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Problem-Solving Model for Improving Student Achievement

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Principal Leadership Magazine, Vol. 5, Number 4, December 2004

Counseling 101 column, a problem-solving model for improving student achievement.

Problem solving is an alternative to assessments and diagnostic categories as a means to identify students who need special services.

By Andrea Canter

Andrea Canter recently retired from Minneapolis Public Schools where she served as lead psychologist and helped implement a district-wide problem solving model. She currently is a consultant to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and editor of its newspaper, Communiquè . “Counseling 101” is provided by NASP ( ).

The implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has prompted renewed efforts to hold schools and students accountable for meeting high academic standards. At the same time, Congress has been debating the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which has heightened concerns that NCLB will indeed “leave behind” many students who have disabilities or other barriers to learning. This convergence of efforts to address the needs of at-risk students while simultaneously implementing high academic standards has focused attention on a number of proposals and pilot projects that are generally referred to as problem-solving models. A more specific approach to addressing academic difficulties, response to intervention (RTI), has often been proposed as a component of problem solving.

What Is Problem Solving?

A problem-solving model is a systematic approach that reviews student strengths and weaknesses, identifies evidence-based instructional interventions, frequently collects data to monitor student progress, and evaluates the effectiveness of interventions implemented with the student. Problem solving is a model that first solves student difficulties within general education classrooms. If problem-solving interventions are not successful in general education classrooms, the cycle of selecting intervention strategies and collecting data is repeated with the help of a building-level or grade-level intervention assistance or problem-solving team. Rather than relying primarily on test scores (e.g., from an IQ or math test), the student’s response to general education interventions becomes the primary determinant of his or her need for special education evaluation and services (Marston, 2002; Reschly & Tilly, 1999).

Why Is a New Approach Needed?

Although much of the early implementation of problem-solving models has involved elementary schools, problem solving also has significant potential to improve outcomes for secondary school students. Therefore, it is important for secondary school administrators to understand the basic concepts of problem solving and consider how components of this model could mesh with the needs of their schools and students. Because Congress will likely include RTI options in its reauthorization of special education law and regulations regarding learning disabilities, it is also important for school personnel to be familiar with the pros and cons of the problem-solving model.

Student outcomes. Regardless of state or federal mandates, schools need to change the way they address academic problems. More than 25 years of special education legislation and funding have failed to demonstrate either the cost effectiveness or the validity of aligning instruction to diagnostic classifications (Fletcher et al., 2002; Reschly & Tilly, 1999; Ysseldyke & Marston, 1999). Placement in special education programs has not guaranteed significant academic gains or better life outcomes for students with disabilities. Time-consuming assessments that are intended to differentiate students with disabilities from those with low achievement have not resulted in better instruction for struggling students.

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Dilemma of learning disabilities. The learning disabilities (LD) classification has proven especially problematic. Researchers and policymakers representing diverse philosophies regarding disability are generally in agreement that the current process needs revision (Fletcher et al., 2002). Traditionally, if a student with LD is to be served in special education, an evaluation using individual intelligence tests and norm-referenced achievement tests is required to document an ability/achievement discrepancy. This model has been criticized for the following reasons:

  • A reliance on intelligence tests in general and with students from ethnic and linguistic minority populations in particular
  • A focus on within-child deficiencies that often ignore quality of instruction and environmental factors
  • The limited applicability of norm-referenced information to actual classroom teaching
  • The burgeoning identification of students as disabled
  • The resulting allocation of personnel to responsibilities (classification) that are significantly removed from direct service to students (Ysseldyke & Marston, 1999).

Wait to fail. A major flaw in the current system of identifying student needs is what has been dubbed the wait to fail approach in which students are not considered eligible for support until their skills are widely discrepant from expectations. This runs counter to years of research demonstrating the importance of early intervention (President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002). Thus, a number of students fail to receive any remedial services until they reach the intermediate grades or middle school, by which time they often exhibit motivational problems and behavioral problems as well as academic deficits.

For other students, although problems are noted when they are in the early grades, referral is delayed until they fail graduation or high school standards tests, increasing the probability that they will drop out. Their school records often indicate that teachers and parents expressed concern for these students in the early grades, which sometimes resulted in referral for assessments, but did not result in qualification for special education or other services.

Call for evidence-based programs. One of the major tenets of NCLB is the implementation of scientifically based interventions to improve student performance. The traditional models used by most schools today lack such scientifically based evidence. There are, however, many programs and instructional strategies that have demonstrated positive outcomes for diverse student populations and needs (National Reading Panel, 2000). It is clear that schools need systemic approaches to identify and resolve student achievement problems and access proven instructional strategies.

