Throughout my years of experience as a Senior CLASS® Specialist, I’ve heard a few common misconceptions from observers, educators, and school leaders about interactions with children with disabilities. I’ve even heard that it’s not possible to use CLASS in classrooms where most of the children have disabilities! That’s absolutely not true. In fact, for preschool children with disabilities, a 2019 study shows that higher levels of Instructional Support were associated with increased social competence. (Aguiar et al., 2019).

Before jumping into these myths, it’s important to understand what we mean by “interactions.” Interactions are defined as reciprocal actions between two or more people. An educator’s mission is to guide each child to progress from point A to B in all areas of development by providing effective interactions with each child in their care. This is true with all children. In a classroom with children with disabilities, the interactions may look different, but they can certainly be effective as they meet each child where they are and support them in the journey of growth and development. Interactions with these children can be measured and improved, just like any other. 

Thinking about this brought me back to my years as a teacher before I knew about CLASS, and I wanted to share some of my experiences as I aligned them with CLASS. Maria Montessori, as a medical doctor, and in her work with Helen Keller, learned how people with disabilities would heighten the other senses and skills so that they could explore the world and succeed. This stuck with me and impacted my life as a guide in the learning process, always remembering that every child is unique and full of potential; what they need are opportunities to awaken their talents.


Examples of Effective Interactions with Children with Disabilities

The stories are real, but names have been changed to protect my beloved children. Refer to the chart to see which CLASS dimensions align with the interactions in my stories. 

  • Helena could not make eye contact or stay still, so we communicated while moving around. I paid close attention to what she was looking at and pointing. This helped me understand what she was trying to tell me and maintained a contingent conversation with her interest. (LM, ES, QF)
  • Chase had a special interest in dinosaurs. Together we located places they were found on the world map. We wondered what kinds of food they ate based on their physical characteristics. We also talked about what the earth looked like at the time and which other animals would have lived with the dinosaurs. (CD, QF, LM, RCP, ILF)
  • Aidan observed his peers and myself doing tactile activities. He was excited about it but did not want to touch any mix. So, we spoke about it as we did it, and he participated through observation and conversation. We guessed how ingredients would change the mixes, evaluated our processes, and tried again with giggles and excitement. (ES, LM, RCP, ILF, CD, PC)
  • Juliana could not see well, so we classified cylinders by their sounds. We would guess what was inside the cylinders trying to match the sound with familiar elements, such as sand, rice, or water. (CD, ES, ILF)
  • Nancy sat in a wheelchair, strapped from her ankles to her forehead, unable to make drastic moves or talk. She and I communicated by asking her questions, pausing, and looking at her for any cues as responses,  I would put a voice to my interpretation of her answer, and these communications lasted several exchanges. (LM, ES)
  • Matthew built structures with different blocks. We would talk about his creations, and he would respond verbally or not verbally. When the structure kept falling, he started making blueprints of what he wanted to build. (CD, QF, LM, ILF)

None of these children had an individualized plan at the time. Yet, my job was to get to know each child and interact with them in the way they needed to thrive in all areas of development and have fun in the process.

Interactions across CLASS Dimensions

So, how do we support children with disabilities using the CLASS tool, helping them to connect, engage, and be inspired to learn? Here are some additional ideas outside of my examples:

Positive Climate: Welcome all your children as they cross the threshold into the classroom, make them feel that you are genuinely happy to see them, and say something personal such as ‘I love the multicolor shorts you are wearing.

Educator Sensitivity
: Individualize the responses to each child. If a child is frustrated, take the time to help him de-escalate, validate his feelings, and ensure that he gets back on track.

Regard for Child Perspectives
: ensure that children are protagonists of their learning journey. Do they get to explore, try again, and share results, thoughts, and ideas by talking, showing, touching, and putting them in their assistive communication device?

Behavior Management:  Get to know your children, learn what triggers them, and proactively intervene before the behavior escalates. For example, if a child has a smell sensitivity, check the menus of meals for the day, and relocate the child to a spot in the classroom where he won't be exposed to the smells and explode for an overwhelming spell.

Model empathy and encourage children to support one another. For example, a child can tell a peer, “You are getting upset. Remember to breathe. Here, I’ll breathe with you.”

Productivity: Make sure that all children are given opportunities to engage in learning experiences, as able. For example, position non-mobile children toward the small group as they experiment, and make sure to include all children in the experience.

Instructional Learning Formats: Communicate the learning objectives to the children, go back to those children who need reinforcement, and repeat them face to face, looking for cues as signs of understanding.

Concept Development: Encourage children to use their senses to do their own creations. For example, put watercolors with a lot of water on paper in front of their mouth. They can blow on the paper with their mouth or by using straws to make pretty paintings. Guess together what it looks like. Is it a truck, or a cat, or the moon? Look for signs of approval or denial, and try again. Make it fun. Once you both agree on what the creation is, connect it to their lives. You could compare the cat with a dog or the moon with the sun.

Quality of Feedback: When you notice a child trying to say a word from a book, encourage her to continue in her efforts to say the word that is trying to say. Praise the efforts by saying you are saying the word, “It is a new word, and you are trying so hard. You almost said it! Try again.” Provide scaffolding for the child by modeling the word she is trying to enunciate.

Language Modeling: Engage in reciprocal communication, verbal and nonverbal, with all children. Read their signs, interpret their efforts, look at the child as you say it, and look for cues of responses. Get excited about the idea! Ask a follow-up, open-ended question, and give choices of responses if the child needs it. Draw it together, show pictures, or use the child’s assistive communication device, and allow the child to show you the answers as they’re able.

Additional Support

The more observers, educators, and school leaders understand how meaningful interactions may vary, the more effectively they can use CLASS across settings and contexts. If you are interested in learning more about what interactions may look like between educators and children with disabilities, consider taking CLASS® Observation Support: Settings Serving Children with Disabilities. This 2-hour on demand or virtually facilitated course is designed to bring awareness and share strategies to effectively observe and score interactions that are supportive of children with disabilities. You may also want to explore our resource page to discover more examples of how effective interactions may look while supporting the needs of children with disabilities.