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by Randi Downs
National Faculty

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Topic tags: special needs, Gold Standard


March 8, 2016
Confidence: Another Success Skill for Students with Disabilities

by Randi Downs
National Faculty

As teachers of exceptional learners facilitate learning in a Project Based Learning culture, there is continuous opportunity for reflection around instruction. Not a coaching session goes by without me hearing the following: “How much are they really getting?” “Are they grasping the content and concepts?” Is inquiry truly a path they can follow?” “Am I breaking it down enough?” We also ask questions about our students who express themselves differently. We look into their eyes and we listen as they tap out responses, wondering how we might give Voice and Choice where there is none.

As those questions fill our reflective space, my role as a coach is to invite these teachers to cull some data, and to place themselves in a proverbial balcony where they might look down on the classroom during a PBL experience. When asked to do this recently, Kristen, a speech therapist working with high school students with disabilities, recalled a time they were baking cookies to feed the homeless as part of their current project, “Feeding the Hungry.” 

The first batch of cookies didn’t pass inspection (they had learned about quality control at a supermarket bakery), so the students had to start from scratch. During instruction, Kristen placed her hand over a young man’s hand so that he might feel the motion of the task. He went on to successfully prepare an entire tray without assistance; furthermore, Kristen watched as he utilized “hand over hand” instruction with a peer so that she too could properly crisscross the cookies. He was a confident collaborator!

This young baker was able to share his craft with a peer, while his teacher was able to assess collaboration between two individuals. “The little things are so big,” stated another teacher in our group. We need to remember that, especially on the tough days. Every small gain is cause for celebration, and these teachers agree that PBL instruction paves the way for students with disabilities as they develop into confident, collaborative, critical thinkers while also providing a platform on which to target specific success skills.

“This is what happens when the staff steps back!” exclaimed the teachers during our coaching session, adding that PBL provides the opportunity to teach and assess individual strengths while student-centered inquiry requires learners to stay on a topic until it is mastered. Structured PBL doesn’t allow you to just “cover” content; a well-planned project encourages students to dig in, to stay with a concept until meaning is grasped. Because without conceptual understanding, it is difficult to provide an authentic answer to a challenging question, isn’t it? “Digging in” builds confidence.

Another project arose when our Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services (OCM-BOCES) Transition program was moved to the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland campus. Anxiety soared as students struggled with how to navigate this new space. From that trepidation came a challenge. Student inquiry led to the question, “How can we design a product that will help new students to the program function more independently on campus?” 

With teacher guidance, the students began to ask more questions: “Where do we begin?” “What information should we include?” ”What should we call our directory?”  Students and teachers discussed buildings they found intriguing (especially interesting, of course, was where to eat!). They also like to ride the campus bus, so that too will be in the directory. They have learned that a bus comes to the stop every five minutes, but the bus with wheelchair access doesn’t come as often, which is extremely important for some members of the group.

The students are inquiring about what matters to them and what they believe will matter to other students: transportation, dining, academics, and recreation. They have created a word wall as they come across new terms that will frame community life after school. Each student is going to a separate location on campus, taking a picture with an iPad and interviewing someone who works there. Essential information will be compiled into a campus directory, which will be used by future Transition students.

As students collect and create, confidence abounds! At the end of our coaching session, one teacher shared that, while walking to the college dining hall the other day, she looked up and realized that the students were all walking together, talking, laughing, far ahead of the adults. Project Based Learning builds confidence and gives a voice to all learners! You just need to stand in the “balcony” once in a while to see it.

Do you have questions, advice, or stories to share about using PBL for students with disabilities or in Special Education? Please make a comment below!


  • What a great reminder for us educators to sometimes step back and get out of the way of the learning process. I especially like the imagery of putting myself in the “balcony” instead of on the sidelines!  Sometimes we need to stop being the coach, but become the audience.

    Simone84 on March 17, 2016 
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