Tips and Advice for Supporting Students with Disabilities through Distance Learning
March 27, 2020
By: NIET Senior Program Specialist Shelia Banks
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, districts across the nation have transitioned their students to remote learning. While this abrupt transition has been far from perfect, blended learning approaches have been part of many students' education since the early grades and have helped make this transition generally feasible. But is this the case for students with support needs, generally referred to as students with disabilities? How do we ensure that these students have access to what is needed for them to thrive and grow?
These questions are on all districts' minds as we continue to navigate how to secure the public's health while maintaining quality educational experiences for all children. With guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, among others, educators are empowered to make decisions about supporting all students through distance education, including students who need intensive support from special education teachers.
This is easier said than done.
Clearly, providing remote learning services to students with disabilities is critical as we work to mitigate any learning regression, encourage academic growth, and, most importantly, create the routines and procedures that promote comfort and reassurance. But, most of us are struggling with how to do this well.
Here are some tips and advice.
Don't underestimate foundational support and communications
Start with the most important element: communication with families.
The switch to remote education has prompted an even more intense need for clear and concise communication with families. Ritual communication via phone calls, conferencing platforms, or emails are helpful to families as they assist their children with continuing education outside of the school environment. At best, students with moderate to severe support needs or disabilities should receive personalized communication from their special education teacher or case manager at least twice per week. This way, special educators can communicate learning expectations and coach families around how to provide accommodations or modifications to students as they are learning. Remember: Consistency is golden.
An understanding of how to deliver online content is also key. The Council for Exceptional Children released some guidance on best practices for addressing diverse learners through distance education. For teachers new to this experience, planning and preparation are key to success.
Be creative in using technology to enhance instruction and meet students' needs
For students who have access to devices that connect to the internet, and who do not have health limitations in using those, there are several options that teachers can use to address moderate to severe learning needs. Here are a few examples:
English language arts
For districts that use online learning platforms, most include accessibility features such as text read aloud, highlighting, note taking, and sometimes reduced reading speed. The teacher would need to communicate with families how to use these tools, which ones are most appropriate for their students, and check in to make sure students are learning as expected. Most online platforms (examples include Newsela.com, sciencenewsforstudents.org, and privatized platforms) allow teachers to set the reading level and learning pathway for individual students, which is particularly beneficial for students with support needs and those on Individual Education Plans (IEPs). While students in the general education classroom may be addressing on-grade level texts, students with support needs can often experience the same text but on their cognitive level using online tools. Students with visual impairments who do not have access to braille materials will benefit from the teacher reading the text aloud via video. Youtube.com will allow a user to post a private video to their account for free and send the link directly to an individual.
Screencasting software (for example, screencast-o-matic.com or screencastify.com) allows teachers to record themselves alongside a text that needs to be read aloud for students. This is particularly valuable for students with visual impairments or those who need to watch mouth motions and expressions while they read. Audio files of the text being read aloud are also beneficial and can be created through most cell phones and computer software though the Voice Recorder app. Students in need of sign language interpretation can also benefit from screencasting or video recordings of the teacher signing the requisite information. When pictures are needed in order to support a student in gaining meaning from a text, video-recorded or screencasted lessons allow for pictures in the text to be shown on camera. For accommodations requiring grouping with peers, Google Hangouts has a chat option, and students with disabilities could receive assistance from an adult at home to access the chat option with general education peers at scheduled times.
As with literacy, many online platforms allow teachers to assign lessons to individual students at or below their grade level. For particularly complex concepts that require repeated instruction and multiple examples, students would benefit from video-recorded explanations from their teachers in student-friendly language. These can be compiled in an online repository such as a Google Drive folder with public access for those who have the link. Alternatively, videos can also be emailed directly to students or parents. Students who require time with their same-age peers can problem-solve asynchronously using a Google Doc where contributors can leave comments. As with literacy instruction, teachers who use screen recording software or extensions can create custom videos that address exactly what students need for learning purposes.
In general, the use of online and video platforms can often help educators to differentiate access to the content. Think about it. If a student's accommodations require repeated direction and modeling, then video is the ideal platform which allows a student to replay the content over and over. Video conferencing via sites such as Google Hangouts allow the teacher and the student to see expressions, hesitations, and other physical and verbal cues in real time. In any series of lessons, performing videoconferencing with students allows the teacher to gauge how students are able to progress and course-correct as needed.
Continue to learn from the field
The best thing to do at this time is to be informed and continue to try new approaches to meet students' needs – no one gets this perfectly right the first time. Continue to check out and monitor the following sites for information on distance learning and servicing students with support needs/disabilities during the shift to remote education:
- Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
- Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities and additional Q&A
- Best practices for educating online from the Council for Exceptional Children
- TeacherVision resources for students with different learning needs
Q&A with NIET Senior Program Specialist Shelia Banks
What advice or guidance do you have for districts that are not 1:1?
Many districts that aren't 1:1 during the school year are lending laptops and equipment to students. The school organizes the devices, tags them, keeps a tight inventory, and parents pick them up from the schools.
Some districts are using the computers that would have been used for state testing and lending them to students. If schools organize the way the devices are checked out, there is less worry about damages or device loss. I also recommend updating the school's computer inventory and trying not to lend out devices that are funded through certain federal grants, such as the computers that are intended to be used in career education classes. Many special education classrooms have devices for students, and those should be the first ones pulled for checkout.
What are your recommendations for alternative delivery of instruction for those without online access, such as sign-out of devices originally assigned for use within schools or a centralized school/district pickup of paper assignments?
Many teachers are creating simple worksheet packets to send home to students who receive special education services. With work sent home, it is best to check the student's IEP to ensure that the work still supports the child in reaching his or her IEP goals. To help parents feel supported, teachers can have regular phone conversations about how the teacher addresses the content and provides accommodations. This helps parents feel more comfortable about the work, and students will appreciate the consistency.
I recommend assignments that address content that the student may have already experienced but could use additional practice for mastery because: 1) spiraling content is often necessary to address gaps, and 2) if the student is familiar with the content, he or she may be more at ease completing the assignment at home.
For organization purposes, should case managers be responsible for contacting parents/guardians of their students to determine the need for a device or paper assignments (based on the district's decision)?
Yes, it would be effective for case managers to contact families to determine what supports and devices each student needs so that districts and schools can ensure all students are receiving appropriate materials. Ongoing conversations about the student's work and multiple weekly check-ins will help families navigate through the work and the major adjustment to the child's environment. I also recommend keeping logs of calls and emails to and from parents.
For more information and resources, please visit NIET's Remote Learning website.