A Framework for Identifying Programs & Interventions for Special Education

October 6, 2021

With the proliferation of innovative programs and interventions for special education now available, how do you sort through the many options to find the best solution for you, your staff, and your students? In our on-demand webinar, “A Watershed Moment for Special Ed,” Charlette McRay Green addresses this question.

Green serves as Executive Director of 504 and Special Education for the Cherokee County School District in Canton, Georgia. A former past president of the Georgia Council of Administrators of Special Education, Green has also worked for the Georgia Department of Education as an education program specialist. She is an ASHA Fellow and a Board-Certified Specialist in Child Language.

Interventions for special education

In her presentation in the webinar, “A Watershed Moment for Special Ed,” Green addresses some of the challenges that accompany introducing a new special education program into one’s school or district. Her advice covers how to determine what you need from a special education program, how to identify programs that meets those needs, and how to pre-test a program before you buy it.

Step 1: Know What you Need From a Special Education Curriculum

Green highlights four chronic challenges in special education: academic learning loss, student social-emotional needs, lack of time, and staff retention. Although these challenges are numerous, the COVID-19 federal stimulus funding can help support new programs and initiatives to address them. You can read more about this funding in our articles, “Federal Funding Sources for K-12 Special Education Programs” and “ESSER and IDEA Stimulus Funding for Special Education.”

The right intervention or program can help address each of the chronic problems, Green explains. Learning loss, exacerbated over the past year by remote learning and a disruption of services, is especially concerning for children with special needs. A portion of COVID-19 stimulus funding must be reserved for programs and interventions addressing learning loss. Especially in light of the stress caused by the pandemic, it’s essential to prioritize students’ social-emotional needs and basic mental health before challenging students academically. Teachers may require special training or materials for this purpose.

Lack of time and staff retention are closely tied. From instruction to assessment to paperwork, educators often report feeling overloaded by demands, and the pandemic has only made the situation worse. Many districts are reporting a shortage of educators and mental health professionals. The right programs and technology can support staff by making their workloads easier, more efficient, and more streamlined.

Step 1A: An In-Depth Data Review

When researching a special education intervention or curriculum, it’s important to identify what you need before looking at what specific programs offer. Green suggests starting with an in-depth data review.

  • Gather all of the information you can about student performance and try to identify any measures — or gaps — that might indicate a need. Keep in mind that some students were on virtual instruction and that some may not have taken the typical end-of-year assessments. Consider using benchmark assessments when students return in the fall.
  • Pull usage reports and take full inventory of the special education equipment, technologies, programs, and other resources currently available to you. Are programs being used? If they are underutilized or aren’t being used at all, try to figure out why. Is it because a program isn’t user-friendly or because staff aren’t trained in how to use it? Are there areas of need that are going unaddressed?
  • Solicit feedback from teachers and students. Ask teachers about the programs and technology that have been working well. Ask them for a wishlist of features they’d like to see in a program. Be sure to seek out student input as well: what they like or dislike about existing programs, what they find most interesting, and what is boring or out of date. Students are a valuable, often under-utilized source of insight.

Step 2: Choose the Best Interventions for Special Education

After you have gathered your data, it’s time to review your options for special education programs.

There are several resources for finding and assessing good programs and interventions. One of the best things you can do is seek out advice from colleagues. In addition to that, here are some helpful websites that provide research and evidence-based insights on programs

Determine if trying new technology is right for you. New technology can be intimidating and usually involves a learning curve, but in the end it can pay off by considerably increasing efficiency and effectiveness. Find options that can be easily integrated with current district programs and that use a single sign-on. Technology that incorporates artificial intelligence (AI) is useful because it can tailor interventions for individual students according to their needs. AI can increase efficiency by optimizing routine processes, like pulling information automatically so that specialists don’t have to input the same information across multiple programs. AI can also save time by streamlining documentation and data collection.

Keep in mind that to use COVID-19 stimulus funds for education programs, the programs must be evidence-based. You can read more about what that means in our article, “Understanding the Evidence-Based Requirements for Special Education Stimulus Funding.”

Step 3: Test a Special Education Program Before you Buy

Green suggests that you run a pilot test before making a large purchase for your school district, and says that many vendors will allow you to try out programs in this way.

She recommends that you work closely with your finance office throughout this process. Explain the need for a new program and back it up with student data. Good communications can help enlist support with the purchase once the pilot test has been completed.

Additionally, make sure that you find a program and a vendor that offers embedded and targeted professional development and support. Read more about choosing the right vendor in “What Should Special Education Professionals Demand From Vendors?

Once you’ve found a program, choose your testing group wisely (i.e., by selecting enthusiastic teachers who will try hard to make the program work) and prepare for the test. Then, run the test, collect data, and analyze the results.

We have created a comprehensive checklist to walk you through running a pilot test from start to finish.

Download Pilot Testing Checklist

Interventions for special educationConclusion: Address long-standing challenges through new programs and interventions in special education

The pandemic has created many new challenges for special education. At the same time, there are many new intervention and curriculum options for approaching these challenges in diverse, innovative ways. Thanks to the funding made available from the COVID-19 stimulus bills, these solutions are now more affordable.

To hear Green and others speak at more length about leveraging stimulus funds to address challenges in special education, watch our webinar, “A Watershed Moment for Special Ed.”

Also be sure to read our article, “Understanding the Evidence-Based Requirements for Special Education Stimulus Funding,” where we explore what kinds of interventions qualify as “evidence-based” under the most recent stimulus bill and download our helpful Program Pilot Testing Checklist.