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In this lesson, you will learn about the learning theories of constructivism and behaviorism, including how to use both theories when teaching students with learning disabilities.

Constructivism & Behaviorism: Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities

Teachers employ various learning theories in the classroom. Constructivism, in which students construct their own knowledge through learning experiences, and behaviorism, in which students learn through observing the experiences of themselves and others, are popular theories for modern educators. Both constructivism and behaviorism can be used successfully when teaching students with learning disabilities.

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So what do you need to know in order to best implement these theories for your students with learning disabilities? Let’s peek inside a classroom where Joy and Lydia, who co-teach an inclusion class at the middle school level, utilize both theories.

Using Constructivism in the Classroom

In constructivism, teachers believe students learn by constructing their own knowledge. Teachers become facilitators, who provide experiences and aid students in completing tasks to create knowledge. Constructivist classrooms often include inquiry-based or project-based learning, in which students are given an ill-defined question or problem or generate their own questions. In solving the problem or answering the question, students gain knowledge.Joy and Lydia co-teach middle school English Language Arts (ELA) and work closely with the content area teachers on their team to incorporate science, social studies, and math in their daily curriculum.

Their classes include students with specific learning disabilities in reading, math, and written expression. Joy and Lydia believe constructivism helps their students with learning disabilities to be successful.For example, in an upcoming unit, Joy and Lydia want their students to explore math, science, reading, and writing standards. Students are studying functions and graphing in math while learning about mass, force, speed, and velocity in science.

In ELA, Joy and Lydia think students can use this information to better understand how the conflict and plot structure work in a short story. At the same time, they believe combining these topics will aid their students with learning disabilities as they work with math, reading, and writing in a different construct.They present students with this question: Is conflict in a short story a function? Students must then figure out how to quantify the conflict at various points in the story so the conflict can be graphed.

For their students with reading disabilities, Lydia divides the story into chunks and helps students with the reading. If a student has written expression limitations, Lydia and Joy help them create a checklist for writing so they can present their ideas in full.After students have graphed the conflict in the story and determined whether or not it is a function, they then generate questions for one another that relate their graphs to the science content. Through this activity, which is mostly student-driven, students solidify understanding of math, science, and literary concepts. Joy and Lydia find that their students with learning disabilities are engaged and building lasting understandings.

Using Behaviorism in the Classroom

Behaviorism is often linked to classroom management, as the theory links behavior to experiences and consequences. However, behaviorism can also be used to motivate students in their learning environment.

Lydia and Joy also employ behaviorism in their classes, to help students with positive behavior, learning, and motivation.In behaviorism, students respond to experiences based upon their observances of others and the results of their actions. A behavior that results in a positive consequence is more likely to be repeated, while a behavior that results in a negative reaction is less likely to occur again.Because middle schoolers, especially those with learning disabilities, often struggle with motivation, Lydia and Joy build positive reinforcement for desired learning behaviors into their daily activities. They make sure to highlight on-task behavior and provide positive feedback when students complete a task correctly. They also use praise to reinforce perseverance when a student struggles with an assignment or concept. As students witness the positive reactions, they are increasingly motivated to stay focused and continue learning.

As with constructivism, Lydia and Joy have discovered behaviorism benefits their students.

Lesson Summary

Constructivism and behaviorism are two common learning theories in today’s classrooms. Constructivism focuses on the idea that students create knowledge through learning experiences such as inquiry-based or problem-based learning. Behaviorism is centered on the idea that students learn through reactions to their behavior or by observing the behavior of others.Constructivism can be beneficial to students with learning disabilities because the learning activities often allow them to combine concepts from multiple content areas.

Teachers can present students with a problem or question, then provide supports based on the specific learning disability.Behaviorism positively affects students with learning disabilities because receiving praise for displaying motivation and perseverance reinforces these behaviors, which increases their chances of success with learning. Teachers, as we see with Lydia and Joy, should identify the learning behaviors they want to reinforce and provide positive feedback to encourage them.

Both constructivism and behaviorism can be used to benefit students with learning disabilities.


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