Teaching Math to Students with Disabilities: What We’ve Learned in 10 Years

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Season 1, Episode 2 — 12 February 2016

About this episode

In the last 40 years we’ve learned a tremendous amount about teaching mathematics to students with disabilities, but some thinking has changed lately owing to new studies. Jenny Root has been working on a survey of the most recent research and will tell us what we knew as of 2005 and discuss what we have learned in the ensuing ten years. She will also discuss what teachers and parents should know about the current state of the art and how they can be prepared in the classroom and going into IEP meetings.

About the Presenters

A portrait of Jenny Root, a woman with shoulder-length blond hair in a broad-collared heather grey shirt. She is leaning slightly into the photo from the right corner. The background is the green and brown of nearby foliage.Jenny Root is the Snyder Fellow and a doctoral candidate in special education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Her research uses applied behavior analysis to evaluate the effects of technology-aided instruction and learning strategies to provide general curriculum access to students with autism and other developmental disabilities. Jenny is a former school-wide PBIS facilitator and classroom teacher of students with autism and intellectual disability. Jenny was awarded the 2015 Alice H. Hayden Emerging Leader Award.

A portrait of Donald Taylor, a man with a medium smile and a mob of curly dark hair in a black collared shirt against a pattern of a blue pained wrought-iron gateDonald Taylor is the Membership Manager at TASH.


Announcer: You’re listening to TASH Amplified, a podcast that seeks to transform research and experience concerning inclusion and equity for people with disabilities into solutions people can use in their everyday lives.

Today we’re talking with Jenny Root. This discussion is based on her presentation at the 2015 TASH Annul Conference titled, Beyond the Basics: Access to Mathematics Problem-Solving for Students with Severe Disability. At the conference, Professor Root was presented the Alice H. Hayden Emerging Leader Award for her work challenging conventional beliefs about what students with disabilities can accomplish in mathematics; as well as developing technological tools to help them get there, and supporting parents who believe their students can achieve more in inclusive settings.

Donald Taylor: Introduce yourself for listeners. Tell us about your background. What brought you to your current research?

Jenny Root: Well, my name’s Jenny Root and I’m currently a doctoral candidate and research assistant at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. But I will be moving to Florida State University next fall as an assistant professor there. My current research is in the area of mathematics and working with students with severe disabilities.

But to see what brought me here, I have to go back to when I was working with a family of a child with autism and through a couple years working with a family — just as like an outside person — I saw the difference that good teaching can make in the life of a child, especially with a disability like autism. And I just saw him bloom and flourish, as far as his communication, his academic abilities, and decrease in severe behaviors. And that change not only influenced the child, but his family and community as a whole, you know, seeing him being able to participate on the swim team and go to church activities and things like that. And that really made me think: I want to be able to do that. I want to be a part of that.

So I went into special education at U.N.C. Wilmington and worked with Linda Mechling there and she really sparked my interest in research in school settings; and also the question of what works?; for who?, sort of, before I knew the term evidence-based practice.

So after leaving undergrad I was a classroom teacher of middle school students with disabilities. I taught students with high incidence disabilities in inclusive settings. And then the school opened a program for students with autism. And so in that role I sort of changed and collaborated with general education teachers, so taught students who were on alternate assessment who had autism. And from there, with that collaboration I was doing with the general education teachers, I saw a huge need for Positive Behavior Supports at a school-wide level. So I became the school-wide PBIS facilitator and worked with general ed teachers and the administration to make sure that we had a positive school climate for all of our students and that was inclusive for everyone.

So while getting my master’s degree while teaching, I began to do a thesis research project in my own class. And [because] my master’s work at East Carolina University — particularly Sandra Warren — I really start to believe in bringing research into your classroom, and bringing in the articles I read, or the practices I learned about, and trying them with my students. And saw a huge positive impact.

And so from there I really had to make this decision of, what is it that I want to do: I want to impart this bigger change, thinking back to the first student with autism that worked with, with this family and I thought: I want to be a teacher of teachers. And I want to be more involved in research, so that we can make sure students with autism are successful in academics. So I applied to the Ph.D. program at U.N.C. Charlotte. And I’ve been fortunate in my time here to really be able to work towards those goals, working under the direction of Diane Browder. And then I also work for Project Solutions, which is an IES grant that’s developing a mathematics problem-solving curriculum for students with moderate and severe disability. So that’s really what’s brought me to my spot here in math work for students with disabilities.

