teaching strategies for special education students
Sep 13 2023

Teaching Strategies for Students With Special Needs

Positive Action Staff
In the United States, special education is free in the public education system, thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Special education ensures students with learning disabilities receive specialized instruction designed to meet their unique learning needs. That way, they too get an opportunity to reach their full academic potential.

For students with special needs, inclusion means everything because they thrive in the presence of their peers.

How? Through their interactions. Students who receive special education can forge friendships where they learn positive behaviors.

This is where we come in.

At Positive Action, we recognize the unique value of each person. With that in mind, we equip students with special needs with the essential skills needed to integrate into mainstream classrooms.

“I am very grateful for these lessons. They fulfill a need that so many children are lacking in the educational process today.” — Linda Davis, 2nd Grade Teacher, Davis Elementary

What Is the Purpose of Special Education?

Special education is an intentional intervention designed to mitigate the challenges that keep students with learning disabilities from understanding concepts.

The three types of special education interventions are:

  • Preventive Interventions: This form of special education aims to either stop something from happening or reduce a condition that has been identified. For instance, preventing manic episodes in students with bipolar disorder by maintaining a specific schedule.

  • Remedial Interventions: The main goal here is to eliminate the effects of a disability by equipping students with the skills that allow them to function on their own successfully. For instance, teaching students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to develop an entry point into activities, improving their level of task initiation.

  • Compensatory Interventions: This entails providing students with learning disabilities a special device that non-disabled children do not need. For instance, giving a child with autism a phonetic spelling software designed to automatically convert the student’s typing into the word they intended to write.

How to Adapt Your Teaching Strategies for Students With Special Needs

Ready Students for Upcoming Lessons

  • Discuss and establish learning expectations. Let students know what they’ll learn during the lesson and how much time they’ll need for each activity. For instance, “Today we’ll read about Paul Bunyan and identify new vocabulary words in the story.”

  • Discuss and establish behavioral expectations. Describe how students are expected to behave during the lesson. For example, “Talk quietly to your neighbors during seatwork;” or “Raise your hand if you need anything from me.”

  • Provide the schedule in advance. Summarize your lesson plan so everyone is on the same page. Inform the students that after you review the previous lesson, you’ll break into group work, followed by personal reading time.

  • Be very clear on the materials needed for the lesson. For example, specify that students will need their crayons, scissors, and colored paper for an art project.

Conducting Effective Lessons

Review the Previous Lesson

If you covered how to regroup in subtraction in the last lesson, review several problems before jumping into the current lesson.

Emphasize key points by using worksheets to highlight keywords in the instructions for students with special needs to focus on.

If you’re unable to highlight before the lesson, simply underline keywords as you and the students go through the instructions together.

During reading sessions, get students to note down key sentences on a separate piece of paper before asking for a summary of the entire book.

In math problem statements, show students how to underline the important facts and operations. For instance, consider the following statement: "If Mary possesses two apples and John possesses three." In this case, you should underline the words 'two' and 'three' to emphasize their significance.

Help the Student Participate During the Lesson

Agree on special cues for students with special needs to help them stay focused and prepare to answer questions when called upon. It could be something as simple as a light pat on the back or a sticky note on their desk.

Don’t rush your students with special needs. Try to ask them probing questions only after they’ve had enough time to solve an equation.

Wait at least 15 seconds before giving the answer or picking another student, then ask follow-up questions so that students can demonstrate their understanding.

Steer clear of sarcasm and criticism — this brings attention to differences between students with learning disabilities and their classmates, ultimately having a detrimental effect on the self-concept development of the former group.

Utilize a variety of audiovisual materials to present academic lessons. For example, when teaching students how to solve fractions, you can use a wooden apple divided into quarters and a pear divided into halves.

Help Students Focus

As the lesson proceeds, share gentle reminders with students to keep working on their assigned tasks.

At this point, you can also remind students of the behavioral expectations you set at the beginning of the lesson.

Break down assignments into smaller, less complex tasks. For example, allow students to complete five math problems before presenting them with the remaining five problems.

Implement group work as a way for students to maximize their own and each other’s learning abilities. Think-Pair-Share is an excellent tool to get you started:

  • Ask students to reflect on a topic for a few minutes.

  • Request they partner up and discuss their thoughts.

  • Get everyone to engage and share ideas as a collective.

Also, keep an eye out for difficulty in reading comprehension or daydreaming. Provide these students with extra explanations, or request a classmate to serve as a peer tutor for the lesson.

Check Student Performance

Question individual students with special needs to gauge their mastery of the lesson’s content.

For example, as students do their seatwork (i.e., lessons completed by students at their desks in the classroom), ask them to:

  • Demonstrate the formula they used to arrive at the answer to a math problem.

  • Share their own thoughts on how the main character of a story felt in a specific chapter.

Use these moments to help students with special needs correct their own mistakes, such as sharing tips on checking calculations for math problems and avoiding spelling errors.

Avoid high pressure and timed tests when it comes to students with special needs. These situations don’t allow them to demonstrate the full scope of their knowledge due to their potential time blindness. More time to complete quizzes means minimal test anxiety.

Provide Follow-Up Directions

  • After instructing the entire class, provide additional oral directions for a student with special needs. For instance, ask them whether they understood the directions and repeat them together.

  • Provide follow-up directions in writing. For example, write the page number and details for an assignment on the chalkboard, then remind the student to look at the chalkboard if they forget the assignment.

Concluding Lessons

  • Let students know when the lesson is about to end, preferably 5 or 10 minutes beforehand.

  • Go over assignments with students to gauge their understanding and offer pointers on how to prepare for the next lesson.

  • Let students know what to expect in the next lesson. For example, instruct them to put away their textbooks and prepare for a group selling session in front of the class.

“The behavior management and classroom management is embedded into every piece of the class down to the tables, down to the chairs, down to the rewards, down to the visuals when they walk in, to the slideshow on the board. Everything.” - Braelan Martin, Kindergarten 1st and 2nd Grade Special Ed Teacher

Sounds like a lot? Well, you don’t have to go it alone.

All the Help You Need

Positive Action provides a research-based SPED curriculum that works with students who receive special education of all types, including:

  • Autism

  • Down syndrome


  • Learning disabilities

  • Emotional disturbance

  • Physical and intellectual disabilities

What do we do? We assess their special education needs then collaborate with educators to create Individualized Education Plans.

It doesn’t stop there. We also provide tools that keep the students engaged and organized during lessons. The tools include:

  • A Positive Action committee handbook

  • Surveys

  • Calendars

  • Templates for meeting logs and agendas

  • Behavior management forms

  • “Dear Parents” letters so that educators can clearly and directly communicate with parents

We believe special needs students require wholesome support, so we also specialize in promoting partnerships between educators, families, and the community the large.

“Positive Action is a good curriculum, and we tied it in with our PBIS. It really helped in making this a safe school where academics and behavior work together so that everybody can learn.” — From a Principal in Robeson County, North Carolina