November 29, 2023


It can be challenging for special education teachers to provide students with severe combined disabilities with engaging and effective learning. But with the right approach, you can help these students reach their full potential. One approach that has proven to be highly effective is active learning by Lilli Nielsen. I was very lucky to get a training on active learning organized by our state deafblind project. The two day training was amazing, in this post I will try to share with you some of what I learned.

What is an active learning approach?

What is the active learning approach in special education and how did it come about? Lilli Nielsen, a Danish educator and researcher, developed the active learning approach in the 1980s. This approach focuses on making students active participants in their own learning process rather than passive recipients of information. This approach has been shown to be particularly effective for special education students with significant combined disabilities. This is very basic and you can find much more information about Lilli Nielsen and Patty Obrzut at This website also includes links on how to create activities and how to implement them in the classroom. There are five key points that are very important to an active learning approach.

I will briefly discuss them below and give some examples.

5 key points of the active learning approach

1. Active participation

Students must actively participate in the activity without prompting from the teacher or other professional. You want the student to initiate interaction with the activity. Find out what your student CAN do before you set up the activity. Our students often have mobility issues. Make sure you set the activity to be accessible to a specific student. One of the most discussed tools in the active learning approach is the “small room”. Constructed a small box with activities hanging down for students to engage with. Here is our version:

student laying in pvc "small room"
This is my little room made of PVC. The hanging objects interest my student and they are placed in such a way that she can make contact with them herself.

2. Repeating opportunities:

We need to make sure that we create opportunities for the student to practice the skills in the activity we are preparing. It can take days to months to master a skill and we need to make sure we allow the student to do that. Remember that the student must initiate the movement without prompting. Playing with a pro may not be optimal at first. It’s okay for a student to take a break, sometimes it takes time to process what you learn. Try to have multiple versions of the activity so that the student can generalize what they are learning. One activity that is very empowering for one of my students is cause and effect toys. They are also easy to switch. He has it built into his schedule and learns to activate the toys every day (which will later lead to a change in communication). Brianne is actually talking about using schedules throughout the day here. If you need help integrating into your schedule, try this blog.

the student activates the dancing light-up toy by pressing the switch
I have taken stock of what my student likes and I know she enjoys activities that have lights and movement. This customized toy is perfect for that.

3. Developmentally appropriate:

One of the key things to understand when using active learning is the sequence of developmental skill development. Meet the student where they are. Do not use a “handshake” challenge. Make sure you place the activity so that they can be activated by their own movement.

4. Reinforcement for the student:

Use activities that attract the student and that he likes. Everyone is likely to do something if it’s something they care about. Our students are sensorimotor learners, so we need to figure out which method (senses and movement) works best for our students. We have to use things that our students like. It is really important to communicate with your students and assess what interests them.

Student laying on their side gripping spikey blocks.
This most comfortable position for students is on their side. I know they love texture and things that make sound. I placed blocks around her for her to explore. She actually had a plastic bin that she took the blocks out of, but when she was done with it, she threw it out of the way. You can actually get these blocks here.

5. Limit distractions:

Our students must be able to focus on the activity we have given them. This includes things like considering whether the student is hungry or thirsty before starting the activity. This is probably the hardest thing to mitigate in the classroom. I know I have nine active busy students in a small class. But it is possible. We must first ensure that the student’s basic needs are met to sit in a space that allows them to access their activity without interruption, and we can use small activities to achieve this. Pull out the wheelchair tray and place the student activity in its place. Do activities while they are in other equipment such as stands. Here are some examples of space-saving activities. If your students have been throwing, be sure to use a clamp to secure the activity to a surface or frame.

desktop active learning
This is a tabletop activity box.
velcro plate
This velcro pad is great for grip!
a hand holding a silver broom with a ball in it
This is a broom with a ball. This is an absolute fan favorite in my classroom. It’s noisy, has an interesting feel, and students can work on getting the ball out and putting it in.

Lilli Nielsen’s Active Learning approach can be an effective tool for special educators working with students with severe combined disabilities. By making students active participants in the learning process and providing them with accessible materials, immediate feedback, and opportunities for reflection, you can help these students reach their full potential and make a lasting impact on their lives. I hope this helps you understand a little about what an active learning approach is in special education. If you use an active learning approach in your classroom, let me know how you use it and share pictures of your activities below!


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