Project-Based Learning with a Twist

Adjusting Project-Based Learning for Students with Emotional Needs

“Project-based learning looks a little different in our classrooms,” commented Heather Frey, Supervisor of Community School SouthEast (CSSE) and Community School West (CSW), two secondary emotional support programs provided by IU13.

“Our students have a lot of uncertainty in their lives already, so while they often like the ability to show creativity, we can’t give them an ‘open-ended’ problem and ask them to solve it.” The students need to know that there is an answer; they need to see the answer and then determine how it was achieved through collaborative projects.

The programs at CSSE and CSW provide “project-based learning with a twist,” stated Frey, who’s been an ambassador for the method of learning for several years. The method provides an alternative to the traditional classroom of papers, memorization, and teacher lecture.

Proponents of project-based learning cite numerous benefits to the implementation of its strategies in the classroom - including a greater depth of understanding of concepts, broader knowledge base, improved communication and interpersonal/social skills, enhanced leadership skills, increased creativity, and improved writing skills. Another definition of project-based learning includes a type of instruction where students work together to solve real-world problems in their schools and communities.1 

Three students collaborating

The manner in which students are working together to solve “real-world problems” is where Frey and her team at CSSE and CSW have made some adjustments to traditional project-based learning to meet the unique needs of their students. The Community School instructional teams facilitate cross-curricular project-based learning so that the content concepts bridge all instructional areas, thus providing a total immersion lesson over the span of a couple of weeks.

It is not uncommon for students being served in emotional support programs to have low self-esteem, academic deficiencies, social problems and/or uncertainty at home, etc. In order to focus on education, the students need an environment with structure and consistency.

“Many of our students don’t think they can learn math or science, so they give up easily if the problem/lesson is too hard,” stated Frey. “But if we can show them that there is an answer…there is a conclusion, and then ask them to work as a team to determine ‘the how,’ we can be very successful.” This twist is in facilitating and empowering students at CSSE and CSW to show them that they do have the ability to shine.

For example: Students were given the task of studying the American Railroad. The social studies teacher guided students to research the era (materials, supplies, living status, etc.) in which the railroad was built. The math teacher worked with students to create a “to-scale” replica of the selected railroad system. After they did the math, they chose to use Twizzlers and marshmallows to assemble their replica, affixing them to a large mural of the United States. The science class then researched diseases prevalent to the era in which the railroads were built in America and cross-referenced that with diseases in other parts of the country at that time. Lastly, the English Language Arts team read short stories and poems indicative of the era. Based upon their readings, they created a stop-motion film depicting themes of the era of the railroad.

This modification has proven very successful for the students at IU13's Community Schools. The students are learning and executing high-level work through this form of instruction. “Our students can do the work,” said Frey. “They just need it to be presented in a different manner and be given a little more encouragement,” which is what the dedicated staff provide.

If you would like to learn more about these modifications and other tips for supporting students needing emotional supports, please contact Heather Frey at

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