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How It Works

Although problem-solving steps can be described in several stages, the steps essentially reflect the scientific method of defining and describing a problem (e.g., Ted does not comprehend grade-level reading material); generating potential solutions (e.g., Ted might respond well to direct instruction in comprehension strategies); and implementing, monitoring, and evaluating the effectiveness of the selected intervention.

Problem-solving models have been implemented in many versions at local and state levels to reflect the unique features and needs of individual schools. However, all problem-solving models share the following components:

  • Screening and assessment that is focused on student skills rather than classification
  • Measuring response to instruction rather than relying on norm-referenced comparisons
  • Using evidence-based strategies within general education classrooms
  • Developing a collaborative partnership among general and special educators for consultation and team decision making.

Three-tiered model. One common problem-solving model is the three-tiered model. In this model, tier one includes problem-solving strategies directed by the teacher within the general education classrooms. Tier two includes problem-solving efforts at a team level in which grade-level staff members or a team of various school personnel collaborate to develop an intervention plan that is still within the general education curriculum. Tier three involves referral to a special education team for additional problem solving and, potentially, a special education assessment (Office of Special Education Programs, 2002).

Response to intervention. A growing body of research and public policy discussion has focused on problem-solving models that include evaluating a student’s RTI as an alternative to the IQ-achievement discrepancy approach to identifying learning disabilities (Gresham, 2002). RTI refers to specific procedures that align with the steps of problem solving:

  • Implementing evidence-based interventions
  • Frequently measuring a student’s progress to determine whether the intervention is effective
  • Evaluating the quality of the instructional strategy
  • Evaluating the fidelity of its implementation. (For example, did the intervention work? Was it scientifically based? Was it implemented as planned?)

Although there is considerable debate about replacing traditional eligibility procedures with RTI approaches (Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003), there is promising evidence that RTI can systematically improve the effectiveness of instruction for struggling students and provide school teams with evidence-based procedures that measures a student’s progress and his or her need for special services.

New roles for personnel. An important component of problem-solving models is the allocation (or realignment) of personnel who are knowledgeable about the applications of research to classroom practice. Whereas traditional models often limit the availability of certain personnel-for example, school psychologists-to prevention and early intervention activities (e.g., classroom consultation), problem-solving models generally enhance the roles of these service providers through a systemic process that is built upon general education consultation. Problem solving shifts the emphasis from identifying disabilities to implementing earlier interventions that have the potential to reduce referral and placement in special education.

Outcomes of Problem Solving and RTI

Anticipated benefits of problem-solving models, particularly those using RTI procedures, include emphasizing scientifically proven instructional methods, the early identification and remediation of achievement difficulties, more functional and frequent measurement of student progress, a reduction in inappropriate and disproportionate special education placements of students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and a reallocation of instructional and behavior support personnel to better meet the needs of all students (Gresham, 2002; Ysseldyke & Marston, 1999). By using problem solving, some districts have reduced overall special education placements, increased individual and group performance on standards tests, and increased collaboration among special and general educators.

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The enhanced collaboration between general education teachers and support personnel is particularly important at the secondary level because staff members often have limited interaction with school personnel who are outside of their specialty area. Problem solving provides a vehicle to facilitate communication across disciplines to resolve student difficulties in the classroom. Secondary schools, however, face additional barriers to collaboration because each student may have five or more teachers. Special education is often even more separated from general education in secondary school settings. Secondary school teachers also have a greater tendency to see themselves as content specialists and may be less invested in addressing general learning problems, particularly when they teach five or six class periods (and 150 or more students) each day. The sheer size of the student body and the staff can create both funding and logistical difficulties for scheduling training and team meetings.

Is Problem Solving Worth the Effort?

Data from district-wide and state-level projects in rural, suburban, and urban communities around the country support the need to thoughtfully implement problem-solving models at all grade levels. There are several federally funded demonstration centers that systematically collect information about these approaches. Although national demonstration models may be a few years away, it seems likely that state and federal regulations under IDEA will include problem solving and RTI as accepted experimental options. Problem solving continues to offer much promise to secondary school administrators who are seeking to improve student performance through ongoing assessment and evidence-based instruction. PL

