Book Cover - Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Book Cover - Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities

Book Cover – Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities

Engagement is Key

It is well-known that students need to be engaged in order for them to actively and successfully learn. As teachers, we have become very adept at recognizing student engagement, but for some of the students in our schools this is a more challenging endeavor. For students with severe disabilities, their engagement in learning may look different.

As teachers, it is appropriate for us to recognize how engagement may look differently across individual students and how this influences the planning of specially-designed instruction (SD).

Engaging Students with Complex Learning Disabilities

This is where the UK Complex Disabilities (CLDD) Research Project can help. I had the privilege of being an international advisor to this project. As the CCLD’s briefing sheets illustrate, students with severe or complex learning disabilities have compounding issues that create learning  profiles that are indeed complex. These students make up a small percentage of our school population and may present as non-engaged or may present as engaging in negative/self-stimulatory behaviors.

In these situations, the Engagement 4 Learning Profile may be adopted as a collaborative multi-disciplinary assessment that helps the team view engagement in learning a little differently . The findings can be used as starting points from which the teacher can plan specially-designed instruction (SD).

About the Engagement 4 Learning Profile

The Engagement Profile helps us to look more creatively at engagement in learning for students with severe or complex disabilities. A four-minute video of engagement in a preferred activity is created and later collaborative  analyzed by a multi-disciplinary team, which are familiar with the student. This team usually involves the parents. In this collaborative analysis, the team collaboratively completes an engagement profile that demonstrates how the student is engaging in a preferred activity. The Aspects of engagement in the Engagement Profile include:

  •     Exploration – the ‘noticing’ phase, where the student demonstrates awareness/recognition of the activity.
  •     Realization – a prelude to further exploration, where the learner displays curiosity about the activity.
  •     Anticipation – where the student demonstrates prediction because of previous knowledge.
  •     Persistence – where the student demonstrates continued effort within the activity.
  •     Initiation – where the student expresses their initiation in the activity

The team engages in conversations about their decisions about how the student demonstrates each aspect of engagement in the video. Notes are made about the ‘lessons learned’ about how the student engages in a preferred activity. These discussions are particularly positive. when talking about the nuance of engagement and, in my experience, people are surprised at team members’ perspective of how the student engages in his or her preferred activity. The ‘lessons learned’ can then be applied to non preferred activities. An Engagement Scale may be completed by the team, but this is the topic of another post.  The Engagement Profile is a cumulative process that involves a new video analysis occurring at least every month for the school year, so the team needs to be committed to this sustained focus.

Using the Engagement Profile in Florida

The engagement profile was successfully used in SouthWest Florida for a student (Jones et al. 2015). The teacher struggled to think of a 4 minute span where the student was engaged in something other than self-stimulatory or negative behaviors. The multidisciplinary team came together and decided the swimming pool was a time when the student was not engaged in a negative/self-stimulating behavior. So, the initial video comprised of a swimming pool session. Lots of lessons were learned by the team  about student engagement  in this initial video in the swimming pool, and subsequent videos were taken in the classroom.  Ferdy’s transformation in the classroom was significant, showing that once engagement occurs learning can be limitless.

How to Get Started

Book Cover - Curricula for Students with Severe DisabilitiesI would be happy to work with you or your school around improving engagement for students with complex learning difficulties. My recent book, Curricula for Students with Severe Disabilities supports the development of greater understandings of the role that state curriculum standards play in the pedagogical decision-making for students with severe intellectual disabilities. The book first discusses the nature and needs of these students, the curriculum for this group of learners and the recent contributions of state curriculum standards, before presenting narratives of real classrooms, teachers and students who have meaningfully integrated state curriculum standards at the kindergarten, elementary and high school levels.

Further reading and information

Phyllis Jones – pmjonesconsult at or

Carpenter, B., Egerton, J., Brooks, T., Cockbill, B., Fotheringham, J. and Rawlings, H. (2011). The Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project: Developing pathways to personalized learning. London: SSAT, London, UK:SSAT/

Jones, P., Cahuilla, I., Demes, A.,Saddle, R., Sweeney, M., & Pastore, H. (2015). Finding Ferdy: Collaborative Inquiry About a Student with Complex Disabilities, The Canadian Journal for Teacher Research, 3