Teaching Math to Special Needs Children

Teaching math to special needs students isn't just challenging, it's game changing! ~BonI’m out of my depth.

Like 3 bazillion leagues out of my depth.

I took a math teaching position at a school for kids with neurological differences. I knew it would be hard. But I didn’t think it would be this hard.

Lesson 1: Everything you know is wrong.

It’s a Weird Al song, but it also applies to teaching kids with special needs.

I gave this great math artwork activity that I thought would be perfect. My students are all 12-19 years old. They can communicate, be polite and follow instructions. And they are all listed as over 2nd grade in abilities.

So this should have be a perfect activity. Or so I thought.

The idea was to color each of the one hundred squares one of 6 colors. Then fill in a chart with the percent, decimal and fractional amount for each color.

Pretty cool and fairly simple. At least from the coloring perspective.

Oh, but with this population, everything I know is wrong.

One kid spent all 45 minutes coloring 6 squares. I had to encourage him to move to the next one each time.

One student decided that my 6 colors were severely insufficient. When I realized what he was doing, he’d already colored 30 squares 30 different colors.

There were a handful of students that nailed it. But only a handful.

Lesson 2: Don’t bother expecting the unexpected.

I was working on an activity for the folks over at cwist using LEGOs. I thought I’d try it with my students to see how it would go.

The instructions: Build a structure that touches both floor and ceiling (simultaneously) and uses only LEGO brand items.

After 45 minutes and multiple reminders of “we’re building UP!” here’re some of the things I got:

  • A five inch tall stack of red LEGOs (all red)
  • A four inch tall structure made of thin LEGO plates
  • A three inch by 24 inch platform
  • Two cars

Again only a couple of students built up. But they lost interest after about 10 inches of bricks.

It might be that you should expect the unexpected. But with these kids, you can’t even fathom the unexpected.

Lesson 3: Changing the rules is essential.

So I’m done giving “traditional” (yet creative) assignments. For the next couple of weeks I’m going to try something new.

I’m going to put out a box of LEGOs with new instructions: Play.

And I’m going to watch.

I’ll make notes in Evernote for each student. I’ll use the bricks to see who can count, who can subitize and who can categorize.

I’ll find out who can do one-to-one correspondence of the studs to match one size brick with another of equal size.

I’ll use the arrangement of the studs on the bricks to see who can multiply and divide. I’ll learn who can factor and see that a 2×6 brick has the same number of studs as a 3×4 plate.

And I’ll figure out how to create activities that are meaningful to each student.

We won’t get a lot of math done, necessarily. But we’ll be laying the foundation for appropriate math learning.

Wish me luck.

I’ll need it. Plus any advice you have… share it in the comments.

And tell others on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.



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11 Responses to Teaching Math to Special Needs Children

  1. Hey Bon! I always felt out of my depth there too, but I am such a better teacher and thinker for it! Love your new idea! Can’t wait to read how it pans out. Best of luck 🙂

  2. I like your plane B, you may not be teaching math in the traditional way but it is still a way that they can learn and grow.

  3. Hi Bon, I am only a freshman in college studying to be a special education teacher. I know it will be very difficult at times and reading this post definitely reiterated that for me. But I do have to say that it will definitely be rewarding in the long run. I think that your plan B will work really well for your students. I may have to keep that non traditional of teaching math in mind when I have my own classroom some day. Good luck I hope it works!

    • Thanks for the support, Abby. I’m keeping track of things so I can report back, too.

      You’re likely to be well qualified and have more ideas because of your training. The rub for me is that I have no SpEd training and very little experience with it. But it seems that a good heart, creative mind and a willingness to keep trying is what the admins think it takes.

      I hope they’re right!


  4. I blog at http://www.mathnook.com on neural nerd issues related to math education. I have looked into subitizing before, and I understand it to be a foundational skill – you gotta have it to move on. I had a special ed tutee who couldn’t seem to handle this, so we locked in to making one-to-one correspondences (I called them “amount matches” to keep the language simple. We eventually laid the foundation for multiplication and division by using 1cm cubes, grouping, and factoring. I think your idea with the Legos lays the same kind of foundational understanding that I was going for – and neurologically reorganizes the brain to think in sets and groups.

    Hope this helps. Special ed opens your mind up to another human mind in a way that’s almost like falling in love.

    • Ron, thank you SO much for taking the time to share that! I haven’t tried the subitizing thing, but perhaps that’s next. I can find out who can and can’t do it and then take things from there.

      I totally love the “amount matches.” That’s simple enough for them to understand at any level.

  5. Your idea is brilliant and it will work. I have been at this for some years after raising two brilliant but unusual son’s who have never done things in the conventional way.I provide materials and I sit back and observe…I have learned so,much this way! I love teaching this population.they are so outside the box…stratosphere etc.enjoy your adventure!

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