What To Do If You Have Child with a Developmental Delay in a Regular Ed Class


Do you know what to do if you have a child with a developmental delay in your regular education class? How can you help a child that is significantly behind the rest, and still continue teaching the standards that you are responsible for?  You might even have a child placed in your class that has never been in school before for some reason, who appears to have no developmental disabilities at all- it’s just that the child has not had an opportunity to learn, and is significantly behind the rest of the class.  With or without an official special education diagnosis or an aide, here are some tips to help you structure your day so that it is fair to every student in the class.

The key to helping any child in the class is knowing what the child needs to work on, and that is especially true of one that is far behind the rest of the class.  You’ll feel better about the situation if you can make yourself a short list of goals to work on with the child.  So start by finding out some basics about the child, such as:

Can he recognize (find) his name amongst other similar looking words?
Does he respond to his name when you call it verbally?
Can he write his name?
Does he identify colors?
Can he sort objects by color?
Does he speak clearly?
Can he identify basic school objects in English (or the home language, if you know it) such as desk, paper, crayons, etc.
Can he tell you any shapes?  If not, can he point to any shapes if asked to do so?
Does he know any letters at all?  Any letter sounds?

Once you have a basic idea of what the child needs to work on (as opposed to the blanket statement, “He doesn’t know ANYTHING!!!” which I realize can be tempting in some situations!) then you can start to think about ways to integrate that instruction into your day without stopping other lessons to do it.  (I’ll explain more in a minute.)

If your student has been diagnosed and actually has an aide, you could try some of the following activities with him or her. If not, perhaps you can get some volunteers to help the child with some of these activities when they have a few spare minutes. When I had a child like this in my class, he sat and listened to my lessons, sang songs with us, and participated in class unless I had an extra volunteer that could work with him. When it was his turn to be called on, I would either change the question to one that was within the range of things he was working on, or had him try to repeat back the answer after me.  This worked, because he also had speech issues.

Keep copies of the child's name on hand for tracing practice.

When we did group work, I had alternate worksheets and alternate activities that he could do independently when possible while I worked with the rest of the children.  (I found these in preschool level books at a teacher supply store.)  Sometimes I just wrote the correct answers on the worksheet everyone was doing with a red pen, and had him try to go over it with a pencil or crayon. (I used the red pen to make sure that parents knew that it wasn’t his original work, and I also tried to write that at the top of the paper.)  I also pulled him out of playtime and tried to work with him then.

I accepted all offers of help, and whenever somebody new came into my classroom, I immediately would pull out a tub with activities and instructions in it that I had ready, and hand it to them. It also had a documentation sheet that asked volunteers to sign in when they helped, write the date, and what they worked on, which I have included here as a free download.

Documentation Master

I called this system of helping children on remedial skills and documenting it, “Tutoring Baskets.”  At some point in the year, every child eventually had their name on a sheet in the tutoring baskets because I used them for just about every skill!  Examples:

-Writing names
-Sounding Out Words
-Practicing Sight Words

But my little sweetie pie with a delay had some other activities as well, such as:

-Classification types of activities, like putting pictures of clothes together, toys together, etc. This is also a good vocabulary builder.

-A simple puzzle, like putting the number one piece into the number one cut-out might work.

-Inserting pegs into pegboards.  (It’s good fine motor practice just to put the pegs into the slots.) I have some peg boards that have numbers on them; the kids are supposed to put three pegs into the one with number three, etc.

-Inserting chips into slots.  (I cut a slot out of the lid of a margarine tub, and the child liked to practice putting them into the slot, which was good for his fine motor skills.) That particular child was better off counting things and putting them into the slot, because that meant that he could not stop to play with them after he counted them. It didn’t stop him from playing with the chips before he counted them, though!

-Letter matching with plastic letters (this develops visual perception skills): I found some plastic letters and pulled out the ones for that child’s name. I wrote his name on a large piece of tagboard, and had him match the letters to form his name.

-Matching any other numbers or shapes together (this also develops visual perception.) He matched a large shape to a small shape, or a red triangle to a blue triangle, etc.

-Name tracing with fat, colored markers and crayons.   My sweetie pie needed his name printed very large- it took up the whole sheet of paper.  I xeroxed a bunch of them to keep on hand.

-Tracing straight and curvy lines:  I just drew some curvy and straight lines on a piece of paper with a thick black marker. Then I xeroxed the paper several times before I gave it to him, and I had him try it every day for a while.  He did his papers when the other children were doing theirs.  He was way off, but got better as the year progressed.

-Cutting straight and curvy line:  He just practiced cutting out those same papers that he also traced- and then we threw them away!