  • Fletcher, J., Lyon, R., Barnes, M., Stuebing, K., Francis, D., Olson, R., Shaywitz, S., & Shaywitz, B. (2002). Classification of learning disabilities: An evidence-based evaluation. In R. Bradley, L. Donaldson, & D. Hallahan (Eds.), Identification of learning disabilities (pp. 185-250). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Gresham, F. (2002). Responsiveness to intervention: An alternative approach to the identification of learning disabilities. In R. Bradley, L. Donaldson, & D. Hallahan (Eds.), Identification of learning disabilities (pp. 467-519). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Marston, D. (2002). A functional and intervention-based assessment approach to establishing discrepancy for students with learning disabilities. In R. Bradley, L. Donaldson, & D. Hallahan (Eds.), Identification of learning disabilities (pp. 437-447). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction-Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: Author.
  • Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. (2002). Specific learning disabilities: Finding common ground (Report of the Learning Disabilities Round Table). Washington, DC: Author.
  • President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. (2002). A new era: Revitalizing special education for children and their families. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
  • Reschly, D., & Tilly, W. D. III (1999). Reform trends and system design alternatives. In D. Reschly, W. D. Tilly III, & J. Grimes (Eds.), Special education in transition: Functional assessment and noncategorical programming (pp. 19-48). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
  • Vaughn, S., & Fuchs, L. (Eds.) (2003). Special issue: Response to intervention. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18(3).
  • Ysseldyke, J., & Marston, D. (1999). Origins of categorical special education services in schools and a rationale for changing them. In D. Reschly, W. D. Tilly III, & J. Grimes (Eds.), Special education in transition: Functional assessment and noncategorical programming (pp. 1-18). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Case Study: Optimizing Success Through Problem Solving

By Marcia Staum and Lourdes Ocampo

Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest school district in Wisconsin, is educating students with Optimizing Success Through Problem Solving (OSPS), a problem-solving initiative that uses a four-step, data-based, decision-making process to enhance school reform efforts. OSPS is patterned after best practices in the prevention literature and focuses on prevention, early intervention, and focused intervention levels.  Problem-solving facilitators provide staff members with the training, modeling, support, and tools they need to effectively use data to drive their instructional decision-making. The OSPS initiative began in the fall of 2000 with seven participating schools. Initially, elementary and middle level schools began to use OSPS, with an emphasis on problem solving for individual student issues. As the initiative matured, increased focus was placed on prevention and early intervention support in the schools. Today, 78 schools participate in the OSPS initiative and are serviced by a team of 18 problem-solving facilitators. 

OSPS in Action: Juneau High School

The administration of Juneau High School, a Milwaukee public charter school with 900 students, invited OSPS to become involved at Juneau for the 2003-2004 school year. Because at the time OSPS had limited involvement with high schools, two problem-solving facilitators were assigned to Juneau for one half-day each week. The problem-solving facilitators immediately joined the Juneau’s learning team, which is a small group of staff members and administrators who make educational decisions aimed at increasing student achievement.

When the problem-solving facilitators became involved with Juneau, the learning team was working to improve student participation on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE). The previous year, Juneau’s 10th-grade participation on the exam had been very low. The learning team used OSPS’s four-step problem-solving process to develop and implement a plan that resulted in a 99% student participation rate on the WKCE. After this initial success, the problem-solving model was also used at Juneau to increase parent participation in parent-teacher conferences. According to Myron Cain, Juneau’s principal, “Problem solving has helped the learning team at Juneau go from dialogue into action. In addition, problem solving has supported the school within the Collaborative Support Team process and with teambuilding, which resulted in a better school climate.”

By starting at the prevention level, Juneau found that there was increased commitment from staff members. OSPS is now in the initial stages of working with Juneau to explore alternatives to suspension.  The goal is to create a working plan that will lead to creative ways of decreasing the number of suspensions at Juneau.

Marcia Staum is a school psychologist, and Lourdes Ocampo is a school social worker for Optimizing Success Through Problem Solving.

What Is Response to Intervention?

Many researchers have recommended that a student’s response to intervention or response to instruction (RTI) should be considered as an alternative or replacement to the traditional IQ-achievement discrepancy approach to identifying learning disabilities (Gresham, 2002; President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002). Although there is considerable debate about replacing traditional eligibility procedures with RTI approaches (Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003), there is promising evidence that RTI can systematically improve the effectiveness of instruction for struggling students and provide school teams with evidence-based procedures to measure student progress and need for special services. In fact, Congress has proposed the use of research-based RTI methods (as part of a comprehensive evaluation process to reauthorize IDEA) as an allowable alternative to the use of an IQ-achievement discrepancy procedure in identifying learning disabilities.

RTI refers to specific procedures that align with the steps of problem solving. These steps include the implementation of evidence-based instructional strategies in the general education classroom and the frequent measurement of a student’s progress to determine if the intervention is effective. In settings where RTI is also a criteria for identification of disability, a student’s progress in response to intervention is an important determinant of the need and eligibility for special education services.

It is important for administrators to recognize that RTI can be implemented in various ways depending on a school’s overall service delivery model and state and federal mandates. An RTI approach benefits from the involvement of specially trained personnel, such as school psychologists and curriculum specialists, who have expertise in instructional consultation and evaluation.

  • National Center on Student Progress Monitoring,
  • National Research Center on Learning Disabilities,

This article was adapted from a handout published in Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators (NASP, 2004). “Counseling 101” articles and related HCHS II handouts can be downloaded from .

