Transformative Teaching - Supporting Our Students with Cognitive Impairments (CI)/Intellectual Disabilities (ID)

Transformative Teaching - Supporting Our Students with
Cognitive Impairments (CI)/Intellectual Disabilities (ID)

Co-authored by: Michelle Leip and Kathleen Kryza

All students have to right to be in our schools and to be provided with a free and appropriate education.   Students who come to our classrooms with mild to moderate cognitive impairments or intellectual disabilities have those same rights. With love, patience, and understanding, we can find ways to reach and teach these students. Even more importantly, we can discover how much these students have to offer us as well as our other students. 

In an effort to help teachers reflect and possibly shift perspective on teaching students with intellectual disabilities, we’d like to share some of the ways in which we can better meet the needs of these students as well as recognize many benefits to having them in our classrooms and school communities. 

The good news, as we note in Transformative Teaching: Changing Today's Classrooms Culturally, Academically, & Emotionally, is that many of the strategies that we can use to support students with ID are beneficial to all students.  The following are some important strategies to keep in mind when working with students with intellectual disabilities in your classroom. 

    Start with clearly stated objectives for each lesson.  Then think about how you can present abstract ideas in concrete ways.  Many students benefit from the more hands-on examples.  So, for example, if you are teaching about gravity, have students actually drop something, or jump up and down to get the concept of gravity.  This will be beneficial to your students with intellectual disabilities, but it will also help all your students retain more information and make an abstract concept - like gravity - easier to understand. 

    Break your lesson up into bite-sized chunks with opportunities to chew or process the information. This progressive, step-wise, learning approach is good for all students, the only difference is the number and size of the sequential steps. For students with ID, the steps will need to be smaller, and you may need to reintroduce the learning objective and task at each step. 

    Students with ID need to complete one task at a time, so they don’t become overwhelmed. 

    Provide extra wait time when asking students with ID questions, give extra time on assignments, and provide visual step-by-step directions for complex activities. 

    Students with intellectual disabilities learn best in classroom environments in which visual aids are used frequently.  Be sure to include lots of charts, pictures, graphic organizers and graphs in your teaching.   You can even use visual tools for helping students understand what behaviors are expected of them, for example, by charting their progress or creating charts to provide positive reinforcement for on-task behavior.

    Check for understanding throughout your lessons and offer meaningful feedback to support all students’ growth.  Students with intellectual disabilities will need direct and immediate feedback.  If you delay the feedback, it can make it difficult for these students to form a connection between cause and effect and as a result. The learning point may – therefore- be missed.  

    Create diverse cooperative learning groups to promote pro-social learning and collaboration. 

The most essential thing to consider when working with a student with intellectual disabilities is the emotional mindset you and the other students have towards the student.  Recent research suggests students and teachers possess somewhat negative attitudes toward students with disabilities, or that they view individuals with disabilities as different from and inferior to individuals without disabilities” (Gething et al., as cited in Milsom, 2013). Very often teachers exhibit this type of negative bias completely subconsciously. No malice is intended, but the effects can be damaging to all of our students – not just those who have intellectual disabilities.

Studies show, however, that when teachers and principals exhibit a positive attitude towards students with disabilities, there are fewer discipline problems and students form better peer relationships (Praisner, Prater, 2003).  Modeling caring behavior towards students with disabilities is one of the strongest ways for teachers to communicate an expectation of acceptance and to encourage positive interactions among all classroom community members. Setting this type of example will help all of our students develop a deeper sense of empathy and openness to others. 

Classes with a diverse student population necessitate the use of differentiated instruction. This situation provides an opportunity to teach students that “fair” does not equal “same”. All students need to be able to access the curriculum, but each benefits from a different type of scaffolding to support his learning. We wouldn’t give a near-sighted person a wheelchair to help her see better; likewise we wouldn’t give a person without legs a pair of glasses to meet his needs. We all need different things to succeed. In order to help you explain this concept to your students, we have created a mini lesson for you to use in your classrooms. (See margin for free mini lesson.  Also see the chapter on “Creating a Safe Classroom Environment” in our Transformative Teaching book for great ideas on creating an inclusive classroom.) 

Having students with intellectual disabilities in our class can be a beautiful experience for all community members. Inclusive classrooms ensure that all students gain to access to the academic content in the way that works best for them. With the right support and modeling, all students will also develop pro-social skills and empathy in our diverse classrooms. Finally, remember that having students with ID in our classrooms helps to push us to be the best teachers we can be – not only with our instruction but with our mindsets and compassion as well.
For more ideas on how to support ALL learners culturally, emotionally, and academically, check out our book, Transformative Teaching.

Some Activities/Resources to help bring the info to your classroom.

Lesson Plan to teach Fair isn't always the Same.

Poster - Fair doesn't mean Same

Some meaningful, related web content.

  • National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities - Fact sheet on Intellectual Disabilities:
  • Founded in 1999, the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) is a public health practice and resource center on health promotion for people with disability. Here is a great resource for educators.

















  • Kryza, K., Brittingham, M., & Duncan, A. (n.d.). Transformative teaching: Changing today's classrooms culturally, academically, & emotionally.
  • Milsom, A. (2013). Creating Positive School Experiences for Students with Disabilities. Retrieved July 27, 2016, from 
  • Prater, M.A. (2003). She will succeed: Strategies for success in inclusive classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(5), 58-64.
  • Praisner, C. L. (2003). Attitudes of elementary school principals toward the inclusion of students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 69(2), 135-145.