As any educator who’s worked in the field of special education will tell you, every student with special needs is completely different. This means that schools need to provide a lot of resources so their teachers can individualize instruction for their special needs students. This is not particularly surprising given the fact that, in the last year alone, more than 11,000 resources targeting students with special needs were uploaded to the TpT site.

One of the things we’ve heard anecdotally from SPED educators 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 or select instructional materials themselves. As TpT Teacher-Author Elizabeth from Empowering OT by Dr. R explains, 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 their students. And what’s more, using materials and curriculum that don’t recognize chronological age could potentially become a barrier for 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.” 

As school leaders look to address these challenges, 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 and age respectful — but still appropriate for their developmental level? With input from special education experts in the TpT community, the research and editorial team at TpT set out to address some of these questions. In this article, we outline considerations for selecting resources for students, along some specific strategies educators can use in the classroom.

Considerations for selecting SPED materials

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 do their jobs. “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. 

Make sure that the resources you are buying 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 already 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 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. “I look for the keyword ‘differentiated’ resources. Many times, ‘differentiated’ resources are adapted for a variety of ages and learning styles.”

Consider the social-emotional feelings of students.

When selecting resources, always consider the students social emotional feelings and how the work they are doing could make them feel.  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 ways educators can address age and skill levels in the SPED classroom

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 sure that some of the functional material that’s traditionally included in morning meetings recognizes the chronological age of students who are in middle and high school:

“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 a 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

Look for opportunities in literacy and reading comprehension lessons to teach students 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 students’ developmental levels, and help educators find out what accommodations they can make to support 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.

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TpT Resources

Here are a few resources that TpT Teacher-Authors developed specifically to support some of the strategies discussed in the article:

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.