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