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The Special Education Process in 6 Steps

Special Education From Referral to Services in Just 6 Steps

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  • Learning Issues
  • Eligibility

Developing an IEP

  • Discussions

The goal of special education is to provide equal access to education for children through age 21 by providing specialized services that help them experience success in the classroom and beyond. If you, your child's doctor, or their teacher suspect that they may qualify for special education services, it's helpful to know what to expect.

But if you're unfamiliar with special education, the process can seem like a bewildering maze of bureaucratic red tape. We have taken the confusion out of the process by providing insight into the six crucial steps that occur in the special education process.

Identifying Learning Issues

The first step in the special education process is determining if your child has a learning problem and needs help. Typically, children with developmental delays or physical disabilities are diagnosed by their pediatrician or another medical provider. Because they are diagnosed before entering the school system, these children enter school with special education plans already in place.

But for students with learning disabilities, they often look and act just like their peers. They may even perform well during preschool and even in kindergarten without any recognizable difficulties. But as the schoolwork becomes more challenging, they may begin to struggle more than their peers.

The key to identifying potential learning disabilities is to be in tune with how your child is faring in school and to know what challenges they are experiencing.

If you're concerned your student is struggling more than normal, don't be afraid to ask for help. In fact, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, if kids who are struggling with reading in first grade receive intervention early, 90% of them will achieve normal reading ability. But, if assistance is delayed until third grade , 75% will struggle with reading throughout their lives.  

Although recognizing that your child is struggling does not automatically mean they have a learning disability or that they need special education, it does at least warrant a conversation with the teacher . Clearly, there are ongoing problems with learning that require additional assistance.

Initially, schools will provide academic assistance or intervention strategies prior to going further with the special education process. In many cases, this type of intervention will resolve the problem, and no further action is needed. For children who continue to struggle, though, schools will move to evaluate the student.

Referring for Evaluation

When a parent or the child's teachers feel it's necessary to evaluate a child to determine how severe their learning problems are and whether a disability exists, the decision to evaluate is made during a special education meeting. During this meeting, parents are advised of their rights and are asked to sign a formal consent for evaluation.

All special education meetings must be held at a mutually agreeable time and place for the parents and committee members. Parents also must be given adequate notice that enables them to attend and they must be informed of who will be there as well as the purpose of each special education meeting.

Know Your Rights

Parents always have the right to bring a support person with them to a meeting or an advocate to represent them.

If the committee agrees, and the parent gives consent, the child is then evaluated in a process that involves several types of tests. The school has 60 days to complete the evaluation and implement a special education placement if the child qualifies. If the parents disagree with the results of the evaluation, they may request a full, independent educational evaluation at the school's expense.

As a parent, it's important to remember that this assessment will involve the use of diagnostic tools that provide an overview of your child's school performance, their strengths and weaknesses, their hearing and vision, as well as their cognitive functioning.

Assessments are valuable tools that provide insight into your child's struggles. They also are useful because they allow you the opportunity to set goals and request services. But assessments are not able to predict your child's future performance or ability. So, it's important to view them realistically.

Determining Eligibility

Once the evaluation is complete, the child's special education team, including the parent, will have a meeting to review the results of the evaluation and determine whether the child meets the state's regulatory guidelines for diagnosis with a disability. Not every child who receives an assessment will have a learning disability, but many do.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7.1 million students received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during the 2018-19 school year and 33% of those students had specific learning disabilities.

For kids who are identified with a learning disability and who qualify for special education services, the next step is an IEP meeting (individualized education program). If your child does not have a learning disability and doesn't qualify for special education, keep looking for solutions to your child's educational struggles.

Work with your child's teachers and other service providers to draft an action plan designed to help your child meet their education goals. If you do not agree with the decision of the committee, you may request mediation, file a formal complaint, or request a due process hearing.

If your child meets the eligibility criteria, and the committee agrees they have a disability, the school must develop an IEP. Under IDEA, the school district has 30 days from the documentation of the disability to complete the IEP.

To develop an IEP, the special education team will consider your child's needs and assessment data in order to determine what type of services, interventions, and accommodations your child might need in order to be successful.

For parents, it's important to remember that your child is entitled to receive services in an environment as close to the general education setting as possible.

If you don't understand why a recommendation is being made, you should ask for clarification. It's important that everyone have a clear understanding of what's being recommended and why. You also can make requests if you feel an area of concern is not being addressed.

For instance, if your child's assessments show that they struggle with reading comprehension , you can use that data to request speech and language support. You can even request classroom accommodations , such as extra time to complete reading and writing assignments and tests.

Discussing the IEP

The committee, including the parent, meets to develop the IEP. Schools may develop a draft IEP and bring it to the meeting, but the IEP is not finalized until the meeting is held and the committee members have input into the document. During this meeting, the team will use data such as test scores, work samples, and behavioral charts to support any recommendations that they make.

