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Subject-Specific Resources

Special Education in the Science Classroom:
Strategies for Success

Science Is for All Students
Science classrooms are places of excitement, interest, and inquiry. Students who occupy them are as diverse in needs, characteristics, and abilities as the myriad of science topics they study. To overlook this diversity limits and weakens science instruction. Recognizing and adapting to this diversity multiplies the power of well-planned laboratory experiences and other activities.

The National Education Science Standards is the landmark resource for science education in the United States. The first principle underlying this road map to scientific literacy is that science is for all students. Disabilities must not become barriers to the acquisition of skills and understanding. Throughout their lives, students will call upon this knowledge to make sound choices, solve problems, and participate in public discussion about issues relating to science.

Overcoming Obstacles to Success in the Science Classroom

Students with identified disabilities are found in science classrooms in every school in the nation. What specific techniques benefit special education students in the science classroom? Strategies designed to increase classroom success for special education students are based on sound instructional methodology, and thus have potential benefits for all students.

When integrating the strategies suggested, teachers must remember that the term "special education" is applied to students having a wide range of disabilities existing on a continuum from moderate to extreme. Instructors should consider individual needs and learning preferences when implementing strategies.

Dealing with Issues Related to Attention

  • Break large chunks of instruction, particularly experimental procedures, into small parts. Have students repeat directions in their own words.
  • Integrate hands-on instruction with traditional methods. Switching to a different instructional modality can re-focus wandering attention.
  • Use laboratory time for one-on-one instruction. Speaking with a student individually is a powerful tool for focusing attention.
  • Take advantage of the high interest level inherent in science subject matter. Find ways to integrate topics interesting to students. Encourage expression of opinion and discussion.
  • Experiment with music during lab exercises. Students may find that quiet, classical background music aids concentration.
  • Consider seating arrangements. There is no "right" seat for a student with a given disability. An attention-craving student seated in front might prove a serious distraction to himself and the rest of the class. A student with difficulty focusing may experience increased success if seated away from high-traffic areas.
  • Incorporate body posture changes. Sitting straight up in a chair might not prove the most effective learning posture, particularly for students with Attention Deficit Disorder.
Dealing with Issues Related to Information Processing and Communication
  • Communicate information in multiple formats. Students may process information more effectively in an oral, visual, or kinesthetic framework.
  • Write lab procedures in large, legible print. The blackboard or other communication medium should not be cluttered with irrelevant information.
  • Coincide verbal directions with demonstration whenever possible. Procedures like lighting a burner and using a balance must be demonstrated and practiced for mastery.
  • Clearly label laboratory equipment. Color coding materials may enhance identification.
  • Develop cue cards which outline, in written or pictorial form, major procedural steps. Prominently display cards in sequential order.
  • Utilize multiple assessment tools. Students with disabilities may communicate understanding effectively through presentations, demonstrations, lab work, and the creation of portfolios.
Dealing with Issues Related to Organization
  • Maintain a clean, organized laboratory. Clutter is an additional obstacle for students already struggling with organization.
  • Maintain consistent places in the lab for supplies and equipment. Clearly label these stations.
  • Establish and constantly reinforce techniques for often-used procedures like cleaning and returning lab materials, using goggles, and using specific lab equipment.
Dealing with Issues Related to Social Interaction
  • Create a climate of acceptance by modeling patience and tolerance. Students must feel comfortable asking questions and expressing opinions in the science classroom.
  • Build laboratory and cooperative learning groups carefully. Students with disabilities must be grouped with students who will allow them to participate and use their strengths, but who are also willing to cooperate with their areas of difficulty.
Dealing with Issues Related to Time and Making Transitions
  • Provide an initial orientation to laboratory organization, equipment, and procedures. Make this instruction ongoing throughout the year, ensuring understanding of existing structures, and incorporating new techniques and equipment as needed.
  • Make students aware of time limits before and during laboratory exercises and small group work.
  • Warn students a few minutes before the scheduled ending of an activity. This eases transition from one activity to another, and forces the group to come to closure.
Learning Science Is an Active Process
The second principle underlying the National Science Education Standards is that learning science is an active process. In the inquiry-based science classroom, students make observations, form hypotheses, ask questions, perform experiments, construct explanations, and communicate ideas. Mastering the critical thinking skills embodied in these processes can help students with learning disabilities excel in multiple areas of study and in life.

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