Posted by: degarcia | April 13, 2009

Children with Special Needs / Struggling Learners


   Exceptional Learners

 Struggling Learners and Students with Disabilities 

            “Everything about our educational system is changing, including the students who are in our classrooms.  Between dramatic increases in the numbers of minority students and legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the No Child Left Behind Act, classroom teachers are experiencing a different population of children than in decades past.  Today, it is not uncommon to have children with language, poverty, and learning issues all within the confines of the general education class” (Bahr & De Garcia, 2010).


What kinds of behaviors indicate struggling learners?

Can students with disabilities learn how to do every kind of math? In what areas do these students struggle most?

 What can you do to accommodate students with specified disabilities such as ADHD, Dyscalculia, or Autism?


            On this site you will find some definitions, characteristics, and accommodations that can be made for exceptional learners on the struggling side of the spectrum.  Each student is a unique case, however, “If we expect all children to learn, then we have to know what kinds of additional accommodations or modifications we need to provide so that all students can achieve success.  Many such accommodations require resources and supports.  Studies have shown that traditionally underserved children can learn mathematics when provided with the proper support” (Bahr & De Garcia, 2010).


            Struggling learners may not have been formally identified or diagnosed as having a specific learning disability although it may be obvious that they have difficulties in mathematics or other subject areas.  The reality of these learners is that if they fall behind, they rarely catch up without interventions.  Not all students struggle because they have a learning disability.  Some students come to school less prepared than their peers, are ill prepared with basic skills such as counting, or the teaching methods are not conducive to their learning styles.

            Struggling learners succeed when:

  • There are high expectations
  • Curriculum and teaching are extremely focused and purposeful.
  • Gaps and holes in understanding are identified so they can be prevented.
  • Number sense for struggling learning includes explicit skill instruction of one to one correspondence, counting on, counting backwards, skip counting, place value, base 10 number systems, operation strategies, and relational understanding. 
  • Use concrete representations for abstract ideas such as manipulatives or tools, moving on to visual representations such as pictures and tallies, and finally moving to symbolic representations such as numbers. 
  • Upper grade (4-6) elementary students that haven’t developed number sense need to receive instruction that is more explicit rather than pure inquiry because there is no longer time for them to make discoveries we wish they would have mane in the primary grades.  However, it is still important that students have an opportunity to make meaningful mathematical connections using concrete, visual, and abstract models.

            Students with specified learning disabilities and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder must have a significant gap between intelligence and achievement in one or more of the following areas: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading comprehension, math calculations, and math reasoning.  The lack of achievement cannot be caused by visual, hearing, motor disability, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic factors.  Barriers to learning students might have are in memory, self-regulation, visual or language processing, and motor skills. 

            Ways to overcome barriers for students with learning disabilities:

  • Memory: Use mnemonic devises, make calculators, multiplication charts, and other study aides available, and use rehearsal strategies.
  • Self-regulation: Minimize distractions in the environment, allow students to work in short blocks of time, shorten assignments, and incorporate opportunities for movement.
  • Visual processing: Provide oral directions, ensure use of tools, in a story problem, write numbers using words.images
  • Language processing: Simplify language, act out story problems, encourage small group and partner communication.
  • Motor skills: Provide larger manipulative, allow peers to write down the thinking process, orally interview the child. 

“… Many special needs children can engage in inquiry, can develop deep conceptualizations of fundamental mathematics, and can problem solve, communicate, reason, represent, and connect in ways tat often surprise and astound their teachers and their regular education peers” (Bahr & De Garcia, 2010).

 For more information on these issues, please visit the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Learning Disabilities Worldwide, and LD Online.

            Students with Dyscalculia have difficulty with calculation defined as a wide range of life long learning disabilities involving math. If students are suffering with specific language disorders, their math skills are also at risk of suffering as well.  Students with dyscalculia may not engage in “internal chatter” to organize thoughts and manage problem solving strategies when attempting mathematical tasks. Students may be able to mimic procedures and language of problems, but have no conceptual understanding of the mathematics behind it.

            Strategies to help students with dyscalculia:

  • Pre-teaching mathematical vocabulary.
  • Explicitly teach students skills that develop number sense.
  • Use appropriate structures when teaching concepts (compare/contrast, example/ non-example, step by step, etc.).
  • Use explicit instruction to teach skills necessary for conceptual understanding, for example present new material in small segments.
  • Use massed practice during the acquisition stage of learning.
  • Teach students self-monitoring and self-talk strategies for completing math problems.

For additional information, visit the Dyscalculia~ Math Learning Disability Resource


            Students with more severe learning needs include disabilities such autism and metal retardation.  When working with students that have severe learning needs, it is helpful to focus on big ideas and think of all the possible connections they could make to develop and understanding of that big idea.  “Each child must be treated as an individual with his or her own set of strengths and weaknesses kept in mind, … the general principles to how children learn math can be applied to children with more sever learning needs as well” (Bahr & De Garcia, 2010).  There is no “quick fix” for students with learning difficulties in mathematics.  Teachers should analyze whether or not a product or tools helps support the development of a big idea.

          counters   “Children with specific learning disabilities have normal IQ’s, but a blockage in the way they learn.  They need every opportunity to try to make connections and generalizations and to get information into their heads” (Bahr & De Garcia, 2010).




Bahr, D. L., & De Garcia, L. A. (2010). Elementary mathematics is anything but elementary.Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Carter, N., Prater, M. A., & Dyches, T. T. (2009). Making accommodations and adaptations for students with mild to moderate disabilities. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

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