Math Strategies for Special Education Students

Instructor: Lindsey Pierron
Teaching mathematics in the special education classroom takes patience, creativity, and a variety of instructional strategies. Providing resources, using a multi-sensory approach to instruction, and frequent repetition are strategies that can help struggling students be successful in the math classroom.

Math Strategies for Special Education Students

Imagine you're in a special education classroom, teaching a unit on adding with regrouping. As you look at your students' work, you realize they have not lined up their place values appropriately, and as a result, every student has a different answer. None of which is correct. You're a bit frustrated, but realize you need to make a change to your instruction to increase student engagement and understanding. You decide to give each student a piece of graph paper, and watch them line up every number, checking for accuracy, before you let them add. This simple strategy changes everything for your students, and suddenly they're regrouping with ease. You feel a sense of relief and realize that simple instructional strategies can take your students from being totally lost, to having confidence in their math fluency skills.

When teaching math to special education students, there are several factors for an instructor to keep in mind. There are a few common issues special education students face when they are learning mathematical concepts. Some students might have math facts memorized, but struggle when solving real world problems. Other students understand applied problems, but simply cannot memorize their math facts. Still, other students know their math facts and can apply them to real world situations, but have a habit of reversing numbers or forgetting to line up place values. In any case, there are a few strategies and techniques that can help special education students develop math fluency in the general and special education settings, including providing resources, using a multi-sensory approach to instruction, and frequent repetition.

Provide Resources

Special education is based on the idea of specialized instruction to meet individual student needs, so resources provided will vary from one student to the next. However, while the resources might vary, they can be delivered in a similar format. Posters, bulletin boards, and other visual supports around the room are excellent resources, but in my experience in the special education classroom, students do not generally use them. I've found that using individualized 3-ring binders to provide resources is both easy and effective. The materials vary, but most include easy reference guides such as multiplication charts, key words lists, common formulas, graph paper for lining up numbers, and math vocabulary.

It's important to teach students how to use their resources, first through guided instruction then by independent practice. For example, when teaching students how to use a key words list, an instructor would present a real world problem to the group. The instructor would then model using the list to identify the mathematical operation needed to solve the problem. When students seem to grasp the concept, the teacher would provide opportunities for both small group and independent practice, in order to demonstrate mastery of how to utilize that particular resource. Students who understand how to use their resources, use them frequently. Others require prompting and reminders to use what they are given to help them solve problems.

Multi-Sensory Approach to Instruction

Multi-sensory instruction is not just beneficial for special education students. It benefits all students. However, it is especially effective in the special education setting. Student engagement is essential to academic growth and understanding, and using a multi-sensory approach to instruction keeps students interested. All students learn differently, and utilizing multiple strategies to teach math concepts helps build a greater understanding of the material. Music, motions, and manipulatives are effective tools in the special education math classroom.


Using familiar songs to teach math operations and vocabulary helps cement the words in a student's memory. A quick online search produces dozens of educational songs that teach math concepts such as mean, median, and mode; multiplication; long division; order of operations; and more. If your students are struggling to remember vocabulary in a particular area, try putting the terms to music, and watch the ideas suddenly click.

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