Citation Information

Steele, M.M. (2005, April 30). Teaching Students With Learning Disabilities: Constructivism Or Behaviorism? Current Issues in Education [On-line], 8(10). Available:

Teaching Students With Learning Disabilities: Constructivism Or Behaviorism?

Marcee M. Steele
University of North Carolina Wilmington


There is much controversy concerning the use of constructivist and behaviorist principles for teaching children with learning disabilities. Although many educators support the use of one paradigm exclusively, the author recommends combining ideas from both perspectives for the most effective instruction. This article includes a brief discussion of learning disabilities, a summary of key constructivist and behaviorist principles and their impact on students with learning disabilities, and a list of recommendations for practice in the classroom.

Table of Contents


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There is a major debate in the field of education and in particular special education concerning two different theories and related approaches to teaching: constructivism and behaviorism. Evidence of this controversy can be seen in university settings, public schools, and journal articles. It is typical in the education field to challenge a position, dismiss it, and then embrace a new trend as if there were no valid ideas represented in the original position. Frequently effective strategies incorporate ideas from different theoretical perspectives; therefore, the author recommends taking some useful ideas from each theory for practice in the classroom. Furthermore, for students with learning disabilities (LD) and other special needs, it is more effective to make curricular and instructional decisions based on the individual child, the task, and the setting than to use strategies representing one theory exclusively. In fact integrating components from both approaches could help special and general education teachers work more effectively as a team to teach children with learning disabilities. This article highlights the definition and characteristics of learning disabilities, briefly reviews constructivist and behaviorist principles, and discusses the impact on students with learning disabilities. The author recommends some ideas for practice in the inclusion classroom, where teachers currently face the challenge of teaching students with LD.


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Learning Disabilities

Federal law defines specific learning disabilities as psychological processing disorders that result in deficits in at least one of the academic skills (U.S. Office of Education, 1977). A child with this label does not have mental retardation, behavior disorders or other major disabilities. The child with LD has difficulty with processing skills such as memory, visual perception, auditory perception, or thinking; and as a result has trouble achieving in at least one subject such as reading, math, or writing (Lerner, 2003). Some of the typical characteristics associated with learning disabilities include problems in reading, mathematics, writing, and oral language; deficits in interpreting what is seen or heard; difficulty with study skills, self-control, self-esteem, memory, and attention (Mercer, 1997).


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Constructivist Theory and Practice

Instruction based on constructivist theory is currently supported for general education classes by university faculty and many educational organizations (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). One of the key ideas associated with constructivist theory is that learning should be meaningful and related to real life situations (Grobecker, 1999). For example, instead of repeatedly having children work word problems to learn how to make change for a dollar, constructivist theory suggests it is better to give children real money to use at a classroom or school store for practice. In social studies, students could role play lawyers, judge, and jury for a simulated court case or conduct an election for classroom leaders instead of memorizing the related procedures and policies. Children with learning disabilities will benefit from this approach because of their difficulty in generalizing from the classroom to other settings. With the realistic examples built in to the instruction, the students have specific practice with generalization.

Teachers following a constructivist perspective base their instruction on what the students already know as a foundation (Duhaney & Duhaney, 2000). Therefore, to introduce new concepts, teachers need to discuss first some related ideas that are already familiar to the students. This practice helps students with LD because of their low self-esteem and repeated failure experiences. If they have the chance to start with something familiar, new learning does not seem so overwhelming and frustrating to them. Ellis recommends techniques such as mapping and brainstorming (1997). For example teachers could introduce a science lesson on tides and ask student to brainstorm all the facts they already know; they could have students make a map, web, or other visual to include ideas from the class. Later, the students can research further information and make any necessary revisions. In a primary level economics lesson, teachers could model construction of a flow chart of producers and consumers to show how economics works.

