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No matter what you teach, having the right materials is key to student engagement. In fact, in a survey of over 500 educators in the TpT community — including both teachers and principals — 93% agreed that instructional materials play the most critical role in engaging students. However, in a special education classroom, having the right resources to engage students with learning disabilities is doubly important. As any educator who’s worked in the field of special education will tell you, every student with special needs is completely different, so it’s important that educators have a wealth of engaging resources to choose from.

But how can special educators choose the right resources to keep students with special needs engaged? In this post, we’ll share tips on how to engage students with special needs, and we’ll dig deeper into why age-appropriate resources are a key piece of the student engagement puzzle.

Engaging students with special needs with age-appropriate materials

Why age-appropriate resources are critical to student engagement in special education

One of the things we’ve heard anecdotally from special education teachers is that they often find themselves teaching foundational skills to students who are older. As a result, the relationship between a student’s chronological age and their developmental age becomes an important factor — particularly for school leaders who are thinking about how to equip their teachers with resources that will support student engagement in special education. As TpT Teacher-Author Elizabeth from Empowering OT by Dr. R explains, developmental age is the driving consideration in her work with special needs students. “I will adapt the curriculum and my strategies based upon the developmental age of my students,” she says. “For example, a student who is chronologically 5-years-old, but presents with a developmental age of a 3-year-old would not be working on writing the letters in their name (which some 5-year-olds are). Instead, he may be working on foundational skills such as finger differentiation, pre-writing strokes, or snipping with scissors.”

The inherent challenge in this is that it can be difficult to find instructional materials that match both the skill levels and the chronological age of students. And what’s more, using materials and curriculum that don’t recognize chronological age could potentially become a barrier for student engagement, learning, and growth — especially for middle and high school students. As TpT Teacher-Author Corey from Smarter Intervention explains, “It’s critical that our students get what they need without feeling as though they are doing ‘baby’ work. As soon as they start feeling like the work they are doing was designed for students much younger, they check out. If you want to create true, lasting, and meaningful progress you need to keep students’ age and interests in the forefront as you create resources and lessons.” 

Considerations for selecting resources to engage students with special needs

As school leaders look to support special educators and their students, the questions for them are: How can educators recognize students’ social and intellectual sophistication despite their skill gaps? And how can they ensure lessons and activities are meaningful, engaging, and age respectful — but still appropriate for their developmental level? Here are some suggestions from TpT Teacher-Authors on actions you can consider when thinking about selecting (or approving) materials for special education classrooms.

Open the lines of communication and consult teachers.

Many school leaders don’t come from a special education background. If you fall into this category, TpT Teacher-Author Heather from Special Treat Friday recommends looking for guidance from your special education teachers about what they need to engage their students. “Allow your teachers to choose what they feel is best for their students. They know their needs best and they know their style of teaching.” But don’t wait for that guidance to come to you. For some teachers, it can be intimidating to share ideas and make requests of administrators. Often, that means that there are not enough conversations happening in schools about what’s needed in special education classrooms. So, be proactive about opening the lines of communication and getting your teachers’ input.

Make sure the resources serve your students. 

To help ensure the resources you choose will engage students in special education, make sure that those resources are truly made for the skills and age of the students you are serving. As TpT Teacher-Author Christine from Autism Classroom Resources says: “You can do this in part by seeing if the author or creator creates a variety of materials. Selecting age-appropriate materials for any student is more than just selecting the developmental grade level. While some (but not all) materials that are designed for older students might be great for kindergarten, most of the materials designed for kindergarten skills are not going to be age-appropriate for older students.”

Search for resources that are differentiated. 

Special education teachers often support classrooms with a wide range of skills and ages. For example, one class might have students in it with developmental span from Kindergarten to 5th grade — and that means that, in order to engage every student in their learning, teachers need resources that are differentiated enough to meet all of the varying needs of their students. To address this, TpT Teacher-Author Elizabeth from Empowering OT by Dr. R recommends searching for and choosing resources that support a variety of ages and learners. “Look for high-quality resources that can be adapted to learners,” she advises.

Here’s some great news: on TpT, finding resources that enable more differentiation is easy — just look for Easel Activities (formerly TpT Digital Activities). Easel Activities empower you to create interactive activities students can complete on a device using resources from TpT or your own materials. You can add different interactive elements — such as answer boxes, movable shapes and text, and more — to adapt a resource to the unique needs of your students. Learn more about how to use Easel by TpT here.

Consider the social-emotional needs of students.