-Working on Vocabulary with Board Books- If you can get your hands on some baby board books with just vocabulary pictures in them, then the child can try to “read” and name the pictures. Sometimes, the most basic emergent readers will also work for this purpose.  For example, the book might be called “Farm Friends” and have just a picture of a goat with the word “Goat” underneath it, etc.

-Bead Stringing with fat beads on a shoelace: My little guy did this with just plain beads and shoelaces that I had on hand, and also with the center that I have pictured below.  (There are shoelaces tied to some thick pieces of cardboard. The cardboard pieces have numbers and dots on them. So the piece with a number 5 on it has five sticker dots. The children are supposed to lace 5 beads on the shoe lace, etc.)

-Unfortunately, my little sweetie pie began to hate the tub with his name sheets and tracing sheets, and would start to cry as soon as he saw it, bless his heart!


How to Work with a Child on Separate Skills While Still Teaching the Rest of the Class
So, how can a teacher possibly give a child like this the attention that he or she needs, while teaching the rest of the class the standards that they need to know?

Each time you pass out a paper, have him try to trace his name on it.  He can do it on the back of it if necessary.

As you move along, helping each of the children in turn, just stop and help that child with what HE needs, rather than the assignment that everyone else is working on.

Each time you ask the child to say something, make an effort to ask him to speak CLEARLY.

Each time you pass out a paper, have him try to find and color (or highlight) the letters in his name.

Keep that tub of differentiated work handy!  Pull a different tracing worksheet out when you need to.  Pull out some of the other manipulatives (like color sorting, or putting chips in the slot) for him to work on if they are more appropriate than what the rest of the students are doing.

When you pull names to have kids answer questions, ask your child with a delay a question that is appropriate to what he is working on.  Give him credit for learning things!  Progress does happen, and kids like this can surprise you. 🙂

Find a compassionate peer tutor in the class that might be willing to help the child learn a few of the skills.  Sometimes girls that have younger siblings at home are a good choice!

Set up a different listening center for that child and let him listen (or watch, with a portable DVD player or computer) some HeidiSongs DVD’s to help get those basic skills down.  (See the video clip below from Singable Songs for Letters and Sounds.)


See if there are any funds to get the child an extra copy of that CD or DVD to take home so that learning time may be increased.  Our Colors and Shapes DVD (see below) is a good choice, and so is our Jumpin’ Numbers series.  Sometimes children with delays learn quite well through music and movement!  One teacher I know even arranged to have one playing in the special ed van as the children came and went to school each day!


This was my rule of thumb for working with him:  If there is anything that he could learn from the activity that the rest of the class was doing, he should do it with the rest of the children.  If it seemed like a big waste of his time, then I would have him do something else (and especially so if there happened to be a volunteer present and available.)

My little guy with the delay basically stayed with my class and did everything that the others did, but he just scribbled on everything. So I had him sit right next to me, and repeat back to me the things that were on the page that he was working on, as clearly as possible.   When I passed out their worksheets, I usually just reached for his tub instead, and had him do one of his own- unless he WANTED to try the one that the class was doing.  In that case, I generally let him get started, and then would wind up helping him by writing an answer on the page with a red pen and letting him trace it.  If he was happy and seemed to be learning and benefitting from the activity, then I was happy with that.

I must admit that the children did seem puzzled by this child that was so much farther behind the rest of them and couldn’t seem to communicate.  My heart went out to him, because it was clear that they did not accept him.  The children got used to the situation eventually, but I had to explain it to them at a time when he was not around.  I tried to persuade them not “to tattle” when he was not completing assignments “correctly.”  I also tried to appeal to their sense of compassion and right and wrong, since I caught them often avoiding sitting by him in small groups, and that made me angry!  But I had to again explain to them that what he had was “not contagious,” and that their behavior was hurtful.  How would they like it if when they sat down at a table, everyone moved away?  How awful would that be?  Lucky for this little boy, his seemed to be totally unaware of it- and for that I was very grateful.  It was still totally unacceptable to ME, though.  We had to work on learning about and accepting differences that year.

The above activities worked for me  because he was a very compliant child who didn’t really know that he was “different” from the others. Working with a less compliant child is a much different story!   If I ever get it “down,” I’ll be sure to make a post on how I did it!

And by the way- you may be wondering how it all turned out with this little sweetie pie child of mine?  Well, he LEARNED!  Yes indeed, he did.  He learned about 20/26 letters (both upper and lower case,) all of the numbers from 0-10, the colors, and the shapes- and yes, he even learned a few sight words!  He qualified for special education services under due to lack of  language, (as well as I can remember) and then went from my class in Kindergarten to full day special ed class.  But I’m SO GLAD that I didn’t just let him “sit there!”


