Creating Critical Thinkers Through Teaching Current Events

By Isaiah Moore

Creating Critical Thinkers Through Teaching Current Events

If I thought of my education as hours spent inside a classroom, it would go something like this: 8 hours, 180 days a year, for 18 years. I’m no math teacher, but my calculations put that at approximately 26,000 hours in a formal learning setting. With that amount of time spent on being educated, one would expect that I would have a wealth of knowledge on a plethora of topics; however, such is not the case. Out of this ocean of time, I can only remember three lessons.

The first was in first grade, when my teacher read an article about praying mantis harming local gardens with their eating habits. The next lesson occurred in tenth grade, when I participated in a “Philosophical Chairs” discussion centered around an Emerge article on Kemba Smith, the poster child against mandatory minimum drug sentences. And finally in my sophomore year of college, one of my professors gave us a scathing ESPN opinion article about Sean Taylor that we were to dissect for tone. That’s it! From all the hours of formal study, those are the only three lessons I remember.

I recall these not to criticize the education I received, but to pinpoint spots that made a difference for me. The educational opportunities that not only stand out, but made the most difference in retrospect were those that showed me the world and then challenged me to think about navigating it. This method of instruction taught me to read and think critically, collaborate with my peers, and use creativity to solve problems.

Now more than ever is the time where those skills are not to be abandoned, but expanded. So despite the provocation of our political arena, we must use media literacy to prepare students for the future. Here are some ways to make the challenge of using political editorials a little easier.


Lay Down Ground Rules

The world is a vast place, and when educators decide to bring different outlooks into the classroom, there is the potential for words and feelings to get lost. Rules are needed to limit the possibility of this happening. Though there are a number of regulations educators can give, especially considering the variance in class cultures nationwide, three are most important.

  1. Respect others and their opinions. I always remind my students that since no two individuals are alike, there are bound to be differing opinions between them. But regardless of differences, each person deserves respect.
  2. Keep in mind that the intent of this article and activity is for your educational growth. Everything in the classroom should be framed as an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it helps to remind students that hearing and seeing both sides of an argument makes one a critical thinker. The better the thinker, the higher the chance that they’ll be successful.
  3. Think, write, then speak OR not speak. By enacting this rule, we are forcing children to sift through their thoughts and feelings to decide if sharing is beneficial. This is a way to cultivate social and emotional learning while practicing self-monitoring.

Pick Topics You Are Knowledgeable About

This may seem like a no-brainer, but stick to topics that you know a great deal about. There are two reasons for this. First, in-depth knowledge of a subject allows you to share this deep understanding with students, further enriching their learning. This does not mean dumping everything you know on them; it simply means you can better differentiate the content for students. You’re able to decide what will pique each student’s interest.

The second reason to pick topics you are knowledgeable about is because it grants you the ability to anticipate student reactions. To illustrate, think about the hot-button issue of voting. Certainly teachers of all contents will introduce this topic at some point to help students become politically aware. Of course, a teacher could simply introduce the topic of voting and have students read about it, but if the teacher has a great deal of knowledge, they could talk about the differences between the electoral college and the popular vote. They could even prepare students for new knowledge by asking them to predict what happens in the case of a tie.

Once students respond, they’re more apt to pay attention to see if their answer is correct. Depending on the teacher’s knowledge and the state they live in, the teacher could also predict whether their state is a battleground. And if the state is split down party lines, the students will likely be split too. Now the teacher can anticipate and extinguish areas that may cause fiery conversation at the expense of learning.

Preface Polarizing Topics and Give Expectations

While everyone has differing opinions on different subjects, certain topics are more prone to rousing negative opinions or feelings. Because the use of such polarizing articles should be carefully thought out in advance, they should be presented to students ahead of time. Doing so allows them to decide how the topics presented will affect them, and it gives you a preliminary read on student perception around the topic.

