Special education students are a part of the regular classroom environment — and for good reason. They deserve to feel included and to receive the same education as mainstream students.

As a substitute teacher, it’s inevitable that you will have the opportunity to work with special needs students on many assignments. While this can be a rewarding experience, special education students require certain accommodations you may not be aware of. To help you successfully educate these students, here are some aspects of working with them you should be aware of:

Be familiar with the lingo

You may encounter some educational jargon as you work with these special students. Here are just some of the acronyms you should be familiar with:

  • IEP – Individual Education Plan
  • IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • LRE – Least Restrictive Environment
  • LD – Learning Disabled
  • ESE – Exceptional Student Education
  • ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act
  • ESL – English as a Second Language
  • ELL – English Language Learners
  • LEP – Limited-English Proficient
  • FAPR – Free Appropriate Public Education
  • ADD/ADHD – Attention Deficit Disorder / Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder

Know the law

The Individuals with Disabilities Act requires that special needs students are placed in the least restrictive environment and each has an Individual Education Plan. For special education students to learn effectively, these plans must be followed by all educators, including substitute teachers.

Many times, you may need to change the lesson plan to accommodate these students. In From Survive to Thrive: What Great Substitute Teachers Do Differently by Dr. Trent Bowers, he states that “making an accommodation for special needs students means changing the way you teach to them, not changing the expectations of what students are supposed to learn in class.”

How to adapt lesson plans

If you need to make accommodations for special needs students, here are some actions you can take:

  • Reduce the length of the assignment or number of questions
  • Make the lesson easier
  • Read aloud, use visuals, and repeat/rephrase instructions
  • Encourage them and increase their confidence
  • Use examples
  • Be patient and smile
  • Give them breaks

Learning Disabled vs. Autism vs. Emotional Disorders

There are many different types of special education students. In general, these students are classified as having a learning disability, autism or an emotional disorder.

Students with a learning disability can have trouble with the following:

  • Information processing
  • Perception (distinguishing letters, numbers and symbols) and memory
  • Attention

Those with autism typically have:

  • An inability to form normal social relationships
  • Impairment of communication abilities
  • Stereotyped behavior patterns

Students with an emotional disorder could display many behaviors, including:

  • Aggression
  • Violence
  • Destruction of property
  • Tantrums
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability


No two students are the same. This is especially true when it comes to special education students. Each one has unique educational needs. While this isn’t meant to be a “how-to” guide, it will hopefully give you a basis for working with these students.

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