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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of HeidiSongs.com. Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
  1. These ideas are great for lower grade students, do you have any ideas for 5th grade. I teach on a very advanced 3 man team and we have a child who started school a year late, has only attended 1/2 of kinder, 1/2 of first, no second, 7 months of 3rd, no 4th, and now he’s been placed in 5th due to his age and size.
    He wants to learn and is a sweet boy, but has missed so much. don’t even know where to start with him with 60 other students to teach with new testing requirements, new standards, and rigorous instruction.
    Thanks for any ideas.

    • Hi, Kris,
      Sorry it has taken me so long to reply- I’ve been traveling a lot these days!
      I have so little experience teaching the higher grades, that I don’t know how much help I can be. But I do know that you need to know what he needs to learn, and start there. Make a list of a few basics that you know would help him. Does he know all of the letter sounds? Can he sound out words? If he can do that, which phonics spelling patterns does he know? Does he know all of the phonics spelling patterns in my Sounds Fun Phonics books? If not, start there.

      Just keep a list of things that he needs to work on and have alternate worksheets and books handy that are at the right reading level. When the other children are reading their books that are on grade level, pull out the books that this child can read and have him practice those. I would also have a compassionate child tutor him as well.

      Here’s something else you might consider. Would you believe that when my own daughter Krissie was in third grade, her teacher actually GAVE HER a READING GROUP to run? She used to pull the low readers and listen to them practice reading in a small group- and SHE was also in that very same class, but very advanced! She was such a natural teacher that her teacher said it was like having another teacher in the room! She asked me if I minded and of course I did not! Krissie loved being a helper, and it was good for her to take that responsibility!
      The teacher also had her pull a child out that was brand new to the country and Krissie’s job was to teach him new words in English via a stack of flashcards and pictures that she was provided. She pulled him every day and taught him new words, and then helped him start to learn to read. The little boy’s name was Islam. I used to hear all about Islam each evening, as well as her other “reading group.” Then Krissie would come help out in my kindergarten class during her lunch time. I loved that!
      So there are some other ideas for you. Just pull those supplies together. I think you’ll find a good place to start on our website on the Sounds Fun Phonics page. Plus, you can have him watch our DVD’s or listen to CD’s on the computer or on a listening center.
      Let me know if you have any other ideas!

  2. Holy cow! I found this article JUST when I really needed it. It is spot on and I couldn’t highlight and make my to do list fast enough. I can’t wait to get back on Monday and make my little guy his own tub and put into practice all of these ideas. Thank you so much. I know one little guy that is going to benefit all year from what I learned in this article. Thank you so much!

  3. Loved the post. I’m currently doing all the above with 3 who are developmentally delayed. I have an aide who spends 1.5 hours in my class. We have some freedom of what to do with our assistant so I decided I wanted my assistant to spend 30 minutes working with students who need extra help. These 3 are always on her list. It takes up a lot of her time working with just these three far below students. I also have some who are just a little behind that need extra help. I keep going back and forth trying to decide if it it better to have her reach more students and work with the “almost there” students or continue with these 3 who aren’t making much progress. In addition, one of them is already identified as “special needs” but is in my class because it’s the “least restrictive environment”. He gets pulled for additional remediation half an hour every day with the special Ed teacher and half an hour three times a week with the speech teacher. Even with all this extra help he still only knows 3 letters and no sounds. I feel like I am “giving up” on him if I don’t continue to offer added support from my assistant but I also have to consider my 26 other students and how to maximize the limited resources I have to benefit all. What are your thoughts?

    • Hi, Shari!
      That is SUCH a tough question! But honestly, I have been in the same boat. I began to resent the presence of the child that needed so much time, and was making hardly any progress. This was time I could have given to other children that were making good progress.

      So, I had my volunteers and aide work with the child with the delay (one-on-one) for about five minutes, which is about the length of the child’s attention span anyway. After that, they started pulling the children that were making more steady progress. I still had them included the delayed child if they were working in small groups (assuming he had any attention span left to give!)

      In your case, I would still remember to do some of the things that I mentioned in the article, such as asking including the child in the group, but asking him different questions or pulling from a different stack of flashcards when it is his turn during a game. The most important thing is to just KNOW WHAT HE NEEDS TO WORK ON- and try to keep working on that while you are doing the other regular lessons.
      In my opinion, if that doesn’t work, then it will turn out that the regular ed classroom is not the best and least restrictive environment for that child- and you can still honestly say that you did your best.

  4. Awesome article Heidi. I have such a child as this one that I just received in my classroom and I was wondering how to keep him on task when others were doing what they are supposed too. He simply cannot do what they are. He gets out of seat and wanders around room and kids are constantly tattling on him. However, they are kind and try to help him which is a plus. I am going to try some of your ideas. Thank you again.

  5. Thanks for resharing this article this week, Heidi! I read it last year when it came out, but just got a child with a delay in my classroom this week. It’s great to have more ideas about where to start with him!

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