By Teachers, For Teachers
As learning has transitioned to an online environment across the country, our students with disabilities are at increased risk of falling behind academically. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides these students with rights that level the educational playing field, but how do these rights transfer when students and teachers are working remotely from home? Moreover, how can teachers provide special education students with the support they need after being thrust into elearning and, in many cases, lacking the resources and training to teach effectively online?
Students who receive special education services will face challenges in online learning that are similar to their general education counterparts yet amplified by their unique needs. Perhaps the most prominent challenge for these students is the absence of teachers in the learning environment. Most special education students have extra support in a small group setting, the support of a co-teacher in the general education setting, paraprofessional support, or even consultative services for academic content areas. When learning at home, this level of support is decreased drastically. Although we have substantially more technology at our fingertips than ever before, technology can’t fully replace the physical presence of a teacher to offer support.
Aside from the absence of the consistent presence of their special education teacher, special education students face many other challenges while they learn at home. Classrooms are spaces that are intentionally designed for learning, and this will not be the reality for many students’ homes. Students may not have a space that is comfortable for learning and free of distractions. This is particularly detrimental for students with sensory sensitivity and/or attention deficit. Furthermore, students may not have access to the resources and materials necessary to be successful or may have limited time with resources because they are shared amongst multiple household members. For younger students and older students with intellectual disabilities or disorders like autism, changing the learning environment and routine can be a very difficult adjustment that hinders their progress. This is true for all students to some degree, but these students are at higher risk for this struggle.
As we embark upon the uncharted territory of educating special education students at home for the unforeseeable future, there are some special education teaching strategies we can implement to ensure these students receive the best education possible. Here are some tips for supporting our students with disabilities at home.
When transitioning to home learning, IEP goals and objectives will have to shift for most students. Any goals and objectives listed in a student’s IEP must be monitored unless stated otherwise, but there are some objectives that are not feasible for home learning. Though it may seem time consuming, taking time to meet with your IEP team about which objectives to postpone, remove, or add during home learning will be crucial in the long run. Do this early on so that you have a clear plan for what goals and objectives will be monitored for progress and how during remote learning.
Just as teachers have been hurled into a new phase of learning, parents and guardians are assuming a new role in their children’s learning. Establish a schedule for contacting parents, and make sure that parents know how and when to contact you as needed. Remember that while parents may have a long history with their students, they most likely do not have experience as a special educator. Providing strategies, environmental recommendations, and extension resources to parents will be key for home learning success. Make sure that parents receive support that is tailored to their student’s specific needs.
When advising families about setting up an effective home learning space, it’s important to remember that many students’ homes are not equipped for learning. Students may not have access to a desk or even a quiet space for working sometimes. Being patient and understanding is crucial when making recommendations that will maximize what students do have for learning. If possible, families should set aside a space for learning that is consistent. This can range from a kitchen table to a spare room. Encourage families to find a hard surface to sit and work at (a table or desk), a place where distractions can be silenced, and comfortable seating.
During remote learning, students are not moving about the classroom or between classes as they do in the traditional school setting. Students with some disabilities, like ADHD, will be particularly affected by a decrease in physical activity and this experience-reduced focus. Embedding movement into your lessons will help students to burn energy and have more stamina for learning. Furthermore, movement is good for both physical and mental health.
Assistive technology is any technology that helps students with disabilities comprehend curriculum and perform academic tasks. While learning at home, many accommodations that students have in the classroom may be difficult to implement, thus, even students who do not have assistive technology officially in their IEPs can benefit form assistive technology at home. Luckily, there are many free websites that provide services like oral reading, speech to text, and dyslexia font for students and teachers. This website is a great place to find free and low-cost assistive technology resources that students can access at home.
Above all, it is important that the goal of remote learning for special education students is growth. Understand that students may not master concepts and standards, but if they demonstrate progress then the learning experience is successful. Our goal should be to cultivate an environment where students can grow academically and in character. Even when learning remotely, students with disabilities should have the support that affords them the growth that is available to their general education peers.
Whitney is a Special Education and English teacher. She holds an Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University, GA.