Teaching Special Education Math: Strategies and Sample Problems

If a child is in a special education math program, he or she will learn math topics tailored to his or her ability. In most special ed math classes, teachers customize material according to each child's Individual Education Program (IEP). Innovative teaching methods are used to help children in special ed learn more effectively.

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How to Teach Math to Special Ed Children

Informal Instructional Strategies

The following are a few basic strategies to keep in mind when working with a child in special ed.

  1. Define your child's strengths and build around them.
  2. Find out your child's reasoning for doing a problem a certain way.
  3. Have your child estimate an answer before computing it.
  4. Encourage questions.
  5. Provide time, and any necessary materials, to help your child think about what you just taught (one step at a time). Special ed children often need this time to process what they've learned. Remember - and help your child to remember - that instantaneous thinking isn't necessarily good thinking.

Formal Instructional Strategies

There are numerous formal instructional strategies for teaching special education math, most of which can be implemented by parents to reinforce school instruction. Find which strategies will be most helpful for your child and most easily used by you, the parent. In addition, you may want to only use one or two strategies per lesson. Some basic strategies are:

CRA Instruction

CRA stands for Concrete-Representational-Abstract, which outlines the method for teaching a new concept. You first use concrete, hands-on manipulative objects (such as base-ten blocks or pattern blocks) to demonstrate the concept you're teaching. Then, you demonstrate with visual, semi-concrete representations (e.g., tallies, dots, stars). Finally, you move on to the abstract - numbers and math symbols. Make sure your child understands the connection between the abstract concept and the concrete, hands-on materials.


Break each skill or concept taught into learnable steps and then demonstrate these in ways that include auditory, visual, kinesthetic (activities that involve physical movement) and tactile (touch) presentations. It is helpful for your child to be involved in the presentation and demonstration, because her involvement is actually part of her learning experience. Be sure to show enthusiasm and keep an energetic pace. Periodically question your child and have him teach the concept back you (to assess understanding).

Authentic Contexts

Find a real-life context to match a concept. The real-world connection should be meaningful to your child and her interests, age and experiences. For example, if you're teaching her about greater than/less than, you could compare the number of blue cars to the number of red cars in the street. Similarly, you can practice multiplication and division by changing a recipe that makes 12 servings into one that makes four servings or vice versa.

Purchase a Curriculum

Some curriculums are easier to adapt to special ed math students than others. You should look for features like:

• Straightforward, understandable instruction
• A logical presentation of topics and skills, with lots of repetition
• Step-by-step instructions for your initial presentation of a topic, as well as for practice and review (some curriculums are presented online and do the teaching for you)
• A way to monitor progress frequently

Sample Problems

Problems for special education math students aren't necessarily different from those for general education math students. However, special ed students may do more problems for one topic before moving on to another, making their overall progress a bit slower. Other accommodations that may need to be made (and which would probably also benefit most regular students) include:

  • Repeating, clarifying and rewording each point of a lesson; doing the same for directions on a test
  • Always including manipulative objects both in demonstration and for the student to use; allowing students to use the manipulatives when taking a test
  • Always having the students use graph paper to do their work; this can help them organize their work

Below are example problems and the different teaching methods necessary for special education students.

1. You've taught your child the basics of what addition means. He has used manipulatives to further his understanding. Now, you give him worksheets to practice what he has learned. (Special education students might need more than six worksheets, while regular students may only need one practice worksheet.) The first worksheet includes addition facts up to five. Problems could include:

1 + 0 =
5 + 4 =
4 + 3 = and so on.

The first one would include all of the '0 + _ =' problems, but in a mixed order on the page. The first page's problems would include:

5 + 0 =
0 + 7 =
0 + 0 =
9 + 0 = and so on.

The second worksheet would focus on the '+ 1' facts with a few '+ 0' problems included. Each worksheet would progress in similar fashion. The final worksheet would include problems from each level up to five.

2. Children with regular math abilities may easily be able to learn which numbers are even and odd by learning to count by twos starting with zero. However, when learning about even and odd numbers, special education students may need to visualize and figure each problem separately. One way to teach this concept is to have your child put small circles or dots on a paper.

If she's counting to six, she puts one dot on the paper and another dot below that (counting: one, two). Then, put a dot beside the top one and a dot below it (counting: three, four). Repeating the process once more (counting: five, six). When finished, the student can see that both rows have the same number of dots (:::); this means it is an even number.

If the number given is seven, the student would follow the same steps. However, the top row would have four dots in it and the bottom row only three. Therefore, seven is an odd number. Students can know that no matter how long a number is, only the last digit tells whether it is even or odd. Coupled with learning to count by twos, special education students should gradually be able to remember the numbers and not need to use the dot drawings to help.

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