Math Learning and Students with Disabilities

My thinking is being challenged, which is always a good thing. My classroom teaching experience and coaching have afforded me the opportunity to work with students who have had varied barriers to learning. I taught students who moved through elementary school with many labels. I am a firm believer in the idea that these labels do not define the children who carry them. They are not permanent.

Labels box students in. They don’t allow learners to BECOME in an authentic way. I was labeled a “high kid” for a long time and then a different school decided I was “low”. I smiled and basked in being considered “high” and shrunk at the idea of being considered “low’. This “low” label negatively impacted the trajectory of my math learning. I don’t want this for children or teachers.

This idea of “high and low kids” unexpectedly moved me to tears in a recent professional learning session. It was the first time I broke my composure while facilitating a group of teachers. The way we were describing children and the impact it has on their learning moved me to tears. My group was gracious and understanding. Together we decided that this way of classifying children had the power to eliminate students’ access to mathematics and that we had the power to change this.

Describing children as low or high based on performance at a given time is not the same as identifying and supporting children who have diagnosed cognitive struggles that need specified support. In my region of the country we identify these children as “exceptional children (EC)”  or “students with disabilities (SWD)”.

The idea of providing targeted support to a specific need seems very inclusive. It seems to be about giving access to math thinking and learning. In recent professional learning sessions, I have engaged with so many thoughtful EC teachers in an effort to better understand the practices I perceive as limiting math thinking in the name of giving students access. I think I may be missing something.

This post is about my trying to understand the needs of students with disabilities, the best practices for addressing these needs in the math classroom and how these practices align with best practices for math instruction for ALL students.

I was in a professional learning session listening to a friend, Dr. Drew Polly of UNCC speak about a set of talk moves for math discussion;

“these strategies have proven to be successful for EC and ELL children and I believe them to be effective for A.L.L children as well.”

What a powerful statement and play on labels. I use this phrase often.

I use a teaching model that invites students to enter into a problem in a way that makes sense to them. When children are stuck (no matter the label) I engage in the same way. I consider what question I might ask or what tool or context I might offer to support the student’s access to the task. Sometimes my move works and other times it does not. When it doesn’t I try again.

When I am all out of ideas I either walk away in an attempt to give the student a little time to muddle and to give myself time to think a bit more. Sometimes I tell students something to relieve the pressure of the task. I try to not tell very often and I find that my emotions drive the times when I just tell. I find myself feeling bad that the students are stuck and that I cannot come up with an instructional move to get them unstuck and I rescue them. This is exactly how the teachers in my professional learning sessions feel about their students’ learning and I understand.

I am wondering about a recent conversation with a very thoughtful math specialist. She and I were really trying to understand two conflicting messages. One message suggests that when teaching math learners, need room to engage and make sense on their own. A different message suggests that when a child is EC learning is different and a teacher will need to give direct instruction to afford access to the mathematics.

I have never specialized in students with exceptionalities. I know that there are so many factors that influence these learners. For example, consider a student who is identified as a slow learner. This child is not necessarily slow at learning in all areas but they might be depending on the nature of the disability. We would not employ the same strategy to address this need in all learning situations. It seems to me that the student may need support with one task but not another. Learning is not linear and it seems that support should not be linear and all-encompassing.

The math specialist and I agreed that there may be times when a student would need support (direct/explicit instruction or something else) and there may be other times when they would not. This conversation leaves me wondering. I would love to hear from you about this.

  1. Why do children with exceptionalities (EC) need teaching in math to be more explicit than any other learners of math?
  2. What does it mean/ look and sound like to be explicit in a math lesson with students with disabilities? How would this be different from teaching children without disabilities?


I appreciate your thoughts on this. I look forward to fleshing this out a bit more.


2 thoughts

  1. I have specialized in teaching students with learning disabilities. I’ve had the very good fortune to work in a special school where we had the time and resources to do things well.
    Students who go to a special *school* …. usually are pretty sure they are “low.” They’ve learned survival strategies, often at the expense of learning strategies. Especiallly in math, you can bludgeon your way through tasks w/ memorizing, and oh, my, the research about how much instruction for sped kiddos is *not* conceptual at all is appalling. I totally get that if somebody’s going to have a test… they need to pass the test… okay, what’s the trick that will get you through?
    Unfortunately, that sometimes translates into “I need to be more explicit — so I’ll teach all these steps” and … comprehension is tossed out the window.
    HOWEVER. If the “explicit” part is about making sure the student is making connections between the symbols and what they stand for *and* the verbal language used to express that, understanding is very possible.
    I’ve read about a fair number of different successful approaches w/ Math that had a similar patterh: students would experience something in “real life” (whether a train trip or working with objects or *whatever* — but real and concrete)… then there would be questions… then the math stuff would get talked about in “regular” language… and then it would be translated into “math” language… and there would be a fair amount of practice with doing this and making those connections.
    Being mindful of the “overload” place is important too. Our pre-algebra course starts w/ integers, which has a big advantage b/c … it’s simpler operations. So they learn about that negative stuff and that adding negative is like subtracting… most of ’em do okay and are just nailing things down when… subtracting integers is tossed onto the pile. For some of ’em it all goes up in flames. THere’s one they have to do where there are two word problems… one is “addition” but you have to subtract, unless you have to add, and the other is subtraction where you have to add, unless you subtract… and by the way, they ask “how much higher” and “how much lower” so you have to also remember “no, for that one the answer will always be positive.”
    I really, really want to try (I tutor, I don’t do the curriculum) going from adding to oh, a bit on problem solving and figuring out whether you’re putting parts together to get wholes… and for those lessons including review and practice of adding assorted integers. Have a test that just has that. *Then* bring in the subtraction. (In my Orton-Gillingham training, we taught short vowels a, e, o, u, i … because e and i are too easily confused.)
    Does this help?

  2. Kaneka, it’s 6 am on Sunday morning as I read this. My brain is not ready for “serious” but this is a topic of great interest to me….later.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: