Getting the Fundamentals Right: Significant Disabilities Small Group Instruction Course for Para-educators

Posted on December 12, 2013


In his insightful book, sick The Last Lecture, Randy Pausche wrote about his early experiences with youth football and the lessons learned from a wise coach.  Before they even touched a football, Coach Graham was teaching them the bare bones basics.

“Fundamentals.  That was a great gift Coach Graham gave us. 

            Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.  As a college

            professor, I’ve seen this as one lesson so many kids ignore,

            always to their detriment: you’ve got to get the fundamentals

            down, because the fancy stuff is not going to work.”

In terms of  “sur-thriving,” in times of increasing challenges and dwindling resources, the importance of the fundamentals is redoubled.  One of the major components of the significant disabilities classroom is the instruction that occurs in the small group setting. In exemplary classrooms, paraeducators are trained and recognized for their proficiency in conducting these small-group instruction sessions.  However, our challenges continue to be finding the time to train paraeducators, determining what evidence-based practices work best in the small group setting, and locating the proper user-friendly training materials.


The Significant Disabilities Small Group Instruction Canvas Course is designed to address these challenges.

  • The course is available through the Internet 24/7.
  • The course is broken down into small modules that can be inserted into 10 or 15-minute blocks of time.
  • The course is based on research-based practices for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • The course is written with limited special education jargon and contains illustrations along with a rich collection of video examples.
  • The course is designed to be led by the classroom teacher and encourages the paraeducators to look to the teacher for guidance and application in their specific classroom.
  • Did I mention it’s free?


There are ten principles of Small Group Instruction that are emphasized in the course.  They are:

1. Have materials ready before starting the lesson.

2. Maximize academic learning time with efficient transitions.

3. Teach and reinforce appropriate behavior (waiting, responding together, attending, etc.).

4. Train and use an attention signal before beginning an instructional cycle.

5. Deliver clear, brief cues.

6. Use prompting strategies for acquisition level skills.

7. Promote a high rate of student responses.

8. Provide feedback on responses, including a 4-step error correction.

9. Differentiate instruction to match student objectives and abilities using principles of Universal Design for Learning.

10. Collect and graph student data to provide information for the classroom teacher to use in modifying instruction.

In addition to the Learning Modules, the course contains numerous resources.  It provides links to research articles, documents, and Internet links to support the implementation of the program and to provide additional background information.

The Significant Disabilities Small Group Instruction Canvas Course is the product of a joint effort by the Utah Personnel Development Center, the Utah State Office of Education, and the Utah Para Association.  Contributors include:

Cathy Longstroth – Utah Personnel Development Center

Patricia Haning – Educational Consultant

Christine Timothy – Utah State Office of Education

Marilyn Likens – Utah State University and Utah Para Association

Shamby Polychonis – Westminster College

Tom Johnson – Utah Personnel Development Center

This project would not have been possible without the help of the expert teachers who were filmed for the video segments.  We appreciate these teachers, their paraeducators and students.

Myrlene Buck – Murray District

Alyson Forsyth – Salt Lake District

Kathleen Fluman – Davis District

Gloria Gile – Davis District

Jessie Fiatt – Salt Lake District

Amy Price – Tooele District

Sue Somson – Canyons District

Access the free Canvas course HERE>

Author: Cathy Longstroth, UPDC (Utah Personnel Development Center)