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Problems of Practice

How can strategic staffing better serve students with learning disabilities?

Key Takeaways

  • Understand how “pushing in” special education teachers is more than just adding another teacher to the room, but also involves reinventing the special education teacher role to better support all students.
  • Learn how to train general education teachers in a personalized fashion to support students with learning disabilities' specific needs.
  • Explore various ways of approaching hiring and staffing to not only lower the teacher-student ratio, but also differentiate the roles of the educators in the room.

NOTE: We would like to extend a big thank you to the experts at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) for their feedback, input, and expertise on this “Problems of Practice” series!

Students and teachers gather in a circle, looking down and smiling as one person writes on a paper.

What is the problem?

One of the main problems we see around strategic staffing to serve students with learning disabilities is that education, as a whole, needs not only more human capital, but more trained personnel in the room. This is especially true when working within a blended and personalized learning model. If the educators who are making decisions about technology, differentiation, specific supports, and more for students with learning disabilities are not trained to do so, these choices are hard to make successfully.

In order to address these issues, schools, districts, and charter organizations have started to be more creative in how they hire, staff, and utilize special education teachers - and even educators as a whole. These approaches can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Reinventing the special education teacher role
  2. Training general education teachers and leaders
  3. Lowering the teacher-student ratio through creative hiring

Why is it important?

When teachers collaborate to champion all students, then all students (including students with learning disabilities) will have a more effective and holistic support network. By normalizing personalized approaches to teaching and learning, students can get the support they need without having their learning disrupted or having to self-identify (or be identified) as different from a theoretical “norm.” As the National Center for Learning Disabilities reminds us, "If educators aren’t supported in modifying their practice, then aspirations around more inclusive, supportive, strengths-based environments will never come to fruition." Strengths-based and student-focused approaches to education are not just about increasing students’ sense of belonging, but also improving academic outcomes.

The research says...

How: Solution

When exploring the following approaches to “strategic staffing to better serve students with learning disabilities,” feel free to pick and choose what makes the most sense for your class, school, and community. This shouldn’t be seen as a formal “user guide,” but instead a toolbox of resources to help you start thinking about specific ways to get not only “more human capital, but more trained personnel” in classrooms to better support diverse learners, as well as the student body as a whole.


Reinventing the special education teacher role

In the past, special education teachers would pull out students with learning disabilities to give them more small-group and/or 1:1 time in a separate space, away from their peers. This type of strategy can make students feel isolated, embarrassed, and, sadly, only guarantees that their specific needs are being met during a small percentage of their day. One bonus of a personalized learning system is that there is time for continuous intervention, but it is a hard strategy to implement without knowledgeable educators specifically trained in supporting students with learning disabilities. To address this challenge, many special education teachers are being “pushed in” to blended/personalized learning classrooms, so that there are more educators in the room, additional supports for all students, and so that students with learning disabilities are being supported on a more ongoing basis alongside their peers.


Special education teachers are also being given opportunities to influence more students and their roles are being revisited to incorporate a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) within each classroom. It is also important to note that MTSS is not just a special education intervention, but a general education intervention that all teachers need to understand and know how to apply. Consequently, beyond special education teachers, some schools are also pushing in (and even pulling out) based on not only IEPs, but content-specific needs, as well. The additional time to focus on specific needs in smaller groups allows students to be supported on exactly what they need, when they need it.

To explore additional ways schools are reinventing the special education teacher role, check out this article, these strategies, and then ask yourself:

  • How can I better utilize special education teachers in my room?
  • Are my students with learning disabilities’ needs being addressed during their WHOLE day through strategic support?

Training general education teachers and leaders

Did you know that “66% of students with learning disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms”? Consequently, this is not just a special education teacher issue, but a general education support need, as well. In order to truly support all students with learning disabilities, we need to ensure “that educators develop the skills to implement personalized learning strategies for all students,” and also make sure they are “challenging and erasing biases, low expectations, and deficit-based assumptions about what students can do.” (NCLD)

Some ways to start that conversation and begin training general education teachers to support students with learning disabilities is to:

  • Utilize special education teachers as coaches - Are there special education teachers who can lead PD on best practices, spearhead teacher teams, and share strategic ways to align IEPs with learner profiles?
  • Ensure expertise in leadership - Is there someone on the leadership team who has been trained in supporting students with learning disabilities so that the vision and culture of the school illustrate understanding and support of all learners? And, if not, how can you make sure that someone takes the necessary steps to be trained?
  • Bring in experts - Are there educators in the community, non-profit organizations, and/or other schools who could come in and discuss ways to either better train general education teachers to support students with learning disabilities or present on how to best support students with learning disabilities in a general education classroom?

In addition to in-school supports, there are also online articles, courses, and even in-person classes that can help train educators and/or inform parents and the community about best practices:

  • Understood.org: a social impact organization dedicated to helping the one in five Americans who learn and think differently thrive at home, in school, at work, and in life. Approximately 40% of the site's users are educators.
  • The Friday Institute course on "Learning Differences": this course was designed to support general educators to meet all students’ needs and provide them with job-embedded strategies that will help them along the way.
  • CAST Professional Learning Institute: this site introduces four in-person courses, including “Introduction to Universal Design for Learning: Addressing the Variability of All Learners” and how UDL affects lesson design.

It is also important to remember that educators are all at different points in their own learning journeys and, in turn, need differentiated supports. Here are some ways various schools, districts, and organizations have personalized support for educators when rolling out new content and competencies.

Resource: Offer Personalized Supports



Lowering the teacher-student ratio through creative hiring

Beyond supporting the educators already in the classroom, there is still a support gap when looking at teacher-student ratios. As we know, the more access that students with learning disabilities and, in fact, all students have to small-group instruction, 1:1 conferencing, and immediate interventions and supports, the more focused instruction and personalization can be. Though with teacher shortages and educators dropping out of the workforce, schools and districts have had to become creative with new ways to to get additional educators in the classrooms. Some approaches have included:

  • Paraprofessionals
  • Specialists
  • Americorp members
  • Residents
  • Fellows
  • Counselors

By being more creative and flexible with hiring, schools can better utilize the educators in the classroom and give opportunities to additional individuals interested in education to develop skills and competencies through in-class experiences and mentorship. The strategies below illustrate some of these approaches and more. When exploring, think about how these could apply to your school or classroom to better support students with learning disabilities’ needs.

Take it further

If you want to learn more about “Training Your People,” aligning your systems, and supporting individual educators to build critical competencies aligned to bigger human resource systems and structures, explore these links and see tangible ways schools, districts, and charters are approaching this work with conditions in mind. If there are questions about how certain federal funding sources can be used to support general and special educators in the same classroom, previous federal guidance related to supplementing not supplanting funds may apply (in many cases, these funds can be used).


Additional Resources & Content: