6 Tips to Help Students with Special Needs Focus: Help Students with Learning Difficulties Stay on Task With These Six Proven Strategies

6 Tips to Help Students with Special Needs Focus: Help Students with Learning Difficulties Stay on Task With These Six Proven Strategies
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Bonnie starts the night looking for her ruler. She’s a 12-year-old with ADHD, and she wants to complete her geometry homework. But as she searches her room, she discovers some unfinished puzzles under the bed and remembers that her parents asked her to complete them and put them away. She starts the puzzles, and by the time she finishes, it’s too late to do geometry or any of her other homework.

This is a pretty typical night for many students with learning disabilities. Nothing derails their progress quite like disorganization. It can have a domino effect, turning what could have been an evening full of homework into a lost night.

But if a student like Bonnie doesn’t bring her homework one day, she can’t follow along with the lecture or learn from mistakes in her work. Falling behind in class for just a few days could snowball into poor grades, rising frustration, and low self-esteem — which, in turn, could lead to more serious issues, such as truancy, grade retention, and dropping out.

Making positive changes at home starts at school. Smart classroom strategies can help you teach and reinforce the organizational skills students need to succeed at school, stay on track at home, and prepare for long-term success. Here’s how to help students get and stay organized:

Strategies to Help Students

1. Organize your physical space. Physical reminders make work seem less abstract for students. For example, to-do folders on their desks and a classroom tray for completed homework can help them mark their progress. Similarly, classroom zones dedicated to specific tasks and well-organized storage can help students find the tools they need to start work and stay focused once they do. Consider creating a reading corner or a math station, and organize classroom materials by subject in totes or bins.

2. Get colorful. Color-coding goes a long way in helping children with disabilities distinguish subjects and prioritize tasks. You could mark each subject with a specific color. If you use yellow notebooks for math, cover your math textbooks in yellow paper. Do the same with blue for English books and notebooks. Or you could help students keep track of deadlines by using green for tasks with far-off deadlines, yellow for tasks with fast-approaching deadlines, and red for overdue tasks.

3. Check it off. Simply remembering assignments can be a huge struggle for special education students. Even after finishing homework, they often forget to bring it to school. Give each student a weekly or daily checklist, and create a classroom checklist on a large board in a high-traffic area. Verbally and visually reinforce the deadlines on these checklists whenever possible, and make a ritual of ticking tasks off of the class board to show students the satisfaction of a job well done.

4. Create and stick to a routine. Time management can be difficult for students with learning disabilities to grasp. They often struggle to focus on the task at hand or estimate how much time each task should take.

A firm routine will help. Schedule your day into blocks with set times for each activity. Post the schedule in a highly visible classroom location, and create rituals to mark the beginning and end of each block. These rituals can be as simple as crossing off a completed block or moving an arrow down the board to mark your place in the day.

5. Provide rewards. Reinforce good behavior to help students develop the right habits. Rewards come in many forms — from something as tangible as a grade to something as easy as a compliment. Doing this for basic responsibilities may seem unnecessary, but regular tasks are actually the most important to reinforce. When children feel good about doing something, they’re more likely to develop a habit.

6. Engage the parents. You only spend eight hours a day with your students. Their parents play a huge role in shaping what habits they pick up during the other 16 hours. Emphasize the importance of this partnership in a phone call or personal email to each child’s parents. Then, help them track their child’s progress by sending home a daily notebook or folder with details about assignments and difficulties their child is facing.

Modeling and reinforcing good organization starts with simple steps. Consider Bonnie’s story again. Color-coded geometry materials and a clear checklist might have helped her remember that her homework was due the next day. Looking forward to a compliment from her teacher and the routine of putting her homework in the classroom inbox might have kept her motivated. And engaged parents might have checked in with her to make sure she did the homework.

Every student works differently, so as you adopt these strategies, take the time to assess what does and does not work for each of your students. Be creative with your approach, trying out different methods until you find what fits your classroom. You have the power to create lasting change and set your students up for success.

About the Author: Rebecca Dean is the president of Tiny Tots Therapy Inc. and a partner in Therapy Nook and Kids Blvd. She earned her degree in occupational therapy from Kean University, and she’s certified and trained in sensory integration. Rebecca believes in a holistic therapeutic approach and realizes that alternative methods, combined with traditional therapy, allow children to acquire functional and developmental skills and retain them.