Philosophy for children and special education : a promising approach to support students with special needs


We conducted a literature review on the practice of Philosophy for Children (P4C) with students experiencing academic difficulties in special education classes at the elementary level. This review was presented at the "For a Philosophical School: Philosophy with Children, a Paradigm for a Democratic and Humanistic School" conference of ACFAS 2023. The literature review aimed to provide a current overview of the knowledge in this field and was organized into three main axes: 1) the contributions of P4C to students, 2) the characteristics of students facing academic difficulties, and 3) research on P4C and educational adaptation.

To select relevant texts, we used specific keywords in both French and their English equivalents, such as "philosophy for children," "students with difficulties," "at-risk students," "special needs," "learning disorders," "pedagogical practice," and "teaching." These keywords were employed with Boolean operators in databases like ERIC, Érudit, Dissertation and Theses, and Google Scholar. Empirical studies were included if they examined the benefits of implementing P4C in the classroom and were peer-reviewed. Additionally, some texts were identified through a review of references. Finally, several essential reference books in P4C and educational adaptation were consulted.

In this article, the literature review synthesis will be presented according to the three aforementioned axes. Following this overview of the knowledge in these areas, we will conclude by presenting a research hypothesis that P4C could be a promising practice for supporting student with special needs, more precisely, those with severe learning disabilities.

Literature Review

Axis 1: Contributions of Philosophy for Children to Students: Research Findings

Numerous researchers have studied the effects of P4C practice on both primary and secondary school students. Through the reviewed literature, two main themes of contributions of P4C to students have emerged: contributions from an academic perspective and contributions from a socio-emotional perspective. However, it's worth noting that a significant portion of the reviewed studies used qualitative research methodologies, limiting the generalizability of the results. Nonetheless, some contributions observed are consistent across various studies, enhancing the validity of these observations.

Contributions from an Academic Perspective

Firstly, several studies suggest that regular P4C practice in the classroom can lead to improvements in cognitive skills. For instance, the evaluation of the "Thinking Through Philosophy Program" by Topping et al. (2019) revealed highly significant progress in students' standardized cognitive skills from pre-test to post-test. Furthermore, studies by Garcia-Moriyon et al. (2005), Daniel (2008), and Cassidy and Christie (2014) demonstrated substantial cognitive development in students through P4C practice (as cited in Cassidy et al., 2018). Additionally, Trickey (2007) and Millett and Tapper (2011) observed that cognitive progress achieved through P4C was sustainable over time (as cited in Cassidy et al., 2018). Students' reasoning skills also improved with regular P4C practice, as noted by Jenkins and Lyle (2010) and Simon (1979).

Moreover, P4C practice was found to enhance students' academic engagement, as indicated by Jenkins and Lyle (2010) and Wan Yusoff and Wan Mazwati (2018). According to Wan Yusoff and Wan Mazwati (2018), this is because P4C treats children as valid interlocutors, stimulating both cognitive engagement (investment in learning and goal attainment) and behavioral engagement (task effort, participation, perseverance) in students.

Finally, a research report on P4C in the UK demonstrated significant progress in reading and mathematics among students who engaged in weekly P4C sessions (Gorard et al., 2015). Notably, these improvements were more significant in disadvantaged students (Gorard et al., 2015), referring to those from vulnerable backgrounds due to socioeconomic disadvantage, special needs, or challenging family circumstances (Carpenter et al., 2013).

Social and Emotional Contributions

Several studies have also investigated the social emotional benefits of regular P4C practice. It was observed that regular P4C practice in the classroom contributed to increased self-esteem among students (Cassidy et al., 2018; Delanoë, 2021; Jenkins and Lyle, 2010; Topping et al., 2019).

Furthermore, since P4C is practiced in a communal way, it can enhance students' social and communication skills (Cassidy et al., 2018; Gagnon et al., 2013; Siddiqui et al., 2017). Dialogue practice can be a useful tool for addressing disruptive and antisocial behaviors among students (Siddiqui et al., 2017). Once again, these benefits were more pronounced in vulnerable students.

Axis 2: Students with Academic Difficulties

Quebec's Definition

Defining and identifying learning difficulties can be challenging due to the diversity of possible manifestations. In Quebec[1], students with learning difficulties and disabilities are grouped under the term “Students with disabilities, learning difficulties and with emotional-behavioural needs”. A student is considered to have a disability has undergone a diagnostic evaluation by a qualified professional, which identifies a specific impairment or disorder that explains the learning difficulties (MELS, 2007).

A student with a learning or behavior disorder typically experiences persistent difficulties, often with a neurodevelopmental or genetic origin (APA, 2013, and ACTA, cited in Goupil, 2014), resulting in lasting manifestations.

