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Exceptional Students in the Classroom

Kyrsha has a bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education. She is very passionate about children and their development.

Read on to find helpful modifications and activities for four kinds of exceptional learners in the classroom. You’ll also find illuminating definitions and context for each of the four exceptional learners discussed.

Read on to find helpful modifications and activities for four kinds of exceptional learners in the classroom. You’ll also find illuminating definitions and context for each of the four exceptional learners discussed.

How to Teach Exceptional Learners

Are you a teacher with some exceptional students in your classroom? Are you struggling to build an accommodating classroom and curriculum for all your learners? This article will help you succeed in creating an engaging and supportive environment for all of your students.

Exceptional learners is a special term used in the United States to refer to students with disabilities and those who are especially gifted or talented (Hallahan, 2020). It covers a range of students whose classroom experience differs from the average for various reasons. In this article, we'll cover the following types of exceptional learners and offer modifications and activities appropriate for each:

Types of Exceptional Learners Covered in This Article

  1. Learning Disabilities
  2. Behavioural and/or Emotional Disorders
  3. Visual Impairment
  4. Giftedness and Creativity

1. Learning Disabilities

A learning disability is a heterogeneous or “umbrella” term coined in 1963 by Dr. Samuel Kirk to cover a wide range of learning difficulties experienced by students. Previous to this, various labels, usually pertaining to medical terms (for example, minimal brain dysfunction, neurological handicap, perceptually handicapped), were used to describe students who were obviously intelligent but had problems learning in the general classroom (Dixon and Matalon, 1999).

A learning disability is a neurological disorder. In simple terms, a learning disability results from a difference in how a person’s brain is “wired.” Children with learning disabilities are as smart or smarter than their peers. However, they may have difficulty reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling and/or organizing information if left to figure things out themselves or if taught in conventional ways.

A learning disability can’t be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong issue. With the proper support and intervention, however, children with learning disabilities can succeed in school and go on to successful, often distinguished careers later in life.


  • Pre-teach difficult vocabulary
  • Teach memory strategies (acronyms, acrostics, keywords, visualization, etc.)
  • Highlight important concepts in the texts
  • Reduce the amount of work
  • Select key elements of a written assignment to grade (for example, verbs)
  • Provide opportunities for movement

Some tried-and-true board games can also help your child with a learning disability understand basic academic concepts. A simple board game such as Snakes and Ladders can help children with number recognition, counting, and sequencing, according to the National Centre for Learning Disabilities article “Fun Activities to Help Your Elementary School-Age Child Build Math Skills” (Loop, 2015).

Activity for Children With Learning Disabilities

In playing the Snake and Ladder game, students will get an addition mat to add doubles. For example the child will add 0+0, 1+1, 2+2, 3+3, 4+4, etc. When the child gets the answer correct, they will get a chance to roll the dice and move up the ladder.

2. Behavioural and/or Emotional Disorders

Behavioural and/or emotional disorders can be defined as behavioural or emotional responses in a school programme that are so different from appropriate age, cultural or ethnic norms that they adversely affect educational performance. Educational performance includes developing and demonstrating academic, social, vocational and personal skills. Such a disability is, according to Dixon and Matalon 1999,

  • More than a temporary expected response to stressful events in the environment;
  • Consistently exhibited in two different settings – at least one of which is school-related; and
  • Unresponsive to direct intervention in general education, or the child’s condition is such that general education interventions would be insufficient.

Emotional and behavioural disorders can co-exist with other disabilities. This category may include children or youth with schizophrenic disorders, affective disorders, anxiety disorders or other sustained disturbances of conduct or adjustment when they adversely affect educational performances (Forness and Kniter, 1992, p.13 cited in Dixon and Matalon, 1999).


Mather and Goldstein (2001) state that behaviour modification assumes that observable and measurable behaviours are good targets for change. All behaviour follows a set of consistent rules. Methods can be developed for defining, observing, and measuring behaviours, as well as designing effective interventions.

Behaviour modification techniques never fail. Rather, they are either applied inefficiently or inconsistently, which leads to less than desired change. All behaviour is maintained, changed, or shaped by the consequences of that behaviour. Although certain limits exist, such as temperamental or emotional influences related to ADHD or depression, all children function more effectively under the right set of consequences.

Reinforcers are consequences that strengthen behaviour. Punishments are consequences that weaken behaviour. Students’ behaviours are managed and changed by the consequences of classroom behaviour. To manage behaviour through consequences, use this multi-step process:

  • The problem must be defined, usually by count or description.
  • Design a way to change the behaviour.
  • Identify an effective reinforcer.
  • Apply the reinforcer consistently to shape or change behaviour.

Reading to your children is more than just an opportunity to settle down at bedtime and increase literacy skills; it can also be an opportunity to practice identifying feelings. Children who struggle to identify feelings, whether their own or others’, can have behaviour problems. The National Association of School Psychologists suggests parents discuss characters’ feelings with their children while they read and encourage children to draw pictures to illustrate those feelings (Zimmerman, 2007).

