This week in CEP 842 (Content Area Instruction for Students with Mild Disabilities) we were asked to look at the challenges that students with disabilities face while receiving instruction in various content areas. I have been teaching for the past three years as a special education resource room teacher and part of my role is to work with students who have a wide range of learning needs.
The first challenge I see among many of my students is their ability to hold onto important information in order to use it to complete a task. This has to do with their working memory and how it affects many of the aspects within all academic areas. I am going to focus on some of the more prominent concerns in the area of mathematics. Students with a poor working memory have a difficult time completing multi-step tasks, which if you teach math, you know that most problems in middle school mathematics require more than one step. The processes and steps required for long division alone, causes much mental fatigue. My students struggle with basic math facts and now I am requiring them to perform multiple operations at the same time. Students with poor working memory will have a hard time in the classroom when required to remember all of the directions, take notes throughout a lesson or even understand and recall something they were just taught. Luckily, there are ways in which we as teacher can make a difference. Some of the strategies I use to help these students include: breaking down tasks into smaller chunks; providing visuals with oral directions (bulleted list on whiteboard); giving students one task at a time if needed; creating opportunities for the students to process the information in multiple ways – say it, show it, do it ( se 3-D models of shapes, equations, or manipulatives). Whichever accommodations you use within the classroom they goal is to simplify the amount of mental processing to reduce the working memory demand.
Another challenge I see facing my students is the language difficulties related to math. Math requires a deep knowledge of vocabulary. Unfortunately, many of the frequently used math terms in our textbooks include words with multiple meanings. Here are a few to think about, does the word “mean” represent offensive or average? What about the word “operation”? Does this reference a medical surgery or one of the four mathematical processes? People who have a strong language foundation do not have to think twice about the multiple meaning words, however for many of our students with specific learning disabilities as well as our English language learners it can be very difficult. Another aspect that language affects is the understanding of word problems in math. Word problems pose an extreme challenge because they require that a student is able to read and comprehend the text, identify the question that is being asked, and ultimately coming up with an equation or a way to solve. This is not an easy task by any means. So how can we help? Try listing the steps/procedures for multi-step problems and algorithms. You could create a word wall for commonly used math words. As teachers, we love to talk however this at times can be verbal overflow for students who have language difficulties. It takes a conscious effort to slow down the pace of delivery and provide information in pieces rather than a long winded explanation.
The last challenge is student engagement and participation. In every classroom you have the “hogs” and the “logs”. The “hogs” are the students who constantly steal the floor and “hog” the discussion. The students are typically pretty confident in their responses. The “logs” are the students who sit there like a bump on a log and do not contribute anything. Of course there are students who fall between these two opposites, but the question is, where do students with disabilities tend to fall on this spectrum and why? Many of my students with disabilities are the “logs”. They are passively sitting in class, not raising their hands and not providing anything to the discussion. Unfortunately because of their many challenges in math, they lack the confidence to even try. They have this preconceived notion that because they are “bad in math” they will always be “bad in math” for the rest of their lives. However, how can you change this belief or negative attitude when typically math computation is either a correct or incorrect answer? The reality is they are constantly seeing the big red “X’s” for all of their mistakes or incorrect answers. Rather than giving tasks that have a right or wrong answer, why not create an open-ended math scenario where there are multiple ways to represent your thinking? This allows for students to see that they are not graded solely on the correct answer, but also how they got to their solution. Reflecting on this learning process may give students an open mind when approached with math. In addition, for students who lack the motivation and are constantly asking “why do we need to learn this?”, they should be provided purposeful opportunities where they can apply their math in the real-world. Giving meaning to math where these students do not see it.
Although, my examples relate closely to the area of mathematics, these challenges can be seen in all areas and to various degrees. I think it’s important as a teacher to be prepared for these challenges and to be creative in provided instruction to meet the varying needs in the classroom.