Want to Prevent Therapy Referrals? Integrate Special Education Related Services into Regular Ed

How Integrated Services Can Bridge the Gap Between Special and Regular Education

Female elementary school student in wheelchair uses tablet computer while boys and girls sitting at table behind her write.

You may remember when schools kept students with disabilities and disorders apart from their peers. Therapy services for those students were delivered in isolation using a “pull out of class” treatment model.

Thankfully, students who were relegated to the “special ed class” at the end of the hall are now included in regular education classes as much as possible. This shift creates some excellent opportunities for taking therapeutic strategies mainstream, making them accessible to ALL students.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires students receive special education services, including related services, alongside children without disabilities to the maximum appropriate extent, in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

Today, 62% of students in special education programs spend 80% or more of their time in general education classrooms. This figure marks a 90% increase over the last three decades, according to USC Rossier School of Education.

Despite this trend, many teachers—and therapists—cling to the old days of pulling students out of class for therapy. But what would happen to your regular education classrooms if integrated therapeutic services was the norm? How would it change the instruction? The classroom climate?

If you’re like most administrators Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) works with, you want to see greater carryover of special education services into the regular education environment. And we have found integrated services create the perfect opportunity for “show and tell.”

Therapists have the opportunity to demonstrate a therapeutic strategy with a student who gets services for both the teacher and the student’s peers. When teachers see a technique works, they are many times more likely to apply that approach themselves. Combining integrated services with some good foundational training gives teachers a whole bunch of new tools in their tool box!

As PTS’ Co-Founders Diana Fongheiser and Pam Hackett write in their book Take a Bite Out of School-Based Therapy Costs, “By integrating your related services and allowing teachers to not only see but participate in these interventions, your district can eliminate [related services’] mystique and create a more collaborative, cohesive instructional environment.”

While research shows integrated therapy leads to improved educational and therapeutic intervention for children with special needs (Barnes & Turner, 2001; Ritzman, Sanger, & Coufal, 2006), it requires increased opportunities to generate and perpetuate collaboration among providers.

It also requires a team ready and able to work together. As Stephen J. Hernandez and Ariella Haskell write, “Several characteristics that consistently stood out were the ability to readily accept and integrate information learned from others (Brownell, Adams, Sindlar, Waldron, & Vanhover, 2006), providing evidence of the role professional confidence plays in the establishment of collaborative relationships and integrated therapy provision.” 

In addition to integrated therapy, let’s look at three more strategies that will allow you to integrate related services with maximum effect, without blowing the budget!

Three Ways to Integrate Related Services into General Education

 1. Educate the educators through in-service training.

Most teachers regard special education related services as something delivered by a “trained therapy professional.” Change this status quo by consistently offering in-service training.

Have practitioners teach different kinds of therapy techniques and special education interventions to groups of teachers and paraprofessionals (preferably by grade level and building). Let them tell teachers why these services are effective, and show teachers how to help implement them.

As a result, your teachers’ capacity to handle a greater variety of students’ needs will grow—not the overall number of referrals.

2. Identify and train teachers who hold dual certification.

Getting special education items on the regular education training docket can be a real challenge. But what if you focused on a smaller group who could help spread the word?

Your district may already employ teachers who hold dual certification in special and general education. Because of their familiarity with many related services concepts and language, special education teachers can become your in-building power-users for therapy techniques.

We have found schools with a higher percentage of dual certified teachers are able to handle a broader swath of special education students in the regular classroom. So before each academic year, identify all dualcertified staff, as well as those eligible and willing to earn dual certification. Dualcertified teachers “allow for greater options in LRE and scheduling,” as the Georgia Department of Education notes. Special education teachers who hold interrelated certification do as well: “Teachers certified in interrelated can serve students with learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, and mild intellectual disabilities.” That fact makes achieving LRE goals even easier.

3. Create collaborative, co-taught classrooms.

Two male elementary school students sit at desk with arm around each other’s shoulder, with classmates visible behind them.Co-teaching isn’t new but during the last couple of decades, it’s gained momentum. It creates an excellent opportunity to deliver therapy services right in the regular or special education classroom. In collaborative classrooms, certified special education practitioners share responsibility with general education professionals for a single, diverse group of students. Some of these students have IEPs (individualized education programs) and some don’t. 

From the “one teaches, one observes” approach to “tag team teaching,” co-teaching can take various shapes. While people generally think of co-teachers as a regular and special education teacher, what about teaming a teacher with a therapist? The vast majority of appropriate education-based therapy goals can and should be addressed in the context of the curriculum. By bringing therapy into the instructional environment, all students benefit from the techniques, and the classroom teacher gains firsthand experience with successful therapy strategies.

Related services providers, such as a speech or occupational therapist, can also function as co-teachers who integrate therapeutic activities into the lesson plan. If teachers provide therapists a lesson plan and the associated activities in advance, therapists can suggest therapeutic activities appropriate to the lesson. For example, in an elementary math class working on addition, the OT can bring in a manipulatives activity, like Legos, that builds hand strength and visual motor coordination. As Hackett and Fongheiser note, this approach is “profoundly more effective” than “pull-out” therapy. It addresses goals set by IEP teams and the goals of the curriculum at the same time. 

Bring More Types of Special Education Services to Your Students with PTS

We’ve been helping administrators across the greater Delaware Valley integrate related services supports into general education for more than 20 years.

From occupational therapy for students who need to improve their handwriting to assistive technology for children who need assistance expressing themselves, PTS equips programs to incorporate more types of special education and therapeutic strategies into regular education environments.

Ready to explore how we can help you integrate your related services effectively, as well as identify other opportunities to do more for your students without letting costs get out of control? Then request your free related services audit from us. 

You give us some basic information about your current program, and we’ll give you practical and immediately actionable suggestions for increasing the quality of your program without increasing your budget. 

Click here to claim your no-charge, no-obligation related services audit from PTS today!

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