Supporting Students With Disabilities

Today’s general education classrooms are increasingly diverse. Students present a range of abilities, interests, strengths, and challenges. Approximately 60 percent of children with disabilities ages 6–21 receiving special education support spend the majority of their day (more than 80 percent) in the general education setting. We know that students with disabilities are general education students first. A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching is impractical and often unsuccessful, especially for students with disabilities.

As local education agencies transition toward implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they will need to leverage a variety of instructional approaches to address the diversity of student needs in the classroom and to improve the academic performance of all students.

One way to address this challenge in the general education classroom is through an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to learning that aligns with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

UDL is a framework for designing a general education curriculum that is barrier-free; that is, creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessment that support learning benefiting all students.

In addition to the overall UDL framework, students should be supported by research-based instructional strategies, tools, and processes and individual supports and accommodations, all designed to create the foundation of a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) through effective instructional practices.

Featured Projects

Developing Online Modules on Common Core Aligned Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Goals for California Department of Education

WestEd staff worked with the California Department of Education, Special Education Division to develop a series of online modules to provide special and general educators with an overview of the Common Core standards and information on how to provide access to the core through standards-aligned IEPs. With appropriate supports and accommodations to ensure maximum participation, students with disabilities can meet these higher cognitive demands as they proceed in the general education curriculum.


The Common Core: The Foundation of the RtI Framework (webinar)

Learn how an effective multi-tiered academic Response-to-Intervention framework can help schools close students’ gaps in knowledge and skills in order to meet the Common Core standards.

Common Core and Low-Performing Students (article)

This article outlines the ways the Common Core supports students with disabilities, English language learners, and low-performing students.


Special Educators Look to Tie IEPs to Common Core (article)

This Education Week article, featuring WestEd’s Sharen Bertrando, looks at aligning students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to the Common Core.

Teaching English Learners and Students with Learning Difficulties in an Inclusive Classroom (guidebook)

This guidebook offers powerful, concrete ways to engage all middle and high school students in successful learning and especially students with learning difficulties such as specific learning disabilities, ADHD, and Asperger’s syndrome. Learn practical, evidence-based approaches for teaching standards-based content in any subject.

Ask the Experts

Sharen Bertrando

Sharen Bertrando
Special Education Development Program Specialist

Q: How will the Common Core State Standards impact students with disabilities?

A: In addition to the Common Core’s integrated, interdisciplinary approach to learning, many features of the Common Core are particularly helpful to students with disabilities:

  • The standards explicitly address students working in collaborative groups with multiple opportunities to share, discuss, and problem solve. This allows teachers to intentionally structure groups of students according to strengths and learning needs in order to provide opportunities for peer-assisted learning based on desired outcomes of the lesson.
  • The emphasis on speaking in addition to listening provides opportunities for teachers to set up situations for students to practice social discourse in a multitude of settings, purposes, and audiences. Being able to appropriately interact with others is essential for all students to succeed in postsecondary life.
  • The standards state that it is the teachers’ responsibility to accommodate learning for all students to allow access and mastery to the standards. Teachers can accomplish this by scaffolding the delivery of content and differentiating instruction to accommodate the interests, strengths, and needs of students.
  • The literacy standards include an equal balance of nonfictional texts that are often more engaging to students. This is particularly the case for students with autism because they typically have difficulty grasping concepts such as figurative language.
  • Students have opportunities to learn and demonstrate literary strengths in a variety of content areas. A student struggling to comprehend fictional text might be masterful in interpreting charts, diagrams, and tables found in nonfictional text.
  • The integration of technology into the design of the curriculum addressed in the standards can be a catalyst to motivate struggling students to learn. It also allows for multiple ways to access literacy and demonstrate mastery of skills. The standards are intentionally broadly written to allow for flexibility of access, addressing the underlying principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and integration of technology that is aligned to real-life application that benefits all students.


Q: How do we make sure we address the needs of our students with disabilities in implementing and meeting the new standards?

A: It is important for special educators to combine their expertise and work collaboratively with general educators and English language specialists. Doing so will ensure equitable access and opportunity for students with disabilities to master the standards.

Special educators need to be prepared to participate in the planning and implementation of the Common Core by understanding its design, structure, and alignment to UDL principles to ensure conscientiously designing curricula that is barrier-free for our diversified classrooms. This includes the application of technology supports such as digital text and software applications for multi-modality accessibility.

Q: What are some concerns you might have in regard to the Common Core?

A: Designing a curriculum to support the CCSS requires a change in the mindset for instructional approaches, particularly for students with disabilities.

Skills do not and should not be mastered in isolation of concepts. Mastery of skills and understanding of concepts develop simultaneously through meaningful interaction with ideas within the full context of the standards. Knowledge that is limited to rote memory and recall tasks do not support students in understanding the underlying concepts that can be generalized and applied to areas within new contexts.

When teachers hold high expectations for students—recognizing that students differ in levels of skill acquisition—and are prepared to develop students’ understandings and capacities as critical thinkers, students with disabilities are able to access grade-level standards.


Achievement for All

Achievement for All is a Response to Intervention process that helps students with disabilities meet the demands of the Common Core standards. Achievement for All improves systems that support the prevention and early intervention of students who struggle with learning. Using a tiered approach, it accelerates the learning of all students towards achieving next generation standards.

Aligning Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Goals to Common Core State Standards – Following guiding principles for IEP implementation and alignment to the Common Core standards is a critical component towards ensuring access to the general education curriculum and optimal outcomes for students with disabilities. Training and coaching provides an overview of the CCSS focusing on its integrated, interdisciplinary approach and features that strengthen access for students with disabilities to master the standards. Participants will learn how to use a systematic process for supporting students with disabilities to meet the standards based upon the present level of performance, skills, and interests of the students through modules and interactive participation.