If you are uncomfortable with a placement recommendation, it's important to work with the IEP team to come up with a better solution or alternative.

Keep in mind that by law, decisions are made by consensus. So while you have considerable influence, you don't have the right to veto decisions the committee recommends.

You can involve an advocate , but you will need to use conflict resolution strategies to come to an agreement. Try to use the data gathered during the assessment along with verifiable research to support your requests.

In most cases, the team is able to come to an agreeable solution. After all, everyone in the meeting wants to see your child succeed.

Finalizing the IEP and Placement

Once an agreement on the content of the IEP is reached, the committee finalizes the most appropriate placement for the child. Placement can range from a fully inclusive program in the regular classroom to pull-out services in a special education program. In rare cases, students may be served in special schools or hospitals. The parent is asked to sign consent for the agreed-upon services to be provided.

After the IEP is finalized, you will meet with the IEP team annually to discuss your child's progress. During those meetings, the team will evaluate the effectiveness of the IEP and modify it as needed.

You also can request an IEP meeting anytime throughout the school year if you feel something isn't working or that a change needs to be made.

Every three years, your child will be assessed to determine if they still require special education. You will be presented with this information in a triennial meeting.

In addition to these formal meetings, you should be in regular communication with your child's teachers. Together, you should be monitoring how your child is doing academically and whether or not they are meeting their educational goals.

A Word From Verywell

It's not easy to hear about your child's struggles and learning disabilities. Yet, on an intellectual level, you know this issue is one you need to hear about and address. While it's important to recognize and accept your feelings, whatever they may be, you also need to work toward acceptance of the challenges your child is facing.

By learning as much as you can about your child's disability and by taking an active role in your child's education, including the IEP process, you will be able to help your student not only get the services and help they need, but also meet their goals and be successful.

Learning Disabilities Association of America. New to LD .

National Center for Education Statistics. Students with disabilities .

Benitez Ojeda AB, Carugno P. Special education . In:  StatPearls . StatPearls Publishing. PMID:29763032

Chesmore AA, Ou SR, Reynolds AJ. Childhood placement in special education and adult well-being .  J Spec Educ . 2016;50(2):109-120. doi:10.1177/0022466915624413

Hibel J, Farkas G, Morgan PL. Who is placed into special education ? Sociol Educ . 2010;83(4):312-332. doi:10.1177/0038040710383518

By Ann Logsdon Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities. 

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Home » Blog » General » Enhancing Problem-Solving Skills in Special Education: Strategies and Activities

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Enhancing Problem-Solving Skills in Special Education: Strategies and Activities

Enhancing Problem-Solving Skills in Special Education: Strategies and Activities


Problem-solving is a vital skill that students need to navigate the complexities of daily life. In special education, teaching problem-solving skills can be particularly important as these students may face unique challenges. This blog post will explore the concept of problem-solving, present a no-prep activity for educators, provide discussion questions, and mention related skills that can further support students. By incorporating principles of Social-Emotional Learning, we can help students develop effective strategies to understand and address the problems they encounter.

No-Prep Activity: The Problem-Solving Steps Role-Play

This activity aims to help students practice the problem-solving steps in a fun and engaging way. No materials or preparation are required from the educator.

  • Divide the students into pairs.
  • Assign each pair a common problem that they might face in their daily lives (e.g., sharing a toy or resolving a disagreement).
  • Identify the problem.
  • Think about the size of the problem.
  • Come up with a few solutions.
  • Predict the outcomes of each solution.
  • Pick the best solution.
  • After the role-play, have a brief discussion with the students about the experience, what they learned, and how they can apply these steps in real-life situations.

Discussion Questions

Here are some questions that can help stimulate further discussion among students:

  • How did you feel when trying to solve the problem during the role-play activity? Were you confident, nervous, or unsure?
  • What was the most challenging part of the problem-solving process for you? Why?
  • Can you think of a situation where you successfully used problem-solving skills in the past? What strategies did you use, and how did it turn out?
  • How can we support each other in solving problems, both big and small?
  • Why is it important to consider the feelings of others when choosing a solution to a problem?

Related Skills

Developing problem-solving skills is closely linked to other essential abilities that can support students in their growth. Some related skills include:

  • Communication: Being able to express thoughts and feelings clearly can help students navigate conflicts and collaborate on solutions.
  • Active listening: Listening carefully to others’ perspectives can provide valuable insights when addressing a problem.
  • Empathy: Understanding and sharing the feelings of others can help students make more informed decisions when solving problems.
  • Self-regulation: Managing emotions and impulses is crucial for staying focused on finding solutions and maintaining healthy relationships.

