Opening Doors for Students with Disabilities: Independence is Key


Thirteen Lucky Steps


promote independence

for students

with disabilities


“Luck is the residue of design.“ ­Ricky Branch

 The era of accountability in education has focused strongly on academic progress, sometimes at the expense of schools’ efforts to foster the independence that students with disabilities need to flourish in school and in life. Despite the pressure to emphasize academic progress, schools retain the responsibility to adequately address the functional and developmental skills students need to become more independent. Increases in independence facilitate inclusion, build self-efficacy, and promote access to a full range of environments and opportunities. Some schools, however, are struggling to balance the many demands that are placed on them.  How can they work to promote student independence given the complex challenges they face on a daily basis? The answer is not as complicated as it may seem. 

Use these 13 collaborative steps as a guide, and you’ll systematically ‘create luck’ for your students by giving them the independence they need to more successfully access and engage in a broad range of school and life activities.

1. Reflect on the student’s daily or regular activities.

 Which activities are the most important or useful for the student? Inventory the typical activities in which the student engages. For students who have great difficulty generalizing what they learn, you will need to consider activities that take place before, during and after school hours. Which must be done repeatedly through the day, in home and school settings? Which are the most rewarding for the student? Collaborate with the student, the parents, teachers and therapists to prioritize the skills that are most important to target. Consider the potential impact or value on the student’s current and future life if he or she could learn to be more independent in relation to these skills. Give special consideration to those skills that are: 

a)   Most motivating for the student

b)   Most functional in daily life

c)    Most likely to facilitate successful interactions with peers,

d)    And/or most important for future academic challenges. 

 As a team, decide which skills are most important to target at this time. Priorities must always be individualized, and never generic.

2. Collect data that illustrates how the student is now performing in relation to the targeted skills.

As you document the student’s current level of performance, be specific regarding the kind and amount of support that the student currently requires to complete the tasks or skills you have decided to address. A task analysis with the levels of assistance clearly recorded may work well. However, this is only one way to record data.  You may choose to record the frequency and type of prompts the student needs in order to complete the skill or the duration of behaviors (or time on task).  Alternatively, you may opt to examine the latency of response by recording how long it takes for a student to respond to a cue that should trigger a behavior or skill.   The key is to match the data collection method with the demands of the task in the context of the skill level and other needs of the student. 

Data collection does not need to be complicated.  As a matter of fact, it should be simple and very user-friendly.  What is most important is that it documents the student’s level of functioning in direct relation to the targeted behavior.  Let’s look at a few examples of how baseline data can be collected for different types of skills for students of differing ages and with various types of disabilities:

  • Come inside after recess*: Record the interval of time between the cue (recess bell) and response (the student comes inside), along with the type and/or amount of prompts given.
  • Join in activities during play: During unstructured play, record the number of times that the student joins in activities with peers along with the duration of the interactions.
  • Use the toilet: At naturally occurring times, use a detailed task analysis to record the levels of assistance required for the student to complete each step of the entire task.
  • Task completion: Record the number of tasks completed independently within designated class time along with the type and/or amount of prompts given.
  • Write and edit lab reports: Examine work products (lab reports) to determine the percentage of required/accurate components that are included in the reports. 

For more ideas about data collection, and example data sheets, search for ‘data sheets’ or ‘sample forms’ at You might also consider accessing some of the free online resources at  Another good resource is an article in Teaching Exceptional Children (May/June 2013, Vol. 45, No. 5) entitled Formative Assessment Made Easy: Templates for Collecting Daily Data in Inclusive Classrooms.

You will need to use your professional judgment to ascertain the best way to collect data, but whatever you do, collect the data!  Do this on at least 5 to 10 occasions, preferably on different days or in different situations. You will then have the baseline (current level) information you need to move forward.

3. Respect the fact that the student may need to learn the skills in a sequence or manner that is different than you originally envisioned. 

