What Do We Do Now?

Adaptations for Long Lectures, Whole-Class Discussions, and Other Tricky Times

Inclusion Rules by Paula Kluth
The teachers in one high school science classroom had designed a wide range of curricular adaptations for Paul, a student with Down syndrome. When students were in lab, Paul was assigned specific roles related to his adapted objectives and IEP goals; he was often asked to create drawings or diagrams of the lab results or to photograph the experiments for those at his table. When students engaged in small group instruction, his job was to listen to the other students, make at least one contribution related to content, and take a page of notes (using short sentences and pictures). When students read in the textbook, Paul followed along by listening to others and by reading one or two sentences that he had practiced in advance.

Paul was very successful in the course but there were moments when teachers struggled to adapt the classroom activities. For instance, the teacher occasionally gave a lecture lasting for more than forty minutes. During these lectures, Paul often became frustrated as the teacher frequently failed to use visuals and other supplemental materials that might increase student understanding and interest.

Paul was actually able to sit and listen for a small portion of the lecture but he would often fall asleep or become very agitated if asked to sit for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. At those times, Paul’s teachers would give him a choice of engaging in other activities related to the lecture. He might, for instance, choose to create a visual representation of the lecture content (e.g., collage, line drawing, model), complete on a worksheet (e.g., vocabulary exercise, word search) related to the course, or work on a computer game or program that might boost his understanding of key lesson concepts. When the teacher talked about simple machines, for instance, Paul listened to the lecture while he constructed a poster of the six machines his teacher was describing (inclined plane, wedge, screw, lever, pulley, and wheel & axle).

The ideal solution in Paul’s case, of course, is to restructure the class so that there are few lectures. Or to ask the teacher to restructure lecture classes so that students have periodic opportunities to engage, share, interact, and respond. While these suggestions should always be offered, some teachers will have a hard time making such adjustments. And, even when teachers do change their instruction to engage a wider range of students, some learners may still struggle. In this article, I suggest three specific strategies that can be used for this type of learner in this type of situation: curricular overlapping, lesson-related tasks, and activity boxes.

Curriculum Overlapping

Using curriculum overlapping, students needing more support or enrichment can work on objectives that are different from those peers are addressing but related to the work happening in the classroom. For example, a student who already knows a lot about world geography can opt out of the unit on this topic and instead work on the computer assembling a classroom website that helps all students study geography concepts and connect to classrooms around the world (the student works on refining and learning technology skills while practicing geography skills). Likewise, a student with cognitive disabilities may struggle to understand a lesson on the Senate committee system. This student may instead spend class time writing a letter to his own Senator, asking for information to share with classmates. Such an activity would give the learner an opportunity to learn about U.S. government in a very personal way, understand how to use a word processing program, and practice formal letter writing skills. The student’s correspondence can then be used as a teaching and learning tool for all learners throughout the unit.

Lesson-Linked Chores

When a sudden change is made in instruction or when planned adaptations fail for some reason (e.g., the student resists working with the designated materials, the student needs more activity than the lesson allows), teachers may struggle to make on-the-spot modifications for students with disabilities.

In these instances, the education team may be tempted to assign the student a quiet, unrelated “time filler” task that he or she can complete independently. While this type of assignment may occasionally be appropriate, a better solution is to ask the student to complete a lesson-linked chore. These “chores” are classroom jobs that are connected in some way to the course content, give the student an opportunity to contribute to the lesson, and, when possible, involve some level of activity or movement. Lesson-linked chores (based on the work of Downing, 2002) that might be assigned to students with (and without) disabilities include:

  • gathering and distributing lesson materials;
  • developing materials for an upcoming lesson (e.g., creating a bulletin board or model for a concept being studied);
  • organizing the class into groups (using photos or name tags to make decisions);
  • selecting questions (from a list or from a stack of cards) for the teacher to ask the students;
  • observing the work of other students and offering comments on the participation and engagement of peers;
  • gathering materials for the lesson in the school library or media center;
    helping the teacher teach a piece of the content (e.g., holding up visuals, functioning as a lab assistant); or
  • taking photographs or video of the lesson for all students to use as review in the future.

Grab & Learn Boxes

Some teachers prepare for “what now” moments by keeping a curriculum-related activity box close at hand at all times. Grab and learn boxes can give paraprofessionals, general educators, and special educators materials to use during times when the learner with a disability seems disengaged, bored or anxious.

These boxes typically contain several different hands-on items that can be used as a substitute for a planned activity, a filler for times when an activity has not been appropriately planned, or as a fidget or “stay-put” support for the learner needing materials to manipulate during a difficult time period (e.g., long whole class discussion).

A sixth-grade mathematics activity box might include:

  • fraction bars
  • calculator
  • various worksheets
  • wipe-off board/mini chalkboard
  • brain teaser books
  • CDs of math-related music (e.g., multiplication rap)

A high school U.S. history activity box might include:

  • colorful atlas of the U.S.
  • flashcards or playing cards featuring famous Americans
  • word finds with historical themes
  • issues of Time, Newsweek, or National Geographic magazine
  • hand-held computer trivia game (or related games on iPod Touch)
  • brochures/pamphlets of American landmarks
  • small desk-top jigsaw puzzles with history themes (e.g., Civil War)

Of course, activities from these boxes should never be the centerpiece of any student’s educational program. Rather, the materials stocked in these “emergency kits” should be used in a pinch to keep the learner linked to course content and to prevent periods of frustration and disconnection. And, in the best cases, watching students work with the different items in the box may inspire ideas for future lessons, curricular adaptations, and learning supports.


Downing, J. (2002). Including students with severe and multiple disabilities in typical
classrooms. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.