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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

The IEP and Differentiated Instruction - No. V, 5765

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will be on a different topic in the area of special needs and written by our consultant, Shana Erenberg, Ph.D. Shana received her doctorate from Northwestern University. For 20 years, she served as the founding director of the Keshet Sunday School for students with disabilities in Northbrook, IL and is currently the Chairman of the Department of Education at Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. She also has a private practice and serves as a consultant.

It is my passionate belief that all Jewish children are entitled to a Jewish education, regardless of need or ability. It is their birthright and our obligation.

V’shinantamis organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find an overview of the topic, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in G’milut Chasadim additional resources.

IEP Overview


One of the most significant issues facing religious school educators is accommodating students with special needs in the supplementary school setting. There are numerous obstacles to overcome, both practical and attitudinal. It is challenging to adapt curriculum, implement proactive classroom management strategies and differentiate instruction in the limited time frame of the religious school. This is particularly true for the majority of religious school teachers who do not have formal training in special education.


Providing a meaningful and appropriate religious education for all Jewish children regardless of need, however, supersedes all concerns. V’shinantam l’vanecha, “you shall teach your children,” refers to all children, and this philosophy guides us as educators. The rewards of inclusion are far-reaching and enduring for all involved. As a teacher, your willingness to create an environment in which all children can learn will have positive effects that will exceed all expectations. The ability to effectively plan and create meaningful lessons for students with special needs is within every teacher’s reach.


One of the tools that can help a teacher meet student needs is an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If the student receives special education services in his/her weekday school placement, s/he will have an IEP. Ask for a copy. The IEP will contain a wealth of information about the child that will be helpful for planning religious school instruction, including:


a.   Current levels of functioning in academic areas: This information will help you select reading materials from the religious school curriculum that are at an appropriate level for the student.


b.   A description of the student’s strengths and weaknesses: This information will help you adapt learning activities. For example, if the IEP indicates that the child has strengths in visual processing, you can incorporate visual cues and supports in your instruction.


c.   Academic goals: The IEP contains academic goals that have been designed to help the student progress in an area of identified weakness. While the IEP goals cannot be addressed in the religious school setting in the same way they are implemented in the weekday program, they can provide a guideline for religious school instruction. While the religious school format may not provide ample time or resources for remediation per se, accommodations can be made for the student based on the IEP goals. For example, if a student has a goal addressing reading comprehension, the reading materials of the religious school class should be adapted and strategies that increase reading comprehension incorporated.


d.   Accommodations: The IEP contains a section on classroom and school accommodations that the child needs to perform at an optimal level. The accommodations will be the easiest to implement, as specialized curriculum is not necessarily required. Accommodations may include preferential seating, repetition of instruction and directions, additional examples before starting work, frequent checks for understanding, and so on. The accommodations section will also provide information for assessment of the student, such as alternative modes of testing and extended time for completing tasks. Often the most basic accommodations will make the difference between success and failure for the student.


It is also useful to develop an Individual Learning Plan (ILP) for students with special needs in the religious school setting. An ILP differs from an IEP in that it is not a legal document. It can, however, follow the format of the IEP, delineating goals and accommodations that are appropriate to the religious school environment.


Differentiating Instruction in Your Classroom


The key to successfully integrating students with special needs into the mainstream class is to differentiate instruction. You do not need to be an expert in special education to modify the learning environment and materials. Begin by being a reflective practitioner. Examine your educational philosophy. Is it one of inclusion? If yes, what type of support do you need to implement your philosophy? If not, ask yourself why. Do you need additional preparation and guidance? Often, the issue is one of fear—fear of failure or loss of control. The key to addressing these fears is teacher education. Learning about special needs will help to demystify the students and make the you more comfortable with inclusion. It is also important to be creative about inclusion. Inclusion is not a “one size fits all” concept, nor does it mean that student with special needs should be placed in the mainstream classroom without support. If full inclusion does not seem to be an appropriate option, consider areas and times where the child can participate with an inclusive setting.


A second key to success is open communication between teacher and parent. In order to be an effective teacher for a child with special needs, you must know as much as possible about that child. The best source for this information is often a parent. Unfortunately, many parents choose not to share information about their child’s needs with the religious school (see our Special Needs FAQ for additional information on this issue). This is an important obstacle to overcome. As a teacher, you must convey to the parents that you both have the child’s best interests at heart.   


Finally, in adapting your lessons, approach lesson planning creatively, and consider these questions:


1.      What is important for the class to learn in this lesson?

2.      What is important for this child to learn in this lesson?

3.      How does this child meet his/her goals?

4.      What modifications do I need to make to ensure success?


Tips for the Teacher

The following are guidelines for making accommodations in your classroom and curriculum to include all students.  


Curriculum Modification Guidelines
Focus on what the student can do.

Use the least obtrusive support first.

Use age-appropriate materials, goals and activities.

Modify, adapt and accommodate before changing the activity.


When making accommodations, consider how you can adapt: the presentation of material, the classroom environment, timing of learning activities and assessments, and how the student demonstrates knowledge. A few examples of how to do each are below.


Modifying the Presentation of Material

·         Provide an overview of the lesson before beginning.

·         Monitor the level of language used to communicate concepts.

·         Monitor the rate in which the information is presented.

·         Reduce the number of concepts covered at one time.

·         Highlight important concepts in texts and materials.

·         Give additional examples.

Modifying the Classroom Environment

·         Reduce distractions.

·         Use checklists and visual schedules in addition to oral instructions.

·         Establish, teach and implement a daily routine.

·         Make clear, consistent rules that are in force at all times.

Modifying Time Demands 

·         Increase amount of time given to complete assignments and tests. Use contracts.

·         Reduce amount of work or length of tests.

·         Teach time management skills.

·         Space work periods with breaks based on student’s needs.

·         Alternate demanding tasks with simpler activities.

·         Alternate quiet and active times.

·         Give a specific task to perform within specified time.


Modifying Student Assessment

·         Reward approximations.

·         Recognize and give credit for oral participation.

·         Provide multiple formats for tests to give students opportunities to demonstrate

·         Make arrangements for homework assignments to reach home with clear, concise

·         Chart performance on an individual, confidential basis.


For more suggestions on how to accommodate different kinds of learners, see our Eight Steps for Helping Students Succeed.



References and Additional Resources


Gregory, Gayle H. Differentiating Instruction With Style: Aligning Teacher and Learner Intelligences for Maximum Achievement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2005.


Gregory, Gayle H. and Chapman, Carolyn. Differentiated Instructional Strategies

One Size Doesn't Fit All. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2001.


Hess, Mary Anne. Teaching in Mixed-Ability Classrooms


How to Plan for Differentiated Instruction


Levine, Dr. Mel. A Mind at a Time. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

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