We are often ‘mentally’ stuck in our ways of doing things, and forget that students with disabilities may be better served if they complete tasks in different ways that are better suited to their personal capabilities. Work to uncover your assumptions by collaborating with others to find the most efficient way for the student to learn the targeted skill or task.  The classic example of this is the student who pulls a front zippered coat or sweater on over his head, putting both hands in the sleeves simultaneously. If we insisted that he put his coat on the same way that ‘most people’ do (one sleeve at a time), it would cause undue frustration and waste precious instructional or leisure time for the student.  By the same token, is it truly important for a student to tie laces, or will Velcro or zippered shoes make more sense? Does the student really need to ‘write’ his homework in an agenda, or can he use a handheld device for that purpose? Consider alternate ways to accomplish tasks, and the potential use of technology or other tools that will enhance the student’s performance and motivation for learning. Work with other team members, including the student, the parent and the student’s therapists to determine the most efficient and effective way to approach each targeted skill.  Efficient and effective, that is, in relation to the unique needs of your student. This is not an avoidance tactic; it just makes good sense.  Students don’t have time to waste! The more quickly they increase their independence, the sooner they can move up to new challenges.

4Project how much the student can reasonably be expected to increase in independence during the upcoming year.

Considering the baseline data and the way the team has determined to approach each skill selected, devise measurable goals that articulate the specific amount of progress toward independence that the student can make during the upcoming year given specially designed instruction. This should be an informed decision of the IEP team. Take into account the nature and severity of the student’s disability as well as his or her age.

In order to systematically promote independence over time, you will need to be very explicit about the amounts and types of supports that will be used, and reduced, as the student progresses. Remember, reducing dependence should actually be part of the goal. Since you have already done the groundwork by gathering specific baseline data that includes the current levels of support the student requires it won’t be difficult to write measureable goals for each targeted skill. Be certain to write the goal in explicit, observable or verifiable terms.  Avoid nebulous phrases such as ‘with decreasing cues’ or ‘with minimal prompts’.  These may seem measureable, but they are not.  In order to avoid stagnation and ensure collective accountability for real increases in independence, it is imperative to document within the goal the precise degree to which independence is expected to increase given adequate instructional supports and services. 

In this context it is important to distinguish between cues and prompts. Generally speaking, cues are the events (whether natural or contrived) that signal to us that a behavior is necessary or appropriate at the moment.  Using our student who has trouble coming in from recess* as an example, it can be noted that the ringing bell is the cue that signals to all of the students that recess is over and it’s time to go in.  A second cue for our student is that all of the other students are lining up at the door to go in.  Ultimately, we hope that cues that normally occur in the school (or other) environment will signal to our student the appropriate action to take at that time.  However, when students do not respond to these cues, then prompts (after that fact) must be provided.  A recess monitor may prompt the student by pointing to the door where the students are lining up, or she may provide visual supports (pictures, symbols, or other written prompts) that remind the student of a reward that will be given if she comes in from recess as directed. The aim should always be to reduce artificial supports over time and encourage students to attend and respond to cues or prompts in the environment.  The more naturally occurring the cues and prompts, the better, since acting in accordance with them will make the student more independent. 

The following components, most of which are not new to educators, should be included in the annual goal: conditions, student, targeted skill or competency, baseline performance including specific levels/types of support, criterion for success including specific (reduced) anticipated levels of support, manner of progress monitoring, and end date.   Stated alternatively, a goal can be constructed as follows: 

Using/given (conditions, materials or cues in the environment), the student (name) will (targeted skill) progress from (baseline performance including necessary levels/types of support) to (criterion for success indicating specific reductions in prompts or other supports) as measured by (selected data collection method) by (date). 

It is not important that you use the same words as in the preceding formula, or that the goal is written in the same order, but it is essential that you unambiguously describe what the student will achieve and the degree of progress targeted.  Any person reading the goal should be able to easily understand the targeted skill, replicate the circumstances under which the skill will take place, and measure whether or not the student has achieved the goal. What will also be clear is how the student’s level of independence will increase from the beginning to the end of the goal. 

Using our student who has trouble coming in from the playground (we’ll call her Samantha) as an example, an annual goal could look like this: 

By June 30, 2014, given outdoor recess on the playground, the ringing of the bell, and the visual cue of other students lining up to go inside, Samantha will enter the school, progressing from baseline (completes task within 6 minutes given three direct verbal prompts and physical redirection on 90% of occasions) to within two minutes given one indirect verbal prompt and no physical redirection on 70% of all occasions as measured by both latency of response (time between bell and entering the building with her peers) data, and data regarding the number and type of prompts delivered.

