6 strategies teachers use to help kids who learn and think differently

A teacher is assisting one student with their writing in a classroom. The teacher smiles as the student holds a pencil.

At a glance

  • Teachers use different strategies to help students learn.

  • The best strategies are backed by research.

  • Some strategies are extra helpful for students who learn and think differently.

Your child’s teachers may use a variety of teaching strategies in their classrooms. But do these strategies help kids who learn and think differently?

There’s no one way for teachers to deliver instruction to their students. However, some strategies are backed by research and are more effective than others.

These approaches and techniques can benefit all students. But they’re especially helpful to kids who learn and think differently. They can make a big difference in how well struggling students take in and work with information. (Some may even be used as formal accommodations in and .)

You may have heard of one or more of these strategies from your child’s classroom or special education teachers. If not, you can ask the teachers whether they use the strategies and how you might adapt them to use at home.

Here are six common teaching strategies. Learn more about what they are and how they can help kids who learn and think differently.

1. Wait time

“Wait time” (or “think time”) is a three- to seven-second pause after a teacher says something or asks a question. Instead of calling on the first students who raise their hand, the teacher will stop and wait.

This strategy can help with the following issues:

  • Slow processing speed: For kids who process slowly, it may feel as though a teacher’s questions come at rapid-fire speed. “Wait time” allows kids to understand what the teacher asked and to think of a response.

  • ADHD: Kids with ADHD can benefit from wait time for the same reason. They have more time to think instead of calling out the first answer that comes to mind.

2. Multisensory instruction

Multisensory instruction is a way of teaching that engages more than one sense at a time. A teacher might help kids learn information using touch, movement, sight and hearing.

This way of teaching can help with these issues:

  • Dyslexia: Many programs for struggling readers use multisensory strategies. Teachers might have students use their fingers to tap out each sound in a word, for example. Or students might draw a word in the air using their arm.

  • Dyscalculia: Multisensory instruction is helpful in math, too. Teachers often use hands-on tools like blocks and drawings. These tools help kids to “see” math concepts. Adding 2 + 2 is more concrete when you combine four blocks in front of you. You may hear teachers refer to these tools as manipulatives.

  • Dysgraphia: Teachers also use multisensory instruction for handwriting struggles. For instance, students use the sense of touch when they write on “bumpy” paper.

  • ADHD: Multisensory instruction can help with different ADHD symptoms. That’s especially true if the technique involves movement. Being able to move can help kids burn excess energy. Movement can also help kids focus and retain new information.

3. Modeling

Most kids don’t learn simply by being told what to do. Teachers use a strategy called “I Do, We Do, You Do” to model a skill. The teacher will show how to do something (“I do”), such as how to do a math problem. Next, the teacher will invite kids to do a problem with the teacher (“we do”). Then, kids will try a math problem on their own (“you do”).

This strategy can help with these issues:

  • All learning and thinking differences: When used correctly, I Do, We Do, You Do can benefit all learners. That’s because a teacher can provide support during each phase. However, teachers must know what support to provide. They also need to know when students understand a concept well enough to work on their own. Think of it like riding a bike: The teacher needs to know when to take off the training wheels.

4. Graphic organizers

Graphic organizers are visual tools. They show information or the connection between ideas. They also help kids organize what they’ve learned or what they have to do. Teachers use these tools to “scaffold,” or provide support around, the learning process for struggling learners. (It’s the same idea as when workers put up scaffolding to help construct a building.)

There are many different kinds of graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams and flow charts. They can be especially helpful with these issues:

  • Dyscalculia: In math, graphic organizers can help kids break down math problems into steps. Kids can also use them to learn or review math concepts.

  • Dysgraphia: Teachers often use graphic organizers when they teach writing. Graphic organizers help kids plan their ideas and writing. Some also provide write-on lines to help kids space their words.

  • Executive functioning issues: Kids with weak executive skills can use these tools to organize information and plan their work. Graphic organizers can help kids condense their thoughts into short statements. This is useful for kids who often struggle to find the most important idea when taking notes.

5. One-on-one and small group instruction

One strategy that teachers use is to vary the size of the group they teach to. Some lessons are taught to the whole class. Others are better for a small group of students or one student. Learning in a small group or one-on-one can be very helpful to kids with learning and thinking differences.

Some kids are placed in small groups because of their IEPs or an intervention. But that’s not always the case. Teachers often meet with small groups or one student as a way to differentiate instruction. This means that they tailor the lesson to the needs of the student.

This strategy helps with:

  • Dyslexia: Students with dyslexia frequently meet in small group settings for reading. In the general classroom, teachers often work with a small group of kids at the same reading level or to focus on a specific skill. They might also meet because kids have a common interest in a book.

  • Dyscalculia: For kids with dyscalculia, teachers gather one or more students to practice skills that some students (but not the whole class) need extra help with.

  • Dysgraphia: In many classrooms, teachers hold “writing conferences.” They meet with students one-on-one to talk about their progress with what they’re writing. For students with dysgraphia, a teacher can use this opportunity to check in and focus on specific skills for that student.

  • ADHD and executive functioning issues: This type of instruction often takes place in settings with fewer distractions. The teacher can also help students stay on task and learn skills like self-monitoring.

  • Slow processing speed: Teachers can adjust the pace of instruction to give students the time they need to take in and respond to information. In these groups, teachers can focus on the priorities of the lesson so students have the time to grasp the most important concepts. Being in a focused setting may also help decrease the anxiety students feel in whole-class lessons.

6. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies

UDL is a type of teaching that gives all students flexible ways to learn and succeed. UDL strategies allow kids to access materials, engage with them and show what they know in different ways. There are many examples of how these strategies help kids who learn and think differently.

  • ADHD: UDL allows students to work in flexible learning environments. For students who struggle with inattention and distractibility, a teacher might allow a student to work in a quiet space away from the class. Or the student may want to wear earbuds or headphones.

  • Executive functioning issues: Following directions can be tough for kids with executive functioning issues. One UDL strategy is to give directions in more than one format. For instance, a teacher might give directions out loud and write them on the board.

  • Dyslexia: When teachers follow UDL principles, they present information in many different ways. For instance, instead of telling students they must read a book, they would be invited to listen to an audiobook. This removes a barrier for students who struggle with reading.

  • Dysgraphia: One UDL strategy is to give assignment choices. Kids with dysgraphia may struggle to show how much they know about history by writing an essay. But they may shine when delivering a presentation or acting out a historical skit.

To learn more about any of these teaching strategies, talk with your child’s teacher. Ask which strategies they use, whether they are evidence-based and how you might use them at home. 

Key takeaways

  • Some teaching strategies may be part of a child’s IEP or 504 plan.

  • The strategies aim to give kids needed support as they learn.

  • Talk with your child’s teachers about the strategies they use.


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