Mar 02 2021

CoSN2021: Tips to Support Students with Special Needs in Virtual Learning

Educators share the tools and techniques they’ve used to facilitate continued remote learning for students who require additional support.

Special-needs education has traditionally taken a predominantly student-to-teacher, face-to-face approach. But when K–12 schools switched to virtual formats last year, students with special needs had to rely more heavily on parents and teams to succeed.

“Continuity of learning for students with disabilities and support for their families and teachers are critical,” said Christy Carucci, director of special education in Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit 5, to a CoSN2021 audience attending a session titled “Continuity Planning for Special Needs Students in a Virtual World.” Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit 5 is a regional educational service agency that provides cost-effective programs and services to schools in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Carucci was joined in the Tuesday session by two other members of Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit 5: Vince Humes, director of innovative technology solutions, and Angela Halfast, a speech pathologist. Together, the trio invited guests from various special-needs disciplines to discuss how special education instructors can successfully educate students who need additional support.

How to Maintain Engagement for Special-Needs Students

Kellie Woodfield, who works with students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, said her students specifically struggled to understand that school was suddenly happening at home. Woodfield explained that parents didn’t have the tools to deal with the tantrumlike behavior that can occur when students with ASD become overwhelmed.

Because her students lack the ability to sit and watch long instructional videos, Woodfield created short lessons on a very specific schedule. Having the schedule, she explained, helped the students come prepared to learn.

She also limited the time her students with autism spectrum disorders spent on computers. “I know it sounds weird, because you’re doing virtual learning,” Woodfield said, “but I need to be able to limit the distractions.” Instead, she found that visual platforms like ReadWorks and Boom Cards worked well to keep students engaged while online.

Andrea Ireland took a similar approach with her developmentally delayed pre–K students. To keep their attention on virtual learning, Ireland created visual countdowns to the end of the day and arranged activities like at-home scavenger hunts to teach lessons.

Woodfield mentioned that being added as a co-teacher on her students’ Google Classrooms groups helped her to identify where they were missing work and to keep them on track in their classes.

DIVE DEEPER: Google for Education offers an effective hybrid-learning ecosystem.

How Educators Learned a New Way to Teach

Susan Newman teaches students who are deaf and hard of hearing, but she found that they weren’t the only ones who struggled with the switch to online learning.

“One of the challenges was that the districts were using a variety of different platforms for their remote learning, so I had to quickly bring myself up to speed,” she explained.

Newman taught herself how to navigate virtual learning by watching YouTube videos, taking classes and practicing new skills over and over again. “My students teased me and laughed at me in the beginning,” she said, “and then they encouraged me as I got better at the technology.”

Sharing her own professional development journey with her students allowed them to feel more confident on camera, Newman said. Although many of her students weren’t comfortable with remote learning and being on camera at first, she now feels that she’s had many successes and has gotten to know her students and their families better.

MORE ON EDTECH: Answers to the most-asked hybrid-learning questions.

Ireland also overcame the challenge of trying to teach virtually. “Effective lesson planning for any child really starts with getting to know that kid and their likes and dislikes,” she said.

With that in mind, Ireland brought herself up to speed on her students’ interests so that she could create lessons they would relate to. For instance, she spent time watching the show Ryan’s World, a program popular with her students. She then created lesson plans based on the activities in the show.

Lindsey Troyer, an emotional-support teacher in a residential facility classroom, hunted down online games to mimic the ones she previously played with students in the classroom. She plays Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! virtually with students to keep them engaged in learning and to make lessons fun.

“You can assign this individually, or you can do it virtually as a class,” Troyer said. “There’s many different ways that you can do this in order for everyone to be able to participate and engage in the classroom.”

EdTech is covering CoSN2021, so keep this page bookmarked for our ongoing coverage. Follow @EdTech_K12 on Twitter for live updates and join the conversation using #CoSN2021.

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