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A Case for High Quality Math Instruction for Students with Complex Needs

I would like to discuss a topic dear to me - the importance of high quality instruction for math students with complex cognitive needs. In the state of Vermont, these students tend to fall under the disability category of Intellectual Disability. My background in education is as a special educator. In my role as an ALN facilitator I continue to work with students with more complex needs or low incidence disabilities and the teachers and school districts who support them. (Low incidence disabilities are severe disabling conditions with an expected incidence rate of less than 1% of the total statewide school enrollment (IDEA, 2004). These categories can vary slightly, state to state, in how they are defined. Some students within the category of low incident have two or more disabilities - this is known as comorbidity. Students with complex cognitive needs may present with comorbid disabilities - one of which impacts cognitive functioning.) 

In the past when I would attend workshops, conferences and professional development, geared towards working with students with special needs, they would fall short of including the demographic of students I served. I would leave these training sessions frustrated because the needs of “my” students were not represented.  One of the reasons I joined the ranks at All Learners Network, is the true commitment to the idea that ALL students should have access to high quality math instruction, including students with low incidence disabilities. 

So why does this matter? 

A brief history lesson. 

Ann Donnellan (1984) introduced the phrase Least Dangerous Assumption (LDA), into the lexicon of education. LDA is the idea that, when planning for students with complex cognitive needs, educators must operate under the assumption that is least dangerous to the long-term future of the student. This means that educators should avoid placing limitations on a student’s abilities without conclusive evidence and data about what the student can or cannot accomplish. When educators make plans and decisions through a deficit-based lens of assumption, without data to support their thoughts, they limit that student’s access to opportunities, instruction, and choice. Donnellan further enlightened educators to the notion that, if a student does not perform well in school, the quality of instruction should be questioned before the student’s ability to learn. Donnellan’s concept of LDA had a profound and lasting impact in the field of education. 

How does this relate to math?

High quality math instruction should empower students to reason, justify, and make sense of the math content they are learning. Jo Boaler stated, “Explaining one’s work is a mathematical practice, called reasoning, that is at the heart of the discipline. … Mathematicians propose theories and reason about their mathematical pathways, justifying the logical connections they have made between ideas” (2016). It is not yet a common practice that students with complex cognitive needs are asked to engage in discourse around their mathematical thinking. 

Often mathematical instruction for students with low incidence disabilities is process oriented, limiting students to rely on procedural knowledge. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Mathematics (2010) reminds us, “To help students meet the [math] standards, educators will need to pursue, with equal intensity, three aspects of rigor in the major work of each grade: conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application.” Yet students with low independence disabilities tend to have their math learning confined to a procedural silo, thus lowering the academic rigor, and denying these students their right to the LDA of their abilities.

The reasons for lowered expectations and less rigorous mathematical understandings for students with complex needs can vary. The communication, motor, and cognitive differences of students with complex needs can be challenging to unpack. While these can be seen as potential obstacles for rich mathematical discourse, students should not be deprived access to engage in high quality math instruction. There is a lot of work to be done around teaching math to students with complex cognitive needs. The current body of research is sparse at best, creating an extra set of challenges for educators to know how best to teach math to students with complex needs. 

The pedagogy for teaching Mathematics has changed in the last twenty years. More access to and knowledge of professional development opportunities in math instruction would help educators support the learning of all students. Current math standards expect students to engage in mathematical discourse. Teachers need a means to help all students engage in rich math conversations. 

How do we do this work?

Along with tools to support the communication needs of complex learners, teachers need mathematical content knowledge, or access to support with content, when their own knowledge is lacking.  Teachers need the support of others to help problem solve and collaborate on providing high quality math instruction.  

In the meantime… 

Acknowledging the need to collectively raise the bar on math instruction for students with complex needs is step one in the right direction. Structuring activities that encourage discourse and questioning will help all students learn the value of their own thinking.  The idea, that when working with students with significant disabilities, we must assume they are competent and able to learn, is the heart of LDA.