The 10 Best Tips to Motivate and Engage Students with Disabilities

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10 Best Tips to Motivate and Engage Students with Disabilities

  • Due to communication, behavior, physical, and cognitive limitations, it can be difficult for special education teachers to find ways to motivate and engage students with disabilities. As with all things in the special education realm, the same thing that works for one student will not always work with the next. However, I have found some strategies that seem to be most effective in helping students to engage more often and more willingly. I have also gathered input from other professionals in the special education community.
  • I find that the first thing that needs to happen with these students is that they need to feel loved, safe, and valued before they are going to want to do anything for you. The most common emotion I see in the eyes of my students, especially new students, is anxiety. As someone who grew up with an anxiety disorder, I recognize this emotion in others quickly, even in those who may not be able to communicate it. When we take away their fears, make things as fun and enjoyable as possible, and let them know they are truly cared for, they will strive to do great things!
Here are the best tips from special educators to motivate and engage students with moderate to severe disabilities in a self-contained, special education classroom.

What should the main goal be for these students with moderate to severe disabilities?

  • When we look at our daily schedule of activities for our classroom, it can be overwhelming to try to come up with ways to engage all students in each task. In my classroom I have a wide range of needs and abilities. When thinking out engaging all students in an activity, I consider the main focus of each students’ goals and include that focus in the activity, keeping in mind that the ultimate goal all my students are working towards is independence.
  • While some students are working on learning academic content that is closer to grade level, others are working on more basic skills, where the focus is more on functional independence. Lessons and activities should include opportunities to work on answering basic questions, making requests, and making choices. I have some students whose main focus is the ability to maintain attention, express their wants and needs, and participation. These are the students that can be the most challenging to motivate and engage, and these students are who these tips will focus on.

Connect Activities to Real-Life Applications and Set High Expectations

Best tips for motivating and engaging students with disabilities. How to connect, motivate, and engage students with moderate to severe disabilities.

It is important to connect activities and skills to real-life applications. We need to encourage independence, and set high expectations to motivate students towards being as independent as possible. The more independence we can give a student, the more motivated they will be to continue to progress and be successful. A former colleague of mind stresses the importance of this below.

Examples from a School Psychologist:

“The overarching goal for all activities should be to promote a pathway to Independence and transition to postsecondary life. I highly encourage classroom activities to be directly tied to real life application. This should apply to primary and secondary education.

For instance, at the high school I serve, functional math primarily focuses on learning how to budget money. This includes balancing a checkbook and allocating money for rent and bills. Additionally, the classroom has a grocery store where students create grocery lists, shop for what they need and practice making purchases. Within a task like going grocery shopping students are working on English, math and life skills in one fluid activity.

All too often the activities for students with moderate to severe disabilities involves busy work with no explanation of why they are engaging in the task. It is my professional opinion that starting the moment students step foot on a school campus, all activities have clearly defined life skills or functional academic targets that are focused on building independence and increasing access to non-disabled peers.

Having real life conversations early and often is paramount to later successes and growth for these students as we know that these students require a high degree of repetition and practice to build, maintain and generalize skills. From my experience, when activities can apply to real life situations it is easier for students to build connections and see value in an activity.

Lastly, if we set expectations high, we increase the likelihood that students will meet them as we are continuing to push them. If we set expectations low, we will undoubtedly set students up to underachieve.” ~ Brian M., School Psychologist

10 Best Tips to Motivate and Engage Students with Moderate to Severe Disabilities

Tip 1: Build a rapport

Best tips for motivating and engaging students with disabilities. How to connect, motivate, and engage students with moderate to severe disabilities.
  • Spend time building your relationship with the students. This can’t be done by constantly giving them demands and instructions. Start off by getting on their level and involve yourself in an activity they enjoy. This can be done on the floor, on a mat, on a therapy ball, on a swing, etc. Wherever the student is most comfortable. Here are some activities some of my students have enjoyed:
    • Having me talk to them, even if they aren’t able to talk back
    • Listening to music and singing along, prompting them through song motions
    • Giving tickles to them
    • Watching a favorite video with them
    • Playing their favorite iPad game with them
    • Playing “chase”

