Classroom Management Strategies To Help Students With Learning Disabilities

With the right assistance students with disabilities can successfully learn in your classroom. This help can take different forms, such as specific seating placement or additional instructions for assignments.

Here are some best practices to set your classroom up for success. A few small changes to your classroom management can benefit students of all abilities.

Get To Know Your Students

Disability is a blanket term but that doesn’t mean you can apply the same accommodations to each student. Even two students with the same learning disability might require different support systems to get through the school day. Get to know your students and their needs in order to better meet them in a place where they feel comfortable.

“It’s vital to understand where students with learning disabilities are coming from,” writes Kenton Levings, president at behavior management company Insights to Behavior. “You need to be aware of environmental triggers. These can include colors, noises, people, locations, and other stimuli. Once you can identify what causes a student to lose focus, you can adjust and plan accordingly.”

This might mean meeting with parents ahead of the school year to better understand their child or talking to teachers in lower grades to learn what worked for certain students.

“Every student, whether or not they have a disability, has unique needs,” writes the team at PlayWorld. “Teachers should take the time to learn about each student’s circumstances to create the most productive, safe and inclusive environment.”

These other needs could include that your student’s parents are going through a divorce or acknowledging that English isn’t their first language.

As you get to know your students, you can build accommodations into your lesson plans. These will eventually become second nature to add to each lesson and your students can know to expect them.

“If all or most of your students with disabilities have a certain accommodation or modification, you can start including that in all your lessons or on your assessments,” writes teacher Douglas Buttorff. “This approach will likely benefit all the students in your class, regardless of disability status, because plenty of kids who aren’t in special education can struggle in many of the same ways when learning math, reading, writing, behavior, and communication skills.”

For example, providing written information and then presenting it orally can help students connect with instructions in two different ways, increasing their chances of remembering and comprehending.

Woman in wheelchair using computer at a desk; classroom management concept.

Model Positive Classroom Behaviors

You are more than just an instructor and authority figure for your students. You are also a role model. You can mindfully model various behaviors for your classroom to show how to react in certain situations and how to approach problems.

“If you model self-discipline and courtesy consistently in your classroom, your students will be more likely to engage in appropriate behavior as well,” writes the team at Brookes Publishing. “Students often model behaviors they see demonstrated by the important adults in their life.”

This advice doesn’t just apply to younger students. Older students are still learning how to behave and how to become young adults. Walking them through basic actions and responses can have as significant an impact as teaching behaviors to young students.

“The older kids become, the less educators think they need to teach behaviors, but that’s not true,” says Rick Dahlgren, CEO at classroom management system Time to Teach. “You need to model constantly because they are always learning from you and your reactions.”

Dahlgren says classroom behaviors and social norms can be taught like almost any subject, through clear descriptions and repetition.

You can also use task analysis to break down the various steps that make up a behavior. Instructional designer and developer Lisa Jo Rudy uses the example of brushing your teeth to show how task analysis works. Students discuss the steps of finding a toothbrush and toothpaste, putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush, making sure each part of the mouth is cleaned and rinsed, and then putting everything away. This process takes a complicated process and breaks it down into manageable steps.

Child at table with different color paints; classroom management concept.

Help Students Learn Time Management

Another key skill that you can focus on in your classroom is time management. This skill ranges from learning how to set aside an appropriate amount of time for an assignment to learning how long breaks should be.

“Children are surrounded by the challenges and opportunities that require them to manage time,” says Manpreet Singh, developer of SmartyNote, a notepad app for dyslexia. “Be it showing up to classes in time or keeping track of their schedule. Or simply calculating how much time it takes them to get to the school bus, so they could get a head start.”

Time management is a key skill in adulthood too, whether a student enters college and needs to self-regulate their study time or has a job where they have important deadlines.

There are several ways to teach time management to students, but many teachers highlight the value of using timers in the classroom.

