Strategies for Accessing the Social Studies Curriculum

It is important that social studies teachers learn to teach social studies standards to both special needs and general learners. However, there is no single technique, approach or strategy that will accomplish this because of the complex nature of the Social Studies. The complexity rests in the diverse nature of the social studies, the wide variety of social studies teachers, the range of learning problems held by learners who are in social studies classrooms, and the many differences among the social studies standards themselves. However, general areas of advice can be offered to point teachers in the right direction. In addition, teachers can add to their "Bag of Tricks" by adopting the teaching tools that follow.

On University campuses, there is no department called Social Studies. It is a designation that appears in Schools of Education and in public school education. However, the diversity of the Social Studies is characterized by the number of separate departments represented in a typical Liberal Arts College. In the University of Kansas Course Catalog, there is a department of Mathematics that represents all areas of math. In the Language Arts area, there is an English Department, and a Literature, Language and Writing Department. But the Social Studies related departments include: Anthropology, Economics, Geography, History, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology. Other departments that deal in many ways with Social Studies disciplines are African Studies, International Studies and American Studies. Only the Natural Sciences with six departments come close to the Social Studies. This is not to say the Social Studies are more important than any other area, but to illustrate that there is great diversity among social studies courses, a diversity that is often ignored by State certification departments and school human resources department.

The National Council for the Social Studies has the daunting task of "herding the cats" that are the various social studies curricular areas. In writing the standards for school children, they have identified a unifying theme for the social studies:

Social Studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program , social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.

(Expectations of Excellence, Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.)

It is important to understand the nature of the Social Studies Teacher in order to make effective recommendations about instruction. Social Studies teachers are Pragmatic Generalists. Although this is an oversimplification, it is generally true. Elementary teachers are, by necessity, generalists (or eventually multiple specialists.)

Among full time, life-long Social studies teachers, there are specialists, but they are not the majority. In a recent letter to the editor in a Tampa newspaper, a local politician was decrying the fact that fewer than 20% of teachers teaching history had majors or minors in history. This was neither surprising nor shocking to me. Because of the nature of Social Studies employment, teachers are full time generalists and part time specialists. Although Social Studies is a required course at all levels of education, the supply of available teachers has exceeded the demand for a long time.

A prospective Social studies teacher, therefore, makes a serious mistake to specialize too early. As an example, when I graduated from High School, my goal was to be a High School Sociology teacher. My college advisor suggested that if I wanted to find a job in the next 10 years, I had better get prepared in one of the required courses: History or Government. I enjoyed history so became a history major. It took 10 years and the right circumstances to become the one Sociology teacher in a large High School, and another 5 years to become Department Chairman and be assured of my teaching assignment so that I could pursue my chosen specialty. Along the way, I taught American Government and found it interesting and enjoyable so it became a specialty.

Social Studies teachers become certified by taking a few hours of several courses in undergraduate work. If they are lucky, they then get a job, and become temporary specialists as they are assigned a particular course. My most recent teaching job was a one semester fill-in-for-another teacher job. One of the courses was World History. I was "qualified" because I had had a smattering of esoteric Russian History courses 30 years before. Being a good social studies teacher, I was able to do an adequate job, while becoming a temporary specialist on the job. Had I continued in that position, my first priority would have been to take a refresher course so my specialty would be richer.

Life-long social studies teachers tend to be Independent, free thinking, non dogmatic people. Again, this is not to say that there are not intently dogmatic social studies teachers, but ask and Secondary Principal who are the rebels and rabble rousers.

Chances are they will be Social Studies, as well as Language arts and Biology teachers. However, these teachers have probably already used innovative approaches to reach a variety of students. They are likely to be ripe for new ideas and approaches to the problems.

Some Social studies teachers are casual social studies teachers that is to say, they found the job on their way through life. These folks like working with children as teachers or coaches and found social studies to be a convenient way to do it. They are also likely to be interested in different approaches to success in working with a variety of students.