I learned firsthand just how well this worked in one of my English classes three years ago. I taught a unit on the Holocaust and presented the books we would use. Immediately, I noticed a student’s eyes watering. After I approached her, she explained that she was Jewish and had not come to grips with the inhumane treatment during that time. Simply put, I constructed alternate lessons for her by reflecting on what skill was being taught first and foremost. With that in mind, I gave the student three other book options and news sources that were not as emotionally draining as original Holocaust books. They all had to do with the subject, but they allowed her to explore another sector of the conflict, such as the international relations or legal ramifications of the time period. Keeping the curriculum objective in mind, she and I tailored the class assignments to her specific articles. I kept her lesson content similar to other students’ so as not to alienate her from participation if she chose to participate. This saved me and the class from the potential commotion of an emotional outburst and, most importantly, saved the student from being hurt through an educational experience.

Pair Polarizing Articles with a Neutral Text Already Discussed

Current events articles are used to stimulate thought and conversation so that the knowledge can be applied to real-life situations. Sometimes students forget that, only noticing that they’ve traded their textbook for a newspaper clipping. To bridge the gap between real life and school, reintroduce a work you’ve already discussed. This subtle nod helps students realize that just as there was something to be learned in the previous lesson, there is something to be learned with the current event.

Connecting current events to other texts also may help defuse impassioned tempers when presented as the falling-action activity of a lesson. Examples include giving students the chance to work with the paired texts by comparing the authors’ purposes and styles or giving students an outlet for creativity by asking them to predict how a character from the neutral text would react to the current event discussed. Using the aforementioned example, pairing voting with George Orwell’s Animal Farm would be a perfect match.

Prepared but Not Planned

Of course, above is what the optimal lesson looks like, but you’re not an educator unless you know that the classroom can often be a haven of surprises. Here are some tips to help you handle unplanned discussions.

Stay Abreast of All Subjects

Keep a pulse on as much as you can; in other words, be as knowledgeable about world issues as you want your students to be.

Double Down on Environment of Respect

Once the impromptu conversation begins, it is your job to halt all conversation. Should you approve of the discussion, review norms already established earlier in the year. Peacekeeping norms and a positive classroom environment should have already been established. If not, you are responsible for shutting down the conversation.

Check Your Bias

To truly be a critical thinker, the type of thinker we expect students to be, educators must see both sides of issues. Remember, it is not your job to lead students to the answer in these instances, but to give them the tools to make educated decisions and come to their own discoveries. Know where you stand, then get out of your students’ way.

Be Okay with Tabling It

If all else fails, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know enough about this situation. Can we come back to it tomorrow?” Be aware enough to know what you do not know and open enough to pick conversations that expose you to new information. Just do not forget to come back to the conversation.

We must change our thinking: neglecting to expose children to political editorials limits their education. No matter how provocative they are, these issues can be used to teach lessons. Remember, these are the elements that govern our students’ lives; they should be afforded the knowledge and ability to participate in those arenas.

Isaiah MooreIsaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Mental Health Televisits for Children & Teens: Everything You Need to Know

Mental Health Televisits for Children & Teens: Everything You Need to Know

By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What’s the Big Deal About Addictions?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in the United States in mid-March, most therapists have stopped seeing patients in their offices. Insurance companies allowed therapists to switch to telehealth sessions to protect patients and therapists and prevent the spread of the virus. While video calls are the most common form of telehealth, phone sessions have also been allowed since not everyone has access to video chats. While some practices have started resuming in-person visits, not all have. If you are thinking of seeking mental health care via telehealth for your child, here are some things you need to know.


While there is not much research on the effectiveness of telehealth, some studies have shown that it has been comparable to in-office care. For some people, such as those with autism or social anxiety, they may actually be more comfortable speaking with a therapist from home than sitting face-to-face in the therapist’s office.

Teenagers have made the transition to telehealth sessions more easily than younger children have. They are quite comfortable with FaceTime and other methods of video chatting with their friends. It can be challenging to engage kids in telehealth visits, especially with younger kids. Most kids cannot stay engaged for 45-minute sessions. Including parents in video sessions, as well as other family members, can make it easier. This also allows parents to be a part of their child’s therapy. Parental involvement in children’s therapy enhances its effectiveness.

Insurance and Legal Issues

Many insurance companies were already authorizing telehealth sessions prior to the pandemic. Some required therapists to get special training to be certified to treat patients with telehealth. As a result of the pandemic, insurance companies have been more flexible, allowing all therapists to use telehealth to see patients. They have even authorized sessions by phone in cases where video sessions are not an option. Most likely, insurance companies will continue to allow telehealth sessions, but they are less likely to authorize phone sessions once the pandemic has eased. It is much harder for therapists to assess patients accurately over a phone call, especially if they have never met the person and particularly if safety issues such as addiction, self-injury, or suicidal thoughts are present.

