How Inservice Programs for Teachers Strengthen Special Education

When you were a student, “inservice” on the school year calendar likely meant little more to you than days off. Now, you know inservice programs for teachers are critical to educators’ professional development (PD).

Female presenter in sweater and jeans stands to give inservice presentation to seven young teachers sitting at desks.

Well-qualified teachers are the most important school-related factor in student achievement.

Regular, structured opportunities for teachers to learn about new pedagogies, practice new skills, share ideas, and receive support can lead to concrete changes in classroom instruction—all of which make positive, long-lasting differences for students.

But in too many districts, inservices have become “information dumps.” Presenters provide content on the latest research without practical strategies teachers can readily use in the classroom.

The Learning Policy Institute identifies effective PD, in contrast, as active, collaborative, and focused on best practices. Engaging, immediately applicable training can spark and sustain meaningful changes in teaching that improve and enhance students’ experience.

It’s that kind of teacher inservice Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) provides to our client districts and schools. In fact, we don’t give our staff “teacher workdays” precisely so we can do professional development the right way: as part of an ongoing partnership, a key component in an ongoing effort to make a special education program as strong as it can be. 

For more than 20 years, in districts across the greater Delaware Valley, PTS has been training not only teachers but also other building staff, administrators, and paraprofessionals in practical, proven ways to help students who receive related services make measurable, meaningful gains in accessing their education.

It’s a service we provide exclusively to the school districts and individual schools that have partnerships with us. And, it goes a long way toward making their special education and related services programs a lot more effective!

Why Teachers Need Inservice Training in Special Education

Teacher inservice training matters throughout the curriculum. But, it assumes special importance, even urgency, in special education.

Female occupational therapist sits at table with elementary school girl, encouraging her as girl plays with toy car.

Nearly 95% of students (ages 6-21) receiving services under IDEA are enrolled in regular education schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and 63% of those students spend at least 80% of their days in regular education classrooms.

Even so, fruitful ways to teach and support these students aren’t adequately covered in most teacher preparation courses of study. True, most programs include a “Special Education 101” course. But a single introductory survey can’t equip teachers with strategies and tools sufficient for today’s increasingly inclusive classrooms.

If inservice training for teachers doesn’t fill this gap, school-based therapy can acquire an unhelpful air of mystery. Teachers and other building staff can start thinking of it as an obscure process in which only clinicians have parts to play. At worst, teachers’ unfamiliarity with therapy can leave them thinking it’s a disruptive distraction from the “real work” of classroom learning.

But, when schools implement a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) model, therapy no longer happens only in “the special ed room.” Instead, teachers use proven methods to teach all students, intervening with small groups and individuals in targeted ways as needed, making referrals for more specialized, clinical interventions only when warranted.

Because teachers in MTSS settings are the “first line” for screening and serving students with special needs, training them in the most commonly used, most productive strategies for helping students overcome functional issues is imperative.

Practical Considerations for Special Education Inservices

Therapists can and should provide some training for teachers in the classroom, showing the strategies in practice and explaining why they work. As PTS co-founders Pam Hackett and Diana Fongheiser write in their book Take a Bite Out of School-Based Therapy Costs, “It goes without saying that this [approach] is immeasurably more effective than barking orders or even handing over a set of handwritten instructions.”

Smiling female occupational therapist leans next to young female student who is practicing her handwriting.

But, because “in-depth discussions with each teacher in each building is a costly proposition,” administrators can save money and time by also holding inservice programs for teachers about related service strategies. Training dedicated to related services allows teachers to focus on therapy interventions without being distracted by routine instructional responsibilities.

To keep inservice trainings manageable and productive, we recommend offering them by building and, whenever possible, by grade level. This scope allows each training to take building culture and other contextual issues into account.

We also recommend students’ personal aides and paraprofessionals take part in these inservice days so they, too, can learn how to conduct more essential tasks. Their presence and participation can maximize the sessions’ value and impact.

Three Areas for Teacher Inservice Training in Therapy

“Special education” is a broad topic, and there are many related services. Where should you start when planning inservice programs for teachers on this subject?

You’ll want to take stock of the most pressing special education issues facing the students you serve. Here are three areas we see at, or near the top of, districts’ lists again and again:

  • Handwriting and Fine Motor Skills
    Surveys show teachers refer students to occupational therapy (OT) for handwriting issues more than any other reason. You can help reduce referrals by giving teachers a highly practical inservice on ways to help students increase hand strength (especially in the pincer muscles), and properly form and space letters.
  • SFemale speech therapist sits at table with five elementary school students to lead them in articulation exercises.elf-Regulation for Focus and Attention
    As Diana Fongheiser and Pam Hackett write, “With proper in-servicing, your teachers will realize that the third-grade student rocking back and forth in his chair is not trying to be disruptive or annoying—he’s seeking vestibular and proprioceptive input.” Training teachers to recognize and respond to students’ needs for sensory input can go a long way toward reducing everyone’s frustration in the classroom.
  • Articulation and Language Development

    Teacher inservice focused on developmental language norms and strategies for stimulating sound production and vocabulary adoption can lower the amount of speech-language pathology (SLP) referrals in your program. Teachers can quickly master such easy and effective strategies as cueing, repetition, and asking open-ended “wh-” questions. When they incorporate these techniques into their regular instruction, they can help their students make developmentally appropriate language progress—no group or one-on-one pull-outs needed!

PTS Gives Our Clients Valuable Professional Development for Teachers

Your district’s or school’s students may still think of teacher inservice as “days off,” just as you once did.

But when you become a PTS client, you can be confident the inservice we provide your teachers will be a valuable investment of time and energy equipping them to more effectively support students with special needs, and designed to improve the classroom experience for everyone. 

PTS’ approach to inservice programs for teachers on special education and related services is one more reason to become a PTS client now. For more information, call us today at 610-941-7020, or contact us online.

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