Learning Support in the IB: Meeting Special Needs

The IB Diploma Program.  IB Logo

The International Bacca……I’m never sure how to spell it, but I can tell you that I went to a good high school in Palo Alto, California, and also worked at a great international school in the Dominican Republic with AP classes (Advanced Placement), yet working at an IB school these past two years it was regularly popping out to me how much more the students were asked to do than any school I had ever been at.

The IB is a rigorous program.  

If you are still getting used to the IB, or reading this to just get an idea of how it works and how student’s with special needs can be supported, I will give a brief overview, but shoot you this LINK to the IB that leads you down the rabbit hole. 

So the IB is a two year program that students take during their last two years of high school.  During the two years they do big assessments that are graded by their teachers, some are sent to the IB to be graded, and then all the classes (I think) have a final test in May of the 2nd year.  The students take 6 classes over the two years (i.e. Math SL Year 1, then the next year Math SL Year 2) and after the two years they will be given a grade in that course from 1 to 7 (i.e. Math SL grade of 6 for those two years).  There are a few other requirements that the students also do like the CAS and the Extended Essay, and I am pretty sure that some colleges will except your passing at a certain level as college credit.  Some colleges require a certain overall score in your IB program to join the school.

And to add to this rigor and high stakes for the students with learning challenges, many schools that I have seen feel that if a student is in the IB program then either their special needs have already been met, or they don’t have any special needs.  So for example when I first started out at the IB school that I worked at, the support services for students with special needs stopped for the most part once the students hit the diploma program (i.e. after 10th grade).

So you could find students who had a resource class, learning support collaboration with general ed teachers, scaffolds, etc. up through 10th grade, and then that fell off once in the IB diploma program.  Essentially the theory behind that (at most schools I’ve seen) is if the student chooses to take full IB, then the inference is that they can get it done with little to no support.

However, the problem is, the students still need the help of the learning support teacher/case manager to help manage their program.  Help them get the accommodations and scaffolds needed to understand the topics.  Help them with the executive functioning skills needed to do things like hit deadlines.

Therefore when I got to this IB school, ready to do my learning support teacher thing, the teachers weren’t used to using accommodations or differentiating and were sometimes resistant. 

This could be seen as teachers not wanting conditions to be unequitable.  Some teachers didn’t think it was fair for students with special needs to get these things like extra time, scaffolded content, and all the other things that we had been doing before the IB.

And also for the teachers who were thinking further out, they would argue that if we gave the students accommodations and differentiated work now, the student would not be prepared for the IB World Exams.  However, I countered by sticking with the refrain of…

“You can give students a thousand accommodations and support all the way up until the test in May of year 2 because what is important is that they have learned the content and can display that content during the exams (with limited accommodations during exam days)” 

By sticking with this refrain it was able to take teachers from their immediate response of teaching how they were accustomed to, to thinking of ways to support the students and moreover, to work with me to help with various classes.

And in this same vein, a majority of the teachers weren’t used to differentiating.  I don’t blame them.  When you have IB classes, or classes with a lot of motivated and capable students, it is often possible to get decent results with little to no thought of differentiating.  But as schools are becoming more inclusive (especially the private international schools where I have been teaching the past few years), you see a greater need to support the students and teachers in the IB.

How I did learning support in the IB

Based off my experiences, and the three ways to differentiate (content, process, product),


 learning support in the IB Diploma Program can be seen in the following ways:



a) Product:

Helping IB teachers develop alternate assessments.  For example, instead of having a big cumulative practice test, focus on one area (or areas) of particular need until the student shows mastery.

Or by giving students the option (and a place at times) to respond to a writing prompt orally.

You know, some of the typical things we do, but in the rigorous IB program sometimes it’s hard to consider ditching some topics and just focusing on key things that will help a student get a certain grade that will help them pass.  But through collaboration with the teachers, the student, and tutors at times, you can start to see different ways to help support the student with special needs in the IB.

b) Process:

In an IB Y2 Language and Literature English class the teacher may be used to being able to give Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” to students, have them go home and read, and be ready to discuss chapter 1 the next day.  But that is where you can come in and help figure out the Enduring Understandings for the unit, for example, and then do things to help the student focus on that while reading.

This can be via reading guides, or prompting hints to look out for things related to something like THEME. 

So that is support that they won’t have on the IB exam, and you are able to know that the student is not going to get a 7 on the exam most likely if they need that support, but if they are able to identify themes, make connections between texts and synthesize this in an essay (maybe with a graphic organizer), they will likely have success in the IB exams.

At the end of the day the end goal in the IB is a final score that will help them reach their goals (i.e. a 4 in a higher level course).  That is the end point, but there are many ways (processes) to get the student to that point.

c) Content:

We got to a point with some students in some classes, mainly classes like Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) and Physics and Chemistry, where we would limit the topics covered.  Working with the teacher and the tutor we could make plans for example where the month of February the class is covering topic 9, but the student doesn’t need topic 9 to get a passing mark on the Physics SL exam, so during February he is going to do certain things with topics 6 and 8 because summative results showed that he wasn’t mastering the concepts to the level desired.

Systematically working with the content in this manner can help students in the long run.  Although it can be a departure from what an IB teacher is used to, we may find that this approach can at times be the best approach for a student.

d) Additionally, one thing that I found when I got into the IB program was that students who likely should not have been in the IB program were in it and were struggling.  I fight regularly to keep my students in the least restrictive environment, which at an IB school is the full IB, but I also will be the first to admit when something is not the appropriate challenge.

Therefore I developed a pre-IB (10th grade) planning doc that I used in order to give my recommendation to students, their parents and the counselor of whether a student should be full IB, IB with Certificates, or no IB and they take the classes for high school credit.

10th grade IB worksheet
Excerpt of the IB learning support planning doc

This is important because there can often be times in which you have a student that has high aspirations, and there parents are right there along with them, but with learning support they have been getting 3’s and 4’s in the years prior to the IBDP.  So that is where you have to look at their student profile and figure out how the IB program would look in terms of which HL’s (higher level classes) they can take, will they be successful, have they done CAS type activities before, etc.  At the end of the day we look at all that, and as the child’s case manager I give a recommendation on what level of the IB (or not) they should take.

Lastly, I would say that being strategic about how to prioritize classes is something that I did a lot. 

So you may have an IB Math SL class where the teacher wants all the students to get 5’s or higher, but your student with special needs is struggling to get 3’s and 4’s.  But if you think that the students is getting 5’s and 6’s in other SL classes, then you can work to differentiate the content by limiting certain topics in order to ensure the student gets a 3 or a 4 for example, but is not getting bogged down with the higher order concepts needed to get a 6 or a 7. 

Or however it works out, essentially you prioritize that the goal for this hard class is a 3 or a 4 and that is how you plan, how the teacher plans and how the student plans, the tutor plans, etc.


It wasn’t always easy those two years, but steady growth occurred with the students and with the program, and will continue with the teacher who took my place, as she is a boss.







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