Now that you have learned about problem-solving strategies and activities for special education students, it’s time to take the next step in your journey to support your students’ growth. Sign up for free samples of the skills discussed in this blog post and others at Everyday Speech. By incorporating these valuable resources into your teaching, you can help your students develop the essential skills they need to navigate the complexities of life with confidence.

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Explicitly Model Mathematics Concepts/Skills & Problem Solving Strategies

What is the purpose of explicitly modeling mathematics concepts/skills and problem solving strategies.

The purpose of explicitly modeling mathematics concepts/skills and problem solving strategies is twofold. First, explicit modeling of a target mathematics concept/skill provides students a clear and accessible format for initially acquiring an understanding of the mathematics concept/skill. Explicit modeling by you provides students with a clear, accurate, multi-sensory model of the skill or concept. Students must first be able to access the attributes of a concept/skill before they can be expected to understand it and be able to use it in meaningful ways. Explicit teacher modeling does just that. Second, by explicitly modeling effective strategies for approaching particular problem solving situations, you provide students a process for becoming independent learners and problem solvers. While peers can sometimes be effective models for students, students with special needs require a well qualified teacher to provide such modeling, at least in the initial phases of instruction.

What is Explicit Modeling?

Explicit modeling involves well-prepared teachers employing a variety of instructional techniques to illuminate the key attributes of any given mathematics concept/skill. In a sense, you serve as a "bridge of learning" for your student, an accessible bridge between the student and the particular mathematics concept/skill they are learning:

The level of teacher support you provide your students depends on how much of a learning bridge they need. In particular, students with learning problems need a well-established learning bridge (teacher model). They learn most effectively when their teacher provides clear and multi-sensory models of a mathematics concept/skill during math instruction.

What are some important considerations when implementing Explicit Modeling?

The teacher purposefully sets the stage for understanding by identifying what students will learn (visually and auditorily), providing opportunities for students to link what they already know (e.g. prerequisite concepts/skills they have already mastered, prior real-life experiences they have had, areas of interest based on your students' age, culture, ethnicity, etc.), and discussing with students how what they are going to learn has relevance/meaning for their immediate lives.

  • Teacher breaks math concept/skill into learnable parts/steps. Think about the concept/skill and break it down into 3-4 features or parts.
  • Teacher clearly describes features of the math concept or steps in performing math skill using visual examples.
  • Teacher describes/models using multi-sensory techniques. Use as many "input" pathways as possible for any given concept/skill including auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic means. For example, when modeling how to compare values of different fractions to determine "greater than," you might verbalize each step of the process for comparing fractions while pointing to each step written on chart paper (auditory and visual), represent each fraction using fraction circle pieces, running your finger around the perimeter of each piece, laying one fraction piece over the other one and running your finger along the space not covered up by the fraction of lesser value/area; "thinking aloud" by saying your thoughts aloud as you examine each fraction piece (visual, kinesthetic, auditory), verbalizing your answer and why you determined why one fraction was greater than the other, and having students run their fingers along the same fraction pieces and uncovered space (auditory, visual, tactile, kinesthetic).
  • Teacher provides both examples and non-examples of the mathematics concept/skill. For example, in the above example, you might compare two different fractions using same process but place the fraction of greater value/area on top of the fraction of lesser value/area. Then prompt student thinking of why this is not an example of "greater than."
  • Explicitly cue students to essential attributes of the mathematics concept/skill you model. For example, when associating the written fraction to the fraction pieces and their respective values, color code the numerator and denominator in ways that represent the meaning of the fraction pieces they use. Cue students to the color-coding and what each color represents. Then demonstrate how each written fraction relates to the "whole' circle:

2/4 = 2 of four equal pieces

  • Teacher engages students in learning through demonstrating enthusiasm, through maintaining a lively pace, through periodically questioning students, and through checking for student understanding. Explicit modeling is not meant to be a passive learning experience for students. On the contrary, it is critical to involve students as you model.
  • After modeling several examples and non-examples, begin to have your students demonstrate a few steps of the process.
  • As students demonstrate greater understanding, ask them to complete more and more of the process.
  • When students demonstrate complete understanding, have various students "teach" you by modeling the entire process.
  • Play a game where you and your students try to "catch" each other making a mistake or leaving out a step in the process.

How do I implement Explicit Modeling?

