Teaching Elementary Social Studies to Students with Mild Disabilities


Howard E. Taylor and Susan M. Larson

The challenge of teaching social studies to young students with mild disabilities is important for at least three reasons: (1) public policy now mandates (through IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997) that special education students be mainstreamed into the regular classroom at all grade levels;1 (2) children with mild disabilities are more likely to be mainstreamed during the elementary years than at any other time; and, (3) a majority of elementary social studies teachers may not be adequately prepared to address the needs of children with mild disabilities, given that the typical teacher preparation program only requires one course on special education, and this is usually very broad. In this article, we briefly explain what mild disabilities are and how preK-6 social studies teachers might be able to address some of the needs of these students with resources already at hand.


What Are Mild Disabilities?

Mild disabilities is the term used to encompass mainly four disabling conditions: learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, mild mental retardation, and other health impairments, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. About 1.5 million students aged 6-11 receive services as students with mild disabilities (out of a total of 2.7 million with disabilities in this age group in the United States).2 In an audience of one hundred 6-11 year old students, chances are that about six or seven will have a mild disability of some sort.

n Children with learning disabilities (LD) exhibit deficits in language processing (for example, visual and auditory processing, organizing and memorizing information, and oral/written expression). Children with learning disabilities generally function at an average or above average intellectual capacity, but display a significant discrepancy between their potential and school achievement in one or more academic areas. About 40% of disabled children aged 6-11 are diagnosed as having learning disabilities.3 Specific learning disabilities, like dyslexia, that were originally attributed to a student just being a “slow learner” are now being diagnosed more precisely, and appropriate teaching and learning strategies are becoming more widely known among educators.4



Over the last twenty years, students with mild disabilities have gone from being all but excluded from general education classrooms to being almost totally included.9 Children with mild disabilities are mainstreamed into content areas in which it is anticipated that they will be successful. They are frequently mainstreamed into the social studies while being excluded from other disciplines (such as mathematics and the language arts), possibly because social studies has traditionally been perceived to be “less relevant” than other subjects or because standardized tests in a given state may not emphasize (or may not measure knowledge of) social studies content.10 Furthermore, students with disabilities are often integrated into social studies classrooms merely for exposure to peers who do not have disabilities.11 However narrow such reasoning might be, the end result—a more diverse group of students in the classroom—is a goal worth striving for, and it can even improve the quality of the educational experience for all of the students in the room.


Appropriate Teacher Support

Elementary school social studies teachers may receive only minimal support when working with students with mild disabilities. The major cognitive deficits that accompany mild disabilities are problems usually associated with reading and math (for example, reading comprehension, spelling, oral recitation, hand eye coordination, computation, and visual spatial orientation), so special education teachers and administrators may not see the pertinence of addressing these deficits in the social studies curriculum. Such an attitude would reflect a shallow understanding of what happens in the social studies classroom. Social studies teachers should ask for (and be given) information on each disabled child in their classroom as well as ways that that child’s disabilities can be addressed. The IDEA legislation of 1997 also requires that an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) be written for each child with a disability, and that the child’s teachers help to set the educational goals spelled out in that plan.

The main goal for mainstreaming is often to enable students with mild disabilities to interact with peers who do not have disabilities so as to develop the social skills necessary for healthy social interaction and emotional development (for example, self-control, problem-solving, and relationship building).12 While this reasoning apparently de-emphasizes academic learning, it does not mean that content learning is not important. Indeed, being able to interact with one’s peers is necessary practice for being an active citizen. Since a major emphasis of the social studies is to help students develop the skills, values, and knowledge needed for active participation in a democratic society, the PK-6 social studies classroom is a natural setting within which students with mild disabilities can learn and rehearse necessary social skills.


Strategies for the Student with Learning Disabilities

Many teaching and learning strategies that can assist the mildly disabled student will be familiar to the teacher who already tries to reach students who have different styles of learning. These suggestions may already be part of the lesson plan, but it is useful to know that a specific technique might help a child with a special need.

