Special Needs and Online Learning: What Will Every Teacher Need to Rapidly Learn?

Special / March 29, 2020

— Jon Harper —

With schools being shut down all around the world, teachers are finding it difficult to provide instruction for their students. Now, while I know for a fact that meals are being delivered and online instruction and resources are available to some, I can’t help but wonder how we’re going to meet the needs of our students that require special education services, and many require assistive technology. Today on Teacher’s Aid, I’m being joined by Joyce Pemberton, a special needs teacher working in New York City; Terasai Harris, a special needs counselor working in New York City; and Dr. Chris Swanson, the director of the Ideals Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

John Harper:

First question, Joyce, should teachers be worried about the needs of their special needs students being met while being away from school for so long?

Joyce Pemberton:

Absolutely, yes. When I think about some of the needs that they’re not being given, which is OT, PT, speech counseling. It cannot be addressed via a computer. So what’s going to happen to them? I think it’s going to set them back. Also, you have kids that are autistic, for example, and they’re used to routines. Those routines no longer exist. So they’re going to run into quite a bit of problems with their parents. If they’re not educated as to how to educate their child, there’s going to be a problem there because these children need one-on-one, many of them need one-on-one, and if they don’t have that, there’s no way they’re going to sit down there and be on task and do what they need to do to complete work given.

John Harper:

Right. Joyce, you made a great point there, especially with the routines. I mean, I watch my own kids with teachers, with their teachers, and the things that their teachers are able to get them to do that I can’t are absolutely amazing. So Chris, what are your thoughts on this? I mean, should we be worried?

Chris Swanson:

Well, I think that Joyce brings up several good points in terms of the disruption to the routine and what is the optimal point of instructional delivery? But there is precedent for being able to do virtual instruction for a whole variety of populations of students. National models like Connections Academy in the K-12 Virtual Schools explicitly have special education programs, as well as many districts having home and hospital offerings that are done remotely. So there is a model out there.

That said, the things that I am the most concerned about, it is the disruption of routine as you both have alluded to, also it’s the risk of social isolation. For students who have diverse learning, having peer models is tremendously beneficial to them, and obviously as we are all practicing social distancing, we’re losing that type of not only modeling but just human connection.

John Harper:

No, that’s a great point. And I just wanted to check in, Terasai, I think you have a unique vantage point on this.

Terasai Harris:

I would say to be very concerned, be very concerned because a lot of the students with special needs, of course, we know that they learn differently, and many of them may have challenges learning remotely. A lot of them thrive with hands-on learning. A lot of them are kinesthetic learners where they have to move, and I’m not sure that those needs can be met virtually.

John Harper:

And I guess my next question then, my follow up, Joyce, this is to you, do you think teachers should reach out to parents of special needs students? Maybe just to check in or for just reassurance? I mean would that be appropriate? What do you think?

Joyce Pemberton:

Absolutely. I think they need to reach out, and I think they need to keep in contact with them, and they need to be calling them on a daily basis, to find out how the kids are doing with whatever work they’ve given them, because if they’re having difficulties at home, they may have to re-modify the work that’s being provided for them. Or if they’re having some problems, maybe they can give them some other sources of information, some other sources of programs, websites that they could use, that would address what their issues are. Because if they’re not used to teaching online, we’re kind of striking with our eyes closed, so we don’t know what really will work, so we need to keep abreast of what’s going on with each of our students.

Terasai Harris:

Okay. I was also going to add that I’m going to a kind of interesting situation here because I have a special needs son of my own, and I’m maneuvering the virtual learning with him, and my son has autism, so he’s a special education student. He’s in District 75. He has an IEP. After Friday, he was done with this, so he woke up Monday morning, telling me he wanted to go to school because of course his routine allows him to go to school every day, has the perfect attendance, he goes to school every day and the fact that he couldn’t go caused problems. He began to perseverate on going to school, meaning he said, “I want to go to school.” He must’ve said it like 25 times.

Joyce Pemberton:

Right.

Terasai Harris:

Within like a five-minute span. So that shows that he’s having difficulty, that shows that his internal clock is messed up, and he’s kind of aggravated or agitated. So that’s one way that it affected him. Another way that’s a little more practical will probably have you to look at him going online. Now he’s used to having his teacher at his fingertips. He has a one to one… that is not being provided while he’s off from school. He also has ABA at the house, that’s not being provided while he’s not at school. But he has a wonderful teacher who’s gotten online and set up the Google Classroom situation for me to log on … on a daily basis and work with him.

