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Science for All

Modifying labs for students with special needs

Science Scope—January 2020 (Volume 43, Issue 5)

By Kaitlyn McGlynn and Janey Kelly

Why modify labs?

We spend so much time as teachers modifying quizzes, tests, and other assignments to fit students’ needs, it is strange to think about how rarely labs are modified. Oftentimes, students with special needs are placed in a group with strong students to “support” them in completing the lab tasks. Sadly, this often results in a practically meaningless experience for these students because they are told what to do, instead of being able to get their hands dirty and figure things out themselves. What is worse is that many of these students also begin to realize this themselves, which leads to them sitting back and letting their group mates take control, simply because it is the easiest thing to do. In order to provide all of your students with a meaningful opportunity to engage in the lab activity, it is imperative to find ways to subtly modify the lab or provide accommodations to scaffold your students while they complete the lab.

Modifying labs and accommodating students with special needs during labs

There is a difference between making accommodations for students and in modifying an assignment/assessment for students. Accommodations are changes made to the lab environment to the available lab equipment, or in how the lab is being completed by a student. Modifying a lab would involve changing the content of the lab, and therefore modifying your expectations of what that student is required to complete. Below are some suggestions of accommodations and modifications we both frequently use to support our students with special needs during lab activities.

Lab accommodations

Ensure your lab space is user-friendly

Considering students with mobility impairments and attention disabilities is essential for ensuring their safety and success during a lab. Keep your classroom accessible by providing wide aisles through which to travel. Also, keep lab tables uncluttered by only supplying the essentials students will need to complete the activity. Finally, consider materials that lower the potential risk of a lab, such as plastic instead of glass, nonslip mats, and even adjustable-height work areas. These considerations can go a long way to help your students have a rewarding lab experience (Burgstahler 2012).

Group students strategically

While grouping students heterogeneously may be beneficial sometimes, other times, it may be better to group students homogeneously. The decision to do either/or depends on your students. For example, Janey and her co-teacher have grouped students with special needs with students who may be stronger academically if they are confident that students will play an active role in completing the lab. When they are not as confident that all of students in the group will actively participate, they will speak to each of students in the lab group individually.

For students in the group who may be willing to do whatever it takes to complete the lab—even if it means doing it all themselves— Janey and her co-teacher assure them that they want to do everything they can to support them in that endeavor. They tell these students that it is unacceptable for any of their group mates to “take a back seat” and allow them to do all the work. If they notice any one of their group mates exhibiting this behavior, Janey and her co-teacher tell these students to alert one of them right away. The consequence for students who do not participate is to remove those students from the group, and make them complete the lab activity by themselves.

For students in the group who are content to allow everyone else to do the work, Janey and her co-teacher communicate a very different message at the start of the lab. They tell these students that they have a responsibility to get involved, ask questions, and play a part in helping their group accomplish the lab tasks. They also assure these students that they have confidence in their abilities to be valuable members of their group. If they do not participate, however, Janey and her co-teacher assure these students that they will be removed and forced to complete the lab on their own.

This consequence may seem harsh, but in middle school, it is important to set firm boundaries early. By reinforcing your confidence in your students to play an important and active role in their lab group, you are communicating a very important message to them as their teacher: I believe in you. All students need to hear this, but especially students with special needs, who have often been made to think that they cannot offer anything of value to their lab group because of their learning difficulties. If these students know that you believe in them, they will not want to disappoint you.

If this approach does not seem like it will work with your students, however, you could also try defining roles within the student’s lab group so that he/she knows exactly what his/her role is within the group. This will help to reduce any anxiety the student has related to knowing how to get involved meaningfully in the group task.

Provide alternate work spaces for students

Labs can get chaotic, and sometimes, we need to provide alternate spaces for students to be able to focus and work to their greatest potential, depending on their needs. For example, if you have a student with autism who gets easily stressed with a lot of noise and commotion in the classroom, try allowing his/her lab group to work out in the hall. This can also work well for students with attention needs who get easily distracted by peers or other stimuli.

Provide lab procedures in multiple modalities and include visuals

It is common practice for teachers to provide directions in more than one format, often auditory and visual. In addition to having directions written out to supplement your verbal directions, include photos or drawings along with these instructions. It is also helpful to review lab procedures and demonstrate them as you do so. This is particularly helpful for students who struggle with reading comprehension or impulsivity, as well as those who are visual learners. Because they have seen you do it once and have pictures to refer back to, they are more likely to carry out the directions correctly and safely, just like you modeled (Burgstahler 2012).

Change how students are recording lab information

If you have a student or group of students with occupational therapy needs (i.e., they struggle with handwriting and may need more white space to write), can you create an electronic version of the lab they could type on instead? If not, you could also create and print out another version of the lab that has more white space and lines to assist students with writing with greater ease.

Lab modifications

Change the expectations of the lab to meet student needs

Sometimes, accommodations are not enough to meet the needs of some children. A former student with processing and working memory needed to have labs, as well as the rest of the curriculum, whittled down to the most essential concepts, otherwise, the sheer volume of any task would be incredibly frustrating. Janey would modify this student’s labs by: (a) eliminating any nonessential parts of the lab (i.e., they were either repetitive in concept or above the level of expectation for the student) and then (b) making sure all directions and questions in the lab were stated as directly and simply as possible. Sentence starters were also often added for open-ended questions to help prompt this student toward the kind of response that was desired.

Group homogeneously

Grouping homogeneously is a good idea if you sense that you need to modify the lab expectations for a particular group of students or if you want to be able to more easily support various groups of students. For example, when Janey’s students were completing a lab involving chemical changes, she knew that there were entirely too many steps in the two-part lab for her students to complete. So, she modified the lab by requiring these students to only complete part one of the lab and placed these students together in the same lab group.

Janey and her co-teacher have also grouped homogeneously when they believe doing so would force students to work at a higher level. For example, Janey and her co-teacher frequently group gifted students together so that they could provide enrichment to these students without frustrating other students who may not be ready for it. Similarly, grouping homogeneously can also be good for students with special needs because they will have a greater comfort level and will be more likely to participate. When there is not just one student who traditionally takes the lead, these students are more likely to be active throughout the lab. In our experience, some students with special needs often need to feel confident in front of their peers to take risks in their learning environments. If one student is dominating the lab and asserts himself/herself as the leader, our less-confident students may be more likely to follow in his/her footsteps, rather than take risks to try and assert themselves as a leader for fear of failure.

Bringing it all together

Lab activities are often the parts of middle school science that students will remember more than anything else that takes place in our classrooms. Because of this, we want to give students as many chances to explore hands-on opportunities as possible. While it may seem daunting, especially if you have students with a variety of different learning needs in your classroom, there are some simple ways to help students meet success in a safe learning environment. Ensure your classroom and work areas are user-friendly to all students, not just the general population, and employ strategic grouping strategies, either homogeneous or heterogeneous, depending on students’ specific strengths and needs. In addition, have an option for alternate work spaces, present lab procedures in multiple modalities, including demonstrations, and provide an accessible way for all students to record their data as they conduct the experiment. Finally, if students’ disabilities require, you can change what is expected of them to ensure they will not become overly frustrated. With these strategies, you will guarantee that labs will remain your students’ favorite, and the most valuable, part of science class!

Do you have a question about Science for All?

If you have a classroom situation that you’re having trouble finding a solution for, send it their way. You can contact Kaitlyn and Janey at with any questions you may have or suggestions for future columns.

Disabilities Equity Labs Middle School

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