A Silent Heartbreak

Rebecca Branstetter, Ph.D., a school psychologist, speaker, and author said that on day four of the second round of distance learning last fall, she saw something in her first-grade daughter’s Zoom meeting that broke her heart—both as a parent and as a school psychologist who supports students with special needs.

In a sea of happy little faces in a Brady Bunch–style gallery, she saw a whiteboard with a message on it, propped up on a desk. She strained her eyes to see it, and it read: “I can’t learn like this. I have special needs.” The kid was nowhere in sight. A parent had given up trying to get their child to engage on Zoom. On day four!

There are approximately 7 million special needs students with IEPs. Unfortunately, many of these students find the virtual daily education they receive falling short of what they’ve been promised and are legally entitled to receive.

Selene Almazan, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based attorney who also serves as legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates bemoaned, “When it comes to education, some parents think something is better than nothing. But what works for some students may not work for those students with special needs, and many parents are feeling like they’re in a no-win situation for the foreseeable future.”

Parents of these children are expressing their pain: How is my child supposed to sit for eight hours a day at a computer? Without in-person classes, will my child regress and fail to thrive? What about my job? Virtual learning is not a practical solution, so it’s a non-answer for us.

Some of the Biggest Hurdles

1. Parents Must Fill Support Role

Typically, children with learning disabilities would receive additional support at their respective schools, either in the form of an aide or with a counselor. Now parents must assume responsibility for the entire process, on top of their other roles.

2. Special Needs Students Think Differently

Some in the field acknowledge that, irrespective of the quality of resources or instructors, often students with special needs are going to struggle with virtual learning because these students simply think differently. They can have a lot of trouble staying focused and working independently, which are “facts on the ground” in our new reality.

3. Different Learning Process

What works in general education generally doesn’t work for special education students. New concepts must be broken down into manageable parts, taught in isolation, and practiced repeatedly. That can be quite difficult to do in digital learning, even for talented teachers.

The Solution: Improve Online Engagement for Special Needs Kids

1. The Connection Must Precede Academic Rigor

Engagement is the key to success in remote learning because learning is not a place; rather, it is a relationship between teacher and student. Kids don’t learn very well without feeling connected.

Anyone in the field of education knows that connection fuels engagement—both in-person and online. Building positive rapport with a child is an essential ingredient for both motivation and effort. And this connection can be cultivated online as well.

Because teachers need to complete a certain number of instructional minutes and follow a curriculum, they feel compelled to focus on academics and compliance of academic tasks above all else, even when their students are burdened with the stress of social isolation and the pandemic. But stressed-out brains don’t learn well.

Hurricane Katrina was perhaps the most recent illustration showing that students struggled when schools concentrated too quickly on academic remediation. However, when schools attended to social and emotional well-being first, students were more successful in catching up on the work.

Research reveals that focusing on Social and Emotional Learning

(SEL) improves academics by 11% on average. And this is especially true for students plagued with learning disabilities, where it has been shown that a key factor in their academic success is having reliable support systems, like caring adults. Children who feel safe, seen, and supported, invariably experience more positive emotions, which bolsters cognitive resources for learning.

Effective ways to engender genuine moments of connection, even on Zoom, include:

  1. Edutopia’s How to “Maslow Before Bloom” (an online SEL toolkit).
  2. Jennifer Gonzales’ podcast: Creating Moments of Genuine Connection Online.
  3. Greater Good in Education (a research-based compendium of SEL activities).

2. Get Creative with Accommodations and Supports

Oftentimes special needs students require specialized instruction and support that is more scaffolded. This could mean breaking down tasks into more manageable chunks, introducing visual aids, or frequently checking-in to ensure they are on the right track.

Whereas in the classroom, teachers can offer instant feedback and support, and specialists can pull the student out to provide services, such options essentially don’t exist online. An effective alternative strategy is to use Zoom’s breakout rooms for individuals and small groups. This virtual “push-in” support offers special needs children the extra instruction, encouragement, and support they need during tasks that would otherwise be unavailable to them in a larger setting.

Another option that has proven helpful for many students whose disabilities impede their attention or emotional self-regulation is to provide spaces online to refresh their stressed-out students’ brains and bring them back to a calm and regulated zone more conducive for learning. For example, a school psychologist in the Thriving School Psychologist community created a Bitmoji classroom full of online calming strategies for students who need a brain break, mindfulness activity, movement break, or self-regulation tool.

3. Team Collaboration

Because support for special needs children who are now online can be more disjointed and remote, it is vital to construct a reliable support team for them.

Individual teachers who are challenged in supporting special needs children in their classrooms would be well advised to consult with their special education team, including the school psychologist and counseling staff. All of them are wonderful resources who can share emerging best practices and help find innovative ways to ensure that kids feel connected, engaged, and supported.

Perhaps most important, though, is the necessity to connect with the parents! Research shows that children whose parents are involved in supporting their learning do better in school. That support becomes even more crucial when the learning is remote.

4. Resources

Software that can help teachers transition special needs students to online learning:

  1. Educating All Learners
  2. Seesaw
  3. Nearpod
  4. Educreations
  5. Flipgrid
  6. ReadTheory
  7. Khan Academy
  8. Edmodo
  9. Edpuzzle
  10. TEDEd

No Child will be Left Behind

We need to realize that this is the new normal for now. While we can’t eliminate the ocean of challenges to offer an ideal learning experience during the pandemic, we can find ways to ride out the waves together. The main thing is to remain dedicated and focused on providing the best educational experience possible for every student.