5 ways to help students with disabilities who struggle with online learning

Interventions may include meeting with the student and parent, letting the student fidget, asking the student for help, offering incentives, and helping find an outside therapist if needed.

The change from learning in person to learning remotely has had an impact on all students, but that impact may be greater for students with disabilities.

Educators to consider taking the following steps if they notice a student struggling with remote instruction.

1. Meet with the student and parent. Ask the student what his biggest challenge is and where he’s getting stuck, says Christina Reese, a licensed clinical professional counselor who trains school therapists who work with students with mental health disorders in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Then together with the parents, try to problem-solve it.

2. Let the student fidget. Once you have identified the challenge, determine what supports the student might need to have around his device and make them available so he can access them, Reese says. For example, if the student is having a hard time sitting still, then let him doodle or play with kinetic sand while listening to the lesson.

“The educational environment is very flexible right now,” Reese adds. If you have a student with ADHD who needs to have a Tupperware container of Legos next to his device so he can build something mindlessly and occupy his hands while watching the lesson, let him, she says.

It’s a “silver lining” to online learning, Reese say. Allowing the student access to a container of interlocking blocks might not work in the classroom setting because all students would want them, but a student at home can use the support out of camera range where the others won’t see and get distracted. The key is that it may help the student focus better.

3. Invite the student to be a special helper. If a student is exhibiting challenging behavior or acting like a class clown to get extra attention, ask her to help you with something. This will look a little different for each teacher based upon how she is conducting her lessons online. One example might be having the student take class attendance. The student can look at the roster of who’s logged in and message the teacher about who is absent, she says.

Giving a student tasks or a leadership position will help the student feel connected, even over the screen.

4. Offer incentives. Help the student’s parent come up with an incentive plan at home, Reese says. An incentive doesn’t have to cost extra money. It can be adding in a fun activity to the day that the student will enjoy.

For example, the parent may set an incentive with the student that if he stays on track during the morning session of school, he can have a special snack at lunch or spend 10 minutes outside on the swing set in the backyard before it’s time to come back in for the afternoon session.

Therapists can also help brainstorm and set up incentives, Reese says.

5. Find a therapist. Refer the student to an agency in the community who can provide some support if the student is struggling with anxiety or stress related to the change in the learning environment, Reese suggests. Many agencies are currently accepting clients and are providing therapy via telehealth.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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