How does the nature of the teacher affect the approach to improving instruction of standards for special and general school populations? Adopting a singular, doctrinaire methodology for an entire school district is not likely to appeal to Social Studies teachers. Making available workshops and information about different options, so that teachers can discover and adopt ideas as their own is more effective. "This year we’re going to practice Multiple Intelligence ideas" approach will likely meet resistance and grow cynics.

There is a great diversity of mild learning disabilities that might be found in a social studies classroom. Each teacher is likely to have some, but not all of these in a given year, so individual strategies need to address the current situation. However, it is also wise to develop tools that address several issues.

Common disabilities include: learning disabilities, behavioral and emotional disorders, intellectual disabilities, and attention deficits and hyperactivity. Any student from these categories may have problems with social studies instruction. The basic skills of reading writing and spelling are needed at all levels of study.

  • Students with cognitive processing or perceptual problems may have visual problems that interfere with understanding of written work and illustrations. Most students have some difficulty with charts, graphs and maps, but those with visual spatial and visual processing disorders have even more problems.
  • Students with auditory problems have difficulty hearing lecture or discussion as well as small group work.
  • Students with motor processing deficits may have problems with keyboard or handwriting assignments.
  • Students with attention deficits and hyperactivity disorders have problems sticking with a long lesson, discussion or group project
  • Students with social and emotional issues may have problems with class and group activities. They may interrupt, ask for assistance, talk loud, or even fight. They may withdraw from group activities.
  • Students with cognitive deficits may have problems checking their progress on long term projects, difficulty planning for lessons and problems studying for tests. They may be overwhelmed by a major research project and never really get started.(Marcee M. Steele "Teaching Social studies to Students with Mild Disabilities." Social Studies and the Young Learner 17 no. 3 (January/February 2005) 8-10.

In 1992 The Board of Directors of the National Council for the Social Studies defined the Social Studies and set the stage for the development of the Standards. They acknowledged that the Social Studies are divided intro disciplines, but sought to integrate these disciplines among themselves as well as cross disciplines. Two main characteristics distinguish Social Studies: It is designed to promote civic competence and it is integrative, incorporating many fields of endeavor. The various standards tend to center on particular disciplines, but encourage integration into other disciplines.

The standards involve ten themes. The teaching of some of these standards to both general and special populations varies from standard to standard. The themes are:


The study of culture deals with common characteristics of different cultures, belief systems and how they influence the rest of the culture, changing culture, and language. In schools this theme is usually addressed in classes dealing with geography, history, sociology, and anthropology as well as multicultural topics across the curriculum. Any difficulties in this area usually are related to reading comprehension. Attitudinally, the concept of ethnocentrism is difficult for most adults, so it is naturally a difficult concept for children of all learning abilities.

This is a history related theme which involves understanding historical roots and a person’s position in time. It deals with what happened in the past and how I am connected to those in the past. Understanding the changing world helps explain events today and well as speculate about the future. Many learning difficulties in the history area, once again, revolve around reading comprehension. An issue particular to this theme, however, is the concept of historical time. Children are at a definite disadvantage when studying history because they just have not lived long enough to get a concept of time. This opens up possibilities for a teaching tool focusing on Timelines.

This geography-related theme assists students as they create their spatial views and geographic perspectives of the world outside their particular knowledge. The particular problems for all learners beyond the concepts of geographical perspective and reading comprehension have to do with graphic presentations. Special needs students have particular problems reading graphs, charts and maps. A Teacher tool addressing graphic presentations offers some solutions as special needs students need more time to understand these areas.

"Why are we the way we are" is the central question here. It is a Psychology and, to a certain extent, Anthropology issue. The areas addressed are how people learn, why do people behave as they do, and how do people perceive and grow. Special challenges here for all learners involve "getting outside" of one’s self to analyze individual behavior without personality affecting the objective view. This, however, is a problem for adults as well as all levels of students. Reading comprehension is again an issue.

This is primarily a sociology/anthropology theme which also relates to psychology, political science and history. One issue involves understanding the influence of institutions on one’s life, while the understanding of the nature of institutions and institutional change are addressed. This theme along with the Culture theme and Individual development theme offer opportunities for improved instruction using real examples and simulations of real events. Teacher tools involving personal realities and simulations are helpful for both general and special learners.

