Leading the nonverbal special education classroom


by Carmen Watts-Clayton

Carmen Watts Clayton

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been catching on like wildfire. The idea that general curriculums can focus not just on the “What?” of knowledge but also the “How,” and “Why” of content areas and skills have recently again become important. And it comes as no news to teachers that the new standards call for improved higher level thinking skills and creative thinking, which leads schools back into inclusion of arts and music within the curriculum.

This is especially noticeable in special education classrooms. Research shows that the arts are a major factor in stimulating language development and other communication skills. Song, music, composition, painting, drawing, molding, and compiling reach broadly into the skills of language, number sense, writing, reading, collaborating, vocational, self-care, and social/emotional health. I recommend using musical instruments such as piano, drum, tambourines, and bells in skill acquisition. Improve interest in reading by stimulating students with exposure to shapes, images, and colors found in a variety of hardbound books, and interactive technologies (such as iPad and Smart Board), now widely available in classrooms and homes. Recent research indicates nonverbal students may be able to make interactive connections and sustain attention and concentration longer with electronic devices than paper-based materials or most teacher student interactions.

A teacher can improve nonverbal student outcomes by remembering a few key strategies:

  • Differentiate learning by broadening the number and type of learning styles addressed in the lesson. If a student has learning disabilities, simplify; if there are hearing difficulties use ASL signs to translate the key concepts and visual images to portray the idea; if visual impairments exist, put the student close to content, enlarging it accordingly.
  • You can lead a student to content but you can’t make them swallow it. Or, what interests you is likely to interest students. Present new content using a modeling or “show and tell/try” sequence. Show the students more interesting initiating presentations about a subject, and then actively engage for your own pleasure. A student most wants to engage in what the teacher is engaged in. Allow students to look over your shoulder, and then take it away from you and continue what is begun. Be prepared to be amazed at how much farther students will go when they are not being “told” what to do, but rather shown how-to “do” a new skill.
  • Make lessons having multiple hands-on components, then try not to be attached to a “correct” outcome. Accept that engagement and participation is far more exciting and rewarding than simply following steps or directives. Open the door to creativity and accept what follows. Be prepared to be surprised.
  • Allow students artistic and expressive freedom beyond anything previously experienced in general classroom settings. To foster expression teachers should reserve judgment about products, assessments, and outcomes. Students are taking their educations far and wide beyond what current educators can truly imagine. Be flexible. Even students categorized with disabilities have talents and skills waiting to be uncovered. Expect more, predict less, to really free students to advance their abilities.
  • Have a sense of humor. As the leader of the class, your reactions, preferences, and style will affect students more than you can image. Be as broad based and open minded as possible. Empower students with happiness, curiosity, and rigor. Expect a lot, but then be truly pleased with any level of progress.
  • Avoid talking down to students, even very young ones. Non-verbal students are frequently more advanced in receptive language skills than adults are aware. Talk to a student with disabilities just as you would a trusted friend; not as a baby or unaware creature, but as valued and competent. Although the student will not comprehend every word, the tone and intent will be clearly understood.

These are suggestions helpful to educators thinking about their non-verbal and special needs students in a new way. I strongly suggest including a variety of technology in the curriculum of non-verbal students. Low-tech items such as picture icons, as well as more complex devices, are highly prized as learning tools in today’s educational environments. All students need digital literacy and computer knowledge to succeed in today’s world. Digital natives are all around, even in special day class. Prepare to be amazed at the abilities of today’s diverse learners.

Carmen Watts-Clayton is lead teacher in a moderate/severe elementary special day class. She is seeing fantastic performance results by offering art-integrated environments with technology access. You can e-mail her at
cwattsclayton@gmail.com with your experiences or questions.


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