For students who are having trouble with auditory and/or visual processing, teachers can provide written as well as verbal instructions. Charts of classroom rules and procedures can be prominently displayed and frequently cued. Teachers may provide written instructions including task targets and times. Visual organizers such as the Venn Diagram, decision-making trees, sequencing charts, story maps, and analogy charts can be used in small groups or with whole class discussion to help students visually organize and verbally express their thoughts. Assignment calendars can be included in student binders, sent home to parents, and prominently displayed in the classroom. Additionally, progress charts may be completed by teachers and students and reviewed with parents and special education teachers.

For students experiencing difficulty with organizing and memorizing information, teachers may use: (1) mnemonic devices such as the acronym HOMES, which stands for the names of the Great Lakes; (2) riddles, poems, and songs for remembering important people, places, and events; (3) check lists and calendars for organizing and completing assignments; (4) color coding for organizing and accessing materials and assignments (for example, different colored notebooks or dividers for different assignments and subjects); and (5) multisensory assignments and activities for remembering more fully an experience or more thoroughly grasping a concept from a concrete example (for example, construction projects, three-dimensional maps, textured artifacts, period music, dance, and dress, regional dialects and languages, and samples of various cuisines).

The application of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory can benefit all children, but is particularly useful with students who have difficulty with oral or written expression.13 For example, students may rap a song (musical intelligence); make a mobile, diorama, or jackdaw (kinesthetic and visual/spatial intelligence); construct analogies, create “what if” scenarios, or complete “logical conclusion” charts (mathematical/logical intelligence); or improvise a role in a skit or scene (intra- and interpersonal intelligence). Although none of these activities is a substitute for learning how to speak or write proficiently, each provides students with a different way of demonstrating what and to what degree they are learning.

To help preK-6 students decrease the discrepancy between their potential and actual achievement in oral and written expression teachers may display charts including “story starters,” time words, and transition words. Teachers may want to establish an “e-mai#148; writing partners program or develop reports that promote creative writing. To address discrepancies in oral expression, teachers may rephrase for students (while often avoiding criticism of improper syntax) or give students time to think through what they want to say before answering. Also, teachers may consider letting mildly disabled (or even very shy) students give reports on tape recorders to decrease the tension of giving an oral presentation in front of peers.


Strategies for the Student with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

The use of cooperative learning activities will address many of the symptoms of students who have emotional or behavioral disorders. Cooperative learning activities can reduce competition between students, decreasing the likelihood that the mildly disabled students will feel an overwhelming sense of failure and the need to lash out at peers. From participation in cooperative learning activities, students with emotional disorders can (1) learn from positive role models how to control emotions and behave appropriately in group settings; (2) develop sensitivity to the needs of others and understand people
“as individuals rather than as stereotypical members of a particular group”;14
(3) increase their ability for self-direction; (4) increase their interest in learning; and (5) gain an increase in self-esteem.15 Likewise, students who are not disabled are given the opportunity to become more understanding and accepting of students who are emotionally behaviorally disordered. Cooperative learning, however, means a lot more than just placing children together in a group: there are steps that should be taken to prepare children for the activity (including a rehearsal of steps to take when disagreements arise within a group) as well as close monitoring of each group’s progress on the assigned task.

Other strategies include: (1) establishing and using a time-out or cooling-off place (even an informal time-out activity like having a child take a message, book, or box of chalk to another teacher could give the student the space and time he or she needs to maintain or regain composure); (2) applying role plays, simulations (for example, Barnga, Living in a Global Age, Rafa-Rafa, and Broken Squares) and moral dilemmas to teach students how to resolve conflicts, make collective decisions, appreciate different perspectives, weigh consequences, identify right from wrong, and check impulsive behavior; and (3) suggesting or assigning literature with characters who face similar challenges to that of the disabled student.