In most cases, your therapist needs to be in the same state as you when conducting telehealth sessions. This makes it more difficult if you move or happen to live in a different state from where your therapist’s office is located, which is somewhat more common in urban areas such as Washington, D.C., where suburbs are in Virginia and Maryland and many people commute between locations. During the pandemic, some states are allowing therapists to practice across state lines temporarily. If this applies in your situation, be sure to ask your therapist about it.

Efforts are underway to allow practitioners to practice across state lines without having to be licensed in each jurisdiction. PsyPact is the organization that is assisting psychologists in achieving this goal. Social Work Practice Mobility is an organization for licensed clinical social workers. Similar organizations exist for physicians and licensed professional counselors. Many patients would benefit from being able to keep seeing their therapist via telehealth sessions after moving to a different state instead of starting with someone new.

Maintaining confidentiality and privacy can also pose challenges. HIPAA is the federal law that, among other things, protects patient privacy and requires therapists to take certain actions to do so. Normally, use of telehealth services require that communication be encrypted for security purposes. HIPAA-compliant platforms include Zoom for Healthcare, Doxy.Me, Thera-LINK, TheraNest, and GoToMeeting. This requirement has been relaxed during the pandemic. As a result, use of FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom to provide remote telehealth communications is allowed. Be sure to ask your child’s therapist if you have questions or concerns about confidentiality, insurance, or other issues related to telehealth.

Benefits of Telehealth

Telehealth platforms have some advantages over in-person sessions. Some families, parents and kids alike, find that it is less stressful to not have to worry about driving to the therapist’s office and being stuck in traffic. If you forget an appointment, being contacted by your therapist via video allows for the session to still occur and helps families avoid missed appointment fees. Many online platforms allow screen sharing and file sharing. This allows therapists to share resources, which can include handouts and videos that provide useful coping strategies.

Some platforms give therapists the option of texting patients prior to the start of a session. This serves as a reminder and can reduce the chances of missing a session. This can also allow teens more control over the session, which can be useful if they alternate between locations, such as when parents are divorced.

Video chats allow therapists to get to know a child’s environment more intimately than would otherwise be possible. Children can show therapists things at home that are important to them, such as pets, artwork, or Lego creations. Using a phone or laptop while laying on one’s bed can reduce defensiveness and make it easier for kids to talk freely.

Drawbacks of Telehealth

As noted above, privacy can be an issue during telehealth sessions. Even when parents set up video sessions for children, other family members may be listening in without the parent’s or child’s knowledge, or that of the therapist. Kids, and especially teens, may be much less comfortable sharing sensitive issues if they know a parent might be nearby listening in. The same may be true for parents—they may not know if children are listening in and may want to share information with the therapist that they don’t want children to hear. So be prepared to give your child some privacy when they are talking with the therapist. And be sure you are in a private space while talking. Some people have sessions while in public places, such as at the store. Therapists may be reluctant to hold sessions with you if you are not in a private place, since confidentiality can be compromised.

Some aspects of therapy cannot be matched online. It is harder for younger kids to stay engaged. Many are already burned out by participating in online schooling. A therapist may have a harder time picking up on more subtle signs that a child is uncomfortable or that show how anxious or depressed a child may be. Addressing suicidal thoughts is also more difficult. Since sessions can be held anywhere there is internet or phone service, it may be harder to utilize 911 services in the event of an emergency, such as intervening if a child is suicidal, if the therapist is unsure of where the child is. Finally, there is a closeness and connection that comes from being in the same room that is hard to match during video sessions.

Be Prepared Ahead of Time

Whatever platform your therapist is using for telehealth, be sure to test it well before the session. It is frustrating to spend the first five or ten minutes trying to connect. Also, consider the strength of your internet connection. If you are using a cell phone or tablet, the strength of your connection may differ if you are using wifi or your data connection. If you don’t have unlimited data on your cell phone plan, you may have to pay extra if you exceed your monthly limit.

