Caring for those in Need

Engaging Learners with Diverse Needs through IEP Supports

Engagement, practice and understanding are universal components that are keys to student learning. However, when a student is identified with a special need that has the potential to impact their ease with attending and planning, their engagement in the learning progression can become a challenge. In this scenario, the mission for the educational team becomes accessibility as a vital learning component of engagement. In special education, this team of experts is called the IEP team, which includes the student’s parent(s) or legal guardian, educators and related service providers, and an administrator.

BY Angela Shaw | September 2021 | Category: Education

Engaging Learners with Diverse Needs through IEP Supports

The team’s purpose is to create a specialized learning plan, supports and services built upon the student’s present levels of performance (PLOP), strengths, and needs. The learning plan, termed an Individualized Education Program (IEP), is intended at its core to provide specialized academic instruction (SAI) tailored to the needs of the student. Since individuality often plays a key role in determining what a person needs in order to thrive and learn, rather than a rigid one-stop shopping list containing accommodations, modifications and presentation, IEP teams should allow for a certain level of flexibility—as this takes into consideration appropriate scaffolds to support the student where the need arises, as well as the distinctive strengths of the student. To be prepared for your vital mission as an IEP team member and ensure a mindful trajectory for student learning and engagement, please read on.

As focus on determining appropriate supports for student engagement, we should first reflect upon the process of just how our brains work when we are learning. The causation pattern needed in order to assure efficient learning for students of all ages and learning styles involves processing information within a small space in our brains called the working memory. The road to the realm of the working memory is through engagement, but entry within this processing center may be impeded if a student is externally or internally distracted. Teachers strive each day to capture their students’ attention with the goal of boosting engagement, practice and exponential understanding. They have an array of strategies within their tool boxes, as well as a skilled learning community to support this endeavor. However, students identified with special needs may process auditory or visual information differently. They may have difficulties with executive functioning, such as attention and planning. They may have delays in the areas of receptive or expressive language. Such diverse challenges may cause a student to struggle with engagement, due to an unseen barrier. Through the IEP meeting and the resulting IEP document, the identification, acknowledgement and consideration applicable to the learner’s unique learning profile now become readily accessible to educators and parents. This helps implement the mindfully planned scaffolds built into the plan to bolster the student’s access to engagement and learning progression.

In addition to increasing access to the working memory, engaging students in the learning process may help in increasing productivity, enhancing performance and connecting to community. Actively engaging students through guided discussions, structured small group activities, and planned creative play, promote a treasure trove of social, emotional and academic benefits, including the students’:

  • Learning with peers in a more inclusive manner
  • Making friends through shared interests and perspectives
  • Having fun with learning through a variety of sensory and social experiences
  • Developing leadership skills through collaboration, negotiation, cooperation and creative problem solving
  • Learning life skills through peer models, as well as the tasks and responsibilities within the group
  • Learning how to be a part of a group, which becomes a natural progression through team work and respectful relationships
  • Learning how to include others through sharing strengths and supporting others on the journey.

“Learning how to learn” takes place through fun, as well as opportunities for engagement within an inclusive learning community. Additionally, measurable outcomes linking increased student engagement levels may be seen through:

  • Improved attendance: Absences, even excused ones, can signal a lack of student engagement and connection. When students are engaged in the learning process, they often feel a part of the learning community; therefore, will make an effort to be with their classmates.
  • Productivity and practice: Students who are engaged in the process of learning relish completing a project. They understand the critical aspects of connecting the dots of their learning through their classwork and homework practice. They feel connected to their learning community and are proud of their ability to contribute; therefore, student behavior tends to be more on task when they are actively engaged learners.
  • Fun for everyone: Teachers and students who are actively engaged in learning radiate their happiness through smiles and kindness to one another. This often equates to less referrals and more time spent learning.

With such rewards, engaging our students can provide the basis for long-term success. Through improved understanding of what a student needs to access the curriculum and what strengths the student possesses, teachers and parents are better able to construct scaffolds of support that provide for appropriate tools of engagement. Therefore, rather than providing a simple check-list, naming the action or tool required to support the student, try adding a reason or purpose for accommodations – or modifications to provide a perspective of understanding relative to a student’s needs and support their strengths.

An exhaustive list relative to creating operationalized scaffolds of support could fill a volume of books, but may not necessarily cover all of a student’s unique needs. Rather, offered within this article is a launchpad of ideas and examples that teams may customize to their student’s unique needs and include:


  • Take weekly spelling test in separate setting
  • Opportunity to pass out class/group materials
  • Visual schedule
  • Shortened in-class assignments
  • ELA tests presented via computer

Teacher provides visual cueing system to student prior to asking direct questions pertaining to the lesson


  • to allow student to experience sounds through kinesthetic/movement.
  • to support student’s desire to help and be included.
  • to lessen anxiety and support memory through student’s visual strength.
  • to support some students’ ability to complete projects with classmates.
  • to support student’s engagement in the testing process.
  • to support student’s readiness and focus.

Consider one or more of these additional tips relative to facility with implementation in the classroom(s):

  • Systematize. Creating or following an agenda for the IEP meeting creates a clear set of topics and time frames, as well as encouraging participation and keeping the discussion on track. The agenda assists team members in determining when and where they plan to share in the discussion, and lessens anxiety relating to the unknown. The meeting facilitator often presents an agenda via whiteboard or hardcopy for the team. Parents or other team members may wish to bring a copy of the previous IEP to the meeting, with areas of discussion points highlighted. This helps provide an informal self-agenda, particularly if a group agenda is not presented.
  • Organizing the list by categories, such as presentation, social/emotional, etc., can be a helpful approach for all educational caregivers. This menu approach through categorization of purpose, subject matter, or learning modalities, etc.; creates ease of reference and implementation for parents and educators.
  • Try synthesizing the suggested supports into one, if they are operationalized for the same purpose. Oftentimes teachers, service providers, and parents recommend the same support for the identical purpose, but use different wording. By synthesizing identical supports, a more concise list is possible.

Through mindful consideration of key elements linked to a student’s unique learning profile, access to learning is scaffolded in a proactive manner. The educators are provided insight into the student’s unique needs and may be possibly extended to students who are not identified as having special needs.

Deepening the learning for all—including students, parents and educators—provides a pathway of ensuring inclusive learning today and beyond. 


Angela Shaw is a writer and retired special educator. With over 25 years in the field of public education, Angela synthesizes her diverse teaching experiences and education to support and encourage families and educators as they navigate the diverse learning needs of the children in their care across a changing educational landscape. 

Read the article here.