Teaching Place Value to Special Education Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Students with special needs often benefit from an array of alternative instructional strategies in mathematics. This lesson discusses what it means to teach place value to students with special needs.

Why Place Value Counts

Ms. Esh has been teaching second grade in an inclusive educational setting, or one where typically-developing students and their peers with special needs work and learn side-by-side, for several years. This year, she is focusing on her math instruction as a professional development goal.

One of the most important math concepts in second grade is around place value, or what each digit in a multi-digit number actually represents. Not only is place value important in order to accurately work with addition and subtraction, the two major operations of focus in second grade, but it's also key for transitioning the students into work with multiplication and division as they grow older.

Ms. Esh starts thinking about the special education students in her class and what supports they will need in order to understand place value properly.

Math and Disabilities

As Ms. Esh knows, no two special education students are exactly the same. The struggles they face mathematically will depend in large part on their overall learning profiles, and some students with special needs will understand place value quite easily.

In general, some of the challenges special education students might face with regard to face value include:

  • Visual spatial recognition, or being able to see the importance of where things are in space
  • Language struggles, which might get in the way of understanding how to describe a number in words
  • Attentional difficulties, which can make it hard to stay focused on a task or learning goal
  • Memory-related struggles, which can make it hard to hold one number or idea in mind over a period of time

Ms. Esh learns that the best way to work on place value with students who have special needs is to work within their learning styles to get the concept across.

Visual Learning Styles

Many students with special needs are visual learners, those who respond best to images and graphic organizers as they internalize new concepts and skills. To teach place value visually, Ms. Esh:

  • Keeps a color-coded place value chart in her classroom, encouraging students to reference it each time they talk about or compute with multi-digit numbers
  • Lets students refer consistently to a place value graphic organizer (with labeled columns) in their own math folder
  • Shows students repeated images of objects to demonstrate that 23, for example, is equal to 20 + 3
  • Encourages students to make their own drawings or other visual representations breaking down two, three, and eventually four-digit numbers into their component parts

Kinesthetic and Tactile Learning Styles

It is also common for students with special needs to be tactile or kinesthetic learners, who best master new concepts and skills when they can use their hands and bodies. For these students, Ms. Esh:

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