What do students with learning disabilities need the most from their special educator? While many individualized skills and interventions are needed, there is one skill all students need from their special educator: the ability to problem-solve.

When doing research on the topic of problem-solving, just about every area of learning presents itself: mathematics, writing, reading, science, taking assessments, use of technology, discipline, behavior strategies, emotional skills and interaction with peers.

Problem-solving is a key skill for every area of learning. The student with learning disabilities needs his teacher to conscientiously and methodically teach him how to navigate this skill successfully.

The special educator and student are in a reciprocal relationship that is typically controlled by the teacher. However, the teacher must instruct the student so he can learn without her. The goal of special education is for the student to learn so successfully that he exits special education.

Many students do not exit, and the special educator needs to assess why the student is still struggling to be successful and free of specialized education. But the special educator must not allow learned helplessness to develop in the student by providing too much intervention too soon.

There is a balance that must be learned within every teacher-student relationship so that the student is supported while encouraged to take risks — to make mistakes and learn from them.

Problem-solving is a skill that requires extrinsic teaching by another person to develop intrinsic student responses. As special educators, we present a problem to a student every time we teach him. The student’s response is often, "I need help." The student has learned that if he does not understand what is being asked of him, he will look to his teacher to "help" him.

The teacher has many possible tools to help the student and generally wants to help. However, the best help to provide is to wait, give the student time to think, and teach the student to systematically decide what he knows and doesn't know.

Students with learning disabilities learn best with clear, step-by-step directions that lead to results — a product or a resolution. They need motivation to continue from the beginning to the end of the learning process, provided by their own intrinsic motivation, or by a teacher who is offering verbal reinforcement along with guidance. The more a student uses his own intrinsic motivation, the more he will problem-solve independently and successfully.

Using a cue card or a graphic organizer to teach the steps of problem-solving will guide the student to consider questions to ask and answer while working through the task at hand. Many premade graphic organizers for problem-solving do not ask questions that are detailed enough to guide the specific thinking that the student with learning disabilities needs. Most are open-ended and assume that the student knows the information to work through the organizer.

Many students with learning disabilities lack background knowledge that is needed to successfully answer open-ended questions that result in an appropriate end product. Teachers should use a well-defined cue card or graphic organizer that has been individually designed for each student based on his thinking and processing abilities. The cue card or graphic organizer should be used through each of the student stages of the learning process from acquisition to application, to make sure the student has internalized the process well.

There are common questions that need to be answered while problem-solving for any reason. These questions need to be made clear to the student as the student answers them to reach a solution or end product. Writing the answers allows the student to return to his thinking to check for accuracy when problems arise.

Four main question areas to include in a cue card or graphic organizer are asked in a sequential manner.

  • What is the problem?
  • What steps do you need to take to solve the problem?
  • What is the solution or result of solving the problem?
  • Reflection: Was this the best way to solve this?

When the student is evaluating each of these steps, the special educator needs to continue to guide the student to ask additional questions for each step. These will be individualized based on the support each student needs.

However, the questions will need to be person-centered such as: Do I know what to do? Have I done something like this in the past? How did I solve this before? Did I need help before? What help did I need? Was I successful in the past? What should I do differently this time? The student should write the questions and answers as a record of the process used to problem-solve.

Students need to be taught independence within all the instruction delivered by a special educator. The special educator must prioritize the need to teach the ability to problem-solve. Students who cannot problem-solve will be dependent on the special educator until they are free to think independently.

Using a cue card or graphic organizer to explicitly teach this life skill will provide an avenue of success that the student can use in any educational or social situation that requires a solution.