Five Strategies for Raising Graduation Rates for Students with Disabilities


Recent data shows that high school graduation rates in the United States are higher than in any other time in history. According to the 2017 Building a Grad Nation Report by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, in 2015, “about half of all states reported high school graduation rates of 85 percent or more.” By 2020 those states are poised to graduate 90 percent of their high school seniors.

But sadly, the data on students with disabilities tells a very different story. The same Grad Nation report also found that “Thirty-three states reported high school graduation rates for special education students below 70 percent, and nearly half of those 33 had graduation rates for students with disabilities below 60 percent.  Four states—South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Nevada—graduated half of their special education students.”

Unless the graduation rates of students with disabilities, poor and minority students improve, the Grad Nation report concludes that the country won’t meet the 90 percent graduation mark.

In an article for Nonprofit Quarterly, Noreen Ohlrich, calls the gap in graduation rates between those with disabilities and without them “scandalously wide.”

So, what if anything can be done to level the playing field? Here’s what some of the experts recommend.

1. Mainstreaming
Multiple studies including a 2016 study Using Survival Analysis to Understand Graduation of Students With Disabilities find that students who spend most of their school day learning alongside typically developing peers, are more likely to graduate high school than those who spend their entire school days in special education settings.

2. Teacher training
While mainstreaming students with disabilities is beneficial to their self-esteem and often results in better academic performance, there is a down side as well. Most general education teachers lack the training necessary to provide effective instruction to students with disabilities.

As Jackie Mader writes for the Hechinger Report, “Experts say the problem is that it takes much more than just placing students with disabilities next to their general education peers: Teachers must have the time, support, and training to provide a high-quality education based on a student’s needs.”

Some teacher training programs are beginning to rise to the challenge. For example, says Mader, “Every teacher who graduates from Syracuse’s Early Childhood or Elementary Education program is dual-certified in special education and spends time in inclusion classrooms.”

3. High Expectations
Depending on the nature and severity of their disabilities, many students have the aptitude to earn regular high school diplomas. Researchers have found that when capable students with disabilities are held to the same standards as their non-disabled peers, they are more likely to graduate. According to researchers Todd Grindal and Laura Schifter (whose study is referenced above) writing for Huff Post , “graduation rates for students with disabilities are lower when states offer more alternate, special education diplomas.”

4. Mentoring Programs
Students with disabilities who have mentors or participate in mentorship programs are more likely to remain in school, says the PACER Center. “According to research, mentorship and mentoring programs are successful at keeping students with disabilities from dropping out of high school. Statistics show that when students feel they are part of a community and receive guidance and support for their future dreams, they are more likely to stay in school.”

5. Parental involvement
It goes without saying that children with parents who are involved in their educations tend to be more successful. But for children with disabilities, studies show that parental involvement is even more critical, and may be an important factor in determining whether they will graduate from high school. According to Project IDEAL, “When parents are actively involved, their child is more likely to exhibit higher grades and test scores; better attitudes towards school; more positive behavior; consistent school attendance; more completed homework; less chance of the need for special education services; greater chance of high school graduation; and, better likelihood of participating in postsecondary education.

Strategies for Transitioning to Mainstreaming

Image of teacher with disabled student

It sounds too good to be true. After years of slow but steady progress, hours of speech, occupational, physical and psychotherapies, at last you’ve been told that your child with special needs is ready to be mainstreamed. While the news is encouraging and both you and your child are thrilled, this transition can feel a bit overwhelming. After all, you’re in unchartered territory.

What can you do to ease the transition? We’ve combed through a variety of sources to come up with a list of strategies you can utilize to prepare your child, his new teacher and his future classmates for this momentous step forward.

Consult with the special educators at the school your child previously attended.

With the exception of her parents, no one knows your child’s capabilities, strengths, weaknesses and learning style better than her former teacher. Have an exit interview with teachers and therapists at the school and document all of their educational, social and behavioral recommendations.

Share those recommendations with the teacher at your child’s new school.

Preparation is key to giving your child the best chance for success in her new mainstream classroom. Provide the new teacher a leg up by sharing the advice of special educators who know your child well. Does your child learn best when seated in front of the classroom? Does she need to take breaks when frustrated? Will she benefit from visual cues? Knowing these particulars will help your child’s teacher help your child.

Familiarize your student with the new teacher, building and classroom

Everyone feels more comfortable entering a new situation when they know what to expect. For children with special needs, it may be even more important that they be comfortable with their new teacher as well as the new school campus and classroom. So meet with your child’s teacher several times before he begins attending the school, and tour his new classroom and school building as many times as possible, before his official start date.

