Welcoming Students with Special Needs to the Library

As I presented my database introduction lesson to a class of ninth-graders, I wondered if I was going too quickly for them. I looked at their focused faces and continued speaking, making a decision not to simplify my words. When I began demonstrating the search methods for GALE, I asked for suggestions for topics. 

“It!” a cheerful boy in front yelled. “The Stephen King movie!” he clarified.

I typed the words into the search bar and when the list of results appeared, I watched his eyes widen as he smiled. His classmates all laughed in amazement. I looked around at the ten students sitting at the tables before me and noticed that each of them wore an expression of curiosity. 

As a high school librarian, one of my roles is to guide students toward using information responsibly. What we often forget, however, is that students with special needs are regularly excluded from this important aspect of instruction. My recent collaboration with a social studies teacher in the special education department proved to me that students with special needs are not only equally deserving of information literacy lessons, but are just as (if not more) willing and ready to participate in a discussion and learning session about the topic. The group of students I was teaching–which included a boy with Down syndrome; a girl with a learning disability; one student on the autism spectrum; and several others with ADHD–were researching current events articles for a future assignment. They were able to follow the directions I set out for them to access the databases, search for a topic, limit the date ranges of their results, and cite their sources. Some were adept at the process; others needed reinforcement from their one-on-one teacher’s assistant. But they all came out of the lesson with new tools and a sense of efficacy. An added plus for them was the fact that their teacher is a warm, effective instructor who works tirelessly to give them the tools and encouragement they need to succeed.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “In 2017-18 the number of students ages 3-21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was 7.0 million, or 14 percent of all public school students” (2019). IDEA was passed to ensure that children with special needs were given the chance to have the same classroom education as students with typical needs. It’s important to carry those same privileges over into the library.

The traffic that flows through my space is made up of diverse individuals. While some students with special needs spend the bulk of their time in classrooms designed to meet their specific needs, many others come into the library, either with or without teacher’s assistants, to use the computers or spend time among their peers. While such students want to be treated the same as their schoolmates, they also may have distinct triggers, limitations, and preferences that are more pronounced than the majority of the students in the room. If we, as librarians, are attuned to these attributes, we can be better prepared to help all students enjoy the environment within the library.

In addition to scheduling information literacy lessons with special education classes, there are other actions librarians can take to ensure that the library is a welcoming, inclusive setting. Before the school year starts, I talk to as many special education teachers as I can to discuss any concerns they may have about particular students. Then, when classes begin, I ask the teachers or assistants to introduce me to students who will be spending time in the library. I make it a point to learn their names, make small talk with them, and give them a friendly welcome each time they walk into the library. I also engage the students in conversation, and try to get to know their unique personalities. This way, when an issue arises, the student involved trusts me and is comfortable taking gentle direction from me. 

Another helpful action is encouraging students with special needs to check out books. It’s a common misconception that students who don’t have the same reading or comprehension level as typical teenagers lack interest in the book collections housed in the library. I have guided several students with special needs toward works of literature that captivate them, whether they are colorful graphic novels, large-print books, or biographies that may be above their reading level but spark delight just by being in their possession. 

As our libraries continue to grow and change due to advances in technology, innovative practices, and more collaborative instruction, it is important for librarians to stay on top of the current research relating to students with special needs. By reading the latest professional journals, seeking out articles focusing on special education practices within libraries, and keeping open lines of communication with co-workers, we can make our libraries destinations where students with special needs feel comfortable and intellectually stimulated.

Work Cited:

National Center for Education Statistics. 2019. “Children and Youth with Disabilities.” nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp.


Author: Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Professional Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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