  • Select the appropriate level of understanding to model the concept/skill or problem solving strategy (concrete, representational, abstract).
  • Ensure that your students have the prerequisite skills to perform the skill or use the problem solving strategy.
  • Break down the concept/skill or problem solving strategy into logical and learnable parts (Ask yourself, "What do I do and what do I think as I perform the skill?"). The strategies you can link to from this site are already broken down into steps.
  • Provide a meaningful context for the concept/skill or problem solving strategy (e.g. word or story problem suited to the age and interests of your students. Invite parents/family members of your students or members of the community who work in an area that can be meaningfully applied to the concept/skill or strategy and ask them to show how they use the concept/skill/strategy in their work.
  • Provide visual, auditory, kinesthetic (movement), and tactile means for illustrating important aspects of the concept/skill (e.g. visually display word problem and equation, orally cue students by varying vocal intonations, point, circle, highlight computation signs or important information in story problems).
  • "Think aloud" as you illustrate each feature or step of the concept/skill/strategy (e.g. say aloud what you are thinking as you problem-solve so students can better "visualize" the metacognitive aspects of understanding or doing the concept/skill/strategy).
  • Link each step of the problem solving process (e.g. restate what you did in the previous step, what you are going to do in the next step, and why the next step is important to the previous step).
  • Periodically check student understanding with questions, remodeling steps when there is confusion.
  • Maintain a lively pace while being conscious of student information processing difficulties (e.g. need additional time to process questions).
  • Model a concept/skill at least three times.

How does Explicitly Modeling Mathematics Concepts/Skills and Problem Solving Strategies help students who have learning problems?

  • Teacher as model makes the concept/skill clear and learnable.
  • High level of teacher support and direction enables student to make meaningful cognitive connections.
  • Provides students who have attention problems, processing problems, memory retrieval problems, and metacognitive difficulties an accessible "learning map" to the concept/skill/strategy.
  • Links between parts/steps are directly made, making confusion and misunderstanding less likely.
  • Multi-sensory cueing provides students multiple modes to process and thereby learn information.
  • Teaching students effective problem solving strategies provides them a means for solving problems independently and assists them to develop their metacognitive awareness.

What Mathematics Problem Solving Strategies can I teach my students?

Mathematics problem solving strategies that have research support or that have been field tested with students can be accessed by clicking on the link below. These strategies are organized according to mathematics concept/skill area. Each strategy is described and an example of how each strategy can be used is also provided. 

What are additional resources I can use to help me implement Explicitly Modeling Mathematics Concepts/Skills and Problem Solving Strategies?

MathVIDS is an interactive CD-ROM/website for teachers who are teaching math to students who are having difficulty learning mathematics. The development of MathVIDS was sponsored through funding by the Virginia Department of Education.


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  1. Lesson 1. Problem Solving: Definition and Process

  2. Problem Solving Process

  3. Types of Problem solving And purpose

  4. Special Education Resources

  5. Overview of the CSE Process

  6. Special Education Activities for Children


  1. PDF NASET Assessment in Special Education Series

    strengths and needs, and to determine whether or not a child is eligible for special education services. Assessment in special education is a process that involves collecting information about a student for the purpose of making decisions. Assessment, also known as evaluation, can be seen as a problem-solving process (Swanson & Watson, 1989 ...

  2. Problem-Solving Model for Improving Student Achievement

    Tier three involves referral to a special education team for additional problem solving and, potentially, a special education assessment (Office of Special Education Programs, 2002). ... The learning team used OSPS's four-step problem-solving process to develop and implement a plan that resulted in a 99% student participation rate on the WKCE ...

  3. Responsiveness to Intervention and Learning Disabilities

    The constant factor is the use of a systematic problem-solving process involving such steps as (1) identifying and analyzing the problem, including collection of baseline data; (2) ... Special education, pupil personnel, related services, and other support professionals (e.g., special education teachers, speech-language pathologists, school ...

  4. PDF Special Education Problem Solving

    A state complaint can be filed when a parent feels his or her child's special education . rights have been violated. The requirements, timelines, forms, and Frequently Asked Questions related to filing a state complaint can be found in the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) Special Education Problem Solving Process document.

  5. Response to Intervention (RtI): A Systematic Approach to Reading ...

    Use problem-solving process. Use a clearly defined problem-solving process to identify individual needs and evaluate interventions that apply to all students in the system. The process should identify the problem and why it is happening, then identify interventions that will help rectify the problem, and finally monitor progress to determine if ...

  6. PDF Special Education Problem Solving

    Here are some options for solving special education problems: Family Matters. Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education. November 2022. Fact Sheet. 1-888-320-8384. (OSE information line) specialeducation-familymatters mde-ose@ 1 Educate yourself on the issue. Go to Family Matters on the Michigan ...

  7. PDF CEC's Position on Response to Intervention (RTI)

    interveners and special educators as members of the problem-solving teams in tiers one and two. Special education teachers, related service personnel and specialized general educators (e.g. teachers of English language learners, reading specialists, mental health specialists, etc.) are the primary interveners for the highest tier services.

  8. The Special Education Process in 6 Steps

    The first step in the special education process is determining if your child has a learning problem and needs help. Typically, children with developmental delays or physical disabilities are diagnosed by their pediatrician or another medical provider. Because they are diagnosed before entering the school system, these children enter school with ...