Try to reduce background distractions. Check the lighting to make sure the therapist can see you. Too much light behind you makes it harder to be seen. Depending on the speed of your internet connections, it may help to close any other browsers on your computer if you are using a computer. You might also have trouble if too many people in your household are online at the same time.

Consider having paper and pencil handy before starting a session. Making a list of topics you’d like to address can make the session go easier. Parents can make some suggestions for children to talk about, though it’s important to give kids some decision-making ability in what they discuss, just as they would have in in-person sessions. Encourage your child to make a list of topics to discuss as well.

If you are meeting with the therapist with your child, ask your child where they may want to sit. Many seating arrangements can work for children. Children can sit next to you, on their bed, on your lap, or in their own chair. Larger rooms tend to work best with younger patients, so they can move around.

Making the Most of Telehealth Sessions

Most platforms have a chat function as part of a video call. Some kids enjoy using the chat function when communicating. Some therapists encourage drawing together. The therapist can draw in their office while children draw at home. This allows both to share their drawings and talk about them, much as would happen in the office. Providing your child with art supplies such as crayons, markers, or colored pencils can facilitate this sort of interaction. Remember that kids often feel more comfortable talking about difficult subjects when they can play while they talk.

Using screen sharing, therapists can share information, videos, or PowerPoint presentations during sessions. You can also encourage kids to share their own sites or videos. PBS Kids is a fun website that allows patients to play fun games. ABCya allows kids to develop their own games, such as a word search based on words the child picks. Toy Theater is another such resource. You might suggest these to your child’s therapist if they are unaware of these options. Be careful with this, however, since using such sites as part of a therapy session may be too distracting for some kids.

Encourage your child to introduce other family members or pets to the therapist. This can be an easy way for your child to feel more comfortable with video sessions and can give your child’s therapist insights into life in your household.

If you have board games at home, suggest that your child select a game to play with the therapist. Whoever is hosting the game (it can be the therapist or the child) can move the other person’s pieces based on the directions you give them. Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, and Connect 4 are some examples of easy games to play that don’t take a lot of time. Checkers and chess may be a little harder. Playing games while talking can make therapy easier for many kids.

Don’t expect that your child will stay engaged for the entire time. Kids may ask to use the restroom, get a snack, or show something to the therapist. Be patient; you may need to gently redirect them. Allowing kids to use fidgets during sessions can help.


Telehealth sessions have definite advantages and are likely here to stay for a while. While it may take some time to get used to this format, it allows children and teens to get help that they might not otherwise be able to obtain. Parents can also benefit by having more contact with their child’s therapist; this allows therapists to provide guidance on how to best help their children at home.

Other Resources

Here are some resources if you are interested in learning more about how telehealth works for mental health. Feel free to share them with your child’s therapist if you find something that interests you. This US Department of Health and Human Services website is devoted to educating consumers about telehealth services.

Connecting with Children and Adolescents Via Telehealth During COVID-19.” This article on the American Psychological Association website is directed at therapists but contains information that may be useful for parents as well.

Dr. James J. CristAuthor James Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at

Free Spirit books by James Crist:

What's the Big Deal About Addictions? Answers and Help for Teens by Dr. James J. CristSiblingsThe Survival Guide for Making and Being FriendsWhatToDoWhenYou'reScaredAndWorriedWhat to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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How Trauma Impacts Learning

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

How Trauma Impacts Learning

Traumatic experiences are all-consuming. When people experience trauma, their minds and bodies replay the emotions felt in that moment over and over again. All other processes fall to the wayside, and there is no space for restful sleep, organization, planning, foresight, and concentration.

As humans, we focus best when we feel assurance: assurance that things will work out, assurance that we will not regret our decisions, assurance that we are safe. When children experience a traumatic event, they are thrown out of balance and they are threatened by the absence of stability; the future’s unpredictability is scary. As their minds remain concentrated on heightened emotions, they are diverted from the content they should be learning in class.

There are so many ways that this loss of attention can affect a person’s daily living experience. Adults know how tough it is to experience something difficult over the weekend and then have to get up and be depended upon on Monday morning at work. With lack of sleep and emotional exhaustion, the workday will likely be a day to isolate from others and lay low. Burdened thoughts of whether things have changed during the day and obsessive checking for personal calls might make the day a wash and call for a half-day to try to work things through. When attention is elsewhere, productivity suffers.