Set up playdates with students in the new class

Ask your child’s teacher, the school principal or admission director to reach out to a few families from the class to help you coordinate some playdates. That way, your child will already know several students when she joins her new class.

Address your child’s disability with fellow students

Some parents find that talking with their child’s classmates about his disability may help create a more welcoming environment in the classroom. According to the Pacer Center, a Minnesota nonprofit funded by the U.S. Department of education, “… if classmates understand a child’s disability, they may become allies in helping the child. The children may also be less likely to view accommodations or individual support as unfair advantages.”

Talking with your child’s class presents “an opportunity to discuss why a child may look or behave differently from other children in the class, to point out the many ways in which the child is like classmates and to offer classmates tips for interacting with the child.” Being proactive in this way, can prevent the kind of bullying and ostracizing that may occur when your child’s classmates don’t understand his disability.

Stay involved with your child’s teacher and be active in the school community.

The importance of being an active participant in the life of your child’s class and school cannot be underestimated. In fact, says the National Education Association, “Ongoing research shows that family engagement in schools improves student achievement, reduces absenteeism, and restores parents’ confidence in their children’s education. Students with involved parents or other caregivers earn higher grades and test scores, have better social skills, and show improved behavior.”

For children with special needs, parental involvement may be even more critical. Involved parents can serve as advocates, role models and may help their children to feel part of the school community.

So, if your schedule permits, become involved in the PTA, chair committees and help out in your child’s classroom. It will be well worth your time.


Best Back-to-School Reads

Image of book cover for "My Friend Suhana"

Do we ever outgrow that back-to-school feeling? Somehow, regardless of how old we are or how long it’s been since we actually went to school, once Labor Day weekend is over, the time for lounging at the pool, barbeques in the back yard and indulging in guilty pleasures such as ice cream and trashy beach reads are over. But it’s not all bad. Even for those of us who aren’t students any more, fall can be motivating. We’re feeling rested, restored and ready to focus on more serious pursuits—exciting personal projects, renewed interest in our careers, and catching up on challenging and intellectually rewarding reading.  Since back-to-school season tends to be busy, we’ve saved you some time, by compiling a list of some (relatively) new and noteworthy books in the disabilities field. Whether you’re a teacher, therapist, parent or child, this list offers good reads for everyone.

For teachers and therapists

Book cover for "Assistive Technology for Young Children"“Assistive Technology for Young Children” by Kathleen Curry Sadao Ed.D., Nancy B. Robinson Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Today’s teachers and therapists know that assistive technology can do wonders for helping children with disabilities to communicate, learn and play. Many of those assistive technology devices are developed and available through Enabling Devices. But not everyone receives the training necessary to make the best use of the technology that exists. “Assistive Technology for Young Children” will provide professionals with all the information they need to help their students and clients, and to create fully inclusive classrooms.

Book cover for "Communication Interventions for Individuals with Severe Disabilities"“Communication Interventions for Individuals with Severe Disabilities,”edited by Rose A. Sevcik, Ph.D., and MaryAnn Romski Ph.D.

This 2016 text includes the latest research and clinical and educational recommendations for helping students and clients with severe disabilities to communicate more effectively. With the contributions of 30 scholars, the book offers evidence-based interventions for populations including young children with intellectual disabilities, deafblind children, children with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.  Check out Enabling Devices’ communication devices!

For anyone who loves, teaches or treats a person with autism

Book cover for "The Reason I Jump"“The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a 13 Year Old Boy with Autism” by Naoki Higashida gives readers rare insight into the mind of its young author. As bestselling author, David Mitchell writes in his introduction to the English translation of this Japanese autobiographical memoir,

“[Naoki’s] explanations about why children with autism do what they do that were, literally, the answers that we had been waiting for. Composed by a writer still with one foot in childhood, and whose autism was at least as challenging and life altering as our son’s, “The Reason I Jump” was a revelatory godsend. Reading it felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki’s words.”

Book cover for "Life, Animated"“Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,” by Ron Suskind

As you may know, “Life Animated,” a documentary that opened in limited release this summer, was a book before it was a movie. The true story of how a father got through to his autistic son by joining his boy’s obsession with Disney movie characters is a fascinating and inspiring read.


For parents of children with Down Syndrome

Book cover for "The Parent's Guide to Down Syndrome"“The Parent’s Guide to Down Syndrome: Advice, Information, Inspiration, and Support for Raising Your Child from Diagnosis through Adulthood,”
by Jen Jacob, and Mardra Sikora, offers the latest information on virtually anything parents need to know about the special needs of a child with Down syndrome. Co-authors Jacob and Sikora are uniquely qualified to write “The Parents Guide to Down Syndrome.” Jacob is an educator, professional development expert, cofounder and Vice President for the Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network, and parent of Owen, a child with Down syndrome. Sikora is an author, speaker and advocate, and mother of Marcus a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome.

