in the class may want to examine how gender impacts their own educational experiences; and students with autism may want to learn more about their own disability.

Many individuals with autism suggest using special interests and areas of expertise as teaching tools (O’ Neill, 1999; Shore, 2001). A student who knows a lot about using tools may request that some lessons focus on building or creating things. A student who is interested in a certain movie may ask that a lesson is built around the film.

#2: Use Flexible Grouping
Groupings should change throughout the day and throughout the year so that students have opportunities to work with all classmates and learn from all peers regularly. Flexible grouping means that at different times and for different lessons, students might be grouped or paired based on interests, needs, or skills. Students might work in pairs, in small groups of three or four, or in larger teams of five or six. Students with autism will profit from working with a range of peers, but for new tasks and experiences some learners will feel most comfortable with a trusted friend or classmate.

Some teachers allow learners to choose partners or team members. While this practice gives students opportunities to work with familiar peers, it can also cause isolation and frustration in the classroom for those students who are not asked to be a partner or team member. Further, students who choose partners and team members for every activity may constantly select from the same peer group. When this happens, students fail to become acquainted with and learn from all class members and the community of the classroom is threatened.

One way to honor student preferences while engineering groupings that benefit all learners is to ask students to give input on group formation. Teachers might ask students to provide this information informally through a short interview or by listing a few names on a sheet of paper. Or students might be asked to fill out a worksheet that provides more detailed information about grouping preferences. Even if the teacher does not ask every student for input in forming the groups, the learner with autism should be given this opportunity as unexpected changes or unfamiliar situations can cause undue—and in some cases, extreme—stress and frustration.

The teacher should always let the student with autism know in advance when groups will be changing. If the student will be working in different groups throughout the day, she might be given a schedule with this information included. One of my former students needed not only a schedule of which groups she would work with and when, but photographs of each group so she could study the photos and prepare herself to be with each different team.

#3: Experiment with Different Materials
Teachers need to use a wide range of materials as some students with autism find that traditional teaching materials are not appealing or easy to use. For instance, many students with autism find writing with pencils and pens difficult and prefer to use a typewriter or computer instead. Likewise, a student I know has a hard time manipulating books (e.g., turning pages) so his teacher adapts his reading material by copying the text and placing as much of it as possible on small laminated poster boards. She also purchased several different poetry posters for the classroom so her student could read the text on the walls.

Many students with autism (and those without) will appreciate having choices related to materials. An art teacher I know lets students choose from a range of mediums when they paint; some use acrylics, some watercolors, and one student with autism who dislikes the texture of paint, often opts for working on the computer with sophisticated design software.

#4: Vary Lesson Formats and Structures
When teachers use a wide variety of formats and decrease their reliance on whole-class discussions and lectures, many students, but perhaps especially those with autism, will benefit. Many students with autism report that they need hands-on opportunities to learn. Temple Grandin (1995), a woman with autism and accomplished animal scientist, recalled that she learned most when teachers allowed her to actively participate in learning:

“I vividly remember learning about the solar system by drawing it on the bulletin board and taking field trips to the science museum. Going to the science museum and doing experiments in my third- and fourth-grade classrooms made science real to me. The concept of barometric pressure was easy to understand after we made barometers out of milk bottles, rubber sheeting, and drinking straws. We taped the straw onto the rubber sheeting, which covered the mouth of the milk bottle. Changes in the air pressure pushed the rubber membrane up and down and made the straw move.” (p. 97)

Students with and without disabilities will be more engaged, retain more, learn in a deeper way, and use higher-order thinking skills when they can access learning in a variety of ways.

Cooperative Learning
Cooperative learning (see Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Kagan, 1992; Sapon-Shevin, 1999) is an especially effective teaching approach for students with autism since those engaged in this type of instruction are encouraged to learn and practice social and communication skills. Since many students with autism need support to enhance these types of skills, lessons involving cooperative learning can both challenge students with autism and provide natural opportunities to learn new language, initiate conversations, respond to verbal directions and requests, practice turn taking, and possibly develop social relationships.

Cooperative learning also seems to benefit students with autism academically. One study conducted in a fourth-grade classroom showed that when students worked in cooperative groups, increased learning was demonstrated for learners with autism and their peers without disabilities (Dugan, Kamps, Leonard, Watkins, Rheinberger, & Stackhaus, 1995). Further, the researchers documented that more learning occurred during cooperative groups than during traditional teacher-led, whole-class instruction.

Centers or Stations Teaching
Using centers or stations involves setting up different spots in the classroom where students work on various tasks simultaneously. For instance, students in a third-grade classroom might rotate systematically to four different centers- each representing one part of the writing process- or a teacher might allow students to move fluidly between stations. These stations invite flexible groupings because not all students need to go to all stations all the time. This format is appropriate for any class and any age and is ideal for co-teaching (e.g., one teacher can support groups, one can work with individual students).

