Special Education Careers

Why Experiential Education is Critical in a Special Education Program

The words “teaching” and “education” typically paint a picture in our minds of traditional schooling. There’s a teacher standing in the front of a classroom, and students are seated at desks. All of the learning comes from lectures, textbooks, homework assignments, tests, quizzes, essays, and similar materials.

But traditional learning environments aren’t the only way for students to get an education. One of the oldest methods of learning for humans dates back far beyond the days of classrooms—learning by doing. If you’re a parent of a child with special needs or you’re a teacher with special education students in the classroom, experiential education might be the answer.

Based on years of first-hand experience working directly with children in special education programs, I’ve found experiential education to be highly successful. There are tons of benefits for the kids, parents, teachers, and even the community. I wrote this article to explain everything you need to know about experiential learning and why it’s so important for students in special education.

The Power of Experiential Learning For Special Education Programs

  • What is Experiential Learning?
  • Examples of Experiential Education
  • Who is Experiential Learning Best Suited For?
  • Benefits of Experiential Learning For Special Education Programs
  • How to Get Started With Experiential Learning in Special Education Programs

What is Experiential Learning?

By definition, experiential learning is the process in which learners gain knowledge, skills, and values through experience. Rather than learning directly from an instructor, the student will learn from the actions and observations made during an activity.

In the simplest possible terms, experiential education is learning by doing.

This non-traditional learning style was formally developed by David Kolb, a philosopher who founded the Experiential Learning Model (ELM). Kolb’s model can be simplified into a four-stage learning process—experience, reflection, conceptualization, and testing. 

While this may sound a bit confusing, the concepts of experiential learning are very straightforward. The basic idea is that experiences help drive and influence the learning process.

Here’s a really simple analogy to help you grasp experiential education:

Imagine if your child wanted to play basketball. But rather than taking them to a basketball court, you just explained how to shoot a ball and dribble. Then you asked them to take notes and quizzed them on how to play. This would be a traditional classroom learning environment. Experiential learning would be taking them to play basketball, putting them on a team, and letting them play. The latter is the best way to learn.

Examples of Experiential Education

I find it easier to understand concepts with examples. So dictionary definitions and analogies aside, here are some real-life examples of what experiential education looks like:

  • Getting on a bicycle and learning to ride, rather than listening to a parent explain how it’s done.
  • Going on a trip to the zoo to learn about animals and how they act through observation, as opposed to watching a movie.
  • Spending time in the garden to learn about pollination and photosynthesis, instead of reading about them in a book.

Beyond these specific examples, some broader ways to incorporate experiential learning in the classroom include:

  • Science experiments
  • Art projects
  • Taking field trips
  • Interactive games
  • Mock trials
  • Roleplaying scenarios
  • Internships
  • Studying abroad

As you can see, experiential education can play a key role for students of all ages. The examples on this list range from kids at a young age all the way through high school and beyond.

Who is Experiential Learning Best Suited For?

Experiential learning is for anyone—not just students in special education. Research has shown that learning through experiences helps most people learn at a higher level.

The way experiential learning is implemented will depend on a student’s age, emotional level, and intellectual development. For example, you’re obviously not going to send a first-grade student to an internship or study abroad program. 

Many students in special education learn differently. That’s ok. Some of these students may not perform as well in a traditional classroom environment. They might have trouble reading, writing, or paying attention while sitting at a desk. For students in this category, experiential education can help them learn by viewing things through a different lens. 

The same student who may struggle to retain the information given through a classwork assignment on history might have an easier time remembering things by going to a museum and seeing everything in person.

Benefits of Experiential Learning For Special Education Programs

Experiential education can really contribute to a child’s development in a positive way. This is especially true for students with disabilities and students in special education. 

