Supporting Learners with Significant Disabilities: Five Ideas for Virtual Education

By Dr. Paula Kluth, Educational Consultant

McGraw Hill
Apr 17, 2020 · 7 min read

In these uneasy times, everything about this new version of homeschooling or e-learning is new to us. Teachers are scrambling to figure out appropriate tools to use in virtual learning and testing out what type of instruction and assessments will work for their students. If learners in the classroom have support needs that are very complex or unique, however, the struggles go beyond issues of instruction and assessment. Try these tips to support students with complex support needs in the challenging days ahead.

If the student you teach needs a lot of support to complete tasks, engage with the material, or work independently, you need to first explore what resources the family has at this time. If there are adults in the home who can spend time engaging in schoolwork with the child, ask these individuals what kind of work they want to support. They may enjoy doing some reading with their child but feel overwhelmed if asked to conduct an entire comprehension mini-lesson. They may have time to “be the teacher” for twenty minutes each day, but not for five hours.

Another important topic of conversation will be what to “let go.” This is an enormous challenge for all families, but for those who may need to support their children with eating, personal care, and other daily tasks, asking them to teach/supervise formal learning may simply be too much.

Make it clear that it’s okay if packets are incomplete or assigned tasks are not even attempted. Let them know that you will follow their lead.

2) Get on the Phone

For many of our students, nothing will be more reassuring or helpful than a daily phone call or Skype session with a teacher, counselor, therapist, or social worker. This won’t be possible for every teacher and every student, of course, but it might be used in situations where the learner will have a hard time creating work/products independently or expressing themselves in writing. It will also be helpful for those with high anxiety and for individuals who are very dependent on routines and consistency.

Phone calls can be personalized for each student and they can go beyond a simple “check-in.” Consider creating a ritual with your call. For instance:

  • You might start with an exchange about how the student is feeling and then share a joke or even a short story.
  • You can follow that by talking about what the child is learning at home and ask what questions they have about any material that is being shared virtually.
  • You could even read or explain something new to the student that relates to the material.
  • Finally, you might end with a shared meditation or appreciation.

If you are working with students with more complex support needs, you will need to do more sharing, showing, and presenting as the learner may not be able to engage formally with the material or have a reliable way to communicate. You can show pictures, read, tell stories, and review any material that may have been explored at home.

You can adapt this recommendation if you only have a minute or two, of course, as even a quick conversation is sure to ease tension and keep students feeling more tightly tethered to school, to learning, and — most importantly — to their teachers.

Work with families to develop a daily routine that involves learning, but in ways that feel manageable to them. If it’s easier for families to keep a low-key routine all day that does not involve “school,” reassure them that there are many ways to learn and teach, if they are interested.

  • If the student has math goals, some of those might be met while preparing meals (e.g., “Put two cups of batter in the bowl”, “Stir this ten times”).
  • If the family is taking regular walks, they can teach the length of a mile.
  • If the student has reading goals, they might be asked to read to younger siblings (or a pet) for a certain time each day (even if that means they are the one responsible for turning an audio book on and off).
  • Watching movies can even help with learning targets. There are many popular films with science and history themes, for instance. Compile a list of suggestions for families so they can learn alongside their children.

So many paraprofessionals are feeling disconnected from work and from students and so many students are missing their team of educators. If you have paraprofessionals on your team and they are still working, consider involving them to support students. You might ask them to create videos of read-alouds (picture books for young students and novels for older kids), classroom songs, or short vocabulary or sight word review sessions (scripted and planned by teachers) to share with learners needing some reinforcement.

Having multiple team members creating these products can boost creativity and ensure that families will have what they need sooner rather than later.

Further, many of these tools will be helpful for teaching teams even when students return to school.

If it is challenging to directly support your students due to their attention spans or ability to connect virtually on any platform, you may want to use this time to create materials that will help families get through the days with as much success and as little stress as possible. Work with them to create:

  1. Visuals (e.g., first/then boards, schedules),
  2. Learning tools (e.g., graphic organizers, writing frames),
  3. Communication boards/systems (e.g., at-home choice arrays)
  4. Personal supports (e.g., social stories, power cards, checklists)

Other DIY teaching items that might be helpful for families include teacher-created books, flashcard sets, adapted games, and short e-tutorials. If students have special interests, you can even integrate them into these products. For instance, you might create a truck-themed alphabet book or frog-adorned task cards.

These tools are sure to be helpful to families looking for guidance and new ways to teach lessons and solve daily problems. The best part of creating new tools, however, is that many of them may still be useful once you head back to the classroom.

Not sure where to start your creative journey? Go online for inspiration. For instance, here is a board I have assembled on visual supports on Pinterest: You can find other ideas by searching across social media using terms such as #VisualSupports and #TeachingTools.

Dr. Paula Kluth is a consultant, author, advocate, and independent scholar who works with teachers and families to provide inclusive opportunities for students with disabilities and to create more responsive and engaging schooling experiences for all learners. Paula is a former special educator who has served as a classroom teacher and inclusion facilitator. Her professional interests include UDL, co-teaching, and inclusive schooling. She is the author or co-author of fourteen books on teaching diverse learners including “You’re Going to Love This Kid”: Teaching Students with Autism in Inclusive Classrooms; 30 Days to the Co-Taught Classroom; and Universal Design Daily.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.