Tailored Lessons in Leadership for Special Ed Students
April 22, 2019

Special Education is about tailoring learning to best serve students living with disabilities. In effect, it’s about shaping students’ ability to be their own best advocate. We’ve checked in with Special Educators from across the community, and they’ve shared five strategies for embracing the highly effective paradigm of leadership–everyone can be a leader.


  1. Assume ability.

Students with special needs are capable! Our friends at Dr. Clark School (Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada) recommend providing safe challenges that allow students to amp up their skill level, stretching just beyond their current level. Jessica Roy, principal, shares an example: “Manny is ‘keeping the end in mind’ as he is tasked with building a structure that will accommodate a small bead running from one end of the structure to the other.  Manny does not get assistance when building these structures and he uses his problem solving skills as well when it doesn’t work. He learns more when the structures don’t work than when they do.”

  1. Make it relatable.

The Special Educators at Riverside Elementary (Washington, UT) recognize that some of their students can repeat what they learn in their general education classrooms, but don’t necessarily understand what they’ve learned. For example, a student repeats, “I stand for greatness!” but is unable to explain what it means to “stand for greatness.”  So, their Special Educators make it relatable. They reinforce the general education learning through the I Stand for Greatness lesson during which students identify and celebrate their greatness by answering the question, “What makes you great AND an individual… in one word?”

  1. Keep expectations high. 

Kelly Waller, Special Educator at Bellerive Elementary (Creve Coeur, MO), begins with the paradigm that her students are high achievers in their own right. She assumes that Habits 1–3 are their daily foundation and bridge to the Public Victory Habits 4–6. Often, students with special needs struggle with positive social interaction. Kelly writes, “Creating a checklist for monitoring their behaviors using ‘first/then’ boards and visual schedules solidifies their foundation. If our students have a solid foundation, then the next three habits (Public Victory) would not be ‘scary’ or ‘unpredictable’ and they might be willing to try (elevated) tasks like sharing, taking turns, following directions, and working as part of a group with minimal behaviors issues.”

In the pictures above, Bellerive students prepare for Special Olympics while practicing Habits 4 through 6–the Public Victory. They practice:

          • Habit 4: Think Win-Win by taking turns and modeling how to hold and shoot the basketball.
          • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood by appreciating how peers might be struggling and then adapting the technique to make it relatable and achievable.
          • Habit 6: Synergize by working in partnerships and small groups.


  1. Provide repetition.

“Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action,

which makes it the architect of accomplishment.”

-Zig Ziglar 

We know that new habits are formed through repetition. Our students with special needs need repetition to develop new habits too! For example, students with speech challenges can work on empathy, communication, patience, and cooperation with a service dog. The dog provides a safe and calm helper. In the photos below, Marco and Quentin work with Summer (the puppy) to get her to follow their commands while developing their communication skills. Marco has a severe speech delay and Quentin is a nonverbal autistic student.

  1. Avoid the urge to rescue.

Watching a child struggle is hard! But children need to experience both the sweet taste of success and the inevitable hurdles that get in their way. And unless our SpEd students remain in our classrooms for the rest of their lives, empowering them is non-negotiable. For example, students at Riverside Elementary (Washington, UT) do art projects that focus on the habits and practice a life skill. The one pictured below is about tying and gluing using fine motor skills.


As we tailor our lessons in leadership, we help students with special needs grow the mindsets, toolsets, and skill sets they need to navigate life. Which strategies will you take back to the classroom? Do you have a strategy to share? Keep the conversation going: share your best tips for serving students with special needs in the comments section below!


Classroom Resources

  • Use this Adapted 7 Habits Chart to help find ways to support Special Ed students.

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