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5 Tips to Improve Your Special Education Lessons by David Logan Hayter

Bio: David Logan Hayter is a teacher and freelance writer based out of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

He first gained experience in education by working as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japan from 2014-2019. Although he primarily taught junior high school, he has taught all the grades from kindergarten through ninth grade.

During his time as an ALT, he worked in 11 junior high schools, 2 elementary schools, dozens of kindergartens with hundreds of Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) to teach thousands of students.

Aside from teaching, his other duties included training and managing new ALTs, designing and delivering teacher training workshops, and performing other duties for his local Board of Education (BOE).

In his current role, David teaches EFL and ELA classes at a private language center. He also tutors students who are looking to improve their overall English ability, preparing for international school entrance exams, and studying to take English proficiency exams.

Outside of work, he actively volunteers in his community, enjoys playing video games, loves to cook, trains hard, offers career coaching, and helps run the 
ALT Training Online blog.

The job of an ALT in Japan is one where teachers are put into a continually changing environment. You could be teaching elementary school in the morning and then junior high school in the afternoon. There’s also a pretty good chance that you’ll be teaching some form of special education classes.

The idea of teaching students with special needs can be somewhat intimidating at first, but many of the lessons I taught in special education have been some of the most fulfilling ones for me as a teacher.

ALTTO has just released a new course on teaching special needs education. Be sure to check it out for even more tips on how you can be a more effective teacher for all of your students!

Here is my quick list of tips to help you teach your special education classes. Although these tips are focused on special education in this case, they can be used in your regular classes as well.

1. Start with the students

All learning starts with the students. When you are planning your lessons, think about their strengths, challenges, interests, and prior knowledge.

It takes some time to get to know about them, so it’s really important to spend time getting to know them both in and outside of class.

When we understand what the students enjoy and what motivates them to learn, we can create engaging lessons that play to their strengths while improving skills in areas where they aren’t so strong.

Don’t ask yourself, “What can’t they do?” Instead, ask yourself, “What can they do?”

2. Create a safe learning environment

Making a safe learning environment for students should be a top priority of the school. Hopefully, their main teachers have already done a good job of encouraging students to participate without fear of making mistakes.

If the students don’t feel safe in the class, then learning is going to be very challenging for them.

If that’s not how their classes normally are, try to see what you can do to help them realize that.We can help do this by giving positive praise and allowing students time to express themselves in different ways (like speaking, drawing, writing, etc).

3. Have clear rules and routines

Creating rules and routines is a good way to teach any class, but it can be especially effective in special needs classes. This is a preventative measure that can help minimize disruption and confusion before it starts.

This is difficult for ALTs who don’t spend all of their time in one class.

You can create a fantastic routine that all of the students love and then they won’t follow that routine for another two weeks until your next class. It may be possible to get your HRT to help with this.

In this step, it’s more about creating a routine order/flow for your classes. There are times when lessons go off the rails because the students don’t know what’s expected of them or what’s coming next.

For example, you can always start your class with a greeting, asking questions about the day, follow that with a warm-up drawing activity, and then playing a short game to review previous material. After that, you can move on to the objective for the day.

Establishing what you expect from your students upfront and writing the plan for the day on the board will help maximize instructional time and move the class along smoothly.

4. Recognize and reward effort

When students don’t participate, it’s usually because they feel like they’re not getting anything out of the class. When a student, especially a special needs student, goes out of their way to do something really well, be sure to give some type of praise or positive reinforcement.

Although we want students to produce work that’s accurate and generally free of errors, we should do our best to recognize when students are putting in a lot of effort and improving.

We can also give praise to students when they do things that aren’t related to English like helping other students, doing well during cleaning time, and taking care of their school responsibilities.

This can help boost their confidence and empower them to continue learning more.

If possible, try to come up with a tangible reward system for the students. Something like giving out stickers or keeping a point tally on the board can work well to boost student motivation.

5. Consider different methods for completing assignments

When we think about our special needs students, we should be asking ourselves, “What can I do to get the best work out of them?” Sometimes, this means letting the student decide how they are going to work.

Most students are probably used to what many have called the Japanese approach of “this is the right way to do it, don’t try anything else.”

Try giving the students a task and then seeing how they complete it. You may be surprised by how they come up with new ways of doing things.

In my classes, the goal is always to learn something new that’s useful for the students, not to have them do something exactly as I told them to do it.

If you can be successful in this type of approach to education, the result will be students who are empowered to learn on their own and build confidence in their ability to learn and grow.

– A note from ALT Training Online’s David Logan Hayter

If you have something ‘ALT’ to write about that hasn’t been covered in these blogs, email David at so we can work together and spread your story.

Don’t have any ideas? We have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up.

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