Inclusive Special Education via Project Based Learning

By Kristen Uliasz

Teaching special education can be a tough gig, but it also gets a pretty bad rap. Yes, there are incredible challenges–widespread lack of resources, from staffing to curriculum; varied but typically overpowering levels of segregation; and a pervasive presumed incompetence of our students with disabilities to name a few.
But like our students themselves, teaching students with disabilities is highly underrated. In fact, my SPED colleagues and I often brag that our students are the coolest kids on campus, a sort of ‘best kept secret’ of the trade (except we’ve been shouting it from the rooftops for a while).
After years of facing these all too common barriers, I want to talk about the other best kept secret I’ve discovered in education: Project-Based Learning (PBL). Six years ago I stumbled into an opportunity to create a special education program at a small, PBL high school and I have to tell you: I don’t think I can ever go back. In part because it has allowed me to ensure students are fully included in regular classes regardless of their disability from day one.
More than this though (and what I didn’t expect) is that PBL has transformed my vision of inclusive special education for students with even the most significant support needs. I’ll tell you a little bit about why, and then I’ll tell you where you can start.

Why is PBL Good for Students with Disabilities?

We know that the presence of differentiated instruction, interdisciplinary mural projectcontent, technology, collaboration, supports and accommodations, self-determination and authentic assessment are key markers of successful inclusion in school communities. We see these elements in the foundations of PBL, and thus in PBL classrooms and schools, with incredible consistency.
PBL as a pedagogy is a great vehicle for meaningful inclusion because each of its project design elements and teaching practices are geared toward creating the kind of engaging and dynamic learning environment that are also known to best serve students with a wide range of disabilities.
As one of my former principals used to say whenever I geeked out on the ample opportunities for peer relationships and real-life skills that PBL provided my students: “Yep. Good teaching is good teaching.” It is surprisingly as simple, and as radical, as that.

3 Tips to Get Started:

1. Collaborate!
There may be nothing more valuable in setting students up for success than planning with colleagues. As a special educator, I bring expertise on my students’ specific needs, their IEP goals and the instructional strategies and supports that help them to learn and grow. My general education colleagues are the authority in their content areas, and they are invaluable in prioritizing which aspects of the standards are most important to make accessible. Our combined wisdom makes it fairly easy to anticipate needs and embed considerations for the diverse range of students at the beginning stages of project design.
You may have heard of this before–it’s called Universal Design for Learning, and it’s one of the best ways to create a successful inclusive classroom. Better yet, doing this helps students without disabilities as well. One of my favorite common responses to a suggestion I make or a support I create in a planning meeting is: “You know, I think many of the students would benefit from that.”
2. Differentiate Instructiondifferentiate
There are a number of ways to Differentiate in PBL, such as offering voice and choice in student products to increase engagement and build on students’ strengths or the various ways you can manage project implementation. At the same time, scaffolding projects effectively still leaves plenty of room for conventional differentiation strategies like front-loading vocabulary, providing visual supports or offering texts with varied reading levels.
One of the big benefits of PBL is that it is also naturally differentiated. By allowing students to take different paths and explore different interest in a project, this means that at any given time students in the same class may be working on very different things. This normalizes the students who need different things, alleviates the stigma of support that students often bring with them into the classroom and reinforces a culture of individuality and self-management that leads to students’ owning their learning.
3. Embed IEP Goals into Projects
There are obvious opportunities to embed students’ specific academic IEP goals throughout their differentiated project pathway that allow you to address those skills with consistency, in addition to providing students with a sense of their genuine purpose.
Beyond this, I often have students with IEP goals such as augmentative communication, self-management or nuanced social skills. In a PBL classroom, the emphasis on key success skills provides daily opportunities to work on these goals in an authentic and natural context. For example, when students work in teams, they constantly have to practice communication, social skills, organization, self-management, self-determination and self-advocacy. It’s a special educator’s delight!
PBL shaking hands (embed IEP goals)
I’ve also been able to collaborate with speech therapists to create a modified oral communication rubric, which helps a student’s teachers meet them where they are at, teach them what they need to know and track their progress in a variety of settings.
For those of you teaching PBL at a school with less than inclusive practices–be they special day classes, extensive pull-out or even tracking–I encourage you to reach out to your special ed colleagues and invite any students in your grade level to fully participate in your next project. Follow my tips and these from an elementary special educator doing just that. I’m certain your perspective will be transformed as well.
This post is in partnership with Buck Institute for Education (BIE) as part of part of a blog campaign titled Getting Smart on Edu Blogging. BIE national faculty are writing about how project-based learning (PBL) is engaging students and transforming classrooms and schools. To engage in professional learning about PBL, check out the upcoming conference, PBL World, in Napa Valley June 13-16 and join in the conversation using #PBLWorld.
For more, see:

Kristen Uliasz is a BIE National Faculty member and special educator at a fully inclusive, PBL high school in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter: @MsUliasz.

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Mary Beth Cunat



Hasn't this method been thrown out the window because it hurts mainstream children. This is one of the reasons I dropped out of teacher. If children are in a group then any accommodation one child gets will be transferred to the entire group because, let's face it, kids can be lazy. If the project is to summarize articles and then write a presentation on it and you accommodate one child by summarizing the articles for him/her then the other kids in the group will just use those summaries and not develop the skills to summarize on their own (even though the other kids in the group are fully capable of learning to summarize). The summarizing for the kid accommodation was one of the examples of what to do in the teaching class I took and I saw the flaw in it even then. I have a child now, who isn't special ed, and I'm even more against this style of inclusion.

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