Donald Taylor: One of your current projects is bringing up to date a survey of the literature on teaching mathematics to students with disabilities dating from 2008. What was the state of knowledge in 2008 and what have we learned since then?

Jenny Root: I have been working with some other colleagues who work on the Solutions Project — Fred Spooner, Diane Browder, Alicia Saunders — and we have worked on this updated review of the literature.

So in 2008, Browder and friends published this review where they looked at all the mathematics intervention studies for moderate and severe disabilities from 1975 to 2005, and then it was published in 2008 in Exceptional Children [“A Meta-Analysis on Teaching Mathematics to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities“, vol. 74, no. 4, July 2008, pgs. 407-432, doi: 10.1177/001440290807400401].

And so coming on to the project my first year, we kind of kept going back to this seminal literature review. I thought, well what’s happened since then? You know if we think about the education of our students with moderate to severe disabilities, a lot has changed very quickly with general curriculum access and inclusive settings. And so I want to know, has what I’ve been seeing in the schools had an impact on the research and what we know works for mathematics, which is kind of been the neglected area of academics.

So in 2008 when that was published we knew that special ed teachers and researchers were really good at teaching time and money and basic skills. We know how to do that. But the problem is that was basically all that was being taught. So they also established some evidence-based practices. So things like systematic instruction, providing the students multiple opportunities to respond and practice the skill, and teaching skills in vivo, meaning in the actual real world settings. So those were the things that we kind of gleaned in 2008 as [] what works.

So what we found is then we went — this research team that I’m with — we went from 2005 to 2015 with this question of, has anything changed? Is there anything new that we’ve learned? And what we found were 34 studies that met our criteria and we looked at a couple things like: what exactly is being taught? What is the context of instruction? So where are students with moderate to severe disabilities being taught? Is there still good evidence that students can learn mathematics? Particularly we were looking at grade-aligned mathematics. And what evidence-based practices are being used? And are there any new evidence-based practice is that we’ve revealed?

So what we found, as far as the context of instruction, was the majority of the research is still being done in special education classrooms. So by special education teachers or researchers. So we can’t really draw information as far as, does that mean that’s where the students are? But that’s where the research is being done. Fewer studies are actually conducted in general education then in the previous literature review. Fewer studies were also conducted in the community. But that kind of fits with with the trends in thinking about the previous review going from 1975 to 2005, there was a lot of community based instruction there.

But what was interesting was the format of instruction is changed. So a lot is being done in small groups, which is more conducive to mathematics and inclusive settings. Not only working one-on-one with a student, with multiple students including being taught by peers or paraeducators.

As far as what was being taught to the students, what we found was there was less emphasis on those basic skills as far as looking at everything that was done. So it wasn’t only on time and money, basic number identification. But we saw an increase in things like algebra, an increase in geometry. So there’s still a need for those areas to be researched, but we saw more evidence that students with moderate to severe disabilities can learn grade-aligned academics. They can learn things like algebra and geometry, data analysis and problem solving.

What we found as far as evidence-based practices: systematic instruction, which the the previous literature of you found to be an evidence-based practice, was still being used, which shouldn’t be shocking: that’s what works for our students. But things like systematic prompting and feedback, use of a task analysis. But we also unveiled some new evidence based practices and that’s what was really exciting. So we saw that technology aided instruction, so using technology to teach, either to provide instruction or to present materials is an evidence-based practice. As well as explicit instruction: things like using a model-lead-test procedure, multiple exemplar training, as well as the use of manipulatives, — which is really important for a lot of our students who don’t have procedural fluency or they don’t know their math facts, so being able to use manipulatives to supplement that. So some of the exciting findings that we found from this most recent literature review.

Donald Taylor: We’ll end on two questions about how your research can improve the lives of people with disabilities. What should teachers know about your findings?

Jenny Root: I think the overarching thing that teachers should take away is that students are capable of grade-aligned mathematics across domains. They’re capable of going “beyond the basics” is what we say, and really delving into all the domains of mathematics and using problem solving and reasoning skills. What I’ve found through this literature review, as well as my applied research in schools, is the question is not, “What is the student capable of learning?”, but the question is, “What do I know how to teach them?”; and, “Do I know the best way to get this content across to them?” So that’s where the gap in our knowledge is: is effective instruction; is what works for these more complex, higher order skills; not is our student capable of it. Because every time we’ve, kind of, pushed the boundaries and raise the ceiling on expectations, the students have met those expectations if we are using sound, evidence-based practices.

