The brain and learning

Learning changes the brain by rewiring it. This rewiring causes lead to long-lasting connections but only if these new connections in the brain are used. Those that are not used do not survive and are naturally eliminated. It is not as simple as teachers just handing knowledge over to students. Students must construct that knowledge in their own minds on their own, for learning to take place. Teachers use accommodations and modifications to assist their learning.

The brain is powerful. It is flexible and malleable. Interestingly, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and alternatively, the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. Both sides of the brain must communicate together for learning to take place, however. For instance, it is the right side of the brain that grasps the meaning of a story, but it is the left side that decodes grammar, syntax and controls language processing. What we learned recently, which we did not know before is that the brain is plastic. It grows with learning. Hence, the more we learn the more the brain develops, the more effective it becomes, and the more we know.

Progress for Students who have a disability is now part of the State’s accountability along with the following parameters:
1. Students’ barriers to learning (e.g. processing difficulties, inattention, impulsivity, stress, etc.) must first be identified by teachers. Research demonstrates that both stress and pleasure affect learning. This is because stress and pleasure influence the way the brain reacts to the environment. A student who is stressed cannot learn effectively and, therefore, is not available for learning. Ongoing assessment of students is crucial in monitoring students’ progress.
2. For the purpose of accountability on students’ progress, an increasing number of districts use alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards.
3. There is a disconnect in special education between what research demonstrates to be effective for students and what really happens in the classroom.

Teacher, parents’ Corner

The brain is equipped with over 100 billion nerve cells ready to collect information and to learn the skills we need to survive. Learning and storing of information create new neural circuits in the brain and strengthen existing ones by transmitting knowledge to our long-term memory. Every time we transfer information we understand to memory, the brain undergoes anatomical and physical changes. In short, learning is the process by which we acquire and retain knowledge. On the flip side, memory is the process by which we retain what we learn.

Simply put! We cannot remember what we do not understand.

The “working memory” is the memory we activate to remember telephone numbers, dates, shopping lists, etc. It does not happen naturally, it requires focus and the intention to retain information. However, the capacity of the working memory is limited. It can only remember a few things at a time and for a limited amount of time(hence its name of “short-term” memory) before the information is transferred to the long-term memory where learning is consolidated forever. It is important to understand, however, that if the information is not transferred to the long-term memory, it gets lost and forgotten.

Autistic students typically have a weak working memory. Unlike their regular education peers, they do not purposely use it actively when they are learning to ensure they remember what is taught. Because they do not actively use it to ensure that they memorize what they are taught, they remember little of what they learned. Their weak memory makes it takes them more time to process new information, than it takes their regular education peers, to do so. This is the reason why their IEP includes the accommodation of “add extra time”, among others. This is important because if not given enough time to process new information fully, what they are taught does not make it to the long-term memory for later retrieval and is lost forever. It is not a matter of the student not paying attention, it is a matter of him or her not given the amount of time he or she needs to process new information. Any information that does not give the brain the time it needs to be processed cannot be remembered, stored, and used.

For that reason, the more familiar we are with information, the fastest we process it and store it in the long-term memory. Typical learners naturally use strategies to remember information. On the flip side, as we just saw, special needs students, do not. Learning is nothing other than connecting new information to old information. For that connection to occur, however, the student must be active in the learning process. Special needs learners do not inherently make that transfer and do not naturally assign value to the information they learn. This limits their learning and retention of new knowledge. This is one of the reasons why the “Accommodations and Modification” part of their IEP underlines the need for teachers to “repeat information”, “break information into small chunks”, “give extra time to students to process”, etc. These accommodations are hugely important because, as we just saw, the processing of information has important educational implications.

Special Needs students tend to rote rehearse what they are taught. Sadly, however, rote rehearsal does not lead to solid foundations because it does not involve active learning. Students who learn without understanding only gain marginal access to content and therefore, generally, do not retain information. A student who memorizes content without understanding it cannot possibly retain it. The responsibility is therefore on teachers to ensure that all students, regardless of their ability, are provided with the strategies they need, to access learning. This is because a disability is very rarely the outcome of a single cause. It starts with the difficulties the brain experiences in bringing all the information that comes from the 5 senses, together. When these parts do not integrate into one another, the processing of information, and therefore, of retention, is affected. It is virtually impossible to remember what one does not understand. However, because all learning disabilities are not created equal, it is important for teachers to identify each student’s challenges and to determine the best line of action to support them.

Classroom Placement options

As we saw earlier, placement is where the student receives services. Services can take place in the general education classroom (with or without support), a special education classroom, at home, or in a hospital or other public or private institution. When considering the placement of an autistic student, it is important to consider the student’s Intellectual ability, communication skills and verbal abilities based on the Child Study Teamevaluationwe discussed earlier. Placement is based on verbal abilities because most regular education classrooms rely heavily on verbal means of instruction and the verbal reading of information. Placement is determined by the IEP team at a meeting.

Self-contained/special education classrooms

Separate classrooms based on students’ cognitive profile where a special education teacher is responsible for instructing students on all academic subjects at their level of understanding and processing. These students are also integrated into what are called “specials” such as music, gym and art classes where they have the opportunity to be alongside regular education students.

In-class support in the general education setting.

Autistic students with strong communication skills and their special education counterparts are increasingly placed in regular education classrooms with 2 teachers always present in the classroom: 1) a regular education teacher and 2) a special education teacher. This model is predicated on the belief that all children can learn alongside with their peers, if they are provided with the right support.

Two teachers in the regular education classroom throughout the day Co-teaching or In-Class Resource (ICR).

Co-teaching means a classroom in which a special education teacher and a regular education teacher share the responsibility of assessing and instructing regular education and special education students. Co-teaching disallows the theoretical misconceptions that because students with special needs learn differently, they cannot be taught in the same classroom as their regular education peers. Research demonstrates unequivocally that Students’ placement bears on learning as the classroom dynamics becomes an internal and external catalyst for their motivation and performance. The co-teaching model brings special education services and strategies to the regular education classroom instead of taking students to a segregated setting away from their peers. However, the intuitive appeal of co-teaching bellies the challenges it faces in its design.


1. Bring the support special education students need to the regular education classroom alongside with their peers instead of taking them to low expectations separate settings.
2. Endorse research-based learning individualized strategies, accommodations, modifications because no 2 students learn the same way.
3. Implement the IEP in the regular education classroom.
4. Facilitate students’ understanding by integrating special education strategies into the regular education curriculum.
5. Make the most effective use of both teachers.
6. Teach to individual IEP goals and accommodations.
7. Modify content, not standards of excellence.
8. Monitor progress at all times by taking consistent data to ensure students’ continuous progress.
9. Recognize that students who do not learn at the same rate but understand that it does not mean that they cannot learn.

The role of the general education teacher is to implement the general education curriculum for all students. On the flip side, the special education teacher differentiates the general education curriculum to accommodate the individual needs of the special education students.

Special education should not be viewed as a location. It should be viewed as the type of instruction that should be delivered to the students who have been identified as needing special help. Special education can be provided anywhere, at home, in a hospital, in a general education classroom, in a special education classroom, etc. Special education is not an end in itself. It is the means to an end and the end is to provide students with special needs the skills they need to become contributing adult members of society.