Instructional Strategies for Students with Cognitive Impairments

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Students with cognitive impairments have a difficult time learning and progressing in a typical classroom setting. Let's explore some effective instructional strategies that will help your students be more successful in school.

Cognitive Impairments

Mrs. Jacobs is a special education teacher at Granite Elementary School. She teaches eight students with cognitive impairments. As she prepares lessons, Mrs. Jacobs considers a variety of effective instructional strategies that have been proven to work with her population of students. Let's explore some of the characteristics of students with cognitive impairments and instructional strategies that will help them be successful in the classroom.

Cognitive impairments, also called intellectual disabilities, occur when a child has limited mental functioning. Children with cognitive impairments usually acquire developmental milestones late and have more difficulty learning self-help skills, social skills, and communicating with others.

Common Characteristics

While each of Mrs. Jacob's students are unique, they share several common characteristics that affect their classroom performance. Here is a list of challenges and behaviors Mrs. Jacobs observes on a regular basis.

Students with cognitive impairments:

  • Have short attention spans and are easily distracted
  • Have very little endurance, have low motivation, and tire easily
  • Demonstrate poor memory skills
  • Struggle to follow verbal instructions to complete an assignment
  • Have trouble forming thoughts into words to communicate their needs and wants

These challenges make it difficult for students with cognitive impairments to perform well in a typical classroom setting. Mrs. Jacobs will implement a variety of strategies to address some of these challenges her students face.

Instructional Strategies

This section will include several examples of strategies that may help your students with cognitive impairments. Keep in mind that these ideas should be adapted to fit your individual learners and classroom setting.

Task Analysis

Mrs. Jacobs's students are easily overwhelmed when learning new skills. In order to help her students progress, she teaches new skills using task analysis. Task analysis is when we break down a skill into small, manageable steps. This makes it easier for students to understand what they need to do and makes the skill seem less daunting. Mrs. Jacobs uses task analysis for things like how to write your name, how to match letters, and how to come sit on the carpet for circle time.

Let's look at a task analysis of writing the letter H.

Step 1: Put your pencil at the top of the line.

Step 2: Draw a straight line down.

Step 3: Leave a small space, and put your pencil at the top of the line.

Step 4: Draw a straight line down.

Step 5: Put your pencil on the middle of the first line.

Step 6: Draw a straight line across to the middle of the second line.


Since her students have trouble remembering instructions, Mrs. Jacobs creates a short checklist to sit on each student's desk. This helps them know what they are supposed to be doing and what to do next. Here is a checklist for packing up at the end of the day.

  • Homework folder in backpack.
  • Pencil box in desk.
  • Chair pushed in.
  • Stand by desk.

Notice in this example how the directions are written in short, concise language. Lengthy descriptions usually lose and confuse students. You could also add visuals to each item on the list for students who have trouble reading.


Similar to checklists, self-assessments give students a step-by-step guide to show them what is expected. Self-assessments allow students to take responsibility for their behavior and work in the classroom. It creates an opportunity for students to be a little more independent.

Mrs. Jacobs uses self-assessments for individual assignments and class activities. Her students use them to assess their behavior during an activity and to assess whether an assignment was done the right way. Here is an example of a self-assessment Mrs. Jacobs made for a basic punctuation assignment.

I wrote my name at the top of the page.

I copied the sentence from the board.

The sentence has a period.

The first letter of the sentence is capitalized.

The names in the sentence are capitalized.

Mrs. Jacobs' students go over these instructions and check them off to indicate that they completed the assignment.

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