For students, being in school is their job. When distressed, children will worry and obsess in a similar manner as adults. They feel side-tracked, they are worried, and they are trying to make sense of what happened. As they turn over their thoughts all day, they are not eating or sleeping and they avoid supportive people. These behaviors can then begin to cycle and snowball until the child feels completely out of sync with themself and the trauma response takes over.

Healing Qualities of a School

How do school staff help a student who is having a difficult time focusing in class as a result of their mind’s and heart’s trauma response? We cannot offer therapeutic services, make pain go away, or excuse daily requirements for academics. So, what can we do, and how do we fit this into our new worlds of in-person, blended, and virtual learning?

I believe that school can be a healing place. A school environment that is orderly, student-centered, and mindful of the benefits of social and emotional learning (SEL) can function as a restorative setting in addition to its normal scholastic operations. If intentionally practiced, implements in the school’s environment can safeguard students’ regulatory tools so that students are learning how best to control their emotions and responses without even realizing it.

During the traumatic COVID-19 pandemic, we are also taking on another new challenge: the mere physicality of students may be different from anything we are familiar with. It has certainly stretched me as I have worked on mapping out what scaffolding we can use in the brick-and-mortar school and what needs there are for the virtual-learning environment. The educational field is in a collective creative crunch to get our jobs done in this new world!

Some environmental and widespread strategies for trauma response just need to be tweaked, and others need to be replaced or begun anew. At the end of the day, I try to focus on providing students engagement and supportive SEL practices. If I can manifest a distinct and concrete focal point, I can then alter as needed for the various changes we have seen and will likely continue to experience.

Structure in the Chaos

Traumatic situations that students experience often make life seem scary, unpredictable, and chaotic. When the educational environment is well-structured, students will feel more secure to venture outside their thoughts with no surprises. If expectations and scheduling are as predictable as possible, consistency can be found throughout the hallways and classrooms. When environmental factors in schools are less chaotic, structures and plans are reiterated throughout the students’ interactions and students will likely feel more secure.


  • Ensure rules and expectations are posted in classrooms and are consistent in other classes.
  • Allow students, as a class or individually, to set mini-goals in the classroom instead of larger objectives so that they can feel they are on the right track.
  • Offer assurance by repeating daily schedules and plans to the class: at the beginning of the day, before moving to another task, and in a culminating daily review (even, or perhaps especially, if the students are with you for the whole day).


  • Use virtual platforms consistently between classrooms and have the same schoolwide setup for all classes and lessons.
  • Try to find ways to have mini one-on-one conferences with students for mini-goal-setting, such as using breakout features on your virtual learning platform or scheduling video minute meetings during asynchronous times.
  • Discuss daily virtual schedules with students, and allow them to talk about other classes to replicate the binding, fluid nature of the brick-and-mortar school day.

Opportunities for Control

A student who has experienced a trauma may feel the weight of the belief that had they been in control, the event may not have happened. Though untrue, this belief can create feelings of helplessness and cause students to grasp at elements in their lives that they can control. We know that negative and unhealthy methods of finding control may come in the form of eating disorders, substance use, and self-injurious behaviors. We can help by offering students small opportunities to control their days so that they can again feel agency and empowerment over their own lives.


  • Allow students to vote on brain breaks.
  • Assign students a portion of content and ask that they create assessments and projects.
  • Ask students if they would like some time to have an open conversation about a topic of their choice.


  • Use choice boards for assignments, with a few choices but not so many as to be overwhelming.
  • Have one-on-one meetings with students while they work on passion projects of their choosing.
  • Have students choose content to teach the class, and allow for a detailed lesson plan if the student does not prefer to present to the class.

Building the Social and Emotional Toolbox

Having students in a “learning environment” is important for raising healthy-minded students. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the ticket for helping students who have experienced trauma heal over time. SEL also teaches students how to be empowered by adversities they have been through instead of harvesting a victimhood that could immobilize their future happiness.


