Why Habits of Mind and Special Education?


Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D. (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Habits of Mind Institute. As a current educational leader within the classroom, Daniel’s best practices, strategies, goals, classroom culture, and interactions with students with a learning disability are centered around the Habits of Mind.

Daniel will be presenting on select topics in Special Education & Habits of Mind. Please feel free to email any questions or ideas you may have in regard to topics to In addition, follow Daniel on Twitter – @HabitsofMindInc, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  


“What happens when ordinary people confront giants, I mean powerful opponents of all kinds—from army and mighty warriors to disability, oppression, and misfortune.”

Gladwell, 2013

If you are not familiar with David & Goliath, a story of more than just biblical proportions, I will sum it up like this. Dating back to the 4th century in the Valley of Elah, David, a young shepherd boy against all odds takes down the mighty, armed warrior Goliath. Alright, so what is the point? This event speaks to the idea of confronting challenges in life, even ones that present almost sure failure, yet the opposite happens, and success is etched in stone. In our world today this is what we call an underdog. An underdog in life is often viewed as an individual with less power, weakened ability, and underdeveloped attributes, commonly identified as unsuccessful. Although, an underdog can have many different skills, not viewed as common or recognized, which can bring forth the ability to overcome and conquer. The question is, how?

The David and Goliath story serves as a metaphor for the purpose of this article, which calls attention to underestimation of success for many students with learning disabilities in the education system. Let’s look at the reality of our school system. In schools, students are held to standards, objectives, and academic and interpersonal goals, and are required to demonstrate their knowledge through various assessments. Along the journey from kindergarten to senior year many students figure out the process of what it takes to be successful by developing study habits; strategies for understanding different concepts; multitasking; recognizing how they learn best; and realizing their ability to understand their singular process for learning. For many students this process is intuitive and they move through the educational system with success. These students are the Goliaths: they are powerful, resilient, sure-footed, and meet with success in most areas of life.

In the case of students with learning disabilities, the opposite often occurs. Their path through the school system to graduation leads down a different road. At a point in their educational career when they found difficulty in learning, often an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) would be put into effect, with the main purpose of supporting their learning disability through utilizing accommodations and strategies to foster growth and success. This journey can come with many bumps in the road for students, for instance, frustration, feeling overwhelmed, anxiety, slow comprehension, lack of self-understanding, and inability to recognize dispositions for success. These students are the Davids: they may lack size and be underdogs, but with instruction in and guided use of Habits of Mind, they can persevere, build character, recognize strengths, and find success!

So, how do the Habits of Mind play a role in the learning and building of productive behaviors for students with a learning disability? In the bigger picture, why do we need to focus on instilling Habits of Mind into students with learning disabilities?

Developmental Need for Skills and Success

As educators our ultimate goal is to enable students to develop into their fullest potential. We do this by way of differentiated instruction, focused goal setting, building self-advocacy, developing thinking skills, and providing opportunities that will prepare our students for the world beyond school. Although for students with learning disabilities, the process of learning and attainment of skills requires a different approach. As special educators, finding unique strategies and pathways for accomplishing success with students with learning disabilities requires a plan. This plan usually begins with an Individual Education Plan (IEP). An IEP provides students learning goals and services that will be provided by the school district. Included in the IEP are strengths, needs, goals, and detailed information about the learner within the educational environment. This document provides opportunity and potential for infusing the Habits of Mind in meeting the goals set forth. Most importantly, when creating these goals, students need to serve as a co-creator of their plan of action. This developed individualized program should ultimately put into place their desired goals that dovetail with building habits of mind.

As the Habits of Mind are centered around building productive behaviors within children, think for a moment about the potential that these 16 dispositions can have in driving students with a learning disability toward success.

Rewiring of the Brain

It is hard to break old habits and build new ones. We see it all the time in the classroom. Certain students display effective habits which build success, while other students present ineffective habits that negatively affect their success. For students with learning disabilities, building habits can be a struggle and hard to grasp within the educational setting. Over the years, studies have shown that students with learning disabilities have a harder time developing successful dispositions in and outside of school than students without learning disabilities. Often associated with this idea is that, if ineffective habits are not taught in the elementary and middle school years, they can negatively impact and stand as an indicator for students lack of success at the high school level. Often with all children, the dispositions they present early in life in an  educational setting become ingrained and become habitual.