“Devices such as timers and buzzers can help a child self-monitor and keep track of time,” writes Leslie Josel, owner of time management and coaching services provider Order Out of Chaos. “For example, during quiet or reading time, a timer placed on a desk can help your child know exactly where the time is going, and also help her become aware of when transitions to other activities will take place.”

Time management covers allocating minutes and hours throughout the day, but it also involves setting up a task list to make sure everything you want to get done, gets done. You can build these strategies into your classroom management approach and lesson plans.

Educator Cherryl Drabble encourages teachers to create “Now and Next” boards to prepare students for the task at hand and what is coming up next. If students are aware that something is going to happen — especially if it deviates from a normal routine, like a school assembly — they can better prepare mentally for it. When controlled with a timer, these boards are useful for keeping students on task for a specific amount of time.

Teach Self-Management Strategies

You can also guide your students in developing strategies for self-management in the classroom. These can help your kids avoid distractions and control themselves when faced with a task.

Health journalist Nathaly Pesantez analyzed the results of a study on self-management tools compared to other ADHD accommodations. Students experienced four different strategies to keep them on task:

  • Prompting: telling a distracted student to focus.
  • Self-management: asking students to check yes or no to whether they have stayed on task.
  • Breaks: allowing students to spend five minutes away from a task after focusing for 10 minutes.
  • Sensory proprioception: using stress balls or fidget toys to use while completing the task.

The study found that while students described prompting and self-management tasks as annoying or distracting, they actually performed the best and stayed on track the most. This may mean that teaching self-management can be more effective in the long run than relying on standard accommodations, such as allowing extra time to complete a task.

The team at Transforming Education created a self-management toolkit that you can use to introduce this concept to your classroom. It includes a facilitator guide, a PowerPoint presentation and activities for your students.

Assign Seats and Project Groups

While classroom lessons are useful for teaching life skills, there are other ways to lead your students in a manner that sets them up for success. Consider whether you let students choose their own seats and work groups or if you assign seating and create groups based on different skill levels.

“When children are allowed to choose their own seating positions, the classroom can become segregated,” says Sarah Schulze, a board-certified pediatric nurse practitioner. “A child with a disability and low self-esteem may choose a seat in the back corner every time, next to a similarly quiet student. Pair up disabled students with more outgoing children and encourage more engagement.”

Group work is a great way to integrate your classroom and provides opportunities for students with disabilities to work with their peers.

“By learning in groups, students are all given the opportunity to participate,” writes the team at Future Learn. “As well as giving students the chance to be a part of something, they will also be able to develop crucial social skills amongst each other.”

By pairing with different classmates, students learn that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.

Two children standing next to each other outside; classroom management concept.

Learn How To Respond to Negative Behaviors

Even if you set the best example possible and create a safe and productive learning environment, some students might act out.

Micere Keels, associate professor at the University of Chicago, encourages teachers to respond to all acting-out behaviors in a supportive manner with a view to better understanding the student. Her tips include:

  • Connect with the student on their level; avoid towering over them.
  • Use non-confrontational body language, like arms by your sides with relaxed hands.
  • Lower your voice slightly and talk slowly in a calm manner.
  • Listen first to the student. Make them feel heard and valued.

These steps can prevent the negative behavior from escalating and further disrupting the class.

The team at Transitions explains that school-related stress is one of the most common causes of academic failure in students with learning disabilities. These sources of stress come from negative peer interactions, inadequate social skills, “academic self-concept” (awareness that a disability causes poor academic performance) and the learning environment itself. Stress can cause multiple behavioral and emotional disruptive behaviors.

By approaching students from a place of understanding, rather than discipline, you can take informed action to help them. While you don’t want to condone or encourage negative behaviors, you can support them if you know where they are coming from.

Too often, students with disabilities are isolated from their peers or disciplined rather than accommodated. You can develop an inclusive classroom that teaches life skills to all students and gives them the space to succeed.

Images by: olesiabilkei/©, seventyfour74/©, Christopher Ryan, Bailey Torres