  • Have mindful-moment breaks in class for students to practice meditation and calming techniques.
  • Use specific and inspirational videos in your morning announcements to include positivity and confidence-building.
  • Point out positive peer interactions and celebrate them with students.


  • Assign students mindfulness and mediation practices for homework or asynchronous time, and ask that they submit journal entries about their experiences.
  • Provide easy-to-follow resources about strengthening inner compassion.
  • Take time is taken to learn names and acknowledge each student’s strengths and individual personality.

Trauma in the Lives of Students

Whether or not young people have any control over traumatic situations and problematic home and family circumstances, they will likely feel the pressure of these dilemmas on their shoulders. In their world, the death of a family member, the safety of a sibling, or the domestic violence they witness is their responsibility to remedy, even though their age dictates that they cannot (nor should they). They are in an impossible predicament.

By enveloping our young people in a daily environment that is predictable and that provides opportunities for them to be in control, we help our students find safe harbor. The supportive nature of this security can then help strengthen and sustain the SEL that counselors, teachers, and schools breathe into content lessons. With a little bit of planning (and maybe some freshly baked brownies for stakeholder buy-in!), schools can help ease the pain of students who have experienced trauma.


Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Meeting the Needs of Students with IEPs During the Coronavirus

By Benjamin Farrey-Latz, author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up

Meeting the Needs of Students with IEPs During the Coronavirus

Before last March, had you ever heard of Zoom? How about Seesaw or Google Classroom? We have all been introduced to so much new technology in the last several months. We are navigating this, and so are the children in our lives. Teachers and parents/guardians are trying to figure out the best ways to meet the needs of our children in the distance-learning environment. The amount of work and time that educators and families are putting into distance learning is above and beyond. For anyone who may be wondering, this is not an easy or a lower workload. Distance learning demands additional planning and creativity to meet all the students’ needs. This involves planning for synchronous learning (Google Meets, Zoom, Skype, etc.), and asynchronous learning (lessons for students to complete on their own time each day or week).

For children with special needs who have Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, and their teachers and families, there can be additional challenges:

  • How do parents/guardians and teachers help students be more independent in using technology?
  • How much support are families expected to give, or refrain from giving, their students in completing academic work?
  • How do we build social skills during a time of social distancing?
  • How do we ensure IEP goals are being addressed during distance learning?
  • What accommodations are necessary during this time?

There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but I will present a few suggestions.

Student Independence

How much support students will need is, of course, dependent on the nature of their disabilities. But as with anything that students are learning in the classroom, community, or home, we want them to do as much work on their own as possible. Some students can be taught to independently log in and navigate through the various online systems that their schools are using. In that case, you can recommend that an adult stand by to help when needed.

Other students will need a family adult to guide them through each step, but I still encourage parents/guardians to teach children to do some of the steps on their own. If students can’t learn their login and password, one idea is to teach them to memorize one or two characters at the beginning or end of the password. In this way, they still take part in the login process.

Academic Support

When students are completing assignments, teachers need to provide guidance on how much support they expect parents will be giving their children. Personally, I prefer that students do the academic work with parents guiding, but not giving all the answers. I want to know what the students can do. Here are a couple examples I may give parents:

  • Writing/Spelling: Help students sound out words, but do not tell them the exact spellings.
  • Math: For a computation problem, find objects to act as counters (such as crayons or pennies) or draw a picture to help visually represent the problem.

Social Skills

Group meetings via Zoom, Google Meets, or other platforms are used for learning social skills as well as academics. Participation from students with special needs is expected in these meetings. Students are learning the social rules of the meetings: take turns speaking, mute your microphone when it is not your turn to speak, keep your eyes on the iPad/computer, listen to teacher directions, and so on. Many of these social skills can be transferred back to the physical classroom when that day arrives.

IEP Goals

Teachers in most, if not all, cases will be writing an “addendum” to students’ current IEPs or a modified version of the IEP to explain what is being done to meet the students’ goals during distance learning. Parents may request a meeting to discuss how the IEP will be implemented during distance and hybrid learning.


Accommodations for students are followed as they would be in the classroom to the extent possible. If a student gets a reduced workload or extra time on assignments, they should still get these accommodations during distance learning. In addition, other potential accommodations could include adjusting the amount of time children are expected to be online. You will want to work in exercise, movement, and play breaks throughout the day. Some students may need an accommodation of extra one-to-one or small-group time with a teacher.

