The establishment of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for students nationwide represents a particularly robust challenge for teachers of students with special needs.  On the one hand, advocates for students with disabilities have made it clear that they want these students to be held to the same high level of achievement as typically developing students.  On the other hand, the particular disabilities that these students possess may make it difficult for them to meet certain standards.  This is especially true if the avenues for meeting those standards are defined too rigidly.  What follows are seven ways to help educators provide flexible means through which students with special needs can master the Common Core State Standards while still maintaining high expectations for achievement.

  1. Provide alternative means of expression.   If the standard does not explicitly state that the student must perform the competency via written expression consider other means through which the student can meet it.  For example:  ELA.W.11.12.3b – Use narrative techniques such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.  In this case, narrative techniques might include having the student draw a cartoon strip, do an oral presentation, complete a work of art, compose a musical piece, or a write graphic novel.
  2. Utilize the students interests.   For example:  K.CC.6 – Identify whether the number of objects in one group is greater than, less than, or equal to the number of objects in another group, e.g., by using counting and matching strategies (include groups with up to 10 objects).  If the student loves to play with miniature soldiers, let him use them in both learning about, and demonstrating mastery in the standard.
  3. Employ alternative texts.  For example:  11-12.RST.6 – Analyze the author’s purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, identifying important issues that remain unresolved.  Let the student do the analysis and identifications using a ”text” other than a textbook or worksheet, such as a compelling novel or non-fiction work, a video, a talking book, a website, or a live interview with an expert.
  4. Use assistive technologies and Universal Design for Learning toolsFor example:  ELA.RL.4.3. – Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s words, thoughts, or actions).  Let the student use text-to-speech software (such as the Kurzweil 3000), or an interactive digital book to help with the reading of the story or drama.
  5. Engage the student’s strengths.  For example:  7.G.3 – Describe the two-dimensional figures that result from slicing three-dimensional figures, as in plane sections of right rectangular prisms and right rectangular pyramids.  If the student learns best through hands-on activities, let him slice volumes of clay, or some other malleable material, as a way of learning about two-dimensional figures that result from slicing three-dimensional figures.
  6. Pair the student with a typically developing student.  For example: 2.MD.7 – Tell and write time from analog and digital clocks to the nearest five minutes, using a.m. and p.m.   Have a typically developing student engage in peer-teaching with a student with special needs.  Using real digital and analog clocks, let them take turns quizzing each other on the standard.
  7. Modify the environment.  For example:  4.W.1.3 – Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.  Provide a comfortable environment for writing.  Let students write in ways that they prefer such as:  laying down, standing up, at a computer station, table or desk, with or without music, using pen, pencil (handgrips if needed), or computer.

The Common Core States Standards Initiative has clearly stated its policy concerning students with disabilities:  ”In order for students with disabilities to meet high academic standards and to fully demonstrate their conceptual and procedural knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading, writing, speaking and listening (English language arts), their instruction must incorporate supports and accommodations.” [emphasis mine].  Educators are thus empowered to become creative in developing innovative ways through which students with special needs can acquire competency in and mastery of these nationwide standards.

For more strategies and tools to help students with special needs meet the requirements of the Common Core State Standards, see my book:  Neurodiversity in the Classroom:  Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life.  And visit my website:

About the author

I am the author of 16 books including my latest: The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students published by ASCD and available at:
3 Responses
  1. dj

