Is STEM education too hard for students with learning disabilities?

A little boy is playing with a busy board. Developming toy for children from one year old. Developming toy for children from one year old. Focus on the busy board

Posted in Development and Learning Disability  |  Tagged ,

by Samika Hariharan, Laura Adeduro, Chloe Benedetti, Lily Rubenstein, Haley Resnick, Rebekah Morrison, and Phoebe Shiffman (GU)

STEM education refers to the education of students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of STEM in the classroom, as STEM is seen as the future of the nation. STEM fields are often assumed to be inherently difficult and complex, which leads to the belief by some that STEM education is simply “too hard” for students with learning disabilities. This is a falsehood steeped in ableist assumptions about the potential of students with disabilities. Just as everyone has a particular way in which they know they learn best, so do children with learning disabilities. STEM education is not “too hard” for students with learning disabilities, they’re just not being taught in ways that speak to their strengths and needs as individual students. If STEM lessons are intentionally structured in a way that meets the individual needs of students with disabilities, they too can excel in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

It is a common refrain for students to recognize themselves as visual learners, auditory learners, or kinesthetic learners, stemming from the theory of multiple intelligences, which recognizes that different people learn best in different ways. Generally speaking, students without disabilities are trusted to know how they learn best in classroom settings, which indicates that different learning styles are understood and accepted for children without disabilities. As such, we must change our approach to teaching STEM to children with disabilities from one that assumes a deficit to one that recognizes their strengths and works to meet their needs for specific learning styles. Smith and Rayfield (2019) found that all students performed better when they were taught in a manner that matched their preferred learning style. Additionally, they found that children with disabilities benefited from learning through concrete examples to grasp abstract concepts, rather than teaching the abstract through the abstract. Other research highlights how integrating the arts into traditional STEM education might be beneficial for students with disabilities. They say that this integration could potentially “facilitate access to STEM knowledge” (Hwang & Taylor, 2016). Examples of this might include musical activities to learn STEM concepts, such as fractions, or creating visuals, such as Venn diagrams or concept maps, to draw out complicated concepts. Whichever pathway is chosen, this research highlights the importance of teaching STEM fields in ways that meet the needs of each individual student. 

Given this research, we should consider what a classroom set up might look like that would ensure success for children with disabilities in their STEM education. Research findings highlight the importance of educators having the skills to engage in differentiated instruction (Smith & Rayfield, 2019). Building an inclusive classroom isn’t just about the diversity of students within the classroom: It includes building a culture of learning that supports every students’ unique needs and recognizes their worth and value as individuals and as members of a learning community. To implement models of differentiated instruction, teachers first need access to adequate training and resources so that they can cater to the unique needs of children with learning disabilities. One way this can be achieved is through research-based professional development courses (Smith & Rayfield, 2019). After teachers engage in professional development for STEM planning and implementation, they tend to be better suited to consider the unique needs of their students with intellectual disabilities (So et al., 2021). In this professional development training, teachers also learn that STEM education should be tailored to the abilities of each child (So et al., 2021). Training programs such as these are fundamental to creating learning environments in which students with disabilities can excel just as their peers without disabilities do. Embedded in this approach is a respect for teachers and the work that they do to help young children grow and become confident in their abilities. In conclusion, STEM education is not “too hard” for children with disabilities and to say so assumes a deficit that does not exist. 


Hwang, J., & Taylor, J. (2016). Stemming on STEM: A STEM Education Framework for Students with Disabilities. Journal of Science Education for Students with Disabilities, 19(1).

Smith, K. L., & Rayfield, J. (2019). STEM Knowledge, Learning Disabilities and Experiential Learning: Influences of Sequencing Instruction. Journal of Agricultural Education, 60(2), 222–236.

So, W. W. M., He, Q., Cheng, I. N. Y., Lee, T. T. H., & Li, W. C. (2021). Teachers’ Professional Development with Peer Coaching to Support Students with Intellectual Disabilities in STEM Learning. Educational Technology & Society, 24(4), 86–98.