PBL and Special Student Populations

PBL and Special Student Populations

This week, I’m answering a few FAQ I received from a local school district as the teachers and administrators were being introduced to the foundations of PBL. My goal is to answer one of those questions each day. This post is day 2. 

How does PBL work with students who have special needs and need one-to-one supports? 

This is such an important piece of PBL and I’m glad every time I’m asked this question. It means that someone is actively advocating for their special kids in that community. So let’s tackle this. 

Of course, we want to be sure our kids with special needs aren’t forgotten in the PBL process. The good news? PBL allows us to structure our learning and our learning environment flexibly so our kids can have their needs fit right in and not be singled out as “weird” or different”! Students are afforded a lot of choice and voice about what they’ll be learning, and, in some situations, if not what they are learning, then definitely how they will be learning. Will they speak out their paper? Will they build a solution with their hands? Will they draw out a diagram that solves the problem? Will they work with others who will see their strengths and contributions, and then support them through the work instead of just counting them out?

If I’m studying about a civilization, some of my kids will dive into the fashion of the time. Some will dive into the governmental structures and laws. Some will be drawn to wars and weaponry of the time. Some will be intrigued by the technology and innovations. Some will care about the folks who were left out — the social structures and engage their sense of justice. Some will… each topic is nearly endless to find ways kids can interact and engage.

When our students have choice and voice over their own environment, they are able to engage at levels where they have interest. Where they have confidence. And any time anyone confidently engages with a topic, they will try harder and persist longer. And when our academic strugglers are trying and persisting, they will find success. And with each hurdle of success, they want to try again.

It’s respectful learning.

Right now in the traditional classroom, too many of our kids are hearing where they’re wrong, slow, weak and stupid. In each class. Multiple times a day. And I get that as teachers, we’re pointing out where they’re struggling so they can get stronger in that area. I get it. I do. But if my boss pointed out multiple times a day where I was slow, wrong, weak or stupid … you get the picture?

The truth is they’re smart. They can do things. Many of them are INCREDIBLY creative. But because we have narrowed the scope of what “good student” means, of what “smart” means, they’re not invited to the party. And that’s a shame.

So in a PBL activity, they work with topics that positively pull them to dig in. They work in groups that positively pull them to actually work (see paragraph below). They work in ways that positively pull them to develop in their strength areas. I don’t want to spend my time PUSHING my kids. I want to get creative and help them see things that PULL them into a topic. See the difference?

And yes, if all kids are truly being challenged at levels that are just beyond their reach, they might need a moment of direct instruction. Sure! That’s our job. Sometimes it comes from a 10 minute video on YouTube. Sometimes it’s an interview with an expert. Sometimes it’s just sitting down with me, as the teacher, and getting a short explanation or demonstration. I will always default to helping kids find their own resources, but sometimes, it’s just time for me to directly teach. (and secretly, I love that time!)

Sure they will make mistakes. Sure it takes time for them to relearn how to engage with learning. How many years have they practiced the other way — perfecting the lazy learner’s way of getting by? But now that we know better, we are compelled to do better, right?

And along those lines, let’s talk about how we’ve been grouping our struggling learners…

Of course grouping our unique learners has a lot to do with the success of PBL as well. And if you feel that partnering strugglers with achieving students is helpful, then please do read this post (about how our favorite grouping strategy is creating bullies) and then this post (ways to group kids that are waaaay more respectful of all). We might change your mind.

Here’s a video answering a similar question where my friend and colleague, Katie Perez and I GET REAL about supporting our unique learners (what’s the role of support staff in PBL, ie, special education, ESL, Title 1 teachers, paras, aides, at-risk supports, etc).

Hope this helps!

If you’re interested in what you’re reading here and want more, or if you find yourself nodding along to some of the truths that have been laid down here, please…do your kids and yourself a favor (or a colleague if s/he needs it) and check out Lessons for LifePractice LearningIt’s a book that was just published, jam-packed with ideas like these! You can get it on Kindle or paperback. or even iBooks now, for a whole-PLC book study! 

PBL, Project Based Learning



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Written by GingerLewman

  1. I agree – PBL is good for ALL kids. I’ve heard stories of how special needs students blossom when schoolwork has an authentic purpose. May I repost this on

    • Absolutely! I’d be honored to have this on, John. 🙂
      Send me a link when it’s done?

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