A student with learning difficulties is one "for whom the analysis of their situation demonstrates that remediation measures in place have not allowed the student to progress sufficiently in their learning to meet the minimum requirements for success in the language of instruction or mathematics for their grade level" (MELS, 2007, p. 24). Learning difficulties can be caused by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors (Goupil, 2014).

A student with adaptation difficulties is one who exhibits a significant deficit in his ability to adapt to his environment (MELS, 2007). The student may display over-reactive behaviors, which are externalized behaviors (aggression, bullying, destruction, opposition). Conversely, they may exhibit under-reactive behaviors, which are internalized behaviors (excessive anxiety, abnormal passivity, dependence, withdrawal) (MELS, 2007).

In contrast to students with a diagnosed disorder, students considered to have only learning or emotional-behavioural difficulties exhibit manifestations that are considered temporary and circumstantial (Goupil, 2014).

For this article, the term “Students with Special Needs” (SSN) will be used to simplify the reading. It’s still referring to the definition presented above and to students with severe learning disabilities.

Characteristics of SSN

SSN may experience one or multiple types of difficulties (Goupil, 2014). Several factors can contribute to the appearance of difficulties affecting their academic learning. These factors may be individual, familial, social, or related to the school environment (MEQ, 2003). The types of difficulties are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1 – Summary of Types of Difficulties

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Information derived from Goupil (2014); Restrepo and Venet (2022).

Additionally, several vulnerability factors may be observed in a significant portion of SSN, despite the individual differences among them. These factors can be both the result and the cause of the difficulties experienced daily by these students (Goupil, 2014).

From a cognitive perspective, it is common to observe deficits in SSN students' ability to process and memorize information (Goupil, 2014) and in their use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies (Gagné et al., 2009; MEQ, 2003). These cognitive processes significantly impact learning and self-efficacy, affecting students' motivation (Gagné et al., 2009; Vienneau, 2017).

From an emotional perspective, SSN generally exhibit higher levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, and strong motivation problems, often stemming from numerous academic failures (Alves-Martins et al., 2002; Goupil, 2014). In fact, students who have experienced many academic failures tend to have a poor concept of themselves (Slavin, 2018), resulting in a decreased belief in their own learning abilities (Archambault et Chouinard, 2009, as cited in Goupil, 2014). Additionally, students with disabilities are more likely to face rejection from their peers due to being perceived as different (Goupil, 2014). Furthermore, students with lower academic performance may demonstrate a lower level of social and emotional skills, which are crucial for effective learning during interactions with peers and within the school environment (Hachem et al., 2022; Rutherford et al., 2004).

Considering the numerous vulnerability factors and various difficulties that can affect the educational journey of SSN, it is necessary to explore means to positively supporting them in overcoming these obstacles. Therefore, studying the practice of P4C with this student population is of interest.

Axis 3: Philosophy for Children and School Adaptation – Research Findings

Theoretical findings

The field of P4C practice with SSN is still emerging. It is worth noting that students with difficulties are capable of engaging in P4C despite their challenges (Pettier, 2005). However, to ensure the success of the practice, it is important to have structured and planning so that the dialogue takes into account the characteristics of the students in the class (Pettier, 2005).

Additionally, Stokes (2006) mentions that the research community, as found in the philosophical research community, holds potential for SSN. It could enhance self-efficacy, metacognition, and self-correction competence (Stokes, 2006). Improving these elements would promote self-management of their own learning process and, consequently, support effective and persistent learning among these students (Gagné et al., 2009; Stokes, 2006).

Empirical Research Findings

From an empirical research perspective, some international authors have experimented with the practice of P4C with SAD. While most of the research is qualitative in nature and their results cannot be generalized, various recurring findings have been observed. Among these findings, it has been noted that SAD who regularly practice P4C have exhibited the following signs:

  • Improvement in self-regulation (Jenkins and Lyle, 2010; Simon, 1979; Wan Yusoff and Wan Mazwati, 2018).

  • Enhancement of cognitive skills (Jenkins and Lyle, 2010).

  • Increased engagement in schoolwork (Jenkins and Lyle, 2010; Wan Yusoff and Wan Mazwati, 2018).

  • Improved self-regulation of behavior (Cassidy et al., 2018).

  • Increased self-esteem and self-confidence (Cassidy et al., 2018; Delanoë, 2021).

However, there have been relatively few studies on the practice of P4C with SSN. It is also important to note that these studies were conducted in very different contexts, and the term "student in difficulty" has different meanings from one country to another.