The good news is that due to the neuroplasticity of the brain, new research has shown that the brains of older children retain the capacity for rewiring and change in habits (Costa & Kallick, 2014, p. 59). So, yes, it is not a lost cause for students with a learning disability to build new habits.

Builds Community

An educational community that focuses on common goals, culture, and language should always bring forth an understanding of importance and belonging for all members. The Habits of Mind does this in so many ways. It offers a set of effective dispositions that can be shared and understood by all members. As educators we are a catalysts to making this happen. On a consistent basis, it is imperative to make sure we present the traits and behaviors that we desire for our students.

As for students with learning disabilities, making the community “come alive” with posters, examples, discussions, activities, and real life experiences that incorporate the Habits of Mind promotes their significance in life. Most importantly, building the Habits of Mind within a comfortable classroom environment allows an opportunity to share and practice productive behaviors as a community.

Goal Setting and Reflection

For students with a learning disability, the term “goal” is used everywhere: in the classroom, IEPs, assignments, and behaviorally. In order to obtain a goal an individual needs to first recognize the reason behind the goal and ask themself, “Why is this goal important?” Second, a plan needs to be established and followed. Again, the individual needs to ask themself, “How will I make sure to follow this plan?” Last, an individual needs to reflect on the process and attainment of meeting the goal. The question this individual should ask themself is, “What did I learn about myself from this goal?”

Goals bring forth productive behaviors and focus. Although, most notably, goals require productive behaviors and focus in order to obtain. When developing Habits of Mind goals with students, it is first important to identify the behavior in need of change. Through collaboration and review of a desired goal, both student and teacher will discuss the reasoning behind the behavior and Habit of Mind to be put into action. Next, the step of co-creating a plan specific to the behaviors desired from the habit will be mapped out. It is important to note that behaviors take time to build, therefore, making sure to track and evaluate the goal each day is imperative. In addition, the reflective process needs to come from parties as well. This can be done by way of journaling and/or through dialogue.

For students with a learning disability, the idea of consistency and commitment to achieving the goal is a significant factor toward success. This is why the importance of “co-creating” is part of this experience. Throughout this whole habit goal setting process, displaying the Habits of Mind through actions, using the common language, and practicing mindfulness can all play a significant role in achieving goals.

Find Applicability

When referring to IEPs, the goals, accommodations, and needs are a significant piece in order for successful learning to occur in the educational environment. It is the role of the teachers to follow and carry out these mandated elements within an IEP. This process not only allows the student with a learning disability to be successful, but it gives the teacher an opportunity to recognize where the student struggles and what works best to overcome the issues. But, what if the Habits of Mind could be applied to specific areas of struggles, needs, and goals? What would it look like?

By simply incorporating the Habits of Mind into the goals, accommodations, and needs within students IEPs, the more inclined students will be in recognizing a consistency and understanding of the productive behaviors desired. For example, an English teacher might find that a student with a learning disability in their class struggles in writing. Well, how about some of the Habits of Mind to assist in improving writing? Persisting, managing impulsivity, striving for accuracy, gathering data through all senses, and taking responsible risks, are just a few habits that can be utilized in the process towards improvement.

Is that all with the Habits of Mind and Special Education?

The idea of meshing Habits of Mind into the work with students with learning disabilities is clear cut—IT MAKES SENSE! And, there is so much more to explore and try out. As teachers, the more we utilize the Habits of Mind in the classroom and share these experiences with students with learning disabilities, the more inclined students will be to apply in life’s learning situations.

Here are three strategies/tips to follow when working with the Habits of Mind and students with learning disabilities:

  1. Make the Habits of Mind a consistent practice, model the behaviors, build it as common language within the classroom, and reflect. This gives students with a learning disability multiple avenues for building and recognizing the Habits of Mind in use.
  2. Connect the Habits of Mind to particular areas of weakness for students with a learning disability. For example, if a student struggles with math, engage and proactively work with the student on persistence.
  3. Build the Habits of Mind into classroom rules and expectations. It should be a culture and learning environment where students with learning disabilities work together as a  community of learners.


This post is part of a series. View the entire Special Education series by Dan Vollrath here.

See all posts by Dan Vollrath.


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If you are already using Habits of Mind as part of your daily practice and are committed to nurturing the growth of the dispositions in others, you can pursue becoming an individual practitioner certified by the Institute for Habits of Mind (IHOM).

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