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HomeSpecial EducationWhat To Do When Manipulatives Are Distracting · Mrs. P's Specialties

What To Do When Manipulatives Are Distracting · Mrs. P’s Specialties


For most students, hands on learning is a great way to engage students and deepen understanding. But what do you do when manipulatives are too distracting for the student? Read for tips on how to engage these learners in hands on lessons without using little manipulatives that can be too distracting.

When hands on manipulatives are too distracting for the students blog post featured image.

How to determine if manipulatives are the problem

Manipulatives are a great way to engage learners, especially in special education programs. There are many ways to teach addition, life skills, and concepts with manipulatives.

However, We often notice right away if students are engaging in off-task behaviors. The trick is to look at what the behaviors are. Here is a list of common off-task behaviors that are due to being too interested in the manipulatives.

  • Playing with the manipulatives
  • Trying to rearrange or order the manipulatives
  • Trying to keep the materials rather than use them as intended in the lesson
  • Will only engage in the lesson with specific manipulatives or materials

While there are other possible behaviors, these are the most common ones.

Why Should we find alternate materials?

If students are more interested in the manipulatives or materials we are using within the lesson or practice, then we need to switch them up. We want our students to be focused more on the learning than the materials.

While it may sound like extra work, when students are truly focused on the learning activity and learning, progress is quicker and more consistent. Putting in a bit of work to find the student’s best learning materials now will reap huge benefits.

Ideas for alternate hands on materials

  1. Look for materials that don’t naturally invite play. For example, colored bears versus connecting blocks or plastic paperclips.
Not all manipulatives will work for every student photo of 3 different types of materials.

While all of these manipulatives are fun and versatile, students are going to naturally prefer to play with some or all of them. If your student loves to play with figurines or act things out, then the colored bears probably aren’t a great choice.

2. Consider using manipulatives that move less freely. For example, magnetic shapes or coins are going to be less distracting than snap blocks.

3. Try thinking “outside the box” when it comes to hands on learning. For example, use a dry-erase marker and board during the hands on lesson rather than moveable manipulatives.

Whiteboards and dry erase markers are a great way to make lessons hands on.

4. Manipulatives can lead to extra chatter or stories… which is another off-task behavior.

conversations can lead to off task behaviors

For example, using mini erasers like the pizza and popcorn ones above could lead to students wanting to tell you about something that connects to pizza or popcorn. While it is great that students want to connect with you, it’s going to interfere with the lesson and the skill you are trying to target.

Evaluating the change in materials

Once you have noted a problem and changed the materials, it’s time to reflect on the effect. Did changing the type of hands on materials change? If so, great continue on. If not, then we need to ask ourselves a few more questions.

  • Am I still using a manipulative that my student is distracted by? Just because we switched the materials doesn’t mean that we chose well. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find one that works well.
  • Is it really the materials that are the problem? Maybe the manipulatives aren’t the problem. Check to make sure your lesson has enough built-in scaffolding, you’re using a powerful reinforcer, etc. Check out this post on what to do when escape is the function of the behavior.

Here are some resources for how to plan out effective lessons:

Don’t forget to save this post to refer back to and share with your fellow teachers!

Manipulatives too distracting? blog post pin image

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