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The Benefits of Flipped Classrooms for Students with Learning Needs

It’s been about 10 years since the idea of flipping classrooms first gained its soaring popularity and good reviews – and in that time it’s also apparently grown to help students with special needs.

Greg Green, perhaps the best-known administrator advocating for flipped classrooms, discovered the process (providing students with lessons at home in videos and then homework and support in the classroom) as he began his career—working in special education.

“That’s where I started teaching, and I found that I could give the students video tapes of the lesson. It allowed the students to play it back or pause it—and got parents involved. They loved it because they better understood what their students were doing and could help them.”

He says that when he had the students in class he could spend more time with them individually. Rather than try to instruct all the students having a wide range of needs and levels, he could tailor a lesson for all online, with extra work for those more advanced and time in the classroom to review for those who might be at a slower pace.

In class he was still busy, moving from student-to-student, but some were working independently, some advancing with just a bit of assistance (often from someone helping in the class—even a volunteer) and others who required a great deal of attention getting it, rather than being lost in a lesson aimed too high for them.

So a lesson about the branches of government might be supplemented by current events readings or other writings about the courts for some, it might require a brief explanation the next day about some terms for a few and for others struggling, several views of a video and some further explanation. That’s time better spent than on a teacher-delivered lesson, where some would be bored and off-task, others would have a variety of questions that would delay the class and others would not understand. That work at the right pace takes place at home, ideally with help from parents and others.

“When we provided kids with accommodations it increasingly also could be handled with technology and now that is even easier to access,” he says. 

So, experts point out that along with the flexibility of video, applications that allow captioning, easy enlargement of pages or text-to-speech can help special needs students. Mainstream technology now more often offers what used to be considered assistive technology, making it familiar to these students, less embarrassing and more accessible.

Other teachers have reported that flipped classroom approaches are perhaps even more effective with students having special needs than the general population, and Andrea Prupas, an educational consultant working with the approach, reports that it goes beyond just these students learning at home at their own pace.

“We feel that other benefits stem from the fact that the classroom can become a more interactive, collaborative and authentic place for learning,” she notes. “We approach flipping the classroom for students with special needs with the idea of doing things differently versus doing different things.”

She says flipping can “liberate the classroom for varied, differentiated forms of instruction” and the students can have more time with the teacher or another adult one-on-one which offers “real life connections that are so vitally important to students with special needs.”

Other experts have pointed out that both ends of the flipped classroom, like the traditional classroom model, may have to be different for special needs students. In the classroom, for instance, teachers may have to allow time and a place for repetition of the home lesson and plan for the availability of the proper equipment and instructions at home so the student can view and interact with the lesson.

Students with attention issues may find learning lessons online is easier, and if they need to move around a classroom it is less disruptive when the class is flipped and the teacher is engaged with the students and doesn’t need everyone’s attention at once.

Meanwhile, teachers of English language learners are using technology in similar ways, most notably to support reading and translation (in the classroom and readily on a phone or home computer, now), and teachers in regular classes are finding flipped classrooms can help them meet these students’ needs, especially if language is the only thing standing in their way.

Cara Johnson heads the science department at Allen, TX, High School, where she is known as a vocal proponent of flipped classes.

One of her favorite success stories is about a “brilliant” student from Korea who was struggling in a science class because she knew little English.

According to Johnson, flipping the classroom "helped her tremendously. She was able to watch and re-watch my videos. Since English was difficult for her, and I often speak very quickly, she had the power to pause and rewind the lecture to make sure she understood the message. Also, I had the time to work with her one-on-one and help clarify the concepts with which she struggled. Not only did she learn anatomy in my class, she learned so much English because she replayed the lectures – and my class was a constant conversation between the students and me.”

And for students who have behavior issues, the flipped lesson is an alternative for the person monitoring in-school suspension sessions and trying to track down work for a student or parents if a student is suspended at home. Busy teachers often can’t find time to provide work for a suspended student and there are complications with getting the work to the suspension monitor or parent. Sometimes, especially for a student who was off task or missed the class, the work requires explanation that a parent or staff member monitoring suspension can’t provide.

And even in an alternative setting, the lessons can be put to use. The alternative center at Edenton-Chowan Schools in N.C. offers small classes where students can access online lessons and keep pace with their classmates. Research has shown that online work is beneficial to students in alternative programs because while they can work on lessons at home, in the classroom “technology allows the role of the teacher to change from the dispenser of information to a facilitator of learning who motivates, assists, and guides students.”

There is more information at this blog entry from the Flipped Learning Network.


Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at