Lesson Adaptations for Special Populations 


All of the students we see in our classrooms are unique, and are best served by providing information and lessons through the multiple intelligences and the arts. However there is a portion of our children that have special needs, and their needs may require modifications to the classroom or activity to allow them to adequately access their education. Some of these children are in special classrooms (self-contained), and some receive the services of a resource room teacher that allows for small class size and more individual instruction. However the vast majority of students who have special needs are students that spend the majority of their time in the general education classroom with some modifications that allow them to function at the best of their ability. These children may have an accommodation plan established either through special education services or via a “504” plan. All children with formalized accommodation plans were assessed for their needs by an evaluation team that made specific recommendations. All special education and general education teachers need to be aware of what accommodations their specific students have, what they mean and how the accommodations can be implemented.

 “Normal” writing speed for note taking is considered to be 10 words per minute after 7th grade. If a student has a fine motor disability he/she may be given an accommodation of an alpha-smart or some other typing system for note taking. If this student can achieve a typing speed of 10 words per minute, it will catch him up with his peers. A special needs student is a student who has an average intelligence but may have a difficult time understanding, processing or demonstrating mastery of a lesson. Modifications say that a student is capable of succeeding if given the assistance they need to compensate for their specific difficulty.  You need to know that once official modifications have been developed for a student you must implement them. For example, your school or department may have a policy of not accepting any late assignments from students. If a student has a modification of extended time, he is allowed the specified amount of extra time to turn in his work without being penalized for late work.

 In this section I will give examples of modifications to some of the lesson plans presented on this website. Most lesson plans that have a writing component can use the general accommodations for writing that I will suggest. Before I list specific examples of modifications to the plans, I will review some common accommodations and suggestions for implementation. Much of this information was found in the handbook Accommodating Special Needs Students in the General and Special Education Classroom developed by Darice Bales at Hazen High School, Renton School District. Remember that the implementation of modifications in your classroom may in reality help more than just one specific student; it may help ensure the success of all your students. Many more accommodations could be included but these were chosen because they related most to issues you may face with special needs students when integrating the arts into your classroom.

          Preferential Seating

Students who have a physical, auditory or visual impairment, or who have an attention deficit disorder may have special seating needs. Some students may have difficulty concentrating when distractions are in their immediate environment, while others need distraction to focus on their task.  The accommodation should identify which area is most beneficial to the student. You may need to have a specific student:

                    Sit at the front

                    Sit away from doors, hallways, windows

                    Sit near doors, hallways, materials being used

                    Sit close to the whiteboard during lectures, or 

                     directly in line with the whiteboard

                    Sit away from the overhead projector

                    Sit close to the teacher

                    Sit away from the teacher

                    Sit where she/he can see both an interpreter  

                     and the teacher at the same time

Extended Time for Assignment/ Test Completion

Students with learning disabilities, orthopedic impairments or medical conditions may physically work at a slower pace than their classmates. Low frustration levels, fear of failure, or anxiousness may be reasons that students with attention deficits or behavior disorders may need extra time. When special needs students feel rushed they do not turn in their best work: the assignments may be incomplete, contain excessive errors or have an unsatisfactory appearance. Extended time releases some pressure from the student, and allows the student to work at a more natural pace.  The downside to this accommodation is that if a student falls behind it may be ever more difficult for him/her to keep up with the class. Here are suggestions for providing this accommodation:

 -Provide alternative assessment tools (some examples are included in the curriculum design/movement section of this website)

-Allow extra class time for guided practice. Provide independent drill and practice time through homework once the student understands the skills or concepts.

-Assess the students performance on class assignments, limit outside assignments

-Allow the student extra time to respond verbally

-Allow the student to turn in assignments within the timeline specified (1-2 days) on the modification page without being penalized for late work

-Help the student develop a timeline for the project, and allow the student to begin earlier than his classmates if possible

-Determine mastery of content based on the items completed rather than on total number of completed items

Extended time for Project Completion

Often the students who need extra time for assignment completion need extra time for project completion as well. Students with special needs may feel overwhelmed by large tasks. This accommodation allows the student more opportunities to succeed. You can assist by:

          -Break down projects into small tasks, assign due dates for each small task

-Assist the student in developing a realistic timeline for a large project. If appropriate, allow the student to begin the project earlier than his/her peers and turn the project in after the due date

Peer Tutoring/Assigned Buddy in Class

Students who need a little extra attention or have difficulty with fine motor skills might benefit from peer help and/or a paired working arrangement (buddy system). It allows the special needs student to establish a relationship with a classmate with whom they can feel comfortable asking for assistance, and decreases dependency on the teacher. You can facilitate this accommodation by:

          -Seat the special needs student near a student with skills

          -Allow a peer’s finished work to be used as a model

          -Students can take turns reading to each other

-Peer can read directions to the special needs student, reading the instructions to tasks as they are completed in sequential order if it is a multiple step task

-Allow students to complete assignments collaboratively

-Peer can assist with fine motor tasks such as cutting or tracing

Provide Correctly Completed Examples

Students with short-term memory deficits or with any difficulty with recall need an example. It serves as a reminder of steps to completing the task and its process. You can assist the student by:

          -List the steps in a process, along with an example

-Display examples what the project is expected to look like when it is completed, especially if it is a long-term project

-If the project is not a classroom project, be sure that homework includes a correctly completed example

Shortened Assignments

Students with learning disabilities, physical impairments and attention deficits may take longer to complete assignments than their classmates. They may feel overwhelmed by tasks or may demonstrate increased levels of frustration. Shortened assignments allow the special needs student an opportunity to practice without undo pressure and frustration. You can help by:

-Identify key concepts, terminology and skills and require those items to be completed first

-Highlight or star those items that are most essential, allow bonus points for other items completed

-For drill practice assignments, reduce the number of questions or problems to be done at one time. Smaller assignments given frequently provide the same amount of practice for skills acquisition

-Cut long assignments into segments and give the student one segment at a time

-Match reading level of student to the assignment

Allow to Doodle/Hold an Object

Students with ADHD or anxiety often need an outlet for their activity level during assignments that may be stressful. Doodling or holding an object helps relieve tension which may be built up in the student or may help to relieve anxiety. Many students who use this technique say that they feel calmer and are better able to focus on the assigned task when their hands are kept busy. You should allow the student to practice this technique at his/her discretion without attention being drawn to the student.