Philosophy for Children: A Promising Practice for SSN

It is important to note that SSN are prone to a deficit in mobilizing cognitive and metacognitive strategies (MEQ, 2003) and tend to have low self-esteem (Goupil, 2014). Both factors have a significant impact on their learning. Through various studies, we have shown that regular practice of P4C promotes improved cognition and self-esteem.

The Role of Cognition in Learning

Cognition encompasses "all information processing activities and the outcomes of this intellectual activity" (Vienneau, 2017, p. 126, free translation). In other words, cognition is both the act of thinking and the final product that results from this action, including knowledge, reflections, or judgments (Vienneau, 2017). It is responsible for the transformation, encoding, storage, retrieval, and use of sensory inputs and information, as well as their retrieval from long-term memory (Neisser, 1967, as cited in Vienneau, 2017). It encompasses various aspects such as conceptual organization, reasoning, learning, communication and language (Andler, 2004, as cited in Vienneau, 2017).

Research in cognitive psychology has demonstrated the significant role of cognition in the learning process. Active cognitive engagement, judicious distribution of cognitive and attentional resources and the selection of appropriate cognitive strategies are elements that positively influence a student's learning (Gagné et al., 2009). Thus, Gagné et al. (2009) emphasize the importance of students learning to direct their thought processes to develop skills that enhance self-awareness in their learning approach and to use efficient learning.

Moreover, for effective learning, students must "learn to learn," which involves developing metacognitive skills that enhance the management of their cognitive processes (Gagné et al., 2009). Metacognition involves developing awareness of one's cognitive processes to improve the efficiency of learning (Gagné et al., 2009). According to Loper and Murphy (1985), students typically struggle with metacognitive abilities such as self-assessing their ability to undertake a task, planning task execution steps, utilizing the most appropriate strategies, self-regulating task comprehension, detecting and self-correcting errors during task execution, and evaluating task performance quality (Gagné et al., 2009).

As previously discussed, several studies have indicated that the practice P4C with students leads to improvements in their cognitive abilities (Gorard et al., 2015; Jenkins and Lyle, 2010; Topping et al., 2019). This improvement can be explained by the fact that the practice of P4C involves various cognitive processes. Children are required to utilize numerous thinking skills to engage cognitively in the task (Cloutier, 2016).

Furthermore, P4C can enhance metacognition. During dialogue, participants are encouraged to articulate their internal reasoning, gradually becoming more aware of their thought processes (Cloutier, 2016). The activation of various cognitive tools enables children to become more self-critical and capable of self-correction, which constitutes an important metacognitive act (Cloutier, 2016). This, in part, explains why several studies have observed an improvement in cognitive abilities and/or reasoning in students who regularly practice P4C. Therefore, it represents an interesting approach to develop cognition and metacognition in SSN and, in turn, to enhance their learning processes.


Self-esteem also plays a significant role in students' academic journeys. SSN often hold more negative beliefs about their abilities to perform certain tasks, resulting in lower self-esteem. Archambault and Chouinard (2009) suggest that "the more positive an individual's perceptions of their ability to learn and the relevance of their academic learning are, the more actively they engage, the more control they exert over their cognitive activity, the more they persist through difficulties, and the more they maximize their efforts" (as cited in Goupil, 2014, p. 80, our translation).

As previously mentioned, several studies on the effects of P4C have reported improvements in self-esteem and self-confidence, partly due to the shift to the status of a valid interlocutor (Cassidy et al., 2018; Delanoë, 2021; Jenkins and Lyle, 2010; Topping et al., 2019; Wan Yusoff and Wan Mazwati, 2018). Stokes (2006) also highlighted the potential of the philosophical community of inquiry to increase individuals' self-efficacy beliefs, as it allows for the development of intellectual confidence. Therefore, PPE has the potential to enhance the self-esteem SSN by cultivating a sense of self-efficacy.

Conclusion and research hypothesis

In conclusion, the literature review conducted has revealed that the field of P4C for SSN is still in its early stages. Few studies have focused on this area. However, current knowledge regarding the benefits of P4C is promising. An overview of SSN students has helped to understand certain of their needs, particularly in terms of cognition and self-esteem. These needs have a significant impact on the manifestation of academic difficulties and sometimes their persistence. By combining the knowledge we have about the challenges faced by SSN with insights of the benefits of P4C, we want to make the hypothesis that this practice could be promising for these students. Specifically, it could foster the development of their cognitive and metacognitive skills while enhancing their self-esteem, both of which exert a significant influence on learning and are often deficient in SSN students attending specialized adaptation classes (Gagné et al., 2009; Goupil, 2014; Stokes, 2006).

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  1. Quebec’s definition is used because the research that will follow this literature review will take place in Quebec (Canada) school context. ↩︎

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