Now, before you get started, take a deep breath. It is a lot. Go easy on yourself and other adults and children. If you are not sure what to do in a given situation, ask a colleague or supervisor. Remember, this is new for everyone, and we all should be helping each other through this new way of learning.

Benjamin Farrey-Latz is a special education teacher (grades 3–5) in the Saint Paul School District. He has worked in education since 1996 in private, public, and charter schools as both a general and special education teacher. After working several years at the elementary level, Benjamin completed his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. His thesis focused on methods of teaching social skills to children with special needs.

I Can Learn Social Skills! Benjamin is the author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2019 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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The Importance of Asking About Pronouns

By Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie and Bubbie: A Book About People’s Pronouns

The Importance of Asking About Pronouns

As teachers, parents, and caregivers, we try our best to create environments that are inclusive and celebrate diversity. We know how important it is to read books that have strong messages of acceptance, respect, and empathy. We want the children in our lives to feel loved for who they are and celebrated for what makes them unique.

It can be easy to forget the role personal pronouns play in achieving that goal. We are accustomed to using the pronouns he and she, and we frequently assign gender without even giving it a second thought. How common is it to see an ant carrying food, for example, and say something to a child such as, “Look at that ant carrying that big leaf. Do you think he’s tired?”

The way English works, we often use the pronouns he and she. We’re modeling the process of assigning gender without actually knowing if the animal or person is male or female. By default, we are teaching children to exist within a binary, that there are only two choices: male or female. We’re also teaching them that it’s okay to assume someone’s gender and choose a pronoun for them based on our best guess.

Because there are so many people (including children) who don’t identify as male or female, and there are people who identify as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, it’s more important than ever to use the singular they as our default pronoun.

When Merriam-Webster chose the singular they as their 2019 Word of the Year, they recognized that the singular they is not only widely used, but a necessary component of clear communication that is inclusive and representative.

If we’re not certain of someone’s pronouns, we should use they. By using gender-neutral pronouns, we create truly inclusive environments where children have the space and freedom to be nonbinary, agender, gender nonconforming, gender fluid, and transgender.

Knowing that there are many children and adults who don’t use he or she as their pronouns means we can’t make assumptions based on someone’s appearance. It also means that we have to ask others what pronouns they use and teach our children how to ask others about pronouns too.

Here are a couple ways to ask for someone’s pronouns:

  • “Excuse me, what pronoun would you like me to use?”
  • Introducing yourself with your pronouns will set an example and make it easier for the other person to share their information with you. suggests saying something like, “My name is ___ and I go by _____ pronouns. How should I refer to you?”

Sometimes, we may use the wrong pronouns by mistake. If that happens, be sure to self-correct out loud so the person knows that you know and respect their pronouns.

Allowing children to feel respected and supported in sharing their pronouns is equally as important as ensuring that they and adults use the correct pronouns. We know that misusing pronouns is a form of bullying that commonly takes place and is rooted in gender stereotypes (for example, if a girl is not feminine enough, she may be referred to as he) and homophobia (calling a boy she). Children always look to adults to know what is tolerated and acceptable, so we have to be quick to address incorrect pronouns and any abuse linked to misusing pronouns that may take place.

In 2018, the University of Texas at Austin conducted a study that revealed using a transgender child’s chosen name decreased their symptoms of severe depression by 71 percent. Using the pronouns that someone deems correct for themself goes hand in hand with using their chosen name.

Since we can imagine the upset it would cause us if the people in our lives referred to us by the wrong pronouns, we can use empathy to understand how important it is to ask people for their pronouns and use the correct pronouns. This helps everyone feel respected and gives adults and children a sense of belonging.

Afsaneh MoradianAfsaneh Moradian has loved writing stories, poetry, and plays since childhood. After receiving her master’s in education, she took her love of writing into the classroom where she began teaching children how to channel their creativity. Her passion for teaching has lasted for over fifteen years. Afsaneh now guides students and teachers (and her young daughter) in the art of writing. She lives in New York City.

Free Spirit books by Afsaneh Moradian:
Jamie Is JamieJamie and Bubbie book cover

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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