Can students with special needs learn math facts?

Teacher active monitoring

Question: We have purchased and are implementing your program at my school and LOVE it! Our staff wondered what tips/techniques you suggest for implementing the program to students with special needs?

Dr. Don Answers:
Rocket Math was designed to be effective as it is with students with special needs students–but only if it is done according to the directions. I have seen it used successfully in many special education classrooms, including my own and in my practicum student’s classrooms. All the details of how it should be used are especially critical for students with special needs. Some of the aspects are especially important. Here are 7 things that will really help students with special needs succeed in Rocket Math.

  1. One key with students with special needs is to monitor their writing speed carefully. One should be sure to give the writing speed test and make sure that they follow the time limits. It’s not unusual for these students to try to squeeze in a few more responses on timings after time is up, because they are used to not being able to perform as expected. Of course, if a student with special needs does that on the Writing Speed Test their goals would end up being impossible to meet. So be careful there. This may involve consultation between the special education and general education teachers so that goals don’t get too high causing lack of success.
  2. Writing speed is an issue for many students with special needs, and they often have great variation in how well they can perform from day to day. I would recommend caution about moving “up” the goals for these students. Perhaps you could wait until they have beaten their previous goal two or three days in a row, before raising the goal. You just want to be sure they can consistently write that quickly.
  3. It is important not to give lower goals to students with special needs, as they need to reach automaticity the same as everyone else. What will be different is the amount of practice they will need to achieve the goal. Where other students can develop automaticity with the four new facts in a couple of session a student with special needs might need ten or fifteen practice sessions. Rather than spread that practice out over two or three weeks, students with special needs should get more than one practice session (of two or three minutes duration) each day. Remember, don’t make sessions much longer than three minutes or students will burn out.
  4. I would encourage special education teachers to provide their students with an extra practice session each day in the special education room as well as the one the students have in their regular classroom. I would also encourage special ed staff to work with the parents (or siblings) to show them how to do another practice at home each evening. If the parents of students with special needs can be recruited and trained to provide extra practice at home–done positively—it can make a huge difference in the rate of learning. Three short sessions each day would enable a student with learning difficulties to be able to pass in five or six days—within the expectations for all the other students.
  5. Check on their partner–they need the best partners!  It is very important that practice procedures for students with special needs be monitored and done exactly as written. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of the proper and complete correction procedure for these students. Besides teaching the parents or siblings how to do the practice, it might be valuable for special education staff to monitor how the practice sessions in class are going. Often students with special needs are not good at self-advocacy or leadership and if their in-class partners are not following the procedures the students with special needs will need help to correct the problem.
  6. Finally, we know that students with special needs have had a history of failure at academic tasks. Therefore they often lack perseverance and give up rather more easily than we’d like. This implies that students with special needs are more dependent upon the motivational procedures to keep them going. Unfortunately not all general education teachers make full use of Rocket Math’s built-in motivational procedures— such as coloring in the rocket chart, using the Rocket Math Wall Chart, or using the achievement awards. Students with special needs may need all of these things to keep them going and not giving up.
  7. The special education staff should work to provide some extra reinforcement if the homeroom teacher is not doing a lot. Even if there is no Wall Chart being used in the regular classroom, one could be put up in the special education room, and all the students on that teacher’s caseload could come in and put up star stickers as they pass levels in their regular classrooms. The special educator could set goals and have celebrations with his or her special needs students when the stickers pass the goal mark. In addition, a special education teacher can give out achievement awards to his or her students when earned, even if the general education students don’t normally get them in the classroom. One of the most important would be the “helper award” if the special needs student is getting practice at home.

While none of these things involves modifying the directions for students with special needs, it is important to use ALL the tools provided in Rocket Math to ensure the success of students with special needs. The extra effort involved in using all of the tools carefully may need to be undertaken by special education staff to make sure it all happens.

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