Activity for Students With Behavioural and/or Emotional Disorders

Using a story sequence, the child will be asked to write their own version of what the picture is depicting. They will also be asked to write how the picture made them feel in their story.

Example of Story Sequencing


3. Visual Impairment

Visual impairment refers to a wide range of problems concerned with visual loss. These problems can range from infections that may be medically corrected, to impaired vision that can be corrected with the use of glasses, to a diagnosis of legal blindness.

It also refers to “...deficits in acuity, visual field, ocular mobility or colour perception. The visual impairment may be temporary or permanent. Visual disability is often used simultaneously with visual impairment to refer to loss that affects educational performance” (Heller et al., 1996, p. 217 cited in Dixon and Matalon, 1999).


Accommodations do not reduce grade-level standards but rather help provide access to the course content. They do not alter the amount or complexity of the information taught to the student. Accommodations are changes in the program from the way things are typically done so that a student with a disability can have equal opportunity to participate and allow the student to be successful. These changes do not substantially or fundamentally lower or alter the standards.

The purpose of accommodations is to decrease or eliminate the interference from the disability. These accommodations would be tied to district and state testing. Accommodations must be part of the student’s ongoing instructional program and not introduced for the first time during state-required assessments. When choosing accommodations, they must:

  • Be based on current individualized needs;
  • Reduce the effect of the disability to access the current curriculum;
  • Be specific about where, when, who and how the accommodations will be provided;
  • Include current input from parents, teachers, the student, and therapists; and
  • Be based on current specific needs in each content area.

Activity for a Student Who Is Visually Impaired

To teach shapes, the student will be given play dough/modelling clay to create their own shapes. Before they are asked to make the shapes, they will be given a solid object to discriminate one shape from the other. They will be given a circle, triangle, crescent, and square.

4. Giftedness and Creativity

The definition of giftedness in terms of high intelligence has been extended and now includes the concepts of ‘creativity’ and ‘talent’. Definitions, however, are diverse—some compete with each other, and all depend on what is valued in a culture.

However, the US Department of Education was able to define giftedness as children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment compared with others of their age, experience or environment.

In 1983, the Jamaica Association for the Gifted and Talented defined it as those who have demonstrated high-performance capabilities or have shown potential for high performance (Dixon and Matalon, 1999).


One way teachers can extend or enrich the content they present is by asking open-ended questions. Such questions stimulate higher-order thinking skills and allow students to consider and express personal opinions. Open-ended questions require thinking skills such as comparison, synthesis, insight, judgment, hypothesis, conjecture, and assimilation. Such questions can also increase student awareness of current events.

Open-ended questions should be included in both class discussions and assignments. They can also be used as stimulation for the opening or conclusion of a lesson. Another strategy for lesson modification developed by Susan Winebrenner (1992) is to use Bloom’s taxonomy of six levels of thinking to develop lesson content.

Bloom’s model implies that the “lower” levels (knowledge, comprehension, and application) require more literal and less complex thinking than the “higher” levels (analysis, evaluation, and synthesis). Teachers are encouraged to develop thematic units with activities for students at all ability levels. This strategy involves four steps.

Teachers first choose a theme that can incorporate learning objectives from several subject areas. Secondly, teachers identify 6 to 10 key concepts or instructional objectives. Third, they determine which learner outcomes or grade-level competencies will be targeted for the unit. Finally, they design instructional activities to cover each of the six levels of thinking (Kendrick, 2007).

Children who are gifted in a certain area, such as reading, should have instruction designed to match their skills. Many small group activities should be planned to build leadership skills. These activities provide children with opportunities to learn, plan, and make decisions. There should also be guidance so that they learn to accept failure (Herr, 1994).

Many gifted students, especially kinesthetic learners, learn best when they can work with something tangible. Therefore, try to think of activities that will enable them to get “down and dirty” with the material.

Activities for Students Who Are Gifted and Creative

In creative/art time, the student will be given a paper plate, glue, macaroni shells, googly eyes and crayons to create a picture of something. They will use their imagination and creativity to craft an object of their choice.

Tips for Teaching the Twice-Exceptional Child


Dixon, M. And Matalon, B. (1999). Exceptional Students in the Classroom. Textbook Series No. 5. The Joint Board of Teacher Education.

Loop, E. (2015). “Games for Kids with Learning Disabilities.”

Mather, N., & Goldstein, S. (2001). Learning Disabilities and Challenging Behaviours: A Guide to Intervention and Classroom Management. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. pp. 96-117.

Zimmerman, J. (2007). Activities for Children with Behavioural Problems. Demand Media.

Kendrick, P. (2007). Modifying Regular Classroom Curriculum for Gifted and Talented Students.

Herr, J. (1994). Working with Young Children. The Goodheart-Willcoz Company, Inc.

Hallahan, Daniel P., et al. (2020). “Exceptional Learners.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.