5. Dissect the annual goal into benchmarks that will serve as short-term goals for the student and the team. 

Benchmarks are an essential way to build collective accountability to ensure that the student stays on track to meet the annual goal by the end of the year.  Benchmarks should be clear steps toward each goal, with the same progress measures that will be used at the end of the goal period. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this step, but don’t fall into that trap. The benchmarking process is tremendously important because it provides proximal, easier to reach sub goals that can focus the efforts of all who support the student. At minimum, create dated benchmarks for as many terms as there are in the school year (as many times as student report cards are issued).  Remember, benchmarks are only useful if the team uses them to gauge progress and inform adjustments that will help the student increase independence and achieve the annual goal on time. 

Benchmarks should be written in a format that is very similar to that used in devising the annual goal. The conditions, the criterion, and the date should be adjusted systematically during each term, so that the student will be moving sufficiently toward the annual goal.  Again, using our student, Samantha, who has difficulty ending her recess* as an example, benchmarks might look like this: 

On the playground during outdoor recess, given the ringing of the bell, the visual cue of other students lining up to go inside, and the direct verbal cue of a recess monitor saying, “Recess is done.  Time to go inside”, Samantha will enter the school within 5 minutes given two direct verbal prompts and no physical redirection on 25% of occasions by November 15, 2013 

On the playground during outdoor recess, given the ringing of the bell, the visual cue of other students lining up to go inside, and the additional direct verbal cue of the playground supervisor saying “Time to line up!” Samantha will enter the school within 4 minutes given one direct verbal prompt and no physical redirection on 40% of all occasions by January 15, 2014. 

On the playground during outdoor recess, given the ringing of the bell, the visual cue of other students lining up to go inside, and the additional visual cue of the playground supervisor looking at Samantha and pointing to the line/door, Samantha will enter the school within 3 minutes given two indirect verbal prompts and no physical redirection on 55% of all occasions by April 15, 2014. 

On the playground during outdoor recess, given the ringing of the bell, and the visual cue of other students lining up to go inside, Samantha will enter the school within 2 minutes given one indirect verbal prompt and no physical redirection on 70% of all occasions by June 15, 2014. 

The benchmarks set forth an expected progression for the year, and provides a structure for the team as they work together to support continuous progress that puts the student on a trajectory for achieving the annual goal.

6. Select a teaching approach and choose corresponding data collection procedures. 

Independence needs to be taught!  Don’t make the mistake of believing that students will just ‘pick it up’ or that having a staff member ‘help them’ will promote independence. For each goal, decide on what instructional strategy will be used to teach the student, and then devise a corresponding data collection protocol. 

How do you select a teaching approach?  There are several basic teaching strategies, founded on the principles of behaviorism, that are conducive to teaching independence with daily living, self-help, or vocational skills. These are shaping, chaining (both backward and forward), and a whole task approach (levels of assistance).  A well-written positive behavioral support plan can also serve as a teaching tool.  There are many types of instructional approaches that might be selected. The following are just a few examples of possible teaching strategies that could be used to promote independence. 

Shaping involves rewarding actions or behaviors that are progressively closer to the desired skill. For example, shaping might be an appropriate strategy for our student, Samantha, who has difficulty coming in from recess independently and in a timely manner. She could be rewarded for coming in to the school upon cue in progressively less time and with fewer prompts than she originally needed.  Shaping does not require complete full accuracy or compliance in the beginning, but it does systematically reinforce behaviors that will ultimately mold the behavior until the student can demonstrate the skill with greater accuracy and independence. 

Social Stories are visual or written guides that help students understand social behavior and the expectations of social situations for targeted contexts. Using social stories to mentally rehearse interactions and prepare students to engage can be very effective for many students, especially those who have autism spectrum disorders or other disabilities that impact their social functioning.  The structured use of a social story as a teaching tool may be a good choice for a student who does not know how to join in an activity during play. 

