Inspiring Motivation for Special Needs Students

Illustration of male teacher in a purple business suit on a ladder placing stars in the sky.

Special education teachers work tirelessly to inspire their students and help them succeed. Over the years, special education teachers have developed some creative methods that can provide motivation for students with special needs. In this article, we’ll focus on the strategies geared toward students with learning disabilities, like focusing on their strengths, incorporating technology and creating reasonable expectations.

Motivation for Special Needs Students

Focus on Strengths

Every student has a preferred method of learning and excels in certain subjects. As a teacher, you can find little ways to motivate them every day by maximizing their strengths. Toby Karten, author of “Building on the Strengths of Students with Special Needs: How to Move Beyond Disability Labels in the Classroom,” used the example of a student with dyslexia who struggles with reading and writing but excels at public speaking. By allowing that student to give oral presentations instead of essays, you can create a positive learning environment that encourages students with learning disabilities to learn in the style that fits them best.  

To better understand the educational needs of your students, consider giving them a strengths assessment. The Council for Exceptional Children’s High Leverage Practices in Special Education provides an assessment called the HLP4 that helps teachers to create a “comprehensive learner profile.” A profile would include data from parents, former teachers, and more. With an individualized student profile in hand, you can prepare the best learning environment for each child in the classroom

Create Reasonable Goals

Creating achievable goals for students is a common activity for teachers, but did you know it can also motivate your students with learning disabilities?  According to an article written by Dale S. Brown, speaker and author, setting goals is often a struggle for special needs students. She wrote it can be “hard for them to plan ahead, to start and stop what they wish to do, and to monitor their behavior.” She went on to explain that, often, goals are imposed on special needs students that are unrealistic and unattainable. “The school system and society set goals for them — such as getting good grades and performing well on standardized tests — that challenge them in their area of disability. When they do not receive proper accommodation, they get discouraged and lose confidence.”

You can create realistic goals and expectations with your students using the SMART strategy. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. According to an article on LD Online, developing SMART goals for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) can help special education teachers “identify gaps in skills,” so they know where to focus their lessons with the students. With realistic goals and clear expectations, special needs students know what’s expected of them and that they can achieve success in the classroom.

Remind Students of Personal Achievements

When students are reminded of their accomplishments, big or small, it can encourage them to be successful at similar or more difficult tasks in the future as well as help raise their self-esteem. According to an article from nonprofit organization GreatSchools, telling students they came up with a great idea during a lesson or applauding them for staying focused during class can give them a boost in attitude.

David A. Sousa’s book, “How the Special Needs Brain Learns, Third Edition,” stated that raising a student’s self-esteem on its own doesn’t directly correlate to increased academic performance. However, when their self-esteem is tied to a sense of personal responsibility in academic achievement, there is more evidence of greater motivation in students with special needs.

Be Creative Within a Structure

Special needs students can lose motivation from the same daily lesson plans week after week, so it can be beneficial to get creative with your lessons and tailor them to specific classes. At the same time, it’s important to keep a structure around the daily schedule. According to an article from Scholastic, preschool teacher Robin Barlak works with special needs children and has a consistent schedule every day to maintain consistency. Within the segmented lesson times, though, she changes up the lesson plans. Providing a change of pace could help freshen things up for the students and keep them excited and motivated to keep learning at school.

This may sound more difficult in theory than it is in practice. For example, when giving a lesson with a writing assignment, you could discuss the SOAPSTone strategy. SOAPSTone stands for Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, and Tone, and it breaks down how to effectively craft a composition. This strategy enables students to be creative and come up with their own stories within the structure of a writing assignment from a teacher.

Utilize Technology

Just as technology has been used to narrow the achievement gap among traditional students, it can also help special needs students perform better in school. Kathryn Nieves, a teacher of middle school students with special needs, wrote in an Edutopia article that she uses Google Classroom and other Google technology in class. After putting an assignment online, students can choose to complete it through multiple avenues, such as by creating a video or a slideshow.

By utilizing the technology at their disposal, special needs students are provided more choices on how to complete assignments in the way that works for them best. “Students are given the freedom to demonstrate their knowledge in their own way and tend to feel more invested in learning because of the choices they are given,” Nieves wrote.

Inspire and Motivate Your Students

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