Alex Byland | March 2018

5 Best Practices for Connecting STEAM with Special Ed

My STEAM journey began five years ago as a special educator co-teaching 7th grade math and science. Immediately, my co-teacher and I contemplated how we could build more buy-in from our students. How could we plan hands-on lessons that would connect our math, science, and ELA (English Language Arts) standards? We also reflected on the missed opportunities that our students with special needs faced. These students oftentimes go to intervention classes in place of arts classes (technology, art, music, etc). The same also applied to those performing below grade-level in math and reading.


Tasked with the challenge of integrating the arts with a cross curricular approach, we planned our first STEAM project. We challenged our students to collaborate as pseudo-advertising firms competing for a social media contract. The project began by giving each team the individual costs for each social media post. We also provided the target demographic of the product. The students then developed a proposal for the best social media approach, using their knowledge of algebraic equations. They also researched articles on social media best practices.

By purposefully keeping the guidelines open-ended, the students happily surprised us with a variety of presentations. They all met the guidelines on the rubric, including a music video, a business-like Powerpoint speech, an artsy poster presentation, a skit, and an advertisement. Each student reported having fun creatively solving the problem with their team and finding the process very satisfying… Including those with special education services and others who were typically less engaged.

After the success of this cross-curricular STEAM project, our grade-level team planned several others to our students’ delight. Three years ago, I made the jump to elementary school. I decided to experiment with some STEAM lessons with my younger caseload too. Through my various experiences, I was able to compile a list of five best practices for purposefully planning STEAM projects with your students with special needs in mind.

Give options rather than a set outcome

By providing your students with a rubric and the freedom to produce their own end product, they will surprise you with how creative they can be! This approach prepares our students for life in the real-world office place where projects are more open-ended with professional freedom. My students competing in the social media challenge were highly motivated. They were engaged in the project because they had buy-in to their creative solution.

Allow for wait time

I have found that one of the most difficult aspects of supervising a STEAM lesson is providing additional wait time, allowing my students to productively struggle, and ignoring my instinct to suggest a given strategy. For instance, remind your students of the tools that they have around the classroom. Encourage them to communicate their ideas or questions to a partner. However, try to avoid jumping in with guided assistance or additional prompting the moment your students begin to struggle. Having a discussion with your class afterwards about the challenges they faced and what they liked about this type of lesson can help them process it as they may be new to this STEAM approach.

Make it concrete, not abstract

Many students with special needs, especially those with autism, tend to struggle with figurative language. During one lesson when my group was reading lyrics to a song, several of the students were confused by the phrase “he was as slow as a turtle”. Since then, I made an effort of previewing abstract concepts and figurative language with my students.

Thinking maps can be your best friends

During the initial planning stage of a project, many students need to organize their thoughts, arrange their reading notes, and visualize the bigger picture. This is especially true for students who have a difficult time with inferential reasoning. Thinking maps and graphic organizers can help bridge this divide. A flow map (similar to the step by step boxes of a cartoon) can help students recognize or plan out the steps to an experiment or research project. Another time saving tip is to ask your technology or media teacher (if your school is lucky enough to have one) to align their lessons with an upcoming project in your classroom. The technology teacher at my school trains the students to choose their own graphic organizers on the Vizzle computer program.

Align each students goals and accommodations with your lesson

The students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Plan) may have goals in math, reading foundational skills, reading comprehension, written language, behavior/self management, and social/emotional (among others) that could provide useful information for student groupings and the focus of your lesson. For instance, you may need to pre-teach vocabulary, scaffold and model any writing, integrate a math or ELA strategy, purposefully group students for self-management, and/or differentiate any articles based on reading level or provide a text-to-speech option on the computer for students who are reading significantly below grade level. Check with the special educator if you need a copy of any student’s IEP, have any questions, and/or would like to collaborate on planning an upcoming lesson. It takes a village!

It’s simple. Start with one lesson. You and your students will both have a blast!  Hop aboard the STEAM train!

And if you’re interested in learning more about connecting STEAM with special education, you won’t want to miss Susan Riley’s article entitled More than a Special: Connecting the Arts with Special Education!

About the Author

Alex Byland is a special educator, currently teaching at Guilford Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland, with more than a decade of teaching and leadership experience up and down the K-12 ladder. During the summers, Alex facilitates Extended School Year summer programs for students with special needs. Mr. Byland earned his Masters in Educational Leadership and Administration from Notre Dame of Maryland University. Anne Arundel County Public Schools granted Alex with the Educator of the Month award in September 2014. He has previously written and presented on student engagement, collaborative learning, classroom management, differentiated instruction, teacher leadership, formative assessments, standards-based instruction, and STEAM-infused project-based learning. In his free time, Alex enjoys going on creative adventures with his two young sons, Max and Cole, and his wife, Tina.