Using gentle humor is an excellent strategy for diffusing student anxiety, de-escalating potential crisis situations, and helping students who are perpetually unhappy. However, teachers should avoid using sarcasm with students, especially those with low self-esteem. Taking a personal interest in students, as much as time allows, can help foster an atmosphere of caring. Acknowledge student accomplishments. Attend their extracurricular events. Warmly greet students in the halls, as they enter the class, and when you see them outside of school. Additionally, to increase students’ sense of equity, control, and personal safety, involve them in establishing and monitoring classroom rules and help them identify choices regarding assignments and classroom activities. Finally, teachers may want to establish a classroom system of managers (for example, the pencil sharpener manager, materials distribution manager, and door manager), giving each student a job with clearly delineated expectations about which they can develop a sense of pride.16


Strategies: The Student with Mild Mental Retardation

Strategies teachers may use for addressing the instructional needs of students whose cognitive abilities are significantly below average and who exhibit deficits in adaptive behavior include: (1) repetition of key content; (2) including a functional component to lessons, that is, emphasizing skills needed for success in day-to-day adult life;17 and (3) making concepts concrete.

While not wishing to bore other students with excessive repetition, a teacher can provide resources to the student with mild mental retardation that allow for repetitive drill, such as flash cards, lessons on tape, and one-on-one learning games lead by classmates. Functional (practical) aspects of a social studies topic are often part of an elementary lesson, so these can be emphasized for the mildly retarded student. Likewise, making concepts concrete is a familiar technique for the elementary teacher. Let’s consider a lesson plan about the community. Describing the members of a local community (for example, a police officer, a dentist, a fire worker, and a postal employee) helps to make the concept of community concrete. One could introduce the lesson with a song, such as “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?” from Sesame Street. Students could then match the professions described in the song with people in photographs. To facilitate understanding of the responsibilities of each of these community members, students could draw pictures or construct a collage of community members performing particular services. Finally, a field trip to a local fire department (or police station or dentist’s office) could help students more fully understand the content presented in class. While the more advanced students might be interested in the details of operating a fire station, a mildly retarded student will benefit from the reinforcement of the basic lesson about community and also be able to practice adaptive behaviors such as waiting one’s turn, listening, following laws for pedestrians, and cooperating in a group.


Strategies for the Student with Other Health Impairments

Teachers may be most concerned with addressing the needs of students who are other health impaired, as this diagnosis is the fastest growing disability in the United States. To assist students diagnosed with ADHD who have reading processing problems, use high-interest and student-selected materials; preview difficult words and phrases with students; break texts into small components; highlight relevant information; and allow time for students to rehearse reading. Pairing mildly disabled children with strong readers can also boost their motivation and understanding.

When giving directions, address one point at a time and provide clear, short, and written guidelines that are visually accessible to students from different places in the classroom. Be sure to frequently clarify and cue written directions. Changing activities regularly, using approximately three different modalities per fifty-minute period, can help active children stay focused on the lesson.

Strategies for meeting the affective needs of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (who also often suffer from low self-esteem and lack of emotional control) include: (1) using positive, verbal reinforcement and affirmations; (2) teaching students to ask themselves if another person’s criticism is valid; (3) establishing classroom routines; (4) praising students for making good choices in highly emotional and tense situations; and (5) providing students with guided choices. To address overactivity, provide a variety of hands-on activities (for example, constructing mobiles, pop-up books, murals, and collages) that allow for student movement. While working on a project, allow students to stand in their area or move within limited boundaries. Teachers should also reward overactive students with small motor breaks (for example, a drink of water, stretching, running errands, or flexing fingers during writing assignments).

To gain important background for helping students with chronic illness or those who suffer from acute conditions, a teacher should learn as much as possible about the symptoms of specific illnesses and the side effects that may result from taking particular medications. Generally, school staff (nurses and special education teachers) should provide this information, as suggested by the law. Because other health impairments may result in limited energy, enthusiasm, endurance, and alertness, teachers may need to adapt their instruction for students who suffer from chronic illness or acute conditions. For instance, alternative assignments need to be available when using activities that involve a lot of physical or emotional energy (for example, field trips, geography relays, role plays, dramatizations, and simulations). When activities require leaving the school, teachers need to have accessible emergency health plans that include emergency telephone numbers of doctors and guardians, times and dosages of medicines (for your information, not administration), allergies, and illness-specific first-aid procedures. Teachers need to be aware of students’ allergies or asthmatic reactions to materials used when making projects (for example, dust from plaster of Paris or clay mixtures). Finally, pairing a disabled student with a “homework buddy” can be useful if the student has missed assignments as a result of absence for several days.