    your articles are terrific, wish everyone could read them. I wish they were blastered on billboards acrosed the United States! It is difficult to remain slightly positive on education and standardrized testing! Why is it as a mother, I feel year after year its a WAR to ensure my children’s needs are met, to have the opportunity to become a successful adult? Our children are the future heroes of America! They all are deserving to obtain a good education. How is it ethical to tell children they must do well on the occ testing, because teachers could get fired? Pressure on a child so one can keep their job! Heres is the current position my child has been given. My son in the 6th grade, has severe a.d.h.d o.d.d, sensory disorder and high functioning autism. One special education teacher to support all the needs of children with a wide range of disabilities, from mild to severe is impossible for only one person to do! But we are told that NO CHILD IS LEFT BEHIND, that instantly leaves every child left behind because not all needs are met by one person. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND, in.a crammed up room, as the school is fined daily for being over ratio in the special education classroom. Why are parents, taxpayers, and the communities NEVER TOLD THAT? So again another issue for our children to be left behind! Is there no limit on the number of fines a school gets for being over ratio? Are the children not worth hiring support in the classrooms? Or is the fine cheaper then to hire support? But we are told NO CHILD IS LEFT BEHIND! Each issue just pushes our children further behind. How are the teachers not left behind with the pressures of supporting every need for each individual student? yet im rather tired of the excuse of NO FUNDING TO HIRE SUPPORT as I see 3 brand new buildings being built for the school. But we are told NO CHILD IS LEFT BEHIND. Doesn’t no funding leave the child left behind and the teachers too? How is it ethical to take my child out of a core class daily for 30 days, to prepare for the occ testing? Who is king tut that decides this is best interest of my child, without informing parents with an meeting, phonecall, and /or email? So how heavens does missing 30 days of core classes NOT put my child behind as he returns to class a month later? My son was whom told me of this change. Trying his best to ecplain and understand it. My child routine is very important to his life. He doesnt adapt to sudden changes well. I write in his planner daily to communicate with teachers, I have gotten a response of “ok” and “must do”. My child is very unorganized, I feel it is a necessity to communite well to bring out the best in my child. I can send emails of concerns and I get no response! I must call and be hopeful the teacher is available. I asked about my child being taken out of core class to practice. I get short answers as if its not a big deal. That isnt good enough for me. So I must make an appointment for an meeting. This is what Im told, the core class he is taken out of he wont be behind when he returns to class. There isnt a occ testing on the core class he taken out of, as if it makes it all ok. The math class she teaches which my child is in, well they are several chapters behind in math. The questions on the occ testing are things the class hasnt gone over. So the class is again left behind, why poor choices in time management! Choices are disney movies that pertain to no subjects, having parties in classroom, wasting a entire day for children to watch a track met or other sporting event, and taking the children out of school to go to lunch at a burger joint or pizza place. So again our children suffer the consequences because the role model teacher is making poor choices. What is this teaching our children? My child has always been talented in math but the core class he was taken out of he had an D in.So apparently practicing for the occ test, his papers will be graded. Since when are grades given for practicing a state test? Better yet, the highest grafes he gets practicing will be added to his core class he has missed out on for a month. We teach our children not to lie, cheat, and/o r steal. How is it ethical to add grades from another subject? Because my child is good at math, it has brought the grade up very much. What does this teacher our children? My child has a study hall daily and a gym class. why cant he use the study hall to practice for occ? or even the gym class? Why because it wasnt convenient for teacher to play catch up. What happened to best interest of child? so its ok my child has two math classes a day? I was told its bo pressure or stress! How is it not stress? My child doesnt process multiple things at once. When its too much my child shuts down. So thats ok to do to children? If children score low on occ testing because of this, who is responsible for this? How does this effect my child? NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND, as my child has cried from anxiety of occ test. I wonder if my child is just be taught the test. He has only been preparing in math, no other subjects on test. Is he being used for a high score not to benefit him? I wonder and question this I have got no real explanations or proof in best interest of my child. The principal suddenly has to leave & skip out on the meetings. the year is almost over and I still havent met the principal. Why all these red flags? I can questioning other sources and no one responds me. who cares? why cant I get answers. I do not know every law on special education. i am willing to learn to maybe understand the process better. Wheres my copy of Iep, goals earned, accomplishments and making process towards. I havent seen anything. Why must we beg for good education ? there are multiple other concerns. Who will listen and put my child first? My childs behaviors has regressed.

  2. SpEdMom

    I just wish more schools utilized these ideas in teaching our kids. It always seems to be such a battle. Gen. ed. teachers often don’t want to be bothered doing anything different and even if these are happening in the segregated classroom they never seem to make it out of there to help our kids still in gen. ed. My school district seems to think that if a child learns differently then they must be in a ‘different’ room.

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