Trending Issues in Special Education, Part 3: Co-Teaching Strategies

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 -- Winnie O'Leary

So far in this series, we have presented an overview of special education classifications and looked at the role of edtech. In today’s installment, we’re going to turn our attention to co-teaching strategies.

When students are identified to receive special education services, they have the same rights and deserve the same quality of education as general education students—not just in theory but in daily action. Education has reached a point where the line between special education teacher and general ed teacher should be completely blurred. Collaboration is integral in achieving this. 

To set the baseline, let’s introduce some common classroom scenarios. Remember, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students receiving special education services be placed in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Inclusive (or inclusional) classrooms refer to settings where students who receive special education services are taught alongside their general education peers. Co-teaching strategies are employed, and these classrooms typically have both a general ed and special ed teacher. Inclusive classrooms typically have students who are classified as having mild to moderate disabilities. The co-teaching approach is often referred to as collaborative team teaching (CTT) or integrated co-teaching (ICT). “Self-contained classrooms refer to settings where all students in the classroom receive special education services. These classrooms typically include students who have been identified as having more severe disabilities. There are many applications of LRE, as dictated by a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), but for the sake of the conversation around co-teaching, let’s focus on these definitions.

Whether in an inclusive or a self-contained classroom, students with disabilities still fall under the canopy of receiving special services in their education. The needs of individual students may vary widely, so it is important that you design your program in a manner that allows you to focus on the unique needs of your population and incorporate the most effective approaches for them. In an inclusive classroom setting, co-teaching or team teaching is a key element.

In CTT or ICT, chemistry within the team is no longer enough. Obviously, it helps, but it is not sufficient on its own. Specific, proven approaches for collaborative teaching must be understood and used. To be successful, communication and partnership are critical. Between co-teachers, mutual appreciation and respect for each other’s teaching style and time starts the partnership off in the right direction. After that, co-teachers must think about the most effective processes for teaching and differentiating instruction for each child.

Here, we will go through the various approaches designed to achieve these goals. Think about your classroom situation, and consider which approach or combination of approaches might be most effective for you and your teaching partner. Keep in mind the content of your curriculum, the student dynamics in your classroom, and the general personal approach you and your team have. There are benefits and things to be mindful of in each process. This is by no means a restricted list, but think of it as a place to start—and let us know how your program works in the comments section!

One Teach, One Observe: Exactly as it sounds, one teacher observes specific student characteristics while the other teaches. This strategy is less about providing students with new instruction and more about monitoring student interaction and maintaining data. This works well when a specific student(s) needs to be identified or observed.

Supportive Co-Teaching: In this model, one teacher takes the primary role. The other supports an individual or groups of students, helps students maintain focus, gathers observational data, and provides classroom management. This method tends to be especially successful when teaching new concepts or when one teacher is a content area expert. Communication and planning are key to make sure that each teacher is aware of his or her role in the lesson.

One consideration when using this strategy—be cautious of perception, as students may start to see one teacher as more of an authority figure than the other. Make sure that balance in the leading of instruction is maintained. Don’t let one teacher become the classroom disciplinarian or minion. Rejoice in the opportunity to share instruction, and take advantage of each teachers’ strengths.

Parallel Co-Teaching: In this model, the class is split into two groups. Each co-teacher instructs one group of students, presenting the same material simultaneously. This gives both teachers the opportunity to work with a small group of students. 

Communication is once again critical to this strategy, and co-teachers must plan as a team to be sure that there is parallelism in the structure and quality of instruction that they each provide. Coordinated tasks must be divided in a way that supports the overall learning objective for the class. Using this model is not intended to provide differentiated or individualized learning; rather, it gives students the opportunity to see instructional concepts presented from different lenses and experience multiple related instructional activities. Smaller groups also allow for more student-to-teacher interaction and opportunities for student participation. 

The caution with this model is to ensure that all students are given time in each teacher’s group. This helps to maintain equal status between the teachers in students’ eyes and best supports students’ varying learning styles.

Station Teaching: Here, the content is divided, and each teacher works with small groups of students. The students rotate to each instructor through stations featuring different content. The stations involve differing tasks and activities relating to the same instructional content or objective. The work at the stations is not hierarchical. The tasks should be able to be completed in any order. All students participate in all stations.

Complementary Co-Teaching: In this model, one teacher provides primary instruction, while the other offers supplemental or complementary instruction. This might include modeling note-taking strategies, paraphrasing or simplifying the primary instruction, or recording content. To be effective, both teachers must talk to each other and be sure that they are supporting the general instruction.   

With an eye to special education, pre-teaching is one example of applying this strategy. One co-teacher may pre-teach specific study or social skills to special education students in the classroom and then monitor students’ use of them. Meanwhile, the other co-teacher teaches the academic content to the class as a whole.

Team Teaching: Using this strategy, co-teachers collaborate and teach alongside one another as a team. They share responsibility for planning, teaching, and assessing the progress of all students in their class. In this model, both teachers "play off" each other and share the instructional role.

Alternative Teaching: This is the last model we will take a look at (in this conversation at least). In this model, one teacher instructs a large group while the other teacher works with a smaller group on a completely different subject. Co-teachers must work together to determine the large and small groups, as well as their desired outcomes, lessons, appropriate activities, and any assessments to be administered to either group.

This model works well for enrichment or remediation and can be a great strategy to provide successful differentiated instruction. By dividing their class into targeted groups, co teachers have the ability to expand and collapse instruction based on students’ needs.

The instruction for students with disabilities in an inclusive environment embraces collaborative teaching, no matter which model is employed, and it begins with eliminating the stigma of special education. Co-teaching also provides opportunities for general education student to receive appropriate interventions early in the instructional process and benefit from a variety of educational approaches. Co-teaching can offer flexibility and modifications to instruction that work to the advantage of all students. Time spent in common preparation, professional development, and debriefing on successes and challenges can also be hugely rewarding to co-teachers themselves. Achieving the gains that can come from co-teaching begins with school and district support of the initiative. With proper time, planning, and teamwork, co-teaching can be a key element of a successful special education program, as well as a rich and inclusive general education program.

Looking for more co-teaching tips? Take a look at our blog post on Best Practices in Co-Teaching! Interested in learning more about how Edmentum’s online solutions can support special education in your school or district? Check out our Special Education Solutions for Educators!