Teaching math in high school in a special education classroom

More and more I hear teachers tell me they are being expected to teach higher level math concepts to their high school students. Topics like functions, linear equations, geometry, coordinate graphing, and even advanced algebra are all requests I have gotten over the last few months. The sad reality is that these teachers are rarely given anything more than a list of standards to follow. Why? There is just very little material out there to support students with significant disabilities in the middle and high school range. So what are you to do?

In this post, I want to give you some concrete, actionable tips to use and remember before jumping into these more advanced math topics. More importantly, I want you to see it is possible with the right tools and support, even your most affected students can work through these standards and gain some knowledge and understanding that may benefit them in the future. And, of course, I will have some free downloads for you to try if you still are not convinced.

1. Pre-requisite skills

Ok, let’s face it, most of the topics I mentioned above have a laundry list of pre-requisite math skills a student would need to have in order to be successful. In addition, 99% of the students coming into high school just do not have them. It is a tough conundrum to solve for sure. But, there is a simple solution, have a mind shift about what those pre-requisite skills really are.

You will never, ever be able to go back and teach all the math skills necessary to solve a linear function equation. But that does not mean you cannot still teach your students how to complete a simple function table. And, if you can get them to do that, they are right on the precipice of solving a linear equation.

Meet your students WHERE THEY ARE. Rather than trying to go back and teach all the skills they never were exposed to or never learned, figure out how to use the skills they do have to teach them this material. Sounds impossible? Let’s take functions as an example.

So here is the standard: F.IF.1c Identify the input or output of a function given in table form. (see the complete standards for this unit HERE) A standard function table may look like this:

But what if you could make it look like this:

And not only that, what if you used actual objects and a real-life function machine. (I made this one while in the classroom, and used it for so many things. The kids loved it. CLICK HERE) With enough practice and creativity, many of your students will start to understand the input/output concept.

Still struggling, try moving away from quantities and leveraging those skills they do have. Like this table:

Function table with colors

As special ed teachers we are so good at thinking outside of the box!! Even with these more advanced standards we just need to get even more creative. Be sure to download my free set of function worksheets at the end of this post.

2. Vocabulary

As we introduce these higher level concepts, I find it so helpful to take a step back and really focus on vocabulary. As much as possible, I would encourage you to use the REAL words. Do not make up cute replacements that you think will be easier for students to remember. Instead, use simple pictures to pair with these curriculum based words.

Functions vocabulary cards.

I know so many students who have learned very sophisticated words for items that are highly desirable to them. Since most, if not all, of this content will be new let’s just start off with the correct vocabulary.

Play games, practice daily, and be consistent with your use of words and symbols to deepen their understanding of this new and challenging material.

3. Real world examples

This one is probably fairly obvious to many of you. When you start on a new topic, try to relate it to items and processes your students are already familiar with.

A snack machine is really just a function machine.

Again, we may need to think outside of the box but it makes such a difference. Google searches were my best friend when trying to come up with ideas for some of these more advanced units. There is so much out there, it just takes some time to hunt it down.

4. Repetition and re-teaching

So, if you have followed my blog for any time or purchased any of my resources, you know how I feel about repetition. It is absolutely crucial and should never be taken for granted. When I create these high level units, I not only make tons of worksheets (probably way more than is necessary), but I also strongly encourage teachers to use them more than once.

This is likely a brand new skill, and it will take many, many, many trials to master. Now, I do like to add some variation to the mix. Change up the objects, the quantities, the colors, even just changing the font all adds to the variety and increases the likelihood of generalization. So, repetition with variety is HUGE!!

How much time to spend on re-teaching? That is a question that can be hard to answer. If your students just do really horrible on the assessment, then I would definitely go back and re-teach for at least a week. But, here is the key: if you give the assessment BEFORE starting the topic as a pre-assessment, then you have a much better idea if there was any growth. I would often have students who only got 3 out of 10 correct on the assessment. Sounds awful right? But, they had only 1 correct on the pre-assessment. Guess what?! That is 200% growth. Without that pre-assessment piece I might feel really discouraged and spend way too much time re-teaching. How much growth is enough? Only you can decide that.