So, one, we know that systematic construction techniques based on Applied Behavior Analysis are effective in teaching math: things like breaking down multiple-step tasks like solving a word problem or using a formula like the Pythagorean theorem; using a task analysis and breaking down the steps is effective. And then we need to teach those steps systematically, using things like time delay or system of least prompts.

We also know that explicit instruction — it’s a technique that a lot of teachers are very familiar with — it’s used with high-incidence disability and in general education — again things like model-lead-test, multiple exemplar training, is also effective for students. So we’re finding some of these strategies that are very common in general education and other areas of special education can also be used and effective with our students.

And then technology can be used. And I have to have a word of caution there because technology doesn’t replace the role of the teacher. But it can be used to provide consistent instruction, program reinforcement, to present materials, to make them more accessible by using things like read-aloud or virtual manipulatives. So technology can really enhance instruction, overcome a lot of the barriers that our students might have to mathematics tasks.

And then finally being comfortable in using manipulatives and knowing that the concrete representation can really assist our students with these abstract tasks. So these would be kind of the key things that I think teachers should take away from this research literature review.

Donald Taylor: How can families working on their students’ IEPs benefit from your findings?

Jenny Root: Well I believe all students should be working on grade-aligned mathematics and so they should have IEP goals that reflect grade level standards. Now a majority of students of moderate to severe disabilities probably aren’t performing at grade level in every domain of mathematics or in every content area. But their IEPs and the goals in their instructional targets should be aligned to the grade level. Now at the same time: so how do we get them there, how do we get them to that goal?

I think families should emphasize the use of evidence-based practices and make sure their teachers are using systematic instruction techniques and that’s how they get them to reach those goals. And making sure that students who may have some early numeracy deficits, that those are still being worked on within the context of grade-aligned math.

Also that problem solving and reasoning is emphasized from an early age for students of all ability levels. Mathematical reasoning and problem solving is required for many leisure, career, academic, and daily living skills, so increasing their independence and success in mathematics is going to benefit their current and future opportunities, the same way that literacy skills do. So I think that parents should advocate for making sure their students are given access to the full range of the general curriculum in mathematics and that sound evidence-based practices are being used to teach those skills.

Donald Taylor: Short of access to a scientific literature database, how can parents and educators find out more?

Jenny Root: Well the Solutions Project — the grant that I work for — has a website that’s continually being updated with information. And so the website for that is https://access.uncc.edu/.

And then another great resources is from East Carolina University. They have a series of modules related to teaching academics to students with severe disabilities and it includes a mathematics module and a systematic instruction module. And the address for that is https://mast.ecu.edu/.

So those are two free resources on the Internet that I think would be a great place to kind of start as far as, what does grade-aligned mathematics look like and how do we get our students to success in that.

Donald Taylor: Do you know when the review will be available and in what journal?

Jenny Root: I do not. Stay tuned. [laughs]

Donald Taylor: Okay, very good. Well thank you for taking the time today to talk with us about the state of mathematics education for students with disabilities. And thank you for your work as a scholar and a leader.

Jenny Root: Thank you.

Announcer: You have been listening to TASH Amplified. New episodes will be available every two weeks. For more about the series, including show notes, links to articles discussed, a complete transcript and a schedule of episodes updated as they become available, visit tashorgstg.wpengine.com/amplified. You can have the series delivered automatically to your device by subscribing on iTunes. Also, if you liked this episode, be sure to leave a rating for us there.

TASH is a values and research-based advocacy association located in Washington, D.C., with local chapters coving 18 states. In 2015 we celebrated our 40th anniversary. We offer organization, advocacy, collaboration, scholarship and education for people with disabilities, researchers, educators, service providers and family members. In addition to this podcast series, we offer a scholarly quarterly, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, a popular magazine, Connections, a series of conferences. You can learn more about TASH at tashorgstg.wpengine.com. You can receive updates from TASH on this podcast and our other activities by following us on Facebook or on twitter at @TASHtweet.

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We’ll hear from another outstanding advocate again in two weeks.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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