Individualizing Academic Instruction for Students with Special Needs

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on January 26, 2023.]
Anyone who has endured dry, standardized instruction will likely agree learning is easier when content is interesting, engaging, and presented in a manner that aligns with a person’s learning style. While individualization is a principle of good teaching, it’s a requirement in the field of special education, because instruction is specially designed to meet the needs of the learner. 

In Massachusetts, a teacher provides instruction in areas outlined by the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, which determines what a student should know in each grade. If a student has a disability that interferes with their ability to meet these standards, they may be placed on an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

An IEP outlines achievable, measurable goals that will be targeted over the year, as well as the level of support required for the student to make progress on the agreed upon objectives or benchmarks. It is a legally binding agreement between everyone on the team which includes the student, guardians, teachers, specialists, and school district. 

Students who have IEPs may receive specialized instruction, services, support, and accommodations and/or modifications to help them meet their individualized goals. These could include more time on tests, customized materials, 1:1 support and more depending on need. 

Special education can be thought of as a continuum of need ranging from least to most restrictive. While some students may thrive with minimal accommodations, others may need more intensive supports such as a 1:1 paraprofessional or a substantially separate learning environment. Some may require out-of-district placement or even a residential placement to make progress. The goal is always to ensure a student can make progress within the “least restrictive environment,” meaning they receive the support they need in a setting as close to a general education setting as possible given their level of need. 
Once a student is determined eligible for special education, members of the IEP team will conduct testing to recommend appropriate, individualized supports to help them succeed. Regular assessment and monitoring should occur to understand baseline skill levels and to ensure progress is being made. If the child fails to make progress with these supports, the teaching procedure may be adjusted, or other changes can be made based on the data collected. 

Last but not least, individualization should be kept in mind to ensure student preferences are taken into consideration. As we strive toward independence and self-advocacy, it’s important to remember the recipients of these measures – the students – have the most to gain when it comes to determining what works best for them and empowering them to be a part of this process will ensure the best outcomes.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including our newest one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit