This is the first in a blog series of three posts on research to make CS more accessible for students with specific learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

As we celebrate the expansion of computing learning opportunities across the country (and work hard to provide a greater range of kids with these opportunities), we must also give attention to the practical question: How do we begin to make computer science (CS) more accessible for students in these classrooms with specific learning disabilities and related attention deficit disorders? Although diversifying the population of students with access to, and interest in participating in computing opportunities has become a priority for many in the field, students with these types of learning-based differences are often lost in these conversations. My colleagues and I refer to these students as students with learning differences or students who learn differently. There are currently few evidence-based studies in CS education that target the needs of students specific to learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

Yet in a 2014 publication from the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)  entitled “The State of Learning Disabilities,” the NCLD reported that there are 2.4 million public school students in the U.S. identified with a specific learning disability (such as in reading, written expression, math, or language) and 6.4 million children diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder (like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, more commonly known as ADHD). This report indicated that as many as one-third of the 2.4 million students diagnosed with a specific learning disability also have a related attention deficit disorder. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2013-14 school year, a higher percentage of students aged 3-21 received special education services directly for specific learning disabilities than for any other type of disability.

These students can be successful in learning CS if provided with appropriate instruction and support to meet their learning needs. For that to happen, however, teachers need explicit recommendations about how to adjust their classroom instructional practices and existing CS materials in ways that improve accessibility. For example, computer science teacher and special educator Neil Plotnick recently blogged about a variety of strategies that may be used to support students with learning disabilities in CS classrooms. However, with the growth of CS learning opportunities and related instructional resources over the past few years, more research specifically situated within CS learning contexts is needed to ensure the many students with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders can access the complete range of these opportunities.

Exploring Ways to Make CS More Accessible for Students Who Learn Differently

In a two-year National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported study that I lead with colleagues at Outlier Research & Evaluation, UChicago STEM Education | University of Chicago and the Wolcott School (a high school in Chicago for students with learning differences), we are exploring ways to make the Computer Science Principles (CSP) course more accessible for students with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders. Our team of researchers and expert practitioners is currently working to develop and test strategies that can be employed when certain types of activities occur in CSP, and in any CS class lessons, that may pose challenges for these particular learners.

In the first phase of our study, we worked with two versions of CSP curricula, in two separate Wolcott classrooms: Beauty and Joy of Computing (BJC) and’s version of CSP. While the Wolcott CS teacher selected the CSP curriculum to use in her AP CSP class in the current phase of the study, our team is working to develop general principles and guidance that will be helpful to all CSP developers and teachers (and hopefully others in the CS education community, too). 

The work of the study began with identifying general approaches commonly used for students with specific learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders in other subject areas, which we then customized for a CS classroom context. Our aim is to compile and share practical, research-informed guidance for both CS curriculum developers and CS teachers about ways to make instructional strategies and materials in CS more accessible for students diagnosed with learning and attention challenges (and, we suspect, students without these formally identified learning differences).

The next two posts in this series will describe how our research-practice team is working to improve accessibility of CS lessons for students who learn differently, as well as provide a few instructional strategies teachers can use to make CS learning more accessible for these students, in any CS classroom.

This study is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number CNS- 1542963


Sarah Wille is a Principal Education Research Scientist at Outlier Research & Evaluation at UChicago STEM Education | University of Chicago, where she leads Outlier’s CS education research efforts. She is the Principal Investigator of the CSP and Students with Learning Differences study (NSF Award # 1542963) and the BASICS Study (found on the CS for All Teachers community site here: Amy Cassata is another Principal Education Research Scientist on the CSP and Students with Learning Differences study. You can contact Sarah and Amy at and and learn more about the computer science education work at Outlier here: