CSTA Classroom Science

NGSS: A Case for Special Education Inclusion

The NSTA Press publication, NGSS for All Students: O.Lee, E. Miller, R Januszyk (Eds.) highlights the importance of providing high-quality science education for all, including students with disabilities. After teaching together for nearly 28 years, one as a Special Education Teacher, the other as a General Education 8th-Grade Science Teacher (both CA NGSS Early Implementers), we have gained some insights into how the shifts demanded by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) make a rigorous science curriculum accessible to a wide range of students. The phenomenon based, three-dimensional learning of the NGSS provides students with a rich, real-world context that can put even abstract science concepts within reach.

While not the case in all California School Districts, at McCaffrey Middle School in the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, all 147 special education students are mainstreamed into the regular general education science classes. This came about as a direct result of special education teachers advocating vigorously and continually for that outcome. Throughout the day, approximately 22 special education students are mainstreamed into one of the 8th-grade general education NGSS science classes. Their classifications range from Resource Specialist Program (RSP), Emotional Disturbance (ED), to Special Day Class (SDC). While benefiting all students, this article will focus on the SDC student experiences in the NGSS classroom, components of NGSS that are particularly valuable, and interventions with the SDC students that can help them get the most out of their science experience.

Phenomena Driven Instruction - Video


  • humpback whales lunge feeding off the coast of California
  • mud sliding down a hill in California


  • an unknown fossil
  • layers of rock in a canyon

First-Hand Experiences:

  • hot soda collapsing when placed in cold water
  • eclipse of the sun

These are just some of the phenomena used in the 8th-grade science class to introduce NGSS Learning Sequences. Students make observations of a phenomenon, record their observations and questions in their science journals and share these observations with partners. The special education teacher guides her students through the individual components of the process, but since all students begin by engaging with a phenomenon with which they are unfamiliar, all students can contribute their unique perspectives to pair group and class conversations. And, because the phenomena are concrete, real-world events instead of abstract concepts, it sets students on a path to success right from the start. The real-life phenomenon is something that the special education students can relate to versus seeing a picture in a book.

Recently, working in pairs, the 8th graders placed sand onto plastic wrap that was stretched over a bowl. Students were encouraged to, without touching it, make loud noises near the sand. They could yell, hit pencils against plastic tubs, snap their fingers, whatever they wanted (within reason). All students, including all designations of special education students, were able to come up with ways to make noise. While all students were able to see the sand jump, students used a variety of ways to communicate what they saw happening. The special education teacher worked with some of her students individually to help them describe what they saw, while other special education students talked with their student partners and then wrote down their observations. In the end, all students were able to participate in the investigation experience and have their observations validated and recorded in their Science Journals. Each larger group of four students shared out to the entire class what they observed and one question they had.

Engaging in the Science and Engineering Practices

The NGSS provide opportunities for all students to develop the skills of a scientist through the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). Often, students partake in these practices as a group. While planning and carrying out investigations, students in a group can each have a specific job for which they alone are responsible. For students with disabilities, having a role to play in the overall success of their classmates allows them to develop their cooperative group skills and feel useful. The physical manipulation of materials used in investigations provides kinesthetic, memorable experiences that students can draw on later in the Learning Sequence and during assessments. General education students also benefit in that they can see students with disabilities contributing to the overall success of the group. While participating in an activity where students worked to investigate the effect of the slope of a surface on the speed of an object, student jobs were as follows:

While students develop and use models to show their understanding of phenomenon, students with disabilities gain valuable experience listening to the ideas of their classmates while also providing their own input. It’s during these conversations that students realize that no individual person has all the knowledge, but that they each have some. Sensemaking is built by a community of students which includes the special education students. When groups share their models to the class, students with disabilities can help their group (sometimes with the assistance from their classmates or the special education teacher) by sharing in some of the speaking responsibilities. General education science teachers should be strategic in their placement of special education students in groups. It is preferable to place them with students who are willing to help when needed while still allowing the special education students to do what they can independently. This also challenges the special education students to not always rely on the special education teacher for direction. While constructing explanations, students can start by using their own words – not concerning themselves with academic vocabulary. More specific vocabulary is provided later once meaning is made and students have something more to which they can connect the vocabulary. On more than one occasion, students have encouraged the special education students to take the primary lead during their oral presentations, promoting and assisting when needed.

Complementary Strategies to NGSS

While mainstreaming students with disabilities into general NGSS science classrooms is the goal, the special education teacher’s role remains to help these students achieve at their highest level possible. The nature of the NGSS classroom provides a robust environment that these teachers can draw upon when working with the students one on one. Special education students may have auditory or visual processing problems which allows access to the concepts although it may take longer for processing. In addition, essential questions around phenomenon may have multi-faceted answers. The special education teacher can help her students make sense of the phenomenon by accessing the experiences the students have had in science class. While multiple layers of experiences may be provided in the NGSS science class, the Special Education Teacher can provide additional experiences to her students after class in smaller groups that meet the specific IEP (Individualized Education Program) needs of the students. These may include additional videos, group discussions, computer simulations, or modified text.

While this article certainly does not exhaust all of the ways students with disabilities gain valuable experiences in NGSS classrooms, we hope that it inspires science and special education teachers to consider how they might, if not already, include their populations of special education students in similar classes.

By including all students in NGSS general education classes, you allow all students access to rich science curriculum which will help them make sense of the world around them.


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Written by Heidi Freedman

Heidi Freedman is a Special Education Teacher, McCaffrey Middle School, Galt, CA, is a CA NGSS Early Implementer and member of CSTA. She can be reached at hfreedman@galt.k12.ca.ca.us.


Lisa Hegdahl

Written by Lisa Hegdahl

Lisa Hegdahl is an 8th-grade science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District; a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementer; and Past President of CSTA. She can be reached at lhegdahl@galt.k12.ca.us.