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Special Needs Students: Maintain Rigor!

Is rigor for students with special needs different from other students?

By Barbara Blackburn

**A special thank you to Brad Witzel, my co-author on Rigor for Students with Special Needs, who was instrumental in the completion of this article.

Approximately 3 percent to 6 percent of all school-aged children and adolescents are believed to have developmental reading disabilities. In fact, almost 50 percent of children receiving special education have learning disabilities. Just because a student is labeled learning-disabled or at-risk, it does not mean he or she is incapable of learning. Students with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence. Therefore, their success in school is not a matter of inability, but a matter of finding the appropriate teaching strategies and motivation tools, all of which we can control as a teacher.

Defining Rigor

Is rigor for students with special needs different from other students? No. Students are still expected to meet grade level standards, and should still be taught with rigorous instruction. Rigor is “creating an environment” in which:

  • each student is expected to learn at high levels
  • each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels
  • each student demonstrates learning at high levels

What does this look like for students with special needs? Let’s look at three strategies.

Three Strategies to Increase Rigor

First, students with special needs often demonstrate a learned helplessness, knowing that they will fail, despite even good scores on tests and assignments.  Learned helplessness is a process of conditioning where student seek help from others even when they have mastered information. See if this example looks familiar:

A student is asked to solve a direct reading comprehension problem, but he immediately raises his hand. When the teacher comes over, the student says he needs help. So the teacher reads the paragraph to the student and re-explains the question. The student still doesn’t answer the question. Next, the teacher re-explains a regularly used comprehension strategy with the student. Finally, the teacher walks through the strategy and may even solve the problem for the student.

In a classroom of high expIntelligent group of young school children all raising their hands in the air to answer a question posed by the female teacher, view from behindectations, instead of running to the rescue of students who can succeed without us or even refuse to help such students, it is important to find ways to teach students to gain independence in their problem-solving. In other words, find out why the student is behaving in a certain way and plan a response that best builds academic success and independence. One way to help is to teach students how to learn and succeed without instantly making excuses and asking for help by following these steps.

  • Determine if learned helplessness exists
  • Explicitly model the student the preferred academic behavior
  • Teach the student a strategy for displaying the preferred academic behavior
  • Provide practice for the strategy
  • Set a cue to remind the student to initiate the strategy
  • Allow the student to succeed
  • Facilitate the student’s problem solving strategy

By insisting students learn and practice problem solving independently, teachers demonstrate high expectations in the classroom. However, there is also a need to balance high expectations with support as needed.

Next, student with special needs can answer higher order questions, with the right support. Too often, we ask basic questions, without probing for extended answers. It’s fine to start asking a question that requires basic recall, but then we want to push students to a higher level. For example, when you ask a fact-based question, you should always follow-up with “How do you know?” Asking students to provide evidence for the responses requires more thinking. Another way to ask the question is simply, “Why?” Why do you know that?

Your students may not be able to answer those questions immediately, but you can coach them into it. Use a “you, us, them” model. Begin by asking the questions, and modeling the answers. That is the you part. Next, move to us. Guide students to answer the questions together, whether that is as a whole group, or students working with partners. Finally, move to them, where they answer the questions on their own. Using this model, you can help your students build independence.

Third, provide support so students can work at higher levels. Oftentimes, we think increasing rigor means simply raising the bar and expecting students to be successful on their own. However, you must raise the level of support to match the level of rigor. One way to support students is layering meaning. Imagine you need students to read a text on grade level. This could be a science article for example. That text is too challenging for your students to read. With layering meaning, you find a text on the same topic at a lower level, and use that text with your students. They may be able to read it on their own, or with your guidance.

The next step is to bring students back to the grade level text and guide students through it. Because they read the easier text, they have built background knowledge and vocabulary, which will allow them to be more successful with the grade level text. Larry Ferlazzo provides a list of sources for leveled text, which includes sites that will take your text and simplify it. You can find his list here


Students with special needs are capable of rigorous work. They can live up to high expectations and demonstrate learning at high levels, if the instruction is accompanied by appropriate support strategies.

Further Reading
  1. NOLA.com – Special education shortcomings found at New Orleans schools
  2. Palo Alto Online – Finding the ‘spark’ in public education
  3. edCircuit- Rigor and Competency-Based Instruction
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