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Teaching Problem-Solving Skills to Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

Students with learning disabilities sometimes struggle with problem-solving in mathematics. This lesson gives you a sense of why and also offers some strategies to help.

Learning Disabilities and Problem-Solving

Dana is a sixth grade math and science teacher at a diverse and dynamic middle school. This year, in accordance with the Common Core State Standards, she is determined to focus more on teaching her students mathematical processes, or how to think about and solve problems, rather than simply procedures and algorithms. As Dana revamps her approach to math instruction, she notices that her students with diagnosed learning disabilities seem to be struggling to keep up.

Dana understands that learning disabilities are cognitive or developmental disparities between a student's overall intelligence and his or her ability to learn and process new information in one or more subjects. Though learning disabilities are often thought of in terms of their impact on literacy and sometimes basic numeracy, Dana is starting to notice that they also affect students' ability to engage in problem-solving work in mathematics. She decides to find out more about why this is the case and what she can do to help.

Why Problem-Solving Can Be Hard

Dana quickly comes to understand that no two students with learning disabilities are alike, and there are many different reasons they might struggle with problem-solving. Pinpointing where the breakdown is can be an important step in helping them. Dana discovers some of the common reasons problem-solving can be difficult.

Language Difficulties

Many students with learning disabilities struggle with reading and also the processing, or deep sense-making, of language. These students may struggle with problem-solving because they have a hard time understanding the problem in the first place. Especially for problems composed of difficult vocabulary, convoluted sentences, or dense language overall, these students may require extra support.

Executive Function

Other students with learning disabilities struggle in the area of executive function, the organization and synthesis of information and ideas. Even if these students understand the language of a problem, they may have a hard time figuring out how to approach it and how to keep their thinking organized on the page. They also may solve one step to a problem but lose track of further steps.

Visual and Spatial Reasoning

Sometimes, students with learning disabilities have specific struggles with visualizing mathematical information. For these students, organizing their approach to a problem may not be hard, but actually figuring out the solution can present a major challenge as they struggle to symbolize the numbers and situations in the problem.

Computation Troubles

Finally, Dana already knows that many students with learning disabilities have a hard time doing accurate computational work. These students may have strong approaches to a problem, but they can still break down when it comes to actually working with the numbers involved.

How to Help

Now that Dana has a sense of where students with learning disabilities can encounter challenges, she endeavors to find some strategies for supporting them:

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