Notetaking Assistance

Students who often need this accommodation are students who have fine motor disabilities, attention deficit disorder, auditory processing difficulties, poor eye-hand coordination, neurological impairments, hearing impairments or visual impairments. They may demonstrate at least one of the following issues:

          -Poor writing skills (copying, spelling, handwriting)

          -Inability to focus for extended periods of time

-Difficulty understanding what is actually said or difficulty finding main idea of verbal statement

-Difficulty switching attention or vision from whiteboard or overhead to paper or vice versa

-Muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, etc.

-Visual and hearing impairments

Notetaking assistance provides a backup for these special needs students. It offers a supplement and check to the student’s own notes (remember the student is still expected to take notes unless there is a physical/ neurological reason he/she can’t). One of the easiest ways to provide this accommodation is to have a reliable note taker write on NCR paper. If you prepare notes or overheads for yourself in advance it may be easiest to give a photocopy to the student at the end of class. Two other suggestions are to provide a partially completed outline for the student to follow during lectures or allow time at the end of class to allow the student to compare notes with classmates.

Some examples of modifications to lesson plans to accommodate special needs students are given below:

Creative Movement Adaptations

Dancers in the Empty Space (6-8)

Students with poor bilateral integration, decreased balance or poor gross motor skills will have increased difficulty with parts of this activity. They may have a hard time “freezing” or posing as long as other students. Students with the issues outlined above tend to move quickly to cover up their deficit. It takes much more motor control to move slowly or be “still” than it does to use an all or nothing, full range movement. When observing/assessing a student remember that if a child is having difficulty moving slowly or maintaining a position, he may not be “fooling around”. Often these children are accused of not trying when they are actually working hard but simply cannot hold a position or keep their balance. Sometimes these children learn to become the class clown because their frequent falls due to poor balance and motor planning brought so many laughs when they fell out of their chair 3 times a day in 1st grade.  To modify this lesson to accommodate a student with decreased gross motor skills, change the pace of the activity frequently and do not require him/her to freeze in a pose for a sustained period of time.

          Music Adaptations

        Interplay of the Arts (6-8)

If a student has a poor grip and has difficulty holding an oil pastel, there are   “old fashioned” chalk holders that could be used to improve the student’s ability to use oil pastels.                      

          Prairie Storm (3)

The round form of the tube may make it difficult for a child with fine motor disabilities to manage this project easily. The student may need a buddy to hold the rain stick tube horizontally or vertically during both the decorating and pounding parts of this project. This would allow the student to use both hand instead of trying to hold the rain stick in 1 hand while the other hand performs a task. A “vice” could also be used to hold the tube while the student works on it. 


 Gross Motor Group Music Activity- Rhythm Sticks

This lesson can be modified to make it less challenging by having the students sit to tap out their rhythms. Conversely it will increase the difficulty if the students are walking in a circle or standing on one leg while tapping the rhythm.                  

          Storytelling Adaptations

          Integrating Storytelling with Science and Writing-Card Communities

When making card communities some students with fine motor disabilities may be frustrated by their inability to make the cards stand up to form 3D forms. If the student clips a clothespin to the bottom of the paper so that the clothespin will lie on its side on the floor, it will stabilize the note card and allow for success in creating the 3D structure.

          Integrating Storytelling with Science and Writing - Spiders Unit Introduction

If a student has difficulty creating a web using a needle and yarn (punching a hole through the paper), the student could glue the yarn to the paper. Or the holes could be pre-punched.

          Cats- An Integrated Mini-Unit (1-3)

Many children with fine motor and bilateral integration disabilities find tracing and cutting difficult and frustrating because they produce poor quality products. This would be a good activity to use the “buddy system” to allow a more skilled student assist with tracing and cutting felt.


          Felt boards and Fables (4-6)

This would be another good activity for use of the “buddy system” to allow a more skilled student assist with cutting felt. Tag board with a velcro strip on the back could also be substituted on the felt board. Tag board is much easier to cut and manipulate than felt.

 Visual Arts Adaptations

          Observing and Sketching Plant Parts (K-12)

Special needs students with balance problems, low tone or fine motor disabilities may have a hard time sketching with a clipboard on their lap. A lightweight plastic footstool (like a Rubbermaid brand footstool) could be carried into the woods to act as a portable table while the students sit on the forest floor.

          Salmon Unit through the Arts (3)

Special needs students with visual-perceptual and fine motor dysfunction may do this activity best if they are paired with a buddy when attempting the origami cup. It would also help them if the origami paper had marks to show the fold lines.

          Cultural Exploration Unit (Day 4-8, research)

  It is noted in this lesson plan that research is hard for these students due to difficulties with organization and ability to keep the note cards.  Many special needs students also have this problem. I would suggest a modification to the note card system. If you use a hole punch on one corner of each card and then put the cards on a ring the cards will stay together while the research is being done. The ring can be opened and the order of the cards changed when appropriate. Cards can be color coded for subject within the research topic. If too much is written on each card, cut the card in half before putting it on the ring.