Whole Task Approach is a task analysis strategy where the student is taught the entire task in a sequence with varying levels of assistance that are provided at each step in the sequence.  The levels of assistance at each step are adjusted so that the student receives no more support than needed to move to the next step. This approach works well for tasks that have multiple steps, for which the student has varying levels of ability or skill. It is especially useful for tasks that must be completed in entirety, regardless of the skill level of the student. This approach may be very appropriate when teaching a student to use the toilet. All steps that make up the entire task are taught sequentially within the context of the whole activity. Levels of support are adjusted at different steps within the task in accordance with the needs of the student.

Visual Schedules areessential learning tools that can be used to build independence. They can anchor attention, reduce confusion and wasted time, and provide a reminder of what needs to be done.  Visual schedules are easily developed and catered to the unique needs of any individual. Structuring learning time with visual supports/schedules can increase student accountability and reduce dependency on other common external supports such as repeated verbal reminders. A visual schedule combined with a structured work system may be an excellent choice when teaching independent task completion. One caution about task completion: be certain that the student actually has the prerequisite skills needed to accomplish the tasks assigned.

Cognitive Task Analyses are special types of task analyses that emphasize the various procedural discriminations or decisions that the mind must make in order to successfully accomplish complex tasks that involve decision-making.  This approach makes explicit the if/then aspects of complex tasks. Skills or decisions that are essential for the task, but unobservable, are made overt for students. A cognitive task analysis may be an excellent choice to build success when teaching a student to independently write and edit a lab report.

There are innumerable instructional approaches that could be chosen and used to build student independence.  However, the most important thing to remember is that skills that boost independence need to be directly taught – using selected methodology that is reasonably calculated to be effective. The key is to select an approach that is well matched to the both skill and the learning needs of the student. Regardless of the instructional strategy you select, the approach must be clear and explicit with well-defined protocols and expectations. It is essential to establish clarity of approach, so that the instruction can be delivered consistently over time, across settings, and by various individuals.  This clarity, combined with data collection that is carefully aligned to the instructional strategy and the annual goal, will give the team the ability to monitor the effectiveness of the specialized instruction that is intended to promote student independence.

7. Direct the activities of all those who will teach the skill to the student.

Once an approach is selected, don’t assume that all those who work with the student will be clear on how to consistently instruct the student.  Think about the skill and the times during the day or week when the student will be learning and practicing it.  For many functional skills there are several naturally occurring times during the day when the skills would need to be used.  For example, if a student is learning to increase his independence in washing his hands, the natural opportunities to learn and practice may arise a) after using the restroom, b) before eating and c) when his hands get dirty for some reason.  Ask yourself: Who will be assisting the student during those times?  Determine the teachable moments, some built into the schedule and some sporadic (as needed), then target the individuals who will be teaching the student ‘in the moments’.  Who comes to mind?  The parents?  The classroom teacher?  A paraprofessional or another specialist who works with the student? All of these people need to be trained to use the selected approach accurately and consistently.  They also need to be trained to record student performance data.

The training does not need to be lengthy or formal, but it does need to take place.  Develop a simple, one page sheet or checklist that outlines the teaching and data collection protocol.  Make sure that all those who work with the student have the materials that they need, and the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. Be sure to document and date the training sessions you hold with each individual who will help the student learn to be more independent in the area you have targeted, and keep that record handy so you can document follow-up sessions. It is important to treat all team members as learners, and give them the support that they need to solidify their skills in service to the student.  After giving team members a written synopsis of the instructional protocol, and telling them how to teach the skill to the student, model the approach and the teaching behaviors that go along with it.  Then observe them teaching the student and provide constructive feedback that will build accuracy and consistency.  

The quality of the student’s instruction will depend upon the consistency that is built within the team and across multiple instructors. The more the student practices consistently in a range of settings and situations, the more quickly he is likely to progress toward independence. Don’t shy away from training parents because they are not employees of the school.  Parents are essential team members who can provide important support to their children in a natural home setting – the perfect place to practice many functional skills.