Here are some of the top benefits that showcase why experiential education is so important in a special education program: 

  • Promotes Positive Attitude Towards Learning — Many students in special education have a negative perception of school and classwork. This is frustrating for the students, parents, and teachers alike. But experiential learning is fun and gives the kids something to look forward to when it comes to their education.
  • Drives Student Engagement — Children are much more likely to be engaged if they’re doing something hands-on and exciting. It’s tough to keep students engaged through lecturing or textbook readings. But if you’re taking them on a field trip or having them participate in an interactive experience, they’ll be a more active participant in the lesson.
  • Learn From Mistakes — Mistakes in experiential learning aren’t graded or punished. They’re just part of the learning process. Rather than fearing mistakes, the kids can walk away with real values that will help them move forward.
  • Creative Opportunities — Experiential learning promotes creativity, which isn’t always encouraged in a traditional classroom environment. Students with different learning needs have a chance to think outside of the box and shine in these scenarios.
  • Connections and Application – Many students when learning in a traditional classroom setting don’t understand how a concept that is being taught can be connected to their lives or be applied in a real world situation. With experiential education, it’s all about direct connection and application.

Arguably the most powerful aspect of experiential learning in special education is inclusion. This teaching method has benefits for all students, not just the ones who have special needs. So everyone can excel in the classroom, regardless of which learning style works best for them.

How to Get Started With Experiential Learning in Special Education Programs

If you’re a teacher or educator who wants to get started applying experiential learning in the classroom, here’s what you need to do:

Step #1: Start with the End Goals in Mind

Before you start planning experiential learning activities, it’s crucial that you have a clear understanding of how the activity fits within a particular course or lesson. Establishing a concrete purpose and goal needs to be the first part of this process.

Don’t limit yourself to academic objectives alone. You can have goals related to social skills and emotional coping, which are perfect for students diagnosed with certain disorders. 

For example, maybe the academic aspect of an experiential learning lesson is related to math. But the emotional goal of the experience can be related to working together with peers and social development. Then you can verify whether or not the experiential activity in question is actually the best way for those students to achieve the goals.

Step #2: Look For Authentic Learning Scenarios

Authenticity is another key part of success with experiential learning. You don’t want to create hypothetical scenarios that aren’t realistic for the real-world development of the children.

The best educators are always looking for inspiration for these types of activities. You can get inspired by the news, third-party sources, or even experiences from your life. 

Let’s say you want to encourage students with speech challenges to speak and have a dialogue with their classmates. Asking them to read from a textbook is not experiential. But you could mimic a real-world situation where they’d be asked to talk in front of others. Something like a town hall meeting or brainstorming session could work here, depending on the age of the students.

Step #3: Leave Room For Open-Ended Ideas

One of the most exciting parts of experiential learning is that it’s so unpredictable. Rather than trying to steer the ship to a specific location, let your students take the wheel and see where they take you. 

Some of the students will definitely stick to the simple directions you’ve provided. But others may want to push some boundaries, which is totally fine. 

I’m not saying you should leave every action or decision completely up to the students. The experiential learning activities should still have some structure. But don’t be worried if some students veer off the path a little bit. Just be there to provide assistance if they’re getting too far off track. 

Step #4: Reflect

For all students, not just students in special education, reflection is the key to success with experiential learning. 

As an educator, you should try to find creative ways for students to reflect. Asking them to write down what they learned from the lesson gets us back to traditional teaching, which isn’t what we’re trying to achieve with experiential education. 

Instead, ask them to articulate how they’re feeling and what they’re doing throughout the activity. You may even ask them ahead of time to track how often something specific happens throughout the lesson. For example, in a team-building exercise, you may ask them to think about how often there’s a negotiation taking place amongst the group. 


Experiential education is a powerful teaching method. It can be applied at all age levels for nearly every subject matter. This is critical for students in special education because the activities and lessons go beyond academics. Experiential learning can help with social, emotional, and behavioral learning as well. 

Are you planning to implement experiential education in the classroom? Let me know what ideas you’re thinking about! I’d love to share some insights and offer recommendations.

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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