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How to Support Children with Special Needs During Distance Learning

By Stephanie Storlie, Integrated Special Education Program Manager of Instruction

We know that the needs of students in special education vary widely from child to child, which can make it difficult to know where to start. But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. At Rocketship Public Schools, our Integrated Special Education (ISE) specialists ensure that every child has a plan customized to their unique needs and goals. During distance learning, we’ve worked hard with families to ensure that the needs of all learners are met – particularly those with moderate to severe disabilities. So, we wanted to share our learnings with you, and offer some advice for teachers and parents who may need extra support during this time.

Compiling Advice from Personal Experience

During Distance Learning, Rocketeers in our ISE program receive Zoom check-ins multiple times per week from their specialist and related service providers to target their goals. For some kids, this means having a quick check-in about grade-level assignments and providing extra coaching or finishing up their classwork. Other students have video sessions where they do a range of activities such as label vocabulary and build language skills or have wellness check-ins with teachers.

Rocketship has created Distance Learning Packets specifically for our students in the ISE programs with more moderate to severe disabilities. These learning kits contain specific supplies like easy grip pencils and safety scissors, as well as many hands-on activities with enough content to keep students engaged for up to 2 or more weeks.

The teachers in our Specialized Inclusion Program (SIP) come together each week to share ideas and problem solve shared challenges. This space has allowed our teachers to better support all students and come together to innovate. So, below you’ll find our top tips for school administrators, teachers, and parents.

Advice for School Administrators

1. Provide Teachers (and families) with the space to innovate.
Families and teachers are both the experts on their kids, as well as their content. During this time, it’s helpful to allow teachers to do what they do best, teach. We provide frameworks and suggestions, but then we get out of the way and allow the teachers to talk to each other and to families to figure out what learning should look like for them.

2. Hold time and space for families to talk about what’s tough.
We know that Distance Learning is tough for every family, but raising a child with a disability presents unique challenges. It’s important to give families space to talk about what’s difficult. We’ve found that sometimes we can help families solve these challenges. Other times, we’re simply there to listen and tell them we know they’re doing the very best they can.

Advice to Special Education Teachers

1. Make continuity of care a top priority.
We’re living in a time of major transition and a lack of social connection. So, it’s incredibly important that your top priority is meeting the needs of students and their families. Ensure that any session, instructional group, or academic work has time for a check-in that allows students and families space to share how they’re doing.

2. Meet your students where they are.
Flexibility is the name of the game in distance learning. The “rules of school” are new. Allow your students (and yourself) to do your best in the moment. Remember that some days meeting students where they are means sticking to the session schedule you set out, but some days it means dancing to their favorite song on repeat.

3. Build your own community.
Supporting kids and families with disabilities is not an easy job, especially during this time. Build a community both personally and professionally to help you support families. Find a co-teacher who wants to join a check-in just to see one of your students smile. Ask a school leader to call a family you’ve been unable to reach, or find a friend who reminds you you’re doing the best you can.

Advice for Parents

1. Create structure.
Your child’s world has been turned upside down, and while structure is helpful for all children, it’s CRITICAL for most children with special needs.
Utilize visual schedules, first-then charts, or some way to communicate what a child’s day should look like.

Timers can be your best friend as you look to establish structure and routines because they give your child a warning when a transition is coming and can help remove the difficulty of stopping a preferred activity.

Here are some parent videos from STAR Autism for families about creating structure.

2. Follow your child’s lead.
As your child’s #1 advocate make sure that your plan works for them. You know their needs, their interests and what they can handle. Channel their interests and preferences into their day and their learning.

Give some grace to your child (and yourself) if they’re feeling overwhelmed. Learning new skills and maintaining skills is important, but reducing the stress and anxiety for your whole family is paramount. Be flexible!

3. Advocate for what works for you and your child.
We are all trying to make distance learning work and learning as we go. Teachers and service providers are doing the best they can, but don’t be afraid to ask for what you need! Is the afternoon a hard time for them to focus? Ask to schedule sessions in the morning. Is the classwork too difficult and creating behavior challenges? Ask for differentiated assignments.

Most teachers are happy to try something new or get creative and greatly appreciate when you communicate about what’s working and what’s not.

We hope this is helpful! Looking for more resources to support students with special needs? Check out our Distance Learning Launchpad.

Curious about Rocketship’s Integrated Special Education Program?  Hear what this parent has to say:

“At Rocketship Katelyn has a chance to participate like ‘normal kids’ in ‘general education.’ She gets to sing and dance with all her peers in the morning, not just with autistic kids. She gets a chance to learn what they learn. She gets a chance to eat lunch with them. She gets a chance to go on field trips with them. She gets a chance to go to science camp with them. She has multiple specialized teachers to help with all her needs. They all work together to re-enforce her learning. They come up with ideas on how to help her. If it doesn’t work, they would scrap it and try something else. The Specialized Inclusion Program here at Rocketship Mosaic is incredible!” – Mr. Doan, parent at Rocketship Mosaic Elementary

Published on May 8, 2020

Read more stories about: Distance Learning, Student Experience.