This political science theme involves the history and nature of power and the institutions of power. How are governments created, structured, maintained and changed? How can majority rule and minority rights be protected? This theme, along with the Civics theme, addresses the NCSS definition of social studies: "The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world." An ongoing learning problem for adults as well as all students is the concept of "common good" and the attitudinal issue of minority rights. Instruction improvement for general and special learners may involve connecting to the real world and experiencing processes through simulations. Teacher tools for those areas can be helpful.

Economics involves how goods are produced and distributed as well as the factors of production (land, labor capital, and management.). As a discipline, economics may be the most disparate from the others. Economics is a major part of the study of history and government, but has its own set of language and approach. Many social studies teachers are not comfortable with Economics. It involves the most practical, everyday issues, but addresses them in a highly abstract study. As with some other themes, the understanding of charts and graphs is a challenge for general, but particularly for special learners. Also, making the study real is useful in this area.

This theme is not discipline-specific and involves the impact of technological change on people. It has the same learning complications as other historical concerns. It opens up possibilities for personal, real examples to improve student instruction.

This theme focuses on the need to understand interdependence among nations. It addresses tensions between countries as well as universal problems of health, environment, human rights, economic competition and independence, age-old ethnic enmities, and political and military alliances. This theme is the subject of the rarely offered International Relations course, but may be studied in geography, history and government classes. The most difficult part of this theme for adults as well as all students is being able to see the "Big Picture" and understanding that national decisions may conflict with "common good" realities. Oftentimes, ecology classes taught in the Science departments address these issues as well as any social studies class. Again, reading comprehension and understanding graphics are useful here. Reality simulations can be useful in instruction.

Civic Ideals and Practices

If the unifying concept among the social studies is preparing students to cope in a democratic society and the world as a whole, this theme is central to that concept. The typical American Government class is a combination of the study of governmental institutions and the attitudinal focus on responsibilities of citizenship. Students can benefit for reality and simulation in understanding these institutions.

There are general directions that Social Studies teachers can take to do a better job with general and special needs students. These include developing our content specialty, becoming more aware of reading comprehension instructions, being willing to try social studies processes and trying the teacher tools in this and other sections of the Special Connections website.

Since we may find ourselves in the "temporary specialty" phase of employment, it is time to become more knowledgeable. When choosing courses for advanced degrees or salary improvement, take a course in your field. The more we know about a content area, the better we are able to manipulate the information so that it is accessible to a wide range of learners.

Because so much of Social Studies instruction involves reading, teachers need to be aware of good reading comprehension instruction. Teachers without a good reading instruction background should take every opportunity to brush up on reading instruction by taking courses and in-services. While the ultimate goal is to make students self-sufficient in their reading, there are many teacher-assists that can be used while that self-sufficiency is being developed.

Social Studies teachers should practice what they teach in terms of behavioral sciences. So much of education instruction is a practical application of Social Studies methods. Group work, whether small or large, comes from Sociology. Learning styles and the psychology of learning are a part of Psychology. Cooperative learning involves interpersonal relations. We, more than any other discipline, should be willing to try new approaches for both general and special needs children. Much of what has been discovered by the neurosciences in the Brain/mind learning area is verification of what we have believed to be true for some time.

Cooperating teaching involves collaboration between general and special education teachers. Social studies teachers would do well to work with staff members assigned to the special need students in their classrooms. Although it is often difficult to schedule regular meetings, unless provided for in the teacher’s daily schedule, it is important that that connection stays strong.

Most importantly, good social studies teachers need to add to their "bag of tricks" every year. One of the nice things about teaching is that we get to start over every year (also one of the worst things about teaching). But the fresh start gives us the opportunity to try something new. The Teacher Tools in this website are one source for your "bag of tricks. Decide at the beginning of the year that you are going to try one approach for the year. Concentrate on doing that Tool for the entire year to give it a fair trial, and then decide whether to continue its use. As in athletics, it is helpful to concentrate on one aspect of the game each time out. New teachers may want to try a new tool each semester until the bag is comfortably full.

Developed by: John Seevers, Retired: Shawnee Mission School District, Shawnee Mission, KS