By Lisa M. Kiss, M.Ed., contributing author Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom: How Every Teacher Can Help Struggling Students Succeed (Revised & Updated 3rd Edition)
March 13, 2020, will be a date I remember for the rest of my life! It was the last day I taught in a classroom for the remainder of the 2019–2020 school year. Another date I will remember is March 25, 2020, because that is when I found out that I had two days to attend professional development sessions, develop a plan for my students, and be ready to start teaching online. My first thought was, “I teach students who struggle to learn in a structured classroom with me sitting beside them. How am I going to meet their unique needs virtually?”
I know that I am not in this situation alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all teachers to enter the online world to educate their students. I have been in education for 30 years—as a teacher of special education students in preschool through age 21 and as an administrator in special education—but I have never faced anything so unexpected and difficult as providing effective online instruction to kids who have difficulty learning.
With high anxiety and a great deal of determination, I took on the challenge. I learned a tremendous amount about providing education online in a short amount of time. My hope in this blog is to share with you what I have learned so that you can benefit from my experience. This is what teaching is all about!
Help Students and Families Set Up a Work Space
Students with learning difficulties need structure, visuals, manipulatives, interaction, and direct instruction to meet individual needs. One of the first steps I took was to help my students and their families set up a work area in their homes. I provided guidance about what this space should look like and the materials needed to make it a space that promotes engagement in learning. I also assisted families in setting up the various online platforms I am using with each student to support learning.
Tailor Tools, Times, and Methods to Maximize Engagement
I provide direct instruction using Zoom and support that with online learning tools that I tailor to meet my student’s needs. For this to be successful, you need to know your students well. You need to know what their academic levels are, what is going to make online learning difficult for them, and what their interests and their strengths are. This knowledge is key to planning an online program for them that will engage them and promote growth. For example, IXL is a great program, but I have a student who hates it, so that is not a good choice for him. My students love STEAM activities, and presenting these via Zoom is very motivating for them.
Engagement is key to online learning being successful. You need to know what is going to motivate your students to do schoolwork through the internet. This might require you to think outside the box since normal classroom rewards are not available. Talk with parents and students to determine the best time of day for doing online learning and the possible incentives that can motivate each student. Along with incentives, provide a “hook” that gets them excited to join the next learning session: “You don’t want to miss our 11:00 a.m. Zoom meeting today. I have a huge surprise!” Or “What do a soup can and a water bottle have in common? We’ll find out at our Hangout meeting tomorrow. Don’t miss it!”
To engage your students effectively, you need to have well-prepared plans that meet their individual needs. For example, if a student is in seventh grade and reading at a third-grade level, reading text aloud is a critical accommodation for learning to be successful. Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom by Susan Winebrenner and me contains a rubric to assist with evaluating the appropriateness of using an app with a student and a chart of various assistive technology resources to support student growth.
Get Creative with Resources
I researched many online educational resources to assist in making meaningful educational progress happen for my students while not in the classroom. I researched hundreds of sites—here are what I consider the best ones for making progress with your students who have difficulty learning.
Lisa M. Kiss, M.Ed., is the director of special education at Tulpehocken School District in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Previously, she taught in special education and gifted education for over 20 years. She has supervised numerous student teachers and has presented at several state conferences on the topics of cluster grouping and inclusion to help all students be successful. She lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
Lisa is a contributing author to Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom
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