Tip 2: Make sure basic needs are met

  • Remember, many of our students are not able to communicate their basic needs. Check in with your students often to make sure they are comfortable. When they know you are tending to their needs this makes them feel cared for, safe, and ready to comply with instructions. Be sure to check on:
    • If they are hungry or thirsty.
    • Do they need to be changed? Use the bathroom?
    • When they are tired, allow them to rest, especially if parents have communicated a difficult night or lack of sleep.
    • For those with mobility issues or in a wheelchair, make sure they change positions often.
    • Temperature- do they seem hot or cold?
    • Equipment- is their equipment bothering them at all (i.e. AFO’s, wheelchair straps, etc.)

Tip 3: Determine Reinforcing Items and Activities

Best tips for motivating and engaging students with disabilities. How to connect, motivate, and engage students with moderate to severe disabilities.
  • Try out different activities and items to see what things your student enjoys. Every student is different, and sometime you need to really be observant to find out what motivates them. Here are some things some of my students find reinforcing:
    • specific toys
    • being chased or tickled
    • being sung to
    • going for walks
    • going outside
    • time on an iPad
    • favorite food item
    • time with a favorite teacher/school staff member
    • verbal praise and attention from an adult

Tip 4: Incorporate Reinforcing Items/Activities into Lessons

  • Once you know what things your student likes and enjoys, determine if there is a way to include these into non-preferred activities. Sometimes this can take some “out of the box” thinking. The following are some examples of ways I have included student preferences into other activties:
    • Sing instructions to the student (you don’t have to have musical talent. My student just loves being sung to so the melody doesn’t matter!)
    • Sit on the floor during the activity or on a mat.
    • Bring materials outside.
    • Arrange for a favorite staff member to help with the activity or “pop in” during that activity as a surprise.
    • Allow music to be in the background during the activity as long as the student can still participate without being too distracted.
    • Let them hold their favorite item, or have it next to them, as long as they are continuing to participate
    • If they are motivated by food reinforcers, let them have access to a small amount (ex. 1 skittle at a time) throughout the activity. I highly recommend if you use food reinforcers, try to fade this and replace with a non-food reinforcer when able.

Tip 5: Make Sure Classroom Staff is Positive and FUN

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
  • Your attitude rubs off on your students! If you want them to be motivated and excited about an activity, you need to act that way, too. This can be through your tone of voice, body language, and actions. While being sensitive to your student’s hearing sensitivities (i.e don’t talk really loud if it hurts their ears), your voice should be upbeat and joyful as much as possible. Use positive words and language. Always look for the good in what the student is participating in, whether it is looking at the materials, pointing when asked, or just staying in the area of the activity. Show your excitement for every small milestone of progress. Give high fives, smile, open your eyes wide, etc. All these things communicate to them that YOU are having fun being with them. This builds your relationship, helps them feel valued, and results in them wanting to continue to do well.

Tip 6: Sense of Humor

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash
  • I have yet to meet a student who did not have a sense of humor. Even if you think it doesn’t exist, I promise you it is there. My favorite thing I do during my day is to laugh WITH my students. There is no feeling like it in the world. So how do you pull this out of students? Here are some easy way to insert a little humor into your school day.
    • Make a safe environment for humor. Sometimes students may be worried doing something “funny” will get them “in trouble.” Let them know funny is welcomed- within reason of course. Laugh it over and then redirect back to the task.
    • Use silly voices. Kids love this. You can talk in a funny voice during story readings, with puppets, or just during an activity to liven things up.
    • Dance! Even my students who do not have the physical ability to dance think it’s hilarious when I dance. FYI- I have NO dancing ability whatsoever. Maybe that’s why they think it’s so funny. In fact, I my classroom aides laugh at my dancing as well!
    • Keep your relationships between classroom staff lighthearted. Students see how the adults interact with each other. If you are frequently joking and laughing with each other (about appropriate things, of course), they will see that. This type of atmosphere helps everyone feel more relaxed and at ease. It also makes any other providers who come in and out of your classroom feel the same way!