When selecting resources, always consider the students’ social emotional needs and how the work they are doing could make them feel as a key component of student engagement. As TpT Teacher-Author Adam from It’s Just Adam explains: “When students are working levels below their age, it is super important to make the student feel comfortable. Finding age appropriate resources, or making them, is time-consuming, but for the social-emotional well-being of the student it cannot be devalued. The best lessons allow all learners at that age to be appropriately challenged at their level.”

3 age-appropriate, engaging activities for students with special needs

Morning Meetings

Morning meetings (or circle time) are an excellent tool for supporting students because of the repetition of skills each day and the functional material that is often included. TpT Teacher-Author Christine from Autism Classroom Resources has some specific suggestions for making morning meetings engaging for older students by making sure that some of the functional material that’s traditionally included recognizes the chronological age of middle and high school students:

“Weather is an activity that is highly functional but can be very abstract. For young kids, we have the students look out the window and describe what they see. As we get older, we start to use weather information to decide what to wear, what to pack for a trip, and so forth. This is the same type of information that we can teach our students, but we need to make the connection more concrete for them. Have them look up the weather online and make predictions based on the weather forecast. Then have them track whether the predictions were accurate. Or just have them track its accuracy and calculate the percentage of accuracy. This way you are building math into it as well as science.

Using a calendar is another huge functional skill. Knowing how a calendar works, predicting what dates something will occur, planning on a calendar are all skills that aid independence. But singing the “Days of the Week” song in a class full of middle and high school age students doesn’t reach them at their age-level. Instead, have students do an online search and look for significant events that happened on that day in the past. You could also have them list out activities that will happen that day in school or special events (like a sports playoff game or something similar) so they can fill out the calendar. Educators can lead this on a projector or have a student do it on the interactive whiteboard.

Literacy & Reading Comprehension

For older students with special needs, look for opportunities in literacy and reading comprehension lessons to teach about vocational concepts. During these lessons, you can introduce students to the vocabulary and concepts that they will find in the workplace such as clocking in, paychecks, roles and responsibilities, work schedules, and interviewing. Educators can conduct a lesson where students walk through each step in searching for a job, applying for a job, and interviewing. Students can also be prompted with questions such as, “Why do people get jobs?” and “What type of job might you want to have?”

Data Collection Activities

Activities that collect data can help determine the developmental levels of students with special needs, and it can help educators find out what accommodations they can make to engage students in the ways that they learn the best. TpT Teacher-Author Elizabeth from Empowering OT with Dr R has some advice:

Teachers can use different checklists to see where their students may fall developmentally. These checklists should include what age students generally acquire certain skills by so you can compare to the chronological age. If the student falls within a certain age, then I would not expect them to perform higher level skills. For example, when looking at self care, if a student is only removing their socks and shoes (age 1.5), I would not expect students to be snapping clothing or putting socks on (age 3). This may help to understand the expectations for age level of the student.


TpT resources to support student engagement in special education

Here are a few resources for special education that TpT Teacher-Authors developed to engage students with special needs in their learning:

Entry Level Jobs Comprehension Worksheets

Includes Easel Activity: This resource includes a ready-to-use interactive version of the PDF. Assign it to students to complete from any device. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn More

Vocational Life Skills Bundle

Compatible with Easel Activities: Some resources in this bundle can be made into interactive versions and assigned to students to complete from any device. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn More

OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES fine motor visual motor

Compatible with Easel Activities: Create an interactive version of this PDF and assign it to students to complete from any device. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn More

Kindness Activities: Social Skills 

Compatible with Easel Activities: Create an interactive version of this PDF and assign it to students to complete from any device. Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn More

Monster Math Digital Drag and Drop Activity for 1:1 Correspondence

This is an Online Resource for Google Apps™. Learn More

SELF-ESTEEM & LOCUS OF CONTROL Counseling Game: CBT, Goal Setting & Empowerment

Compatible with Easel Activities: Create an interactive version of this PDF and assign it to students to complete from any device.Easel by TpT is free to use! Learn More

Further Reading List

Want to dive deeper into this topic? Here’s a curated reading list of the sources that we referred to while writing this piece.

When it comes to engaging students with special needs, resources play a key role. In all age groups, but especially in middle and high school, special education resources must be age appropriate as well as developmentally appropriate in order to keep learners motivated and appropriately challenged. The next time you’re looking for resources and activities that are age-appropriate and engaging for your students in special education, be sure to keep these tips in mind. And as you search, don’t forget to check out Easel by TpT™ to discover tools you can use to engage your students in a digital learning environment. With Easel Activities (formerly TpT Digital Activities), you can create interactive digital activities that your students can complete on a device by adding text boxes, annotations, and movable pieces to resources on TpT or your own materials.