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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 educators 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 and teachers.

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. Create structure where you can.
Consistency and routine can be helpful during uncertain times. Our Integrated Special Education team has created three student profiles with examples of varying needs. Each profile comes with a corresponding suggested distance learning schedule. You can use these as a model for your own students.

4. If virtual lessons aren’t effective, try creating leveled packets.
Distance learning can be difficult for students with special needs. With this in mind, we compiled leveled learning packets for our students with moderate to severe disabilities who aren’t able to participate in online lessons or programs as much as their peers. On our Distance Learning Launchpad, an educational resource hub created for families and teachers outside of Rocketship, you’ll find a Level 1 and Level 2 packet. These should give students enough material for two weeks. We hope you find them helpful!

5. 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.


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 a 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 December 4, 2020

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