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Problems of Practice

How do I ensure rigor and high expectations for the whole student in blended/personalized learning classrooms?

Key Takeaways

  • Understand that ensuring rigor and high expectations for students with learning disabilities means supporting high expectations for both content expertise as well as mastery of real-life skills.
  • Learn about how the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines can support rigorous content mastery through offering multiple pathways, means to illustrate mastery, and key engagement techniques to ensure all learners are able to reach their highest potential.
  • Explore and utilize approaches to social, emotional, and non-cognitive skills mastery for students with learning disabilities through varied peer interactions and collaborations tied to specific skills and competencies for success.

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 sit together at grouped desk with laptops, looking at student sitting at head of table

What is the problem?

When thinking about ensuring rigor and high expectations for students with learning disabilities, the first thing most educators think about is content and how we can make sure that – though the approach may vary – the rigor and expectations remain the same for ALL students. Although this is important to explicitly map out, it is not the only area educators should focus on when making sure students with learning disabilities are supported in a rigorous and equitable manner. The other piece of the puzzle is ensuring that students with learning disabilities are held to the same standards around social and emotional expectations and non-cognitive skills, as well. These abilities will enable students with learning disabilities to be truly successful, especially within a blended/personalized learning environment.

Raising the bar and supporting students with learning disabilities in a rigorous way, while also ensuring they are being measured in line with high expectations, means being strategic and purposeful about how these students are able to access, explore, practice, apply, and illustrate mastery in both:

  • Content Expectations
  • Social and Emotional/Non-cognitive skills

This TLA “Problem of Practice” will give you ideas, strategies, and questions to think about when approaching these two areas.

Why is it important?

As educators, we are doing more than simply preparing students to be successful in academic environments. By helping students develop social-emotional skills as well, we are supporting them to be “Agents of Their Own Success” in their future personal and professional lives. Our beliefs about our students’ abilities (and about our own efficacy) have a huge impact on their ultimate success, but even our own beliefs are often hidden to us. (This is particularly problematic when teachers and students do not share demographic or racial backgrounds.) By setting up rigorous academic structures for students, we can start consistently from a place of high expectations.

The research says...

How: Solution

Often, we educators are so laser focused on content that we forget that our students are headed into a world where some basic skills can be automated or outsourced and the key skills they will need to be successful are things like collaboration, advocacy, and non-content related, real-world skills. So when thinking about rigor and high expectations, we have to remember to not only support students with learning disabilities for rigorous content but also with high expectations around non-cognitive skills as well.


Content Expectations

When thinking about rigor and high expectations around content for students with learning disabilities, there are a few things you should initially ask yourself:

  1. At what level is the student currently, and where do I want them to be?
  2. Is the content I am presenting to the student age-appropriate? (For example, even though a 16-year-old reads at a second-grade level, they should not be given a “little kid” book.)

Then, you need to think about how you will get the students to their appropriate levels. This involves:

  • Pathways to access the content
  • Examples of how the student will illustrate mastery

In order to do this strategically and ensure that material is “represented in different ways, can be demonstrated in different ways, and that students with learning disabilities can be motivated in different ways,” the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) mapped out specific guidelines to ensure explicit high expectations and support for all students which do not at all change the rigor – only the approach. The guidelines are “an articulation of the UDL framework, which can assist anyone who plans lessons/units of study or develops curricula (goals, methods, materials, and assessments) to reduce barriers, as well as optimize levels of challenge and support, to meet the needs of all learners from the start. They can also help educators identify the barriers found in existing curricula.”

**A more comprehensive framework with information on how to access, build, and internalize the guidelines can also be found here.


Explore these UDL resources – along with additional strategies and ways schools are giving students with learning disabilities access to rigorous curriculum through varied approaches, options on how to illustrate mastery, and creative engagement strategies – to help ensure rigor and high expectations around content.


Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)/Non-Cognitive Skills

When thinking about rigor and high expectations around SEL and non-cognitive skills for students with learning disabilities, there are sometimes built-in biases around what students with disabilities can and cannot do. Teacher preparation systems normally do not provide a lot of helpful information on what disabilities mean and do not mean and, in turn, do not offer supports around how to best support students with those disabilities. This is especially difficult when thinking about “soft skills,” since there must be strategic supports, planning, and opportunities for students with learning disabilities to not only understand the skills they are being asked to master, but also practice and see the skills in action.

One way to create opportunities for students with learning disabilities to practice these skills is to work with peers in various ways. Here are some examples:

Offering multiple ways for students with learning disabilities to interact with their peers both in and out of the classroom allows them to not only have authentic social experiences but also helps them build their social, emotional, and non-cognitive skills toolbox.

Different approaches to “soft skills”:

Schools, districts, and networks have approached social, emotional, and non-cognitive skills in various ways. By being clear about expectations, establishing opportunities for practice, and linking skills to classroom practices, schools have worked to ensure all students have access and opportunities to master soft skills in a meaningful way. Explore these strategies to see how...

Take it further

Project and activity-based learning is another way to give students with learning disabilities opportunities to build their content and interpersonal skills at the same time. Remember: it is important to clearly model specific tasks, expectations, jobs, and how mastery will be measured so that all learners have clarity about the project/activity at hand. If implemented effectively, collaborative projects and activities give students the ability to dive deeper into content by translating it to real-world experiences and examples, while also engaging in content-rich conversations and building stronger relationships with peers.

Here are some examples of how various schools have approached project and activity-based learning:

Additionally this strategy is usually done on an individual level, but it still gives students the opportunity to take ownership of their own learning, practice time management, and make key choices around how they will illustrate mastery effectively.