Because children with mild disabilities are significantly more likely to be mainstreamed during the elementary years than at any other time during their educational experience, elementary school social studies teachers are in a particularly challenging situation. We believe that social studies teachers can meet the social and instructional needs of children with mild disabilities while enhancing the learning opportunities of their general education students. However, this is a challenge that should not be taken lightly by social studies teachers or by special education teachers and administrators. Adequate preparation means knowing the students (and their abilities and disabilities), knowing what resources are available, and knowing what teaching strategies might work best with particular students. We hope this article will be useful for preparation, planning, and discussion among elementary social studies teachers and their colleagues.



1. The 1997 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “aims to strengthen academic expectations and accountability for the nation’s 5.4 million children with disabilities, and bridge the gap that has too often existed between what those children learn and the regular curriculum.” Because of IDEA, more children with disabilities are being placed in regular classroom settings. “The new law is designed to remove financial incentives for placing children in more separate settings when they could be served in a regular classroom, and it [calls for] including regular classroom teachers in the meetings at which the academic goals of children with disabilities are set. The new law also eases some of the restrictions on how IDEA funding can be used for children served in regular classrooms. Specifically, such funds can be used for providing services to children with disabilities in regular classroom settings even if non-disabled children benefit as wel#133;.

“A critically important feature of the new law specifies that regular teachers will be part of the team that develops each child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). That is especially important since the law removes barriers to placing disabled children in regular classroom settings and ties the education of children with disabilities more closely to the regular education curriculum.

“The law requires that IEP’s include the program modifications and supports for the child and teacher to enable the child to succeed in the classroom. The law also provides continued federal support to improve teacher training nationwide, and adds support of teacher training programs in geographic areas with acute teacher shortages.” (From the U.S. Department of Education website: www.ed.gov/

2. U.S. Department of Education, Twenty-first Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Washington DC, U.S. Department of Education, 1997). (On the web at www.ed.gov/offices/

3. U.S. Department of Education, ibid.

4. Barbara Kantrowitz and Anne Underwood, “Dislexia and the New Science of Reading,” Newsweek, 22 November 1999: 72-79.

5. U.S. Department of Education, ibid.

6. U.S. Department of Education, ibid.

7. U.S. Department of Education, ibid.

8. Deborah E. Smith, Introduction to Special Education: Teaching in an Age of Challenge (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998).

9. Judy Wood, Adapting Instruction to Accommodate Students in Inclusive Settings (Upper Saddle River: NJ, 1998).

10. Michael W. Churton, Ann Cranston-Gingras, Timothy Blair, Teaching Children with Diverse Abilities (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998).

11. Martin Henley, Roberta S. Ramsey, Robert Algozzine, Characteristics of and Strategies for Teaching Students with Mild Disabilities (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996).

12. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, Public Law. 105-17, 105th Congress, 1st Session.

13. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

14. California State Board of Education, History-Social Science Framework (Sacramento, CA: CSBE, 1987), 24

15. Spencer Kagan, Cooperative Learning (San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers, 1992), 3:2.

16. Jerome H. Freiberg, “From Tourists to Citizens in the Classroom,” Educational Leadership 54, no. 1 (September 1996): 32-36.

17. Marilyn Friend and William Bursuck, Including Students with Special Needs: A Practical Guide for Classroom Teachers (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996


Howard E. Taylor is assistant professor in the Department of Middle/Secondary Education and Instructional Technology, Georgia State University, Atlanta. Susan M. Larson is assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Preparation and Special Education at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.