Centers or stations should focus on important learning goals; contain materials that promote individual students’ growth toward those goals; use materials and activities addressing a wide range of reading levels, learning profiles, and student interests; provide clear directions (if some students do not read this will mean including auditory or pictorial instructions); include instructions about what a student should do when he completes the work at the center; and include a record-keeping system to monitor what students do at the center and the quality level (Tomlinson, 2000).

Using centers or station teaching is valuable for teaching students with autism for a variety of reasons; centers typically involve active and interactive work and students are able to move at their own pace. Since students with autism often profit from learning experiences that involve movement and activity, centers may increase participation in curriculum and instruction because of their natural and teacher-sanctioned opportunities to move and manipulate materials.

Project-Based Instruction
Projects are another ideal learning activity for those students with autism who need some time alone to work independently and those who thrive when given opportunities to immerse themselves in one topic. Donna Williams (1992), a woman with autism, found that she could be academically successful when a teacher let her pursue a topic of special interest, American civil rights, in-depth:

“I had gone through every book I could find on the topic, cutting out pictures and drawing illustrations over my written pages, as I had always done, to capture the feel of what I wanted to write about. The other students had given her projects spanning an average of about three pages in length. I proudly gave her my special project of twenty-six pages, illustrations, and drawings. She gave me an A…” (p. 81)

Teachers working in diverse classrooms often turn to project-based instruction in order to provide interesting and appropriate instruction for all and to make sure that students have opportunities to address individual objectives.

#5: Use a Variety of Assessment Tools
While tests are sometimes appropriate for learning about student progress, it is only one tool among many that should be used to understand the needs, learning, and academic growth of all students. As Wendy Lawson (1998), a woman with autism spectrum disorder, explains, testing can be a very confusing and stressful experience when the proper supports are not offered. In the following passage she recounts the frustration she felt when directed to take a placement exam:

“I was accompanied into a [small room]. It had only one desk and one chair in it, plus a loud ticking clock on the wall directly opposite where I sat. I was given a pencil and several sheets of paper and told it was important to my education that I concentrate and work to the best of my ability. Whatever “important to my education” meant, being in that office with those bits of paper did not feel very important to me.” (p. 42)

Not surprisingly, Lawson did not pass the exam. In reflecting on this experience, she offered suggestions for how the situation might have been adapted:

“Maybe if the exam had been explained to me and I had been told to read the information sheet accompanying the writing paper, I might have attempted to answer the questions. It would have been very helpful if the exam had been broken down into smaller chunks of information so that I could have worked without being overwhelmed by so many words all lumped together.” (p. 42-43)

As Lawson illustrates, tests can be real obstacles for students with unique learning profiles. Testing, however, is a reality of schooling today and nearly every teacher gives an exam or quiz at some point during the school year. For this reason, all teachers should have some strategies for adapting tests and creating comfortable testing conditions for all students. For instance, teachers might allow students to retake tests, provide them with study guides, read the test aloud, or let students assist in writing the exams.

Of course, testing adaptations may not be sufficient for some learners. Some students with autism will never be able to show what they know and can do by taking a pencil and paper test. In order to reach all learners in the inclusive classroom, then, teachers will need to use a wide range of authentic assessment strategies including portfolios, exhibitions, presentations, labs, journals, essays, debates, anecdotal reports, teacher observation, puzzles and games, interviews, focus groups, daily work samples, and questionnaires.

A popular teaching mantra in diverse classrooms is “If they can’t learn the way we teach them, let’s teach them the way they learn.” This philosophy is especially important for today’s inclusive classrooms. By choosing content that matters, using flexible groupings, offering a wide range of materials, mixing-up lesson formats, and designing a variety of assessments, teachers invite all students into learning and give learners with and without autism opportunities to be successful in the inclusive classroom.

Dr. Paula Kluth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at Syracuse University. She has a M.Ed. in Educational Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Wisconsin. She is a former special educator who has served as a classroom teacher, consulting teacher, and vocational educator. She has taught in and engages in research in both elementary and secondary schools. Her professional and research interests center on differentiating instruction and on including students with significant disabilities in inclusive classrooms. She is currently conducting research on how teachers support children with autism in inclusive classrooms. She is the author of You’re Going to Love This Kid: Educating Students with Autism in Inclusive Classrooms (Brookes Publishing) and the lead editor of Access to Academics: Challenging All Students in Inclusive Schools (Erlbaum Publishing). She thanks the real experts- those with autism and their families- for sharing their lives and expertise and teaching her all she knows about dis/ability.

Kagan, S. (1992). Cooperative learning: Resources for teachers. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning.
Lawson, W. (1998). Life behind glass. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
O’Neill, J. (1999). Through the eyes of aliens: A book about autistic people. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
Putnam, J. (1998). Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion. Baltimore, MD: Brookes
Shore, S. (2001). Beyond the wall: Personal experiences with autism and Asperger syndrome. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Williams, D. (1992). Nobody nowhere: The extraordinary biography of an autistic. New York: Avon

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