Tip 7: Offer Choices

Best tips for motivating and engaging students with disabilities. How to connect, motivate, and engage students with moderate to severe disabilities.
  • When you give students ownership over their activities, they will be much more motivated to participate. There are many ways to manipulate an activity to provide choice making opportunities.
    • Have visuals of each task you will be doing during an activity. Let the student choose the order of tasks.
    • Allow the student to decide where to do the activity. On the floor, at a table, on a therapy ball, in the library, etc.
    • Allow students with limited mobility to make a selection from visual choices of how they would like to be positioned. For example, they may choose from an adapted chair, stander, or sitting on a mat.
    • Let them choose the materials they will be using for the activity. For example, for a writing activity they can make a choice between crayons or markers. For letter activities, allow them to choose hard magnetic letters, or soft fabric letters. Give them as many choices as the activity will allow.

Tip 8: Frequent Postive Reinforcement

  • When students are frequently getting access to an activity or item they find reinforcing, they will be more likely to remain engaged in what you are doing. Always be sure to pair positive praise with access to these items and activities. For example, after a few minutes of the student showing great engagement, give them verbal praise along with access to a favorite video for 2 minutes before returning to the task. This can be done as frequently as necessary to keep them rewarded for staying engaged. Gradually, you can increase the time in between rewards, shorten the reward breaks, or they may begin being reinforced by the praise alone! Make sure you tell the student what they are doing well. For example, “I love how you are looking at the board!” instead of “Good job!”
  • “Be descriptive with praise. Positive reinforcement by definition is to specifically praise the behavior you want to see happen again in the future…” ~ Reena Patel, Parenting Expert, Guidance Counselor, Licensed Educational Psychologist, and Board Certified Behavior Analyst

Tip 9: Do Not Assume Each Student is Motivated by Only One Thing

  • Students may be motivated by more than one item, activity, or reward. Make sure to mix it up so they do not get bored with one reinforcer. Otherwise it may stop being reinforcing. You should have access to Reinforcement Inventories in your district or school building to help you determine a set of reinforcers for your student(s). Use these reinforcers to shape the behaviors you are looking for; in this case, sitting, attending, and participating in the lesson or activity.
  • “My most pressing “tip” would be to not assume there’s one thing that can motivate a student to participate! As a Behavior Analyst it is of the utmost importance we take their preference(s) into account (i.e., brief preference assessments, surveys, RAISD), and we try to apply those preferences toward reinforcing functionally equivalent replacement behaviors (FERBs)!” ~ Angel G., BCBA in Southern California

10. Incorporate Music and Movement into Your Activities

  • I have seen so many students respond positively to music. It is a great motivator and provides opportunity for movement through imitating actions and/or dances. Music can be included in multiple activities such as circle time, academics, PE/Gross Motor activities, vocabulary, etc. There are great videos on YouTube to help you include these activities as well. Check out GoNoodle, Just Dance Kids, Kids Bop, and the Learning Station for some possible go-to channels.
  • “Music has been such a success for getting my students to move, run, dance, and exercise during my Adapted PE sessions. I have begun to create a yearly dance for my students to perform in front of their parents and peers.” ~ Monique R., Adapted PE Teacher

The Last Thing You Need to Know about Engaging and Motivating Students with Moderate to Severe Disabilities

  • It will certainly take some trial and error to determine what strategies will work with each student. I hope these tips as least give you a place to start in the process. The most important step you can take is to develop a strong rapport with your students. When they feel safe, accepted, and loved they will be more likely to try new things and engage in what activities are presented.
  • If you have a tip to motivate students with moderate to severe disabilities, please submit it here. As a community of educators I would love for us to learn ideas from each other!

Here are the best tips from special educators to motivate and engage students with moderate to severe disabilities in a self-contained, special education classroom.

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