8. Inspect progress data over time and check in on those who are instructing the student. 

To keep busy team members on the same page, you will need to check the data regularly.  Make sure that the data is being collected thoroughly and in accordance with established protocols.  Data should be recorded either during instruction or as soon as possible after instruction.  If team members are filling out the data later on, the chances are that accuracy will suffer.  Encourage all instructors to complete the data during instruction, and help problem-solve any logistical challenges. 

From time to time, observe the instructors as they work with the student on the targeted skill.  Provide feedback as needed to ensure that everyone stays on track to provide the instruction in the manner that was previously determined.  It’s very easy for some people to (inadvertently) jump in and provide more help than the student really needs.  That tendency will be detrimental to long term independence, so safeguard against it by keeping consistency on your radar.

9. Detect progress or lack of progress as you review the student performance data.

 Once you have verified that instruction is being delivered in a consistent manner, your analysis of student data should shift to evidence of progress, or lack of progress, over time.  

If there is no progress or lack of sufficient progress in relation to the skill or any part of the skill, it is time to problem solve and think about instructional adjustments might alleviate the problem. If the student is having great difficulty with one section of the ‘chain’ that makes up the complete task, perhaps certain steps of the skill need to be broken down more finely and explicitly. Perhaps the schedule of reinforcement needs to be adjusted to more effectively shape the desired behavior. It could be that the reinforcers selected by the team are not truly motivating to the student.  There is always the possibility that a different teaching method may need to be used.  Consult with other team members or specialists to problem solve the situation if needed. Be sure to collaboratively review that data with a critical eye and a focus on facilitating progress. 

You may be accustomed to looking for lack of progress, but don’t forget to look for progress as well.  To promote independence, it is also essential to examine student performance data to determine where there is good progress, so that necessary instructional adjustments can be made.  Don’t fall into the trap of complacency, thinking ‘ if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’!  When a student makes progress, instructional supports must be systematically reduced in order to strengthen the student’s skills and help her become increasingly independent. Students are likely to become dependent on the supports and prompts that we provide, so we must always be mindful of the reality that any artificial cues or prompts that we use with the student must eventually be removed over time if the student is to increase her independence. Any support that is unnecessary must, therefore, be reduced over time.  This process will vary depending upon the student and the skill being addressed, but will typically be very gradual.  The importance of withdrawing artificial cues, prompts or other supports over time cannot be overstated.  The ultimate goal is for students to rely on natural cues and supports in the environment as much as possible.

10. Correct the instructional situation to accelerate the student’s progress toward independence. 

Correcting the situation doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong.  This refers to the continual process of refinement that will move a student forward over time.  Teaching strategies and supports must be adjusted in a concerted fashion to address areas of difficulty and build on areas of strength.  Corrections to the instructional program must be carefully considered and chosen based on progress data. To ensure the consistency that is needed to promote progress toward independence, it is absolutely essential that, once an adjustment is identified, the steps of direct, inspect, detect and correct are repeated until the student has met his or her annual goal. Instructional adjustments must be carefully communicated and modeled to all those who are teaching the skill to the student, and noted (with the date of the change) on the data sheet.   Clarification must be provided, instruction must still be observed periodically, and progress data must be analyzed.  When further areas of strength or difficulty are subsequently noted, more ‘corrections’ to the instructional program will need to be made.  In order to avoid the stagnation that may inadvertently occur when teaching is on ‘autopilot’, this cycle should become a normal and expected part of the instructional process. If things stay the same for too long, it is likely that progress data is not being used sufficiently to guide instruction.

11.  Expect that there will be ups and downs along the road to independence. 

Don’t be frustrated when there are bumps on the road.  This is a normal part of the instructional process. There will be days when the student requires more support than others, and progress will not always be made at the rate desired.  Instead of being discouraged by lulls in progress, use them as opportunities to ask, “How can we adjust this situation to accelerate progress toward independence?” When collaborative problem solving occurs, and members of the team strive to achieve consistency of approach, the student will become more independent over time. As supports are reduced on certain skills, new activities will be targeted and the process will continue.

12. Reject the notion that supports are static, since the student’s disability is the main barrier to increased independence.