Another principle underlying the constructivist approach is a focus on key ideas and the relationships of these ideas within the subject areas (Grobecker, 1999) and across subject areas (Ellis, 1997). Applying this principle, teachers stress connections of important concepts that are the major ideas for the discipline rather than isolated bits of knowledge. In mathematics, for example, teachers might emphasize fractions and their relationship to decimals, percents, and proportions. In social studies, themes such as conflict and diversity might be used to teach units on warfare, exploration, and government at many different grade levels. In science, cause and effect might provide the underlying theme for many topics. Ellis suggests that for students with LD, teachers need to prioritize and to teach the most important facts related to key ideas so students are not overwhelmed with memorizing since many students with LD have significant memory deficits. Geometric theorems and postulates about parallel lines could be broken down and taught one or two at a time to be sure they are clear and retained for later use. In addition teachers could focus on strategies and patterns that are useful for many content subjects such as the use of graphic organizers and self-monitoring. When students learn to keep track of their own progress, errors, and accomplishments, they will gain feelings of confidence and success.

Active learning is an important facet of a constructivist approach to instruction. When students are actively involved in the lesson, they learn and retain the information (Duhaney & Duhaney, 2000; Harris & Graham, 1996). Many of the discovery lessons in social studies, inquiry approaches in science, and whole language strategies in language arts incorporate a high level of student involvement. Chemistry and physics experiments are useful for motivating students with LD. For example, experiments with plants, color, batteries, and other science concepts, even in the elementary classroom, can provide high interest for science topics and ideas. Social studies projects involving maps and posters, such as planning trips and routes, also provide motivation for students. In the language arts areas, the use of literature related to themes being studied keeps students focused on topics of interest. Fiction books on current issues such as euthanasia, stem cell research, or other controversial topics can be used to integrate language arts, science, and social studies lessons. Teaching students to summarize, paraphrase, predict, and use visual images, which all involve active learning, helps students with LD understand and remember. Role play, art, and group projects are also useful for clarifying and reinforcing instruction (Ellis, 1997). Such strategies are useful in motivating students with LD, who tend to me more passive learners because of their history of failure (Lerner, 2003).

High level thinking skills, such as problem solving and analysis, are often thought to be too abstract and difficult for students with learning problems, even though they are an important part of a constructivist curriculum. However, with some additional guidance and preparation, it is possible and in fact beneficial to emphasize these skills with such students (Ellis, 1997; Grobecker, 1999). Teachers can guide students with LD to engage in complex writing process assignments, research projects, and other test-taking and study activities.


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Behaviorist Theory and Practice

The application of behaviorist theory to the classroom has generally been referred to as explicit or direct instruction. Although these approaches have been criticized for use in the general education setting, they have shown promising research results, particularly for children with learning problems (Mercer, 1997). Therefore, it is worth considering the positive aspects of the behaviorally oriented approaches so that they can be combined with some of the ideas that are more popular in the general education setting.

One strategy associated with structured approaches to teaching involves breaking down the tasks into small, manageable segments for teaching (Grobecker, 1999). Before conducting a science lesson on sound, the teacher could simplify a complex science task by introducing and teaching only one step of the scientific method, for example statement of the problem, so that the procedures and purposes are clear prior to going over all of the steps involved. This is particularly useful for students with LD as they become easily frustrated and overwhelmed when material appears too complex initially and they often give up before even starting a task (Lerner, 2003).

Modeling is another important component of explicit instructional techniques (Olson & Platt, 2000). In the writing process, for example, it is important for a teacher to explain and demonstrate each stage. It is generally not sufficient to name and give some examples of pre-writing strategies or proofreading; the teacher might actually demonstrate for the whole class and perhaps individually exactly how each step is accomplished. When writing a paper, for example, on “The most significant event in your life,” the teacher could guide the students in brainstorming ideas and making a graphic organizer of topics. For students with learning disabilities, modeling is critical because of their feelings of being overwhelmed. In addition, the model provides the extra guidance that is needed for these students.

In most explicit instruction, there is a great deal of practice and review of new learning until mastery occurs (Grobecker, 1999). Whether it is multiplication facts, geography terms involving landforms, or vocabulary related to a biology lesson on parts of the brain; direct instructional lessons provide extensive drill and practice time (Olson and Platt, 2000). The students with LD benefit from such over learning because of their memory problems and difficulty processing information.