5. Using pictures

So as you saw in the function table example, you can insert pictures in the place of numbers and letters as much as possible. A program I used, Hands on Equations, did a great job of this. (You can see a YouTube video about that HERE.)

Compare these two worksheets:

You may have some students than can complete this function table with the numbers. But, more likely, you have students who are not even able to read much above a 1st – 2nd grade level. Could they do the worksheet with pictures? Same exact problem, just less pre-requisite knowledge needed. I know they would need support of course, but you are more likely to make some connections and gain some independence with the second worksheet.

Hopefully, by now I have inspired you to try it. At the very least, I hope I have eased that sense of panic you may have had as your administrator handed you these “new” standards that had to be addressed. It is absolutely possible!! And, if you still feel like you have no way to put all that together, I have you covered!! I have lots of advanced math units in my store ready to download, print, and go. Use your energy on the teaching rather than the creating. Click HERE to see all the units I have specifically for middle and high school.

Now, about that free download. Just click the button below to grab my set of function table worksheet. Then, watch your email for some more function freebies!!

Free function table download using pictures in place of numbers.
Grab these FREE below

Take a look a this video that covers my Functions and Linear Equations Unit. Get it now, click HERE.

Get this unit HERE

Halloween Roundup

It is a holiday many of us fear as teachers.  There are so many differing opinions on this holiday.  What is and is not appropriate to teach?  And then there is all that candy!!  I’ve put together this group of resources, tips, blog posts and more to help you get through this spooky day.  So grab your pillowcase and Wonder Woman mask, and come along with me!  Just click on the pictures to go to that activity.

Math Resources

From Susan Jones Teaching, I found this group of 3 math counting games ready to download and print for free.  You will need to pick up a few things from the dollar store to make the most of these games, but would be totally worth it for something you could use year after year.

Who doesn’t love free printables. This pumpkin seed math activity is perfect for practicing counting with your kids. I love the idea of using real pumpkin seeds with it too!

From Grade School Giggles, here is a free pumpkin seed counting activity.  You will likely want to do some laminating to make these more durable, but then you will have them year after year.  Great activity for Thanksgiving as well!

FREE Boo Bump Halloween Math Game (Addition)

From SunnyDays, there is this super cute bump Bingo game.  Basically, the kids roll three dice, add the sum and cover the answer with their marker.  Just print and go!

ELA Resources

Pumpkin Book Report Ideas - Adorable pumpkin book report ideas for teachers, students, and parents.

From Keeping Up with Mrs. Harris, comes some great ideas for decorating your little pumpkins to look like your favorite story character.  Some really clever ideas here!

From Special Needs for Special Kids (me ;)), I have a free cut and paste or tracing spelling free download to snag.  There are 2 differentiated versions.

Free Halloween Wordsearch Activity & Writing Prompts

For your older students, grab these awesome word searches from Tracee Orman.

Science Resources


From Literacy Lattes,  is a super fun and easy experiment you can do with all that left over candy corn.  The directions are well explained and there is a free lab guide to download.

Free Spider Activities

A Classroom for All Seasons, has this amazing free download that has some great spider activities!!  A nice resource for Halloween without actually teaching about the holiday.

Haunted Hallowe'en Hand Melt - happy hooligans

From Happy Hooligans, come this super cool (pun intended) experiment that combines fine motor and sensory experiences all in one activity.  There is a lot to learn with this seemingly simple set up.  Perfect for the upcoming spooky day!!

Art, Fine Motor, & Sensory

Easy No-Mess Pumpkin Art

From Teaching 2 and 3 year olds, I included this activity to address that sensory component so many of our special kiddos have.  I also like that is is fairly  mess free and allows for a lot of independence.  Finally, it in not dependent on strong motor skills.  Accessible for every ability level.

Slime, goo, GAK, silly-putty….Whatever you call it, goo is fun! These “Franken-Slime” cups are a great project to do with the kids. There’s a writing freebie and ideas for cross-curricular integration too!

From Grade School Giggles, comes this easy recipe for that all-favorite slime.  Again, the directions give great tips to make this mess-free and really plays into those sensory needs.  In addition, there are some free downloads to make the most of this activity by pulling in science, writing and more.

Here are 7 fun and exciting fine motor activities for fall. Perfect Halloween, pumpkin, and Autumn fine motor activities for kids in preschool, pre-k, tot school and kindergarten.

