Strategies for Teaching Students with Disabilities

Kate Malone
Kate Malone
Middle school principal; Ed.S. in School Leadership
A teacher and her students with disabilities play a classroom game.

Teaching is challenging. Teaching students with learning differences can add a layer of complexity to the work. However, often the greatest payoff in life and teaching comes on the other side of a difficult struggle, and with the right attitude, strategies, and dispositions, all students can learn, and they and their teacher can experience success. Students with disabilities are simply students first.

A student need not have a documented disability, an established Individual Education Plan (IEP), or be in a special education classroom to benefit from effective teaching strategies. What works for a student with a disability will likely benefit their non-disabled peers. It’s also important to remember that what works one day with one set of learning tasks may not work another day with different content. Flexibility is critical in teaching, and the strategies described below represent only a few of the many strategies that might work in any given situation with a student.

Break Learning Tasks Down into Smaller Parts

Students with disabilities of any kind, including those with processing disorders, learning disabilities, developmental delays, other health impairments including ADHD, or emotional disabilities, can have a difficult time with multi-step directions and concepts with lots of parts. It is critical to student success to break concepts down into the smallest possible parts to ensure mastery of each sub-concept (even if you think a student should know it) before they move on to the next.

Sometimes this means breaking a complex task into finite steps, and other times chunking content so that fewer concepts are being practiced at once. The key when a student is stuck is to find the next smallest step forward that they can complete successfully and then build on that.

Present Information in a Variety of Ways

Students’ brains process information differently and their background and experience can influence their understanding of new concepts. To accommodate these differences, it is important to present information in various ways, including verbally, in writing, visually, and kinesthetically.

For instance, discussing a new topic, writing down the key concepts together, creating a graphic anchor chart that can be referenced in the classroom, and then acting out the new concept can all help students make connections and deepen their understanding.

Assess Frequently and Provide Specific Feedback 

Because the risk of misunderstanding or confusion is greater with students with disabilities, and they often have difficulty self-assessing their need for assistance, teachers must build in frequent opportunities to assess student understanding and give low-risk specific feedback. These assessments should be informal and provide growth opportunities, not just for grading. Students with disabilities need to know what they are getting right and what’s not working.

Providing students with examples and non-examples can also be helpful in developing a schema for the learning. Students should be explicitly told how to fix mistakes and should be included in the feedback conversation by asking questions such as:

  • How is that strategy working for you?
  • Do you know what comes next?

By establishing a continuous feedback loop with students, the focus becomes the learning, not the mistake.

Eliminate Distractions Proactively

Classrooms are often busy places, and students with disabilities can be especially prone to distraction. It is, therefore, important to be highly organized as a teacher to ensure that transitions between activities and tasks do not allow for unstructured time. Tools such as visual timers can help students self-regulate and stay on task, especially if the time is broken down into smaller chunks that feel manageable to them. Allowing students to work in different areas of the room and remove themselves from distractions can also be helpful.

Build Relationships and Resilience

It is essential to build a positive relationship in which the teacher clearly demonstrates that they respect and believe in their student. Students with disabilities commonly experience failure and behavioral issues at school and can feel as if they don’t belong or that their teacher or peers do not like them. That feeling can be a distraction from learning and lead to further unhelpful coping mechanisms such as acting out or disengaging from learning. Finding ways to reestablish a positive relationship when a student has experienced failure builds resilience in students and helps them develop a growth mindset.

Focus on Strengths

Because students with disabilities are often hyper-aware of their own shortcomings in the classroom, identifying their strengths (and yes, every student has strengths!) can open new avenues for learning. Once a strength is identified, a teacher can capitalize on that feeling of success by empowering the student to use that strength to create new successes. Creating a snowball effect of success is often the key to re-engaging students with disabilities. It also reinforces the growth mindset and their place among their peers when they are valued and understood for their positive traits.

Be the Adult

I have often told people, “Parents do not keep the “good” students at home.” It is a teacher’s duty and responsibility to try to find a way for every student in their classroom to learn. This is not something we should shy away from. Rather it is to be embraced as the highest form of teaching. If students come to a class fully grasping the concepts and completing all the learning tasks without much intervention from the teacher, then little learning and even less teaching has taken place. If the adult in the room can find joy in the pursuit of knowledge even in the face of challenges, then the students are much more likely to do the same, and in the end, everyone will have won.

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