Individualized Learning

Individualizing Learning

Many years ago I gave up the idea of becoming a classroom teacher.  I was discouraged by the look on so many teachers’ faces that sent the message that they had failed.  With so many things to battle just in one classroom, it didn’t seem worth all the many hours of planning and meeting, just to be up against the thankless attitudes of parents, staff, and the students themselves.  Through paraprofessional job positions, I saw how challenging students’ behaviors could be, and how so few teachers were capable of dealing with challenging behaviors. I gave up and instead found myself in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In ABA, the strategies in place are effective and evidence-based. On most days the work is often very rewarding.  While it is usually more specific to the 1:1 setting and usually involves very intense behaviors, the field holds promise in upward movement, and involves less direct service and more consultant work.  That is the role of the behavior analyst; a role that many who are in, do not carry the same defeated face like many classroom teachers.

The work as a behavior analyst involves designing behavior modification programs that are child-specific.  An analyst will create one program around very specific goals to meet the needs of the individual in their home and/or school environments. Analysts use extrinsic motivators to change children’s behaviors across all levels of functioning: cognitive, social, emotional, communication, adaptive, and physical. These programs can be based around any behaviors such as dressing, spelling, eating a variety of foods, saying hello, decreasing aggressive behaviors, or even increasing the duration of time spent in the classroom environment.  By using a variety of modalities and finding what is motivating to the students, analysts can help students make significant gains allowing them to function better in society.

While, typically most of these jobs involve contracting with an outside agency, there is a steady increase in the creation of full-time positions in schools.  It is not unusual to find a behavior analyst working in the school, overseeing many para-professionals who work with the students.  Schools are becoming more open to adopting behavior modification strategies like ABA, because they have found that they are working.

Ironically, the basis of this work comes from a variety of evidence-based practices that are now in the form of an entirely new teaching model called The Universal Design for Learning.  The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) embeds inclusive practices in the entire classroom curriculum and environment design, (Raymond, 2012). The model is divided into five design principles: multiple & flexible representations, multiple and flexible expressions, multiple and flexible means of engagement, creating a community of learners, and offering a positive climate. Within each principle, there are methods to structuring the environment and curriculum so that all learners benefit and no one is stigmatized.

“Those who see disability from a social constructivist point of view suggest that focusing on the problem within a social context, rather than looking for a fault in the individual learner, is more likely to result in understanding the problem and coming up with a resolution,” (Raymond, 2012).  Rather than looking for what is wrong with students, teachers can instead think more critically about the environment. Changing the environment to include all learners eliminates many of the barriers to student success. “The environment is the most visible aspect of the work done in schools by all the protagonists.  It conveys the message that this is a place where adults have thought about the quality and the instructive power of space,” (Gandini, L. as cited in Curtis & Carter, 2003).

The following is an example of using UDL to support students whose strengths are in rote auditory memory and receptive language skill and whose challenges are in reading. These examples demonstrate ways that teachers can capitalize on students’ strengths by using a variety of representations:

  • Memorize poems aloud as a group, by repeating after the teacher.
  • Once they have memorized, show them the words in print.
  • Change the print to have a bigger or darker font.
  • Highlight important words in different colors.
  • Use texts that are repetitive so that the predictability naturally scaffolds reading strategies.
  • Give the class flashcards of tricky words that have textured text and practice reading the cards with partners before and/or after reading the poem aloud as a group.

For students that present challenges with problem solving, social interactions, and self-expression, teachers can enhance the climate and the community to surpass those challenges in the following ways:

  • Students could be paired up to use the computer for problem-solving games in math.
  • Students could continue to work with their partners to solve a mathematical problem using tangible items like pictures, blocks, etc…
  • Then the pairs could take turns sharing their problem-solving solutions on an overhead projector.
  • One partner could do the talking, while the other one manipulates the objects or draws the pictures, etc….
  • The student who is less comfortable speaking could manipulate the objects, while the partner does the talking.
  • By repeating this activity frequently, students can become familiar with the routine, make social connections, and begin to build their confidence by expressing themselves in front of the class.

“It is not enough to simply place these children in inclusive contexts.  For children to be successful, it is necessary to plan for and provide individualized supports based on their unique needs and disabilities,” (Grisham-Brown, Hemmeter, & Pretti-Frontczak).  If these supports are already embedded in the classroom environment and curriculum, students will feel more successful, more socially accepted, and less stigmatized.  However, it takes a lot of careful planning to make that happen.  Luckily, UDL provides a model that is well organized and easy to follow.

According to the US Department of Education’s website, Federal laws “prohibit discrimination in programs or activities that receive Federal funds from the Department of Education. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and on the basis of age.”  Without finding ways for students to become successful they will have no motivation to learn.  This repeated cycle of failure diminishes self-esteem and impairs students’ relationships with their teachers. When students feel unappreciated and unable to be taught, they have little reason to trust their teachers, which will lead to maladaptive behaviors. Until teachers construct classrooms that demonstrate equitable learning, children will continue to engage in negative behaviors and struggle to succeed. “Children who have positive relationships with adults and peers, who are engaged in meaningful activities that are appropriately challenging, and who have the social-emotional skills to communicate and cooperate are less likely to engage in challenging behavior,” (Grisham-Brown, Hemmeter, & Pretti-Frontczak, 2005, p. 246).

Applied Behavior Analysis demonstrates this understanding by tailoring programs specific to children’s needs and interests.  By finding what is meaningful for students and creating tasks appropriately to produce success, students are motivated to learn. The Universal Design for Learning offers this same approach to learning and brings promise to teaching all learners in the environment that is most appropriate for them: in the classroom amongst their peers.  “Children’s cognition is contextualized; it emerges and derives meaning from particular activities and social experiences,” (Berk, 2001, p.35-36).


Berk, L. (2001). Awakening Children’s Minds: How Parents and Teachers Can Make

a Difference. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Curtis, D. & Carter, M. (2003). Designs for Living and Learning. St. Paul, MN:

Redleaf Press.

Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M., Pretti-Frontczak, K. (Eds.).(2005). Blended Practices

for Teaching Young Children in Inclusive Settings. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Raymond, B., E (2012). Learner’s With Mild Disabilities A Characteristics

Approach (4th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. (2012). Know Your

Rights. Retrieved from:


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