In working with students with special needs on math programming and services, a common and important issue is that the student is behind and there is a tension between math intervention to fill gaps and addressing ongoing grade level content.
Unpacking the situation
There is no single grade level for math, as is the case for reading. Math progression is more like a web, not a line. For example, if a student can do 5th grade geometry but only 3rd grade level fractions, do we average out the grade level math to be 4th grade? (No.) Do we identify the student as working at a 3rd grade level? (No.) 5th grade level? (No.)
Like a suitcase, there is a capacity to the daily time a student has for school services. I often encounter situations in which the services recommended involve the student working on grade level content and catching up on the gaps during support time. If the student has only been learning 75% of the math content each year, he or she needs that support time to help learn the new content to get closer to 100%. There is too much being stuffed into the suitcase. Something has to give.
Use triage to shift focus to the priority topics. For example, the parents of a student in 7th grade but working on math from lower grade levels wanted to pursue a math track that would allow the student to go to community college. I mapped out a long range plan (image below) that focuses on algebra as that is the type of math most likely encountered in a math requirement. Here is another plan which was to prepare a student to possibly work in a field related to cars.
A widespread problem at the secondary level is addressing basic skills deficiencies – gaps from elementary school. For example, I often encounter students in algebra 1 or even higher level math who cannot compute problems like 5÷2. Often the challenges arise from learned helplessness developed over time.
How do we address this in the time allotted to teach a full secondary level math course? We cannot devote class instruction time to teach division and decimals. If we simply allow calculator use we continue to reinforce the learned helplessness.
I offer a 2 part suggestion.
Periodically use chunks of class time allocated for differentiation. I provide a manilla folder to each student (below left) with an individualized agenda (below right, which shows 3 s agendas with names redacted at the top). Students identified through assessment as having deficits in basic skills can be provided related instruction, as scheduled in their agenda. Other students can work on identified gaps in the current course or work on SAT problems or other enrichment type of activities.
Provide instruction on basic skills that is meaningful and is also provided in a timely fashion. For example, I had an algebra 2 student who had to compute 5÷2 in a problem and immediately reached for his calculator. I stopped him and presented the following on the board (below). In a 30 second conversation he quickly computed 4 ÷ 2 and then 1 ÷ 2. He appeared to understand the answer and this was largely because it was in a context he intuitively understood. This also provided him immediate feedback on how to address his deficit (likely partially a learned behavior). The initial instruction in a differentiation setting would be similar.
In math, many students with special needs fall behind. What results is a Catch-22 in programming and services. If the student is provided extra time to work on the gaps, he or she likely falls behind with current content. If the student is provided extra time to receive support for current topics, the gaps are not addressed
In both cases the extra support time can actually be counterproductive.
The focus on gaps likely results in the student working on different math topics which in effect means the student has TWO math classes – just what a student with math anxiety doesn’t need.
The focus on current topics means the student is trying to learn math topics for which he or she doesn’t have the prerequisite skills needed.
I recommend identifying the prerequisite skills for a current math topic and address ing these skills concurrently in math support or during the summer. For example, I used a Common Core coherence map (top photo below) to identify Common Core prerequisite standards for the standards a student faces in her upcoming school year. Then I listed these with each grade level standard (bottom photo below). The prerequisite skills can be identified using a task analysis approach as well.
This approach allows for a systematic approach to fill in gaps and to prioritize when they are to be addressed. When implemented effectively, the student can see the immediate benefit of the support time – it helps them in math class. Even better, the support teacher can match instruction and work with what is covered in math class.