You are here

Promising Practices for Accelerating Learning for Students with Disabilities

An unfortunate and disheartening reality is that several students in Colorado will enter the 2021–2022 school year behind grade level. There is a vast number of reasons for this, such as, inconsistent schooling prior to and during the pandemic and inequitable access to instruction and resources designed to meet their individual needs. Many schools and districts, however, will aim to design a learning progression that remediates instruction, meets students where they are, and picks up the curriculum where students left off. This approach, at best, may keep students from falling behind further; however, it will not accelerate instruction or close the achievement and opportunity gaps for historically underserved student populations. Research shows that these approaches to remediate instruction are largely ineffective and further exacerbate the significant disproportionality for students of color, students from low socioeconomics, and students with disabilities.

Why Remediation is Ineffective for Students with Disabilities

Remediation as the primary way to support students performing below grade level is especially concerning for students with disabilities. It often results in lowered expectations for students with disabilities and relegates them to lower academic “tracks” than their nondisabled peers. To address this, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released guidance in 2015, clarifying that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) requirement to provide each child with a free appropriate public education, IEPs should be written in ways that create both a pathway and roadmap for students to strive for and meet grade-level standards (US Department of Education, 2021).

How can districts and schools create an effective pathway to accelerating learning for students with disabilities?

The National Center for Learning with Disabilities maintains that there are five keys or components to creating an effective pathway to accelerating learning for students with disabilities: 

  1. Streamline curriculum while focusing on grade-level standards. Research shows that, in lieu of remediation, effective acceleration programs streamline content, reducing redundancies in curriculum in order to focus on rigorous, grade-level content while familiarizing students with prerequisite skills at critical junctures. This careful focus allows students to make up for lost instruction while keeping up with grade-level instruction. 
  2. Allow for additional time to integrate necessary prerequisite skills. While streamlining curriculum is important, students may still require more time to acquire prerequisite skills or engage with and master new content. Allowing for additional time at the school or district level necessitates collaborative conversations about schedules that include representation from special educators, service providers, language or reading specialists, electives teachers, and families. Allowing for additional time at the classroom level should be determined in a collaboration between general and special educators.
  3. Customize instruction based on strengths and areas of growth for each student. Effective approaches to accelerating learning demand that curricula be tailored to deliberately and intentionally meet individual learners’ specific needs over a prescribed period. Rather than approaching instruction from a deficit model, efforts should focus on student strengths, simultaneously providing compensatory strategies and additional instruction to address gaps in learning and needed areas of growth. Special educators should be an integral part of this process as they have nuanced understanding of student strengths and progress with specific skills. Effective models also ensure that needed accommodations are provided. 
  4. Leverage student interests that lead to deep, engaging learning. When content is aligned to student interests, the result is an increase in engagement and learning outcomes. Culturally responsive education that recognizes and affirms students’ cultural and racial identity also leads to better academic outcomes.
  5. Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), multiple modalities, and small group instruction. UDL and multiple modalities for instruction can support accelerated approaches. Teachers should use UDL to design flexible learning environments that anticipate learner variability and provide alternative pathways into the curriculum. Teachers should also adapt approaches to accelerated learning to reflect the strengths and areas of growth for each student. Small teacher-to-student ratios and small group instruction can also build ownership of learning for students and reinforce social ties that improve learning and behavioral outcomes., Furthermore, small group tutoring has been shown to be one of the most effective strategies to improve student outcomes. 

Districts and schools can implement acceleration approaches/practices with success by building an inclusive learning environment, providing meaningful support to educators, and creating systems to facilitate family engagement. 

