If you search the history of remote learning, you will find that distance learning began in the mid-19th century when the postal service was introduced. Remote learning has evolved through the years and can now happen with the start-up of a computer, the log-in to a learning platform, the workings of videos and microphones, and more. While access to remote learning is quick, remote learning itself is not easy. Various populations of students, teachers, and parents find remote learning to be challenging in different ways and for different reasons. One particular group facing such challenges includes students with special needs and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
Challenges IEP Students are Facing with Remote Learning
Some overarching challenges IEP students face in the confines of remote schooling include issues with executive functioning, attention and motivation, apprehension and social isolation, and technology.
First, executive functions require cognitive skills used to organize, deconstruct, analyze, sort, and plan. Symptoms of a child’s struggle with executive functioning include struggling to focus, losing items, trouble initiating tasks such as homework or assignments, forgetting things, keeping a messy space, difficulty with transitions, and the inability to complete tasks before moving on to something else. If it seems a child is “all over the place” and his/her belongings are “all over the place,” consider the child’s executive functioning abilities or lack thereof.
Along with difficulties in executive functioning, attention and motivation issues can hinder students with IEPs during remote learning. The physical absence of a student’s teacher magnifies the fact that many children need prompting and support to stay attentive, on-task, and motivated to learn. Parents are then met with the reality that they may need training and support to best help their children with paying attention and staying motivated to learn.
Yet another set of challenges include apprehension and social isolation. Being away from friends, teachers, and external support people limits a child’s contacts throughout a given day. Days with few or no contacts collectively create a feeling of being socially isolated, which may in turn result in additional social-emotional concerns. The apprehension children feel is due in large part to unknowns surrounding a new mode of schooling and a change in socialization. The apprehension impacts students’ learning.
Finally, other obstacles students face during remote learning involve technology. Do students have adequate access to technology and if so, do they know how to use the technology to join online learning platforms, submit assignments, participate in online discussions, read texts online and other requirements in remote learning? If students do not know how to use available technology to engage in distance learning, the question becomes “do the parents know how,” or “can the parents support students’ achievement in learning how to use the technology?”
Strategies for Improving Remote Learning for IEP Students
To mitigate concerns and decrease the degree of difficulty students experience with remote learning, there are many strategies parents, teachers, and students can use. Such strategies include: scheduling, creating the right environment, using check-ins and learning bursts, and conducting/participating in training sessions.
Children need routine, especially those who struggle with executive functioning. They need consistency, and they need to know what comes next in their day. It is important for schools to develop and consistently follow learning schedules and for parents to support students in following the schedules from home.
Visual schedules, schedules students can see and manipulate, are especially beneficial because they allow students to visualize events that have already occurred and those that are upcoming. Understanding what has been completed and what is coming next decreases anxiety and increases attentiveness and organization.
Creating the Right Environment
When creating the optimal learning environment, special attention should be given to aesthetics, comforts, noise level, number of distractions, and words and actions of others. A comfortable chair, appropriate lighting, and adequate supplies are great starts to optimizing the learning space.
Games, toys, noisemakers, televisions, etc. can be distracting, so, the removal of these objects will benefit students’ ability to pay attention to their learning tasks. In a home with more than one child or with many activities occurring at the same time, it’s not always possible to do away with extraneous noise; but noise is distracting for children who are trying to focus. In such cases students can use headphones or earplugs that drown out noise or have a set-up that’s distanced from other household activities and that is located in a room with a door that can be closed.
Last, words and actions of others can cause frustration or confidence and comfort, and each has an impact on students’ motivation toward learning. Family members or others in a student’s learning space should be encouraging, supportive, and helpful to reduce the likelihood of frustration and to increase the degree of motivation.
Social isolation and a lack of motivation lead to social-emotional issues such as withdrawal, apathy, agitation, anger, outbursts, and the like. To prevent such, a staff member can conduct daily check-ins or daily communication with students. During check-ins, staff might ask students questions about their day, assignments, concerns, etc. Students can also have assigned partners for check-ins with each other. Often times, peer check-ins are most beneficial when teachers are present and are facilitators of appropriate conversations. Check-ins can occur using Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or other video conferencing tools.
Learning bursts or learning using brief cycles of academic activities and breaks is another way to increase motivation and decrease ill effects of social-emotional issues. Using learning bursts, students engage in academics for a short period, take a brief break, then engage again for another short period of academics. During the breaks I suggest having students do something fun or appealing to them, like play for five minutes, use markers or play-dough for five minutes, listen to a favorite song, etc. Students will soon realize “if I complete…then I will get to….” They might say, for example, “If I complete my assignment, I will get to listen to my favorite song,” which in turn will increase motivation and promote attentiveness.
Training sessions are particularly helpful to parents and students with limited experience using technology or limited experience using the school’s chosen learning management system. Many times parents also need help learning to establish an appropriate learning environment, implement accommodations at home, and communicate effectively with teachers.
Sessions can occur in a variety of formats including phone calls, Zoom meetings, FaceTime, pre-recorded videos, or face-to-face settings in which social distancing is observed. Pre-recorded videos are especially helpful because viewers can pause, replay, restart, or re-watch as needed; however, if questions arise during pre-recorded videos, parent must reach out to someone which may require wait time before they receive answers.
Trainings that benefit families most are those that meet their specific needs; therefore, it is helpful to poll parents and students or have conversations with them to determine areas for their individualized support.
More remote learning amongst more teachers and students involving more parents and community members using more technology…these are the times in which we now live…this is the new normal around the globe. When our “normal” changes, challenges come. The only way to succeed is to recognize the challenges, admit they’re challenges, and take action to mediate, alleviate, and mitigate the challenges for all populations of students, especially some of our most vulnerable students and students with special needs and IEPs.