Get students with disabilities on board with new safety rules

Encouraging some students with special needs to social distance, wear a mask and wash their hands more frequently may be challenging for educators. Explicit instruction and praise may help.
By: | July 14, 2020
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on UnsplashPhoto by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Handwashing, social distancing, mask-wearing. With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, students who return to school buildings in the fall will encounter many new rules designed to protect them, as well as educators. Many students will be able to understand and comply with these practices and policies. For some students with disabilities, however, it may not be so easy.

Jessica Dirsmith, a clinical assistant professor at Duquesne University, says that as the new school year approaches, educators should be preparing schoolwide practices and language to ensure all kids are safe. Those practices should include explicitly teaching what being safe looks like in all environments at school and using praise to enforce safe behavior. In addition, school leaders should develop a common language for educators to use when talking about safety, to facilitate understanding, and to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Educators should also understand that a child with a disability, particularly a student with a condition that significantly impacts behavior or cognition, may have far more difficulty than his nondisabled peers learning, remembering, utilizing and generalizing the new behaviors. “These children will likely need more instruction, practice, and praise for exhibiting the valued behavior. They may also initially need additional methods or strategies for learning,” Dirsmith says.

To help students with disabilities comply with COVID-19-related safety practices, educators should consider the following actions.

1. Utilize social stories, visual cues and extra instruction.

One step educators can take is to provide students social stories on wearing masks, washing hands and staying six feet apart from friends. In addition, visual schedules can help students to know when and how to wash their hands. Educators can also offer students with disabilities additional instruction identifying valued safety behaviors and how to engage in them. “Pair this with practice and praise, and the students may be far more likely to follow the rules,” Dirsmith says.

2. Identify and address the factors behind a student’s noncompliance.

Some educators might be tempted to respond to a student’s repeated safety rule violations by referring the child for discipline. But Dirsmith points out that if a student with a disability isn’t complying, “it is very likely that the student does not know or understand the rules or that there is a barrier that is contributing to noncompliance.”

She analogizes the situation to traveling to another country where you don’t understand the language and unspoken cultural codes. “As educators, it is our job to teach the student the needed skill and to not assume that they will inherently or immediately understand the expectation.” For example, Dirsmith explains, if a student is required to wear a face covering but cannot tolerate the sensation, there may be strategies that can be utilized to reduce the sensory reaction. “We may need to consult with our multidisciplinary teams including our school psychologists, behavior specialists, occupational therapist, parents, and outside health providers in order to develop a plan to address that specific need,” she says.

3. Replace behaviors that impede compliance.

When a student’s disability-related behavior is a barrier to compliance with safety practices, Dirsmith suggests identifying and teaching replacement behaviors that may serve the same function. For instance, the situation where a student who, because she has difficulty sustaining attention, tends to get up for multiple bathroom breaks. Educators could replace the behavior with a strategic brief walk outside with a staff member or another opportunity that would allow the child a movement break.

Just explaining to students with disabilities the seriousness of COVID-19 may not be helpful and could generate anxiety. Perhaps the focus should be on the outcome rather than the understanding, Dirsmith says. “Many children (and adults) may know that brushing their teeth prevents dental disease. However, that knowledge may not translate to brushing teeth every night and morning. They may be more likely to brush when they are both taught, have procedures and routines in place for brushing, and are reinforced for doing so.”

In short, she suggests that, rather than highlighting the danger of the virus, educators should focus on helping students with disabilities—through instruction, structured procedures and positive reinforcement—to make safe behavioral choices.

Joseph L. Pfrommer, Esq., covers special education legal issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.