4 top remote learning strategies for students with disabilities

School leaders this past year had a better eye on what all students were learning
By: | February 23, 2021

The rapid switch to remote learning last March due to COVID-19 came as a shock for all teachers, but especially for teachers of students with disabilities, said Shelia Banks, senior program specialist at the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

“They were unsure if they were making an impact, doing what’s best for kids,” Banks said. “Unsure how all of it would work.”

Teachers and other educators rose to the challenge in new and creative ways. Here are four of the best practices for teachers and students that Banks observed in the field over the past year. Some of these may work in your district if you are not already doing them.

1. Co-teaching

Engagement increased in classes where general education and special education teachers planned together and taught together, Banks said. “Those were really powerful lessons,” she said. “Engagement increased in class overall, [and] kids got excited.”

Planning the lessons together relieved the stress on special education teachers of only focusing on differentiated instruction. They also got the opportunity to leverage other strengths. For example, a special education teacher who used to teach English might plan part of the English lesson for the co-taught classroom.

“It stopped looking like the special education teacher was there to assist and felt like, ‘I’ve got two phenomenal teachers in this room,'” Banks said. Special education teachers still did modifications on work and provided accommodations, but the accommodations were more apt to support every student in the co-taught class, not just students with disabilities.

More from DA: 4 ways to maintain special education teachers’ morale during COVID

Another benefit of co-teaching remotely was that teachers felt more confident sending students to virtual breakout rooms because one of the teachers could go along and work closely with those students, Banks said.

“Co-teaching and co-planning piece really raised the level of these classrooms,” she said.

2. Involved leadership

School leaders this past year had a better eye on what all students were learning, Banks said.

“[It was a] wake up call for school leaders,” she said. “They observed teachers and focused more on the quality of work students were doing. They got more involved.” For example, some school leaders logged into Zoom planning meetings with teachers to offer suggestions.

“Leadership had to take reins in providing instruction for all learners,” Banks said. “It started at the top. If the leader had the mindset, it trickled down.” On the flip side, if the school leader wasn’t paying attention, a teacher might lower his own self expectations, thinking, “No one is watching me, I’ll do whatever,” she said.

“When the leader made [his] presence known, teachers stepped up,” Banks said. This led to higher quality lessons across the board.

3. Changing mindset

Many students lost weeks of educational time last year due to non-mandatory attendance, technological issues, and other byproducts of the pandemic and the resulting rapid shift to remote learning, Banks said. Adding that to the typical summer learning loss left teachers feeling like their students were far behind.

“A lot of people assumed, ‘These loses are so great, I have to attempt to fill this gap,'” Banks said. “That wasn’t the best approach. As teachers, we see a gap and want to stop and fill the gap.” But that’s like trying to take spoonfuls of dirt and throwing them into the Grand Canyon, she said.

More from DA: How to lessen trauma when students with disabilities change learning models

Instead of trying to fill gaps, this year slow down and provide more support for students with disabilities, Banks said.

For example, one principal Banks spoke with gave students with disabilities the same tasks as their typically developing peers but had them accomplish the tasks differently.

Teachers provided greater support as needed, whether by reading something with a student instead of having the student read it on his own or drawing pictures of concepts to help with understanding. “Kids participated more, seemed happier,” she said.

4. High expectations.

Finally, keeping the expectations for what students can learn reasonable, but high.

“I kind of cringed when I saw teachers teaching the previous grade level entirely instead of gauging what kids knew and where they could leverage strengths to approach the current grade level content,” Banks said.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for LRP Publications.