High Leverage Practices in Special Education
“Great teaching can be compared to great dancing,” says Suzanne Robinson, Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. A professional ballet dancer needs to master specific steps, but also “needs to dance complicated choreography, flowing between steps and cognizant of the other dancers at all times, making adjustments as necessary.” In special education, explains Robinson, Evidence-Based Practices (EBP) are vital specific steps, but High Leverage Practices (HLP) make up the complex choreography that teachers must master in order to provide the meaningful teaching that changes students’ lives.
Evidence-based Practices are specific teaching techniques and interventions that have sufficient published, peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate their effectiveness in addressing specific issues with specific populations of students. However, it’s unlikely that a teacher can spend an entire school day using EBPs. There aren’t enough of them and their focus tends to be narrow. But does that mean the teacher can just ‘wing it’ the rest of the time? Hardly!
High Leverage Practices are basic, foundational practices that every special education teacher should know and perform fluently—a core set of everyday practices that allow teachers to make a true difference in children’s lives and learning. These are time-tested and professionally vetted practices that are appropriate for all students, in all schools.
The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has recognized and defined 22 of these High Leverage Practices and organized them into four domains: social/emotional/behavioral practices, assessment, instruction, and collaboration.1 In this post, we take a look at a few examples.
Establish a consistent, organized, and respectful learning environment.
(Social/Emotional/Behavioral Practices, HLP7)
We often say that a good special education teacher is ‘organized, but flexible. That’s not an oxymoron. Expectations, routines, and procedures should be “age-appropriate and culturally responsive,” says HLP7, and teachers need to provide “performance feedback in meaningful and caring ways.” The students themselves should have a role in setting classroom rules and routines. They will be more engaged if the teacher embraces their “cultural, contextual, and linguistic diversity.”
Use multiple sources of information to develop a comprehensive understanding of a student’s strengths and needs.
There is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ in special education. Before they can design a program that will meet an individual student’s needs, HLP4 explains, teachers must “collect, aggregate, and interpret data” from a wide range of sources, such as “informal and formal observations, work samples, curriculum-based measures, functional behavior assessment (FBA), school files, analysis of curriculum, information from families,” and more. That data will not only help teachers to identify the student’s strengths and needs, but also allow them to spot potential supports and barriers to the student’s learning throughout the school.
Teach cognitive and metacognitive strategies to support learning and independence.
Learning isn’t just about memorizing—or even understanding—a series of facts. It involves “using cognitive processes to solve problems, regulate attention, organize thoughts and materials, and monitor one’s own thinking.” HLP14 states that teachers should integrate self-regulation and metacognitive strategy instruction into academic lessons through modeling and explicit instruction. That way, students learn to monitor and evaluate their own performance and to recognize when they need to change their behavior.
Collaborate with families to support student learning and secure needed services.
The need to collaborate with families regarding their children’s needs, goals, programs, and progress has never been more vital. HLP3 tells us that teachers need to communicate respectfully and effectively with families while considering “the background, socioeconomic status, language, culture, and priorities of the family,” and advocate for the resources that will allow the students to meet their behavioral, instructional, social, and transition goals.
High Leverage Practices in the KU Special Education Graduate Curriculum
If teachers were just handed the list of the 22 HLPs and told to implement them, it would be overwhelming. That’s why KU Special Education weaves them throughout its graduate courses. For example, a few of the places our High Incidence students learn about and apply HLP4 (“Use multiple sources of information to develop a comprehensive understanding of a student’s strengths and needs”) include:
- SPED 730, where they learn about standardized testing and informal assessments
- SPED 743, where they use Functional Behavior Analysis to design behavioral interventions
- SPED 741, where they use various literacy assessment strategies to plan programs for students with reading or writing disabilities.
- SPED 775 and SPED 875 practica, where they use various assessments to design and teach appropriate lessons for their students
In fact, the KU Special Education High Incidence Disabilities program itself is like a complex, choreographed dance—all the parts are intricately planned to flow together seamlessly. Our graduates, having mastered the choreography, are then able to perform in their own classrooms with the skill and fluidity that mark great teachers.
1 This reference and all subsequent quotations are from High Leverage Practices in Special Education. (2017). Teaching Exceptional Children, 49(5), 355–360.