Inclusive Learning Environment

Inclusion is especially important for students with disabilities. Most students with disabilities spend most of their school day in general education classrooms, alongside students without disabilities. This trend reflects the mandate in IDEA requiring that students be educated in the least restrictive environment to the greatest extent possible. The following elements outlined by the National Center for Learning with Disabilities are key to building an environment that is inclusive of, and accessible to, students with disabilities and other learners:

  • Embracing Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework to improve teaching and learning for all based on how individuals learn best. It requires creating multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to set up all students for success. For additional information on UDL in Colorado, click here. 
  • Implementing Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS)MTSS is a prevention-based framework of team-driven data-based problem solving for improving the outcomes of every student through family, school, and community partnering and a layered continuum of evidence-based practices applied at the classroom, school, district, region, and state level. For additional information on MTSS implementation for students with disabilities in Colorado, please click here. Districts and schools may also contact CDE's Exceptional Student Services Unit and the Office of Learning Supports for additional guidance, training, and resources.

  • Prioritizing student development and growth of executive function skills. Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control. Many students, but especially those with attention-related disabilities, struggle with obtaining and mastering these skills. This can result in challenges with starting, completing, or prioritizing tasks. While strength-based approaches that allow students to advance at their own pace can accelerate learning, these models must embed supports to build executive skills. Until students are able to manage a self-paced structure, educators should provide additional scaffolds and guidance to ensure that all students progress meaningfully.

Intensive Educator Supports

Accelerating instruction is challenging and — for most educators — new. Teachers and specialized instructional support personnel will need targeted support to help them identify student needs and implement strategies to accelerate learning. And, when necessary, educators will need support in adapting to new and changing learning environments. Therefore, equipping educators with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement instructional approaches to accelerate learning should include the following:

  • Invest in extensive professional development and ongoing coaching and support.  A recent pre-COVID-19 report by NCLD found that many general educators do not feel well-prepared to teach students with disabilities. Given that some students have missed extended periods of valuable instructional time, resulting in unfinished learning, most educators are faced with unprecedented challenges, specifically the challenge of teaching students with disabilities using high impact and differentiated strategies. Therefore, professional development is needed to ensure that educators are prepared to provide accommodations and support to students with disabilities and other historically marginalized student groups, including ELLs.
  • Leverage the expertise of educators to maximize the impact of instructional models.  School systems should embrace an inclusive learning environment that recognizes the collective responsibility of educating students. This environment should provide the structures, time, and skills for effective collaboration between special and general educators. Educators who need ongoing support should be provided regular coaching and feedback so they are able to implement an accelerated program of instruction that maps onto the general curriculum. 

Family Engagement

Families are essential partners in supporting students and improving outcomes. Therefore, families should be informed about how schools are adapting curriculum and instructional strategies to accelerate learning while ensuring the health and safety of all children and school personnel.

What does meaningful or effective family engagement look like? Meaningful family engagement includes:

  • Establishing flexible and regular communication with families. Regardless of the curriculum or instructional approach, students perform better when families are engaged with the school and their learning. While clear lines of communication — in their native language and in an accessible way — are always important, regular communication during COVID-19 school disruptions are especially critical to help families manage uncertainty and support children navigate changing instructional environments. The onus should not be solely on Describing how and why schools are adapting curriculum and designing learning plans. More than ever, parents and caregivers are supporting students’ daily instruction. They need clear and concise information about the school’s expectations so they can allocate the time and attention required to help children reach their learning goals. Parents of students with disabilities need specific information about how redesigned curricula and individualized learning plans will ensure that instruction is accessible to their child.

Reflective Practices:

1. As an educator or leader, how can you ensure that the common characteristics listed as "Promising Approaches" are incorporated in the daily instructional practice?

2. Which of the aforementioned acceleration approaches is currently being implemented within your school/district? If none, is there a school or district wide plan to incorporate any of the approaches?

3. Does your school currently use the UDL framework and/or MTSS? 

4. How is your school prioritizing student development and growth of executive function skills.

5. How does/do your school or you as an educator engaging or planning to engage families in the work to support learning for students with disabilities beyond IEP meetings?


Promising Practices to Accelerate Learning for Students With Disabilities During COVID-19 and Beyond Guide Book

NOTE: The contents of this page was created by a collaborative effort with the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the US Department of Education, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Next Module: How Instructional Coaching can Support ELA Teachers