Terasai Harris:

But what I’m finding when I’m logging on, is he’s unfamiliar with it, he doesn’t know anything about it. So the first time he’s seeing it is with me, his mom, he’s never seen it with his teacher before. So not only has his schedule been interrupted, he’s being taught using a new methodology, which he’s unfamiliar with. You understand what I’m saying?

John Harper:

Right, and that’s got to be tough for him.

Terasai Harris:

He’s more hands-on learning.

John Harper:

And it probably took him a couple months just to build the relationship with his teacher. And now he still has a relationship with the teacher, but he’s got to change it with new technology and new tools.

Terasai Harris:

Right. And many of those children with IEPs, many of the special education students, I’m not even sure that they understand that. That his teacher is still there because he hasn’t really seen his teacher yet, we haven’t logged on to see him; he’s just given assignments, and we’re writing back and forth. So I’m like emailing.

John Harper:

That’s a great point. And it makes me think sometimes maybe even just once the teacher reaches out to the parent, maybe even passing the phone over to the child just to hear their teacher’s voice. I mean it made me think of that when I heard Terasai say that, you know, her son wakes up and is disappointed that he has school. It’s interesting because a lot of kids, in all honesty, are happy when they don’t. But you know, a lot of kids, there are some kids that aren’t, and they really love school, and they love that routine, which we’ve been talking about. And that’s so important, like you said, to the wellness of the child.

Chris Swanson:

No, I think that it behooves all for us to have a strong teacher to child connection point. One, that’s the consistency that Joyce has mentioned, and Terasai referred to as a parent of a child on the spectrum. It is really critical for us to have these wellness checks, to make sure that not only are our students and their families not ill from the COVID virus itself, but we have to remember, schools serve a huge social function for many kids, from food insecurity to safety. Having that trusted adult on top of that, having the teacher be able to impart resources, and share instructional materials, and have other places to try to maintain the continuity of instruction is going to be critical to prevent any type of slide in that child’s progress.

John Harper:

Okay, so that leads me to my next question then. Chris, I’m going to start with you on this one. What is one thing teachers can do during these uncertain times to help their special needs students? What’s something a teacher can do, because teachers  [are] helpless during these times, just almost as much as parents and kids do. What could a teacher do?

Chris Swanson:

That’s a great question, John. If I could pick only one strategy, one thing that would have the biggest impact right now, I would say it is for the teacher to take advantage of any number of free online virtual meeting software – things like Zoom, Adobe Connect, etc., and set up a time through the parents to have a regular touchpoint. The kids can just come in, a modified circle time, read aloud. If students are verbal and or have access to a microphone, allow them to be able to express themselves.

Terasai Harris:

I can answer that in a two-pronged approach if I can?

Because I thought about that specifically, yesterday. In the midst of all this, I’m thinking, “Now, this teacher is actually sending these emails to me. He’s texting me.” And I was thinking, he did it up last night up until about 11:00, I said, “Is he resting?”

John Harper:

Oh, gosh, yeah.

Terasai Harris:

You have eight kids with eight different needs. And I said, “Is he resting?” So the first thing a teacher could do is take care of him or herself, to make sure that you’re healthy, that you’re eating right, that you’re staying away from exposure to the virus, that you’re exercising if that’s what needs to make you healthy. You need to be home for the kids, because I thought about it, I said, “He’s still texting, he’s still emailing. I know what he’s trying to do. I know he cares about his kids, but how is he doing?”

Terasai Harris:

So taking care of your own personal health, and your own personal wellbeing, first and foremost. The second thing would probably be to have like support from administration and to provide ongoing training. I don’t know how that can be done because we can’t go out of the house, but maybe provide ongoing virtual training for those teachers who are really unfamiliar with the technology, and unfamiliar with how to communicate lessons via virtual reality, because many of us are not experienced in that realm. You understand what I mean? In fact, my son’s teacher was saying that this is the first time, he’s never used this program before, so he’s had to learn it, get the information, disseminate it to the students, all like in one shot. And it was all in an emergency situation, in a crisis. So, provide teachers with more learning opportunities so they could better support their students.

John Harper:

Well, I got to thank you. Joyce, Terasai and Chris, I was worried about how we were going to reach and meet the needs of our special needs students, and I still am, but I’m going to be honest, I feel a lot better given some of the answers and given some of the resources that you provided for us today. So thank you so much for joining us here on Teachers’ Aid.

 

Listen to the episode

 






Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.




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