Successfully using gamification with inclusion students


Have you ever struggled to engage inclusion students who act bored or don’t pay attention? Gamification can be a good engagement tool, but must be used carefully or it will have the opposite effect, said Stephen Russell, special education teacher at Arbor Preparatory High School.

Russell wrote his capstone research paper on this topic in 2018 and presented his findings and experience at the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children Conference in March 2019.

Strictly speaking, “gamification” is not instructional games. Instead, gamification is the use of game mechanics in non-game settings to encourage engagement in a particular goal or behavior. A contest, which makes use of the game mechanic of a goal, competition, and rewards, is a good example.

Russell gave the following recipe for inclusive gamification in the classroom. Gamification must have:

  • Goals, challenges, and/or objectives
  • Established rules/guidelines
  • Interactivity
  • Feedback
  • Concrete relation to content
  • A quantifiable outcome

Gamification can motivate inclusion students to stay involved, said Russell. Motivation most often comes from the interactivity of the experience, and can be extrinsic, in the form of physical and electronic rewards, and friendships with teammates, and intrinsic, in the form of emotions such as excitement, agency, and feelings of belonging.

However, if students find the experience frustrating, they will disengage, warned Russell. This can happen with quiz games such as Kahoot!, Jeopardy, Quizizz, and Quizlet.

“Kahoot! is a game wherein players are awarded more points for answering questions quickly and actively compete with each other,” said Russell. “For lower performing students, students who need more processing time, and students who are easily distracted, this is a heavily slanted playing field leading to frustration, disengagement, and often negative behavior. Additionally, the competitive aspect of Kahoot! also has negative social side effects. The competitive factor makes it extremely difficult to balance a game for a class full of students at different levels and with different needs.”

Collaboration is the key, noted Russell. “Focusing on collaborative efforts enables the students to interact with the problem and feel like they helped solve it,” he said. “Students who have this agency are motivated to continue to work hard and do better each time they try to solve a problem. The social and emotional elements of play are activated by collaboration. This collaboration also leads to increased engagement with the material and fewer instances of off-task or disruptive behavior.”

Russell suggested these gamification approaches for the classroom:

  • Escape Room: In an Escape Room scenario, students cooperate to compete against time. They solve puzzles, complete problems, or accomplish other academic tasks.
  • Competing against Previous Self: Students can compete against their own previous scores, either with a set time or not. This is great for drill practice such as math or foreign language vocabulary.
  • Competing in Groups: This is especially useful for games with strategy, deliberation, and decision making. You can also make it so that multiple teams can win if they all achieve the goal of the game.
  • Students vs. Teacher: Classroom management can be a game where the class earns points when they follow expected behaviors and the teacher gains points if they don’t. In addition to encouraging a productive work environment, this also provides a way for inclusion students with social and/or behavioral goals to practice those skills while simultaneously working on academics.

He suggested structuring a gamified lesson in the following way:

  1. Review the content or skill for 15 minutes
  2. Teach or review the rules of the game for 5-10 minutes
  3. Play the game for 30 to 40 minutes

Russell also had several warnings:

  • A gamified lesson si much better for review than for teaching a new skill
  • Be cautious if you are introducing new content at the same time you introduce the game
  • Be careful with long-term game rewards
  • Do not use the same game every day

Russell suggested some learning games that accommodate inclusion students:

  • The Quiet Year is a map-making/storytelling board game in which each student can create their own world. It can involve any reading/writing skill.
  • The Stock Market Game, a program of the SIFMA Foundation, helps students build a fundamental understanding of investing while providing them with real-world skills practice in math, English Language Arts, economics, social studies, and other subjects.

Russell also suggested creating board games of your own. One of his own creating is called “Protein Pursuit”. He also made up a game called Trashketball, and games which use math dice. to find out more, contact him at

One Comment
  1. Mr. Russell has used this approach with my son who is ASD. Not only does he connect with him on an academic level, but had gained my sons trust. He is an amazing teacher!

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