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5 Tips to Support College Students with Disabilities

Janae Nelson Raymond, MS, taught high school special education students before she taught college. Here, her tips for helping all students succeed.

Educator

Janae Nelson Raymond, MS

Adjunct Faculty Instructor, Salt Lake Community College, Taylorsville, Utah

MS in Conservation Biology, BS in Biology, minor in Geology

For as far back as she can remember, Janae Nelson Raymond’s passion has been understanding and taking care of the natural world. As a child, she was featured in her local newspaper when they wrote about how she kept a butterfly alive through the winter—a difficult feat if you know anything about the fragility of butterflies and the extremes of a North Dakota winter.

Today, Raymond brings that passion for understanding and care to her role as an instructor of biology and special education at Salt Lake Community College in Utah. Raymond’s teaching philosophy can be summarized in 10 words: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” She carries these words—penned by an unknown author—into her classroom and believes everyone should have the same opportunity to succeed. This philosophy is also personal: Her second-youngest child, three-year-old Emery Rose, was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that affects mental and physical development.

Approximately 7 million students in the United States—14% of public school students ages 3 to 21—receive special education services, according to a 2017–2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Raymond feels passionately that, if given the proper support, students with all abilities can do anything. “You don’t have to limit them,” she says. But she also knows that most instructors do not have the experience or knowledge to instruct special education students—which is why she is sharing her tips here.

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Context

“With an engaging classroom and the right mindset, learning about the living world can be fascinating to all students.”

— Janae Nelson Raymond, MS

Course: Biology 1010 Introduction to Biology

Course description: Introduction to Biology for non-science majors. A survey of living diversity from bacteria to plants and animals. Introduces cell structure and physiology, inheritance, evolution and classification.

Raymond’s 5 tips for instructing special needs students

Overall, Raymond highly recommends that future (and even current) professors take the time to learn about the types of learning disabilities that their students may face. “College professors have subject matter knowledge but may not know how to provide that to students with special needs,” she says.

Here, she shares her top tips to help instructors develop the skills they need to help students with all abilities succeed.

1. Practice empathy and flexibility

In the last semester of Raymond’s senior year of college, her father passed away, and she was going through a divorce—and she still had to get the work done, no matter what. Through that experience, she gained a healthy dose of perspective that she still carries today. “You just have to be a nice person, because you never know what people are going through,” she says.

Recently, one of Raymond’s students lost a Scantron used for a take-home midterm exam. “He was going to have a nervous breakdown,” Raymond says. Instead of turning the experience into a recitation about organization and responsibility, Raymond simply gave him another Scantron, and a lesson in empathy. “This is life,” she says. “You want to know what else happens in life? Stuff happens. A lot of it is having perspective.”

Another one of Raymond’s students struggled with multiple learning disabilities, which often prevented her from coming to class. Out of 12 lectures, she could only attend three. Raymond made a deal with her: As long as she completed the assignments and was willing to put in the work, she could pass. “I try to be understanding, because my goal is not for them to ever have their personal life come in the way of doing well in school,” she says. “My goal is for them to learn the material and learn biology.”

2. Promote a supportive environment

On the first day of class, Raymond does three things to foster a supportive environment:

  1. She walks the class through the syllabus and makes students aware of the disability resource center, encouraging them to use it and advocate for themselves. “In high school, a lot of students have their parents to advocate for them,” she says. “Once they hit college, even if they have a piece of paper from the DRC [disability resource center], they are still advocating for themselves.”
  1. Raymond gives students an opportunity to share their learning disabilities with her by having them complete a Google Form quiz for credit (even though professors are typically made aware of students who have learning disabilities ahead of time). With the form, she says, “You ask them, ‘Is there anything I need to know or any accommodations that you’re going to need?’”
  1. Raymond shares her personal experience and talks about her daughter’s Down syndrome diagnosis. “I try to make that a big part of my class,” she said. “I want to make students understand that I’m a facilitator, and if they need additional help, it’s OK. We all learn differently, and everyone has an opportunity to get an A,” she says, noting that she often gives students a second chance to redo work for a better grade. Raymond does not consider this lowering the standards. “They can still do really well in the class,” she says. “They just need that additional support, and you’re giving that to them.”
3. Offer multiple entry points into material

Raymond makes sure to offer multiple avenues, including YouTube, for learning. “Some students hate reading books, but they’ll watch YouTube,” she says. Raymond curates a playlist of channels and individual videos that might appeal to students, including TED Talks or the Amoeba Sisters, an animated channel that is like a crash course in biology. “If you struggle with reading, you can just watch your videos, and you’re fine,” she says.

4. Continue to remind students about resources

Sometimes learning-disabled students will make it all the way to college without being diagnosed. “ADHD and anxiety could be missed a lot,” Raymond says. “Maybe parents don’t want to admit their kids have ADHD or [know how to] treat it.” If you suspect a student has an undiagnosed learning disability, Raymond recommends taking them aside after class and—being as friendly as possible—telling them that you noticed they did not do so well on the last exam, and gently suggesting that they talk to someone at the resource center.

5. Learn more about disabilities—and teaching to them

There are scant resources available to prepare college professors to help students with disabilities succeed in the classroom, so Raymond recommends starting with an overview of the most common types of learning disabilities. One such overview is available on BestColleges.com. “[It’s] a basic guide for students with learning disabilities attending college,” she says, “which I think would be helpful for teachers because, in all honesty, [college] can feel like an overwhelming task for anyone—but it doesn’t have to be that way, and as educators we have the amazing opportunity to change that stigma and make learning both interesting and rewarding for all students.”

Leave a reply

Have you tried this in any classes you teach? Would you like to try it? Share your questions, critiques, comments, and insights below.

  1. As a disability counselor for many years at UVU I commend your efforts and your understanding. I think the article is good and clearly points out helpful steps an instructor can take to assist students with disabilities. I wish that we’d had more professors like you. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. #1 Youre marvelous! #2 I know our LDS religion teaches love, kindness and understanding. Perhaps a lesson to help children better understand ALL those with any physical or mental (or both) disabilities. We might have it now, but I’m unfamiliar to any of the present day cariculums within primary or sunday school. What you do is fabulous. I’m sure Christs teachings are helping them the principals. We can help all to know, love and do our best to be patient and kind. Even if we don’t understand why.

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