4 ways to strengthen your online special education

Don’t forget accessibility and engagement when offering online specialized instruction. Here are ideas for boosting specialized instruction when it's delivered remotely.
By: | April 3, 2020
Image: gettyimages.com: damircudicImage: gettyimages.com: damircudic

You are responsible for delivering specialized instruction to students with disabilities despite the pandemic and national shift to remote learning, according to U.S. Department of Education guidance.

For example, if a student’s IEP requires 30 minutes of direct instruction in phonics each week, you may have to get creative in using videoconferencing software to offer the student phonics supports with videos and music, according to Kelly J. Grillo, a special education coordinator at Cooperative School Services in Rensselaer, Ind. And you will have to keep track of those minutes just as you would in the classroom.

You also must ensure students with disabilities stay engaged and on top of their learning despite a shift in instructional methods.

“When we are doing really well in online instruction, we’ll know because [students] are going to be engaged,” says Grillo. “We can take a look at the number of logins. The number of completed class assignments. The number of discussion posts. Teaching online gives you sensitive data. If you are hearing nothing from your [students] for three days, you’ve got to engage them. Making a personal connection usually will get your students more deeply connected with you.”

Using these ideas may also help you boost your online special ed:

1. Provide clear instructions.

As in the classroom, students with disabilities may need you to break up online instructions, Grillo explains. Share directions for an assignment in a clear, direct sequence of short sentences. Then follow a similar pattern each time so students have a sense of what to expect.

If students have visual impairments or specific learning disabilities, use an app that allows you to record your voice over the step-by-step instructions. Doing this may also help parents who struggle to read be more involved in their child’s learning. “If we make the assumption that we have to use tools to help support our students because they may be at home with parents who may not be accessing print, we may do a better job overall in supporting our students,” she says.

2. Start with what you have.

If you were using polling and other apps to promote student participation and learning in the traditional classroom, continue to use the same tools students are comfortable with as you teach online, Grillo says. “We don’t want to overwhelm our students and ourselves, so continue to weave those tools into your instruction that students are fluent in.” Through online platforms, such as TED-Ed, you can include your preferred tools in a lesson you teach.

3. Offer choices.

Look toward universal design for learning practices and offer students different ways to show what they know using high- and low-tech options, such as video recordings or journal entries, Grillo says. For example, if you’re reading a story as a class, and you want students to think critically about a character, ask them to describe what song or sound they think represents the character, Grillo says. They can answer in writing, speak about it, upload a music video, or share an audio clip.

“Choice boards” may also help engage students in learning. Divide up a page into boxes and place a different prompt for a different task in each box, such as, “Make a how-to video,” or, “Play an online math game.” Grade each task equally, regardless of whether one may be harder than another. “Even if you think that something’s more challenging, the student shouldn’t get more points,” says Grillo. “If the deal is to pick three things, they get three equal parts of that choice-board grade.”

4. Share content in multiple formats.

Don’t forget to use music, video, and other modes of teaching that engage all the senses, says Grillo. Also share graphic organizers, visual schedules, and other tools with parents and guide them through how to help their child use them. “You may need to walk parents through the different applications of our work,” she says.

Editor’s Note: Grillo spoke about this topic during a Council for Exceptional Children webinar.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for a DA sister publication.


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