Learning for All

Principles of instructional planning

Designing meaningful and effective instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities requires intentional planning that considers the strengths and needs of individual learners and takes into account best practices that work for all learners.

To hear more about effective instructional practice, view this two-minute video of Dr. Caroline Musselwhite discussing why Good Literacy Instruction is Good for All Students.

The following six principles for instructional planning provide a framework for thinking about, choosing and designing learning goals, activities and materials.

  • Personally meaningful
  • Age respectful
  • Promotes autonomy
  • Social relevant
  • Opportunities for social interaction
  • Developmentally appropriate


These principles hold true for ALL students. Are we keeping them front of mind in the day-to-day planning for students with significant cognitive disabilities?

To hear more about the idea of age-respectful instruction, view the one-minute video of Dr. Caroline Musselwhite discussing the importance of age-respectful instruction in the video segment Engaging Older Students.

Click here to download a copy of these principles for instructional planning.

Shifts in instructional practice







What changes in practice and thinking will make a difference for students with significant disabilities?

At the end of the community of practice participants were asked to respond to the following question: “Over the past year, what changes have you seen for students with significant disabilities? (Or for the staff that support these students?)”

When practice and thinking shifted, participants saw less of and more of the following:


  • Labeling of students


  • Assuming competence
  • Optimism
  • Exclusion (i.e., one-to-one with educational assistant)
  • Inclusion (tasks aligned with curriculum and using student strengths)
  • “They don’t belong here” attitude
  • Babysitting—children just sitting in classroom not engaged
  • Social interactions
  • Engagement and participation with school, more excitement and motivation from staff related to teaching students with significant disabilities
  • Professional development for teachers only
  • Professional development for all (Administrators, teachers, educational assistants, families, service providers)
  • Strategies to share
  • Growing district expertise (including planning for this development)
  • Teacher versus parent
  • Team approach
  • Educational assistant solely responsible for student progress
  • Educational assistants panicking with what to do with students
  • Educational assistants feeling isolated and frustrated
  • Team approach
  • Focus on the day-to-day
  • Focus on a long-term vision and how we are going to get there
  • Waiting for direction from above to improve processes for students
  • Working collaboratively to create effective practice for students
  • Communication by crying (and less reliable use of PECS)
  • Students with no means of communication (not even to make simple choices)
  • Behavioural outbursts due to inability to communicate
  • Down time
  • Communication with visuals, consistent use of PECS
  • Momentum with low-tech AAC (and some high tech)
  • Active engagement
  • “Functional” reading
  • Robust literacy instruction
  • Students interacting with letters and print
  • Sharing and interaction around books
  • Emerging literacy strategies and tasks
  • Participating by using alternative pencils to write
  • Educational assistants excited about what they are learning about emergent literacy
  • iPads as a solution for every student
  • Thinking about the student and task before selecting the tool
  • Isolated life skills
  • Project-based learning with meaningful tasks, linked to curriculum
  • Looking for something different (e.g., curriculum specific to child)
  • Creative modification of classroom materials by classroom teachers
  • Differentiation
  • Understanding of students’ needs
  • Providing choices so students can participate
  • Requests for educational assistant support (often seen as the only option)
  • 1:1 support from educational assistants (i.e., “Velcro EA)
  • Understanding of how an educational assistant can support in the classroom
  • Educational assistants prompting every step
  • Use of wait time and prompt fading (leading to more independence)
  • Devices left unused
  • Creative use of assistive technology
  • Use of communication devices by everyone, everywhere
  • Behavioural concerns and complaints
  • Focus on communication
  • Recognizing gains
  • Programs working in isolation
  • Initial steps to using peer mentors and buddies