You must continually advocate for the student in order to break down the unintentional but counterproductive ideas that many people hold in their minds.  It is not uncommon for very caring individuals to think that ‘more help’ is better, or that a student with a disability will always need the same level of assistance. Many will not understand the need to withdraw supports systematically, so that the student will have more choices and more opportunities in the future.  Some will see students with disabilities as being ‘younger’ than their same age peers, and will treat them differently in accordance with this thinking. These subconscious biases lurk in the most unexpected places, so be on alert. Work to educate others on the value of independence, and how it can be increased over time when collaborative problem solving becomes the norm. Reject low expectations, and the concept that the disability is to blame when a student is not progressing toward independence. Focus instead on a constructive and respectful approach that emphasizes the students’ rights to self-determination, engagement in a wide range of activities, and the opportunity to rely on natural supports as much as possible. Help others to understand that self-efficacy and autonomy are important for every student regardless of age or disability.

13. Connect the dots for all team members to ensure maintenance and generalization of the skills and newfound independence the student has acquired. 

When a student meets annual goals, the need for communication and collaboration, regarding the acquired skills, still exists.  Many students with disabilities must have continued opportunities to apply a skill in order to maintain their learning. In order to ensure that students maintain the level of independence they have attained, all those who work with the student must remain aware of what the student has accomplished.  In other words, they must refrain from providing unnecessary assistance that will inadvertently cause the student to go backward.  Many students would be happy to have an adult step in and do things ‘for them’.  However, when this happens to students with disabilities it denies them the opportunity to practice what they have learned. For some students with significant disabilities, this may cause them to lose the independence that they worked hard to gain.  This pitfall can be avoided if teams communicate thoroughly, address transitions (especially those that involve changing staff members) sufficiently, and incorporate opportunities to practice acquired skills into the daily schedules and routines of students. 

As students practice the important skills they have acquired, with decreased supports and greater levels of independence, they will need planned opportunities to generalize those skills.  For some students with severe disabilities, IEP goals may need to specifically target generalization of skills.  These students will need a very gradual, and well-coordinated instructional program that integrates opportunities to generalize in very explicit ways (instruction in multiple settings, with various instructors and with different types of cues and materials).   Other students may not require a highly structured approach to generalization, but they will need teachers and related service providers to remain mindful of generalization nonetheless.  Remember, no matter how many IEP goals a student achieves, the ultimate goal is generalization.  He doesn’t really ‘know’ something (in the common sense of the word) until he can use what he has learned in a variety of ways and situations. Each step on the learning continuum – acquisition, maintenance and generalization – is equally important in the long run.  Therefore, each step should be emphasized sufficiently in accordance with the needs of the learner.


Not every skill or activity can be addressed as an IEP goal, so increases in student independence are best promoted in the context of a system-wide philosophy that emphasizes what students can do, values self-determination, promotes self-efficacy in all students, and requires a collaborative team approach to programming.  A school-wide paradigm that acknowledges the contributions of all students, and builds meaningful responsibility at every age, will help to build students’ confidence and capabilities over time. The organization should also view increased independence as a strategy to create more opportunities and meaningful choices for individuals with disabilities now and in their futures. 

None of us are completely independent, nor should we be.  Dependence and independence are not absolute values, but two ends of a continuum.  Depending upon who we are, our stage in life, our skills, and our aspirations, we will be more or less dependent upon others.  The intent of this writing it not to indicate that dependence is bad and independence is good.  When dependence is unnecessary or avoidable, it can limit life choices, undermine self-confidence and interfere with social interactions. Our challenge is to build independence in all students, including those with disabilities, so that they can live life as they choose to the greatest extent possible. This will not happen by chance; it will require persistent collaboration and problem solving, and the belief that every student will benefit from becoming more independent.  Follow these 13 Lucky Steps and you’ll find that it’s not luck that builds independence - it’s careful planning, hard work, communication and collaboration.  After all, as the saying goes, “Luck is the residue of design.”


If you like this document, you may also like Ten Steps to Academic Goals that Demonstrate Progress Within Common Core State Standards.  Sign Up for the McCoy Educational Consulting, LLC Newsletter to receive a copy. Our newsletter provides monthly informational updates related to special education, leadership, augmentative and alternative communication, preschool, ABA and more!