  9. Enhancing Problem-Solving Skills in Special Education: Strategies and

    In special education, teaching problem-solving skills can be particularly important as these students may face unique challenges. This blog post will explore the concept of problem-solving, present a no-prep activity for educators, provide discussion questions, and mention related skills that can further support students.

  10. PDF Mathematical Problem-Solving Processes of Students with Special Needs

    Many models on the problem-solving process have been developed since 1945 (Krawec, 2010). Among them, Polya (1957), Mayer (1985), and Montague (1992) have been cited by several studies in the relevant literature using mathemat-ical problem-solving models (Karabulut & Özkubat, 2019). The first mathematical problem-solving model was defined

  11. 10 Steps in the Special Education Process

    10 Steps in the Special Education Process. The child is identified as possibly needing special education and related services. There are two common ways a child can be identified as possibly needing special education and related services. "Child Find". The state must identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities in the state ...

  12. State Complaints Procedures and Model Forms and Dispute Resolution

    If you have any questions regarding state complaints or the state complaint process, please contact the MDE OSE Information Line at 888-320-8384 or [email protected]. To provide clarity and transparency for all stakeholders, the Problem Solving Process guidance document is being replaced with two documents.

  13. PDF Special Education Problem Solving Process

    appropriate special education and related services and requires the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) to enforce all laws governing special education programs. The MDE has adopted rules implementing those requirements. The Office of Special Education (OSE) of the MDE enforces the compliance obligations under the IDEA and Michigan law.

  14. PDF Facilitated Special Education Meetings

    Facilitated meetings are usually scheduled by the school district at a time and place agreeable to the parents. Facilitators are neutral and provided at no cost to the parent and school district through Special Education Mediation Services (SEMS), an IDEA grant funded initiative. Facilitators are trained in addressing conflicts but do not ...

  15. PDF Best Practices in School-Based Problem-Solving Consultation

    problem-solving approaches as recently presented in the literature (e.g., Brown-Chidsey & Andren, 2013). A heuristic five-stage framework for consultation can be applied to a system, group, or individual problem-solving process. Work With Special Education Teachers Traditionally, school psychologists have implemented

  16. Explicitly Model Mathematics Concepts/Skills & Problem Solving

    The purpose of explicitly modeling mathematics concepts/skills and problem solving strategies is twofold. First, explicit modeling of a target mathematics concept/skill provides students a clear and accessible format for initially acquiring an understanding of the mathematics concept/skill. Explicit modeling by you provides students with a ...

  17. Virtual Lesson Example: Problem Solving for Students with ...

    This activity was developed by Tammy Moran a special education teacher in Ferris Independent School District. In this lesson, she illustrates the use of the Understand-Plan-Solve-Evaluate (UPSE) Method. This method is a problem-solving strategy that can be used to support students struggling with word problems. The lesson can be used synchronously or asynchronously and does not require using ...

  18. English Language Learners and Special Education: One District's Journey

    Problem Solving Process Laura S. Salem University of Nebraska-Lincoln, [email protected] ... Language Learner/Special Education Collaborative Problem Solving Process pilot. Collecting the stories of the participants provided an opportunity to make sense of their experiences. By better understanding the perceptions and experiences of ...

  19. PDF The Special Education Problem Solving Process: State Complaints

    The Special Education Problem Solving Process: State Complaints 22 November 18, 2014 When a complaint is submitted it receives a pre-case number and is reviewed for sufficiency. The sufficiency review is a form built on requirements in federal law and state rule. ...

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  21. INTERNAL PD INFO: Free Professional Learning Series, "Sparking

    The ADE/ESS/Academic Achievement and Inclusive Practices team is excited to announce a free, virtual, professional learning opportunity for educators and administrators: "Sparking Curiosity with Problem-Solving: Raising Student Voice." Come learn about a professional learning series for the 2024-2025 school year that offers in-person training and on-site coaching.

  22. Rule 281-41.313

    A systematic problem-solving process may be used for any child suspected of being an eligible individual, and nothing in this chapter nor in Part B of the Act shall be construed to limit the applicability of a systematic problem-solving process to children suspected of having a certain type of disability. Iowa Admin. Code r. 281-41.313

  23. Family Matters

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  24. PDF Family Matters Mediation Fact Sheet

    related to special education. Mediation is usually one of the early steps in the special education problem solving process and allows for flexible solutions and preserving relationships with schools and families. During mediation, all parties review options to meet student needs. Mediation is a private process and

  25. Rule 281-41.313

    A systematic problem-solving process may be used for any child suspected of being an eligible individual, and nothing in this chapter nor in Part B of the Act is to be construed to limit the applicability of a systematic problem-solving process to children suspected of having a certain type of disability. Iowa Admin. Code rr. 281-41.313