The 4 Digital Learning Tips Every Special Education Teacher Needs to Know

After the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic went from a far-flung concern to an existential threat, the world awakened to a seemingly alternate universe.

According to the most recent data, 1.5 billion children around the world (87 percent of Earth’s student population) are affected by school closures. And according to a United Nations agency, 60 million teachers are home as well.

For the almost 7 million students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school districts across the United States seemingly overnight had to pivot to remote learning while also figuring out how to provide Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Some school districts that already had the infrastructure to provide remote learning options have settled into the new normal. Yet other districts admit that they weren’t prepared for large scale school closures, and needed time to set up learning management systems.

There is a good possibility that students with disabilities will be without direct instruction for weeks, if not months—and who knows how our educational landscape will change as a result of the fundamental change in instructional delivery.

In her article Teaching Exceptional Children, Special Education: Ready for Cyberspace?, Barbara Ludlow (University of West Virginia) argues that it was always a matter of when, not if, the move to digital learning was going to happen, and that special educators should therefore be focused on the “how” of providing specialized instruction.

What does digital learning look like for students with disabilities?

First, there is an important distinction between being in survival mode and authentically planning for digital learning. So while the first step in any instruction is planning, let’s all agree to give everyone involved a little grace for being thrust into a scenario few saw coming.

As schools move along the continuum of providing services in-person to providing services digitally, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) reminds us of the Endrew F. standard. Which is “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Along those lines, the CEC suggests eight best practices for special education teachers to deliver online instruction.

1. Engage your students with personality, passion, and enthusiasm

Find a way to reach out to your students, whether that is via Zoom, Facetime, a phone call, or a video message that you pre-record and send to families. When you see them during live online instruction, use all of your engagement tricks to keep them interested. If they are used to seeing you act like a goofball in the classroom, dust off that jester hat for online instruction.

2. Set clear expectations

Going over expectations is always a good idea when you have students in any learning environment. Online learning is no different.

3. Create a supportive learning environment

Think about how you would build positive rapport with students in your classroom typically. It can go beyond engaging students in conversation, by establishing regular check-in times or by having office hours. Any way that you can provide consistency for your students will be helpful.

4. Use a mix of learning tools that are readily available for better engagement

You have heard of YouTube and Khan Academy, but do you know about Brain Pop and Epic? Several online resources are ready to use “out of the box.” Also, depending on the status of school closures around the world, they may offer free access or trials.

5. Foster personal relationships with each student and have fun

Remote learning allows you to give dedicated one-on-one time to your students. Take this opportunity to provide each of your students with a reinforcement inventory to survey their interests and passions. This can help you determine how you can personalize lessons.

6. Use breakouts for individual and group projects

Did you know you can use breakout rooms in Zoom? An excellent application for group projects or breaking up a more extended class session.

7. Break learning into smaller chunks to establish a pattern of activity and due dates

Chunking is an established accommodation for many students with disabilities. It is not different when providing instruction online. Take the opportunity to break larger assignments into smaller sections so students can finish them either on their pace or on different days.

8. Provide prompt feedback

Most video conferencing software has engagement tools, like polling questions or chat. During group instruction, you can send specific messages to individual students. Also, with one on one instruction, you can provide specific verbal praise just like you were in the classroom.

What does co-teaching look like during remote learning?

Anne Beninghof, a special education consultant, has shared some excellent tips for co-teaching remotely, which include:

Planning time

Start by setting up a shared lesson-planning document. This plan can include specific information about what each teacher is doing during their time with your students. Decide who will lead the lesson, and include a column to record the accommodations and specialized instruction that will happen. Then, schedule time to go over the lessons with your co-teacher, just as if you were in the same school together (only on the phone, or video conference).

Record video lessons for a flipped classroom experience

Some students may enjoy watching you deliver a mini-lesson to introduce a topic or simply for skill review. What is great about recorded lessons is that the student can rewatch it, which is great for students who have working memory issues. Parents will also benefit from recorded lessons as a way to understand how to help their child.

Use hands-on activities and manipulatives

Typically, students with disabilities have access to manipulatives, such as connecting cubes for a math lesson. While they are at home, you can develop a list of alternative materials they might have access to at home like Lego bricks, plastic cups, or coins. This also applies to students who sort vocabulary on pre-printed cards. You can suggest that they write the words down on sticky notes or ripped paper, and then have them categorize the words on a tabletop. You can always create a materials list for the unit, so that the family is able to prepare the manipulatives beforehand.

How can parents support digital learning?

Prepare a schedule for your child

Brainstorm some ideas on projects that you could do as a family. Explain that the time away from school is not a vacation, and that learning will continue to happen. There are no shortage of examples of beautifully laid-out and color-coded charts for homeschooling schedules, but don’t be too hard on yourselfThe most important thing to remember is to be intentional as much as you can. It is easy to devolve into Netflix and chill.

Maintain school bedtimes

Sure, staying up a little bit later and sleeping in is fine, but maintaining your routine is essential. Again, this is not a vacation, and it would be a mistake to treat it as such.

Reach out to your child’s teacher

Chances are, your child’s teacher will be sending home or making digital materials and curriculum available to you. If not, a great resource is your local library (they often have digital learning options).

Plan some special activities

Planning engaging activities is tremendous for learning—and incorporating a child’s interests into the curriculum helps with the excitement for learning the content. What are your child’s unique passions? Do they love the Titanic? Perhaps try building a model from cardboard, or looking up informational videos on YouTube or PBS.

What if a student needs a modified curriculum?

The most important thing you need to know about modifying any curriculum is that any standard for any grade can be modified by taking just one part of it and making it accessible to your student.

For example, if your child is in fourth grade and they are working on one-digit multiplication, but they don’t have it quite yet, try using a multiplication chart or calculator. You can always look at your child’s accommodations in their Individualized Education Program to see how their teacher would help them access that standard or skill.

For reading, try looking up adapted book resources from Tar Heel Reader or the Paul V. Sherlock Center.

The most crucial thing is access. Whether that is physical textbooks, worksheets, online curriculum, or consulting with a teacher on the phone or video conference, we must do our best to provide access to what students should be learning.