For teens and young adults

Book cover for "A Time to Dance"“A Time to Dance” by Padma Venkatraman tells the story of a young Indian Bharatanatyam dancer who loses her leg after being struck by a car. Reviewer, Jessica Walter, herself an amputee, calls “A Time to Dance … easily the best representation of an amputee’s experience that I’ve ever come across in fiction.” This young adult novel, which takes place in India and is told in verse, is also appealing from a cultural and literary standpoint. In the end, Venkatraman’s teenage protagonist finds a way to dance despite her disability. She learns that dancing is not only a physical pursuit, but also, and even more importantly, a spiritual one.

For elementary school aged children

Image of book cover for "My Friend Suhana"“My Friend Suhana: A Story of Friendship and Cerebral Palsy,” by Shaila Abdullah and Aanyah Abdullah is a 2016 winner of the Dolly Gray Literature Award, which “recognizes authors, illustrators, and publishers of high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with developmental disabilities.” Written by a mother-daughter team, “My Friend Suhana” tells the true story of a friendship between Suhana, a little girl with severe cerebral palsy, and Aanyah, a typically developing 7-year-old girl who meets Suhana at the community center where she and her mother volunteer. Based on a true story.

Happy Reading and Happy Fall To All!


Five Tips for Teachers and Therapists to Start the Year Off Right

Image of teacher with disabled student

The work of a special educator or therapist is demanding. It’s not particularly glamorous, or especially lucrative. It takes special qualities like compassion, creativity, patience and intelligence. Because they give so much of themselves to others, it’s critical that special educators and therapists have time to recharge. If you’re a therapist or special educator, we hope you’ve had a restful, enjoyable and restorative summer. That way, you can be fully present—mentally and emotionally—to meet the needs of the children and families with whom you’ll be working throughout the school year.

Ideally, you’ve had time, in the weeks prior to the start of the new school term, to prepare yourself for your incoming students. Here are some tips for teachers and therapists to make the early days of the new school year as smooth and stress-free as possible.

1. Know your students

If possible, get to know students and families before the first day of school. A phone-call or even an introductory letter or email to say “hello” several weeks before the first day of school can do wonders for easing back-to-school jitters. Talking with your students’ parents or other faculty members who have worked with your student before, can help you to be prepared with strategies that will work best. If for some reason, it wasn’t possible to make contact or to obtain information prior to the first day of school, do so as soon as possible.

The National Association of Special Education Teachers, (NASET) recommends teachers obtain and review the following information on incoming students:


  • Previous schools students have attended
  • Students’ medical records
  • Students’ permanent records
  • Past teachers’ reports
  • Past report cards
  • Standardized test scores
  • IEPs including all recommendations and accommodations including health alerts, assistive technologies, disability classification

2. Create a data-collection system

How can you tell if teaching and therapeutic methods are working? Recent advancements in technology have made it increasingly simple to keep track of how students are responding to educational and behavioral interventions.

Special Education teacher, Tara Hillegas “collects biweekly or weekly data on academic goals for students with learning disabilities. This data is then graphed on a chart so that parents or students are able to see progress whenever they would like. Kids like to know what their goals are and how they can beat them. Charts and graphs are visual representations that are easy for students and their parents to understand,” she says.

3. Get organized

Special educators and therapists are responsible for a tremendous amount of documentation. If you don’t have a tried and true system of keeping track of students’ grades, progress reports, homework and classwork, come up with a plan that works for you. LD Online recommends that teachers “set up two separate folders or binders for each child on your case load: one for keeping track of student work and assessment data and the other for keeping track of all other special education documentation.”

LD Online also suggests creating a “communications log” in which you can note any phone calls, emails, letters and meeting notes concerning your students.

4. Collaborate with general education teachers

Depending on your school and the nature of your students’ disabilities, they may be mainstreamed for some subjects. It is crucial that you stay in touch with your students’ general education teacher so that you have a complete picture of how the student is functioning and how you can work together for the most successful outcome.

According to Special Education Guide’s Rachel Crawford, “Collaboration between special education and general education must happen beyond the obligatory IEP meeting in order to make an impact on students’ learning. When teachers collaborate, the stigma of special education disappears and the student becomes OUR student. Not mine, not yours. Goals become more meaningful because there is no longer an “IEP” goal on top of general education demands. Education becomes a fluid and more effective process.”

5. Reach out to community providers

Likewise, it may be necessary to collaborate with outside therapists and medical and mental health professionals. Keeping in touch with outside providers will ensure that no one is working at cross-purposes. Make sure you have written permission to speak with these providers as needed.

Have a wonderful school year!