Explicit teaching also involves a great deal of structure and systematic planning (Olson & Platt, 2000). Because of the processing, attention, and memory problems of many students with learning disabilities, this emphasis on teacher directed and controlled lessons is beneficial (Lerner, 2003). Students tend to achieve when they know what to expect; in other words lessons are predictable. They are then able to focus attention on the new material being taught rather than the unique and perhaps confusing features of a lesson.

Another example of a direct instruction strategy appropriate for students with LD is the use of fast paced lessons with monitoring and feedback. These students can learn to progress if the lesson includes a chance for monitoring by teacher and students, provisions of feedback, and some type of reinforcement. These elements of the lesson have been shown to be effective with children especially those with disabilities. For example during a literature lesson, students might be asked to write an essay analyzing the themes of a story. Rather than completing the entire assignment, students benefit from the teacher’s feedback at each step. First they might check to see if the theme they selected is relevant. Then they might describe examples of the theme and be sure they are related events. All of the major content of their essays, in fact, could be checked and revised before even working on a draft. This procedure builds confidence and develops strategies to ensure skill development and a higher quality finished product.


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Students with learning disabilities are challenging to teach successfully in the inclusion setting because of the processing and academic deficits. However, if teachers are familiar with patterns of strengths and weaknesses and aware of several principles for good practice, most students with LD have a good chance for success. Instructional decisions should be made based on the child’s learning characteristics, the task, and the content rather than teaching from a pre-determined philosophy. The best teaching will often integrate ideas from constructivist and behaviorist principles. A few examples of relevant recommendations discussed in this paper are in the list that follows this narrative. Although it is often easier to teach with one method overall, instruction is most effective if special education and general education teachers are familiar with several options and collaborate to make decisions for each lesson. In addition, these ideas are beneficial for several subjects, grade levels, and students with and without disabilities. They are generally easy to implement without changing an entire lesson.


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Summary of Key Ideas for Teaching Stucents With LD in the General Education Classroom

Ideas Based on Constructivist Theory

  • Relate lessons to real life situations to make the ideas more meaningful
  • Start lessons with information and examples that are familiar to the students (from their own experiences)
  • Focus on a few key ideas in each lesson that underlie several topics and subject areas
  • Design activities in which students are actively involved in the lesson
  • Integrate high level thinking skills, and provide clear explanations and guidance to clarify

Ideas Based on Behavioral Theory

  • Break down tasks into small segments
  • Model, demonstrate, and explain each step in a procedure or new task
  • Include as much extra practice and review as needed for mastery to occur
  • Incorporate structure and predictable routine into lessons
  • Use monitoring and feedback as lesson progresses rather than waiting until conclusion


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Marcee M. Steele

Phone: 910-962-3365
Fax: 910-962-3988

PhD, University of South Florida, is a professor of special education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in learning disabilities, assessment procedures, exceptional students, and current issues in special education. She has also taught individuals with learning disabilities from pre-school to graduate school level in public and private settings for over 32 years.


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Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1999). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Duhaney, D. C., & Duhaney, L. M. G. (2000). Assistive technology: Meeting the needs of learners with disabilities. International Journal of Instructional Media, 27, 393-401.

Ellis, E. S. (1997). Watering up the curriculum for adolescents with learning disabilities: Goals of the knowledge dimension. Remedial and Special Education, 18, 326-346.

Grobecker, B. (1999). Mathematics reform and learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 22, 43-58.

Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (1996). Constructivism and students with special needs: Issues in the classroom. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 11, 134-137.

Lerner, J. (2003). Learning disabilities: Theories, diagnosis, and teaching practices. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mercer, C. D. (1997). Students with learning disabilities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Mercer, C. D., Jordan, L., & Miller, S. P. (1996). Constructivist math instruction for diverse learners. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 11, 147-156.

Olson, J. L., & Platt, J. M. (2000). Teaching children and adolescents with special needs (3 rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

U.S. Office of Education. (1977). Assistance to states for education of handicapped children: Procedures for evaluating specific learning disabilities. (Federal Register, 42:65082-65085).


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