Teaching Science Standards in Special Education

Just under half of the states in the US use the DLM Essential Elements for their students with cognitive disabilities. These standards are aligned to the general education standards but they pull the most essential skills and concepts and break them down into smaller chunks for students with severe disabilities. Even if you don't use the Essential Elements in your state, they are a great resource if you are trying to figure out how to break down a skill.

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a curriculum out there that helped you teach the science standards at a variety of levels for your special education students? Teaching to a set of standards is a whole new playing field compared to teaching IEP goals or a pre-determined curriculum. I wish I was here to tell you that I have one for you, but I have yet to find something yet. So let's talk about how we can teach the science standards effectively in our classroom.

First, the science standards are different than math or language arts standards in that do not include all 5 linkage levels. There are only 3 linkage levels for science: Initial, Precursor & Target.

How do we start teaching science?

First, I like to create a pacing guide because this helps me break down the standards and the skills and ensure that I address all of them. Remember, the IEP is not our curriculum, and we need to teach math, ELA and science outside of just IEP goals if the student is not accessing these subjects in the general education setting.

If you are able to fit science into your schedule daily, you may be able to spend less time on each standard. However, if you're schedule is jam-packed and you can't find time to address science daily, don't panic, you're in the same boat that most of us are. 

I like to focus on one standard each month, and I like to tie it into seasons and holidays whenever possible because it's fun. For example, in February, we learned about the human body and the heart to align with Valentine's day. In December, we talked about heat conduction because is there a better time to drink hot chocolate? An even better way to do it, especially if you are an elementary teacher, is to align the standards you teach each month to the standards that are being taught in the general education classroom. This is a great time to collaborate with your colleagues!

What does mastery in science standards look like?

Teaching the Essential Elements, or any other set of standards is going to look different than teaching IEP goals. IEP goals are written to master the skill in one year. With standards, we don't have a year to teach each standard. We have to cover them all. So mastery is going to look different than 

Let's practice teaching science standards!

I like to use the linkage levels in the standards to help me create a scope and sequence for my instruction.

Let's look at this standard for elementary physical science.

First, for each standard, identify the overall big idea. For this standard, the big idea is the law of conservation of mass. Mass is neither created nor destroyed in chemical reactions. Identifying the big idea ensures that you are intentional in your teaching and you have a clear target. There really is a reason that administrators want you to write the learning target on your whiteboard.

Then, you'll look at each level and teach it. Science is a hands-on subject, so use manipulatives, experiments, and models as much as possible. This is why it's such a fun subject to teach!

When teaching this standard, start with the initial level. Teach students that a material can change from a liquid to a solid, or vice versa. Use the wisdom on the internet to help you identify materials and experiments to teach this concept. 

Don't forget to cover pre-requisite skills, such as what a liquid and solid are. 

Once students are understanding that a material can change from a liquid to a solid, then move onto the precursor level. For this, you will measure the liquid and solid forms of the material to show that matter is conserved. The weight doesn't change, even though the material is in a different state or takes up a different amount of space. Finally, move to the target level where students will measure the weight and compare.

Remember that even though you are moving on and teaching all 3 linkage levels, some students' mastery may still be at the initial level, while others can be expected to reach mastery at the target level. This is important!

Let's look at another standard.

1. Identify the big idea: Our body (organs and organ systems) interact to support survival.

2. Determine the mastery level for each individual student. Remember to individualize. With some students, you may focus on matching major organs. Some students may match the organ to the organ system. Others may be able to determine the function of the system and make a claim about how that function supports survival. It depends on the levels of your students and what they can reasonably achieve through the instruction in the unit.

3. Teach the initial level: Humans and animals have organs. Students learn to identify the major organs of the body, such as the heart, brain, intestines, stomach, etc.

4. Teach the precursor level: Organs are connected in organ systems. Students learn the major body systems and the organs that are involved in that system.

5. Teach the target level: Organs and organ systems work together to keep us alive. Students learn the function of the system and how it supports survival. For example, our circulatory system includes the heart which uses veins and arteries to get blood through our whole body. Students need to understand that the blood delivers oxygen to all the parts of our body and without that oxygen, those parts would die.

I hope that helps you wrap your brain around teaching science in special education! It's such a fun subject to teach, and the students love it! Let me know how it goes!

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