Tips for Special-Needs Teachers | Cognitive Processing

Photo by Arthur Crenshaw

by Tricia Gomez

The cognitive domain is the last of the five developmental domains (cognitive, motor, self-help, social/emotional, and communication) we’ll discuss this season. Students who struggle with cognitive processing may have difficulty understanding and responding to information. Fortunately, there are classroom strategies that will help.

Students may struggle with a movement because they don’t fully understand how their bodies need to move. Scale the movement down to the simplest concept, taking into consideration this hierarchy: coordinating arms is easier than coordinating legs; unilateral movement (on one side) is easier than bilateral movement (two sides simultaneously).

Let’s take “cross open” as an example (landing a jump with legs crossed, then landing a jump with legs open). Start with the concept of crossing two limbs. Teach the concept while sitting, using unilateral movement of the hands: one hand stays stationary on the floor, while the other hand taps across the first hand and back to the beat of the music. Repeat with the other hand.

Once that’s mastered, try bilateral movement: both hands simultaneously cross, then open.

Next, transfer the unilateral-to-bilateral progression to the legs, still sitting. (This removes the balance challenge and allows students to focus on the concept.)

Once students have mastered the cross-open movement while sitting, have them stand and repeat the same unilateral-to-bilateral progression with their legs.

Maladaptive behavior may be a sign that the choreography is too challenging for a student to process. Adjust your choreography as needed so that students with cognitive processing delays will be able to perform the movement successfully. This may mean slowing down movement to a pace that’s suitable and/or repeating a series of movements for at least two counts of eight.


Creator of Hip Hop in a Box, Tricia Gomez is the global director of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance, which certifies teachers to work with special-needs students.