From Early Learning Ideas comes 7 fine motor bins you can easily set up for your classroom this month.  There are also 2 tracing templates to download for free at the end of the post.

If Keywords Don’t Work, Then What?

Full disclosure: I used keywords when teaching my students how to solve word problems.

I had a K-5 classroom for students with autism.  There were so many different learning styles and needs just within my small class.  In addition, these students, for the most part, were severely affected.  Many did not speak, most did not read,  and some were working at a preschool or lower academic level.  The issue was: some of these students were in 4th and 5th grades.  I felt compelled to somehow teach grade level content.  It seemed hard for me to imagine some of them ever having to solve a problem like:

The train left the station at 7:45 pm going 65 mph.  If Smallville is 75 miles away, what time will the train get there?

But, some might have to solve:

You want to make brownies.  You need to add 1/2 cup of flour in the beginning and 1/2 cup of flour at the end.  How much flour will you need to make the brownies?

So, after some preliminary research, I grabbed onto the idea of using keywords.  I made every student a Keyword index card.    It looked like this:

Aviary Photo_130903504506521925

We would take the word problem, and not even read it.  We would just look for a KEYWORD.  Then the students would highlight it.  Boy did they LOVE to highlight things.  Then we would circle any numbers we found and put them together using the operation from the correct column where they had found the keyword.  It seemed like such a great strategy, until I came across this problem on the end of year test:

I had 5 apples in my basket on Monday. On Tuesday I increased the amount of apples so now I have 7 altogether. How many apples did I add on Tuesday?

Using my strategy, my students happily highlighted the word altogether, found it on their card and completed the problem:

5 + 7 = 12  I had 12 apples on Tuesday!!

They were so sure, so proud of themselves, and of course so wrong.

I so wish this strategy would have worked.  For students with autism and other significant disabilities, they really need a way to make things that are abstract more concrete or black and white.  I still believe that, but now I know a better way to make that happen.

  • First, you have to truly embrace and believe this is a worthwhile skill to teach to as many of your students as possible.
  • Second, you have to realize that because this is truly a difficult skill even for our typical students, it will take lots and lots of practice.  Really, LOTS and LOTS of practice.
  • Third, you need to bring in manipulatives to help the students turn this abstract problem into something more tactile that they can set up and understand.
  • Fourth, the problems need to be real.  You should use problems that are practical and make sense to the students you are teaching.  This will allow them to activate prior knowledge and make new connections that will help them solve word problems for years to come.

So, let’s look at how to work through a word problem with your students in a more appropriate and successful (not necessarily quick and easy) way.

Joe is allowed to watch 4 hours of TV at night.  He has already watched 2 hours of TV.  How many more house of TV can Joe watch?

This problem addresses a very real situation that your students may find themselves in.  There are two ways to approach this problem:  as a subtraction problem AND as an addition problem.  It is important to use both methods if possible to expand your students’ true understanding of what is happening.  Let’s work through it as an addition problem.

  1. READ through the problem.
  2. Talk through what is happening in general terms.
  3. Come up with some general estimates of an answer.  For example, would it be reasonable to say Joe can watch 5 more hours of TV?  Why or why not.  This step really helps you assess if the students are grasping what the problem is really about.
  4. Using a work mat, set up the problem using manipulatives.  I like to use a sticky note for the operation.  That way the work mat is always the same, and the student can choose the operation he/she wants to use to solve the problem.Aviary Photo_130903520626126502

5. Have students talk about and share with each other how they decided to set up their manipulatives.  The more they can explain what they are doing, the better they truly understand it.         Aviary Photo_1309035208021172476.  After talking through the solution, have students write the number sentence that represents the answer to the problem.                                                                       7.  Finally, have students check their work by solving the problem and seeing if it makes sense.

I am sure to many of you who teach severely affected students, this may sound way too complicated or even absurd.  But I challenge you to try it.  Students will only rise to the expectations that we set, and wouldn’t it be tragic if we set the bar too low.

If you would like more resources on solving word problems, including:

  • Even more suggestions, like how to incorporate your really low learners
  • Small group practice problems
  • Worksheets that follow the same format as the work mat

Click on the pictures below:

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