By Andrew Hawk
Students who are identified as being eligible for special education services may exhibit challenges ranging from physical aggression to learning disabilities. Wherever students fit in the special education world, nearly all exceptionalities exhibit characteristics that can make teaching those students more exigent than teaching their same-age peers. Currently, you also have to factor the pandemic into most aspects of daily functioning. Buckle in, everyone—teaching the most vulnerable students just got a little bit harder. Here are some ideas teachers can try while they work to support special education students during the pandemic.
1. Shift Responsibility
One of the foundations of special education is offering students various supports to help them be successful. The problem is that even when this is performed correctly, there is a risk of students becoming too reliant on the supports. The ultimate goal of special education is for students to function as close to their same-age peers as possible. Therefore, most supports are put in place with the idea that someday they will be removed to allow for student independence. The COVID-19 shutdown that affected most states forced many students into a situation where they had to become independent learners. Now is the time to help promote special education student independence. This will have to be a gradual process of shifting responsibility back to the students. I recommend having students attempt some portion of their academic exercises independently.
2. Practice eLearning
Special education students will benefit from some direct instruction on the process of eLearning. A big part of eLearning is promoting student independence and instilling in students the confidence to complete work on their own.
3. Have a Distance Learning Plan
The state of Indiana has started requiring schools to include a distance learning plan in students’ Individual Learning Plans (IEPs). This is a good idea whether it is required in your state or not and it fits easily into the accommodations section of the IEP. Are students able to work online? If a student has a seizure disorder, they may not be able to look at a screen for an extended time. If a student is not able to type, can they have access to voice-to-text software? The hypotheticals are numerous as teachers explore the various challenges that special education students face. I recommend having a plan for each student and keeping the plans as simple as possible.
Do students need an accommodation related to masks? Some schools are requiring masks throughout the day. All the schools I have direct knowledge of are requiring students to wear masks on the bus. If students have challenges relating to sensory deprivation, this could be hard and even painful for them. Think this through and write an accommodation that will fit your student’s needs. Maybe a student needs an alternative type of mask, such as a face shield. Perhaps a student needs breaks built into their schedule where they can go to an area and not wear anything on their face for a few minutes. Whatever the case is, work with the case conference committee to meet the needs of the student.
5. Book Access
Academic support is vital during this time. One thing to consider is how special education students will access books at their reading levels if they do not have the option to go to the library or the school. Consider teaching students how to access websites that offer free reading materials. If this is not an option, explore ways reading materials can be sent home with students.
6. Homemade Manipulatives
No base ten blocks or geoboards at students’ homes? If students are learning from home, teachers have to rethink student access to math manipulatives. These academic supports are often vital to meeting the needs of special education students. Work with students to create a list of household items that can be utilized in place of math manipulatives.
7. Listening Comprehension
If you have a student who receives social skills instruction, listening comprehension is more important now than ever. If meeting in person, people’s faces will usually be covered by a mask hiding interpersonal cues that aide in the student’s comprehension of person-to-person interactions. I recommend incorporating some direct instruction on comprehending spoken messages and how to politely ask people to repeat or rephrase something.
8. Practice Health Procedures
Practicing proper health procedures has always been important, but with the pandemic, I place this practice into the social skills category. Keeping an appropriate distance, coughing into your elbow, washing your hands, and so on are all practices that help keep people healthy and put them at ease during this time. Special education teachers should consider adding these items to their social skills checklist.
9. Adjust Goals
During this time, it is important for teachers to be prepared to adjust students’ IEP goals to match the different types of instruction that teachers may need to implement. Even if your school is not learning from home, it is possible that any student or staff member may be asked to go into temporary quarantine as a result of contact tracing. For this reason, special education personnel need to adjust IEP goals to keep them applicable to multiple settings. This is especially true for students who have functional-based IEPs where goals are often written for a particular (usually school) setting.
10. Flexible Progress Monitoring
This brings us to our final point, which is also related to goals. As special education personnel create COVID-era IEPs, they need to ensure that the progress monitoring for the goals can be conducted from a distance should the need arise. Do you write academic goals that utilize school-based assessments? Consider how you will gather your data if your students have to be distance learners. Will you be able to observe assessments? If not, will you be able to trust assessment results? When I was a special education teacher, I wrote my reading comprehension goals stating that I would use the results of weekly comprehension tests from our weekly reading selection for progress monitoring. These goals were fine for years, but if I were a teacher now, I would consider having students read a book or passage independently and answer a series of questions. This way, I would be able to complete progress monitoring easily in online meetings.
Stay healthy, everyone!
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.
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