How to help special needs students adjust to online learning

10 strategies for educators and parents to consider—including breaks
By: and | March 24, 2020
(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)
Oksana Hagerty is a learning specialist and the assistant director of the Center for Student Success​, and Nicki Nance is an associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

Oksana Hagerty (left) is a learning specialist and the assistant director of the Center for Student Success​, and Nicki Nance is an associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

With schools in 46 states now shuttering schools for extended periods because of the global coronavirus pandemic, public and private schools are turning to distance learning as plan B for educating some 52.6 million K-12 students. For most students, the switch can be disruptive. For the 2.24 million students receiving special education services for specific learning disabilities, the pivot can prove particularly jarring.

Learning how to learn in a new way is often more difficult for special needs students than the material they are trying to master. We offer these 10 tips for teachers and parents to help special needs students adjust:

  1. Maintain a healthy balance between consistency and flexibility. Establish times for work (for example, from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.), but give the student some freedom regarding what, in what order, or how to do that work.
  2. Be specific. Avoid directives such as “start on Page 5 and finish in the evening,” which can add anxiety to an already anxious situation. Instead, draft a straightforward to-do list and ask the student to check or cross off each item as they are completed. This provides a sense of accomplishment and progress.

    Read: How to help educators and students adapt (quickly) to online learning


  3. Press replay. It varies how much practice a student with learning differences needs to become knowledgeable and skillful. Learning may prove a rinse-and-repeat routine for them. Be prepared to repeat information several times if necessary. That goes for skills, too. You may need to demonstrate several times for the skill to take.

  4. Expect evaporation. Be prepared to see information or a skill fade after a few days. It is OK. Just remember to press replay.

    Assure students that most (maybe all) of their struggles are less related to learning differences and more related to the fast change everyone is facing.

  5. Take time for adventures. Parents can stage a wastebasket 3-point shootout or play a game of “Name that Tune.” For teens, channel your inner Captain Jack Sparrow and plan a treasure hunt. To the winner go the spoils of gummy worms (or their favorite treat).
  6. Establish rewards at short intervals. This can be praise, a treat or a break, or taking a selfie when completing certain tasks. (You can do it with or without arranging it with the student in advance.)
  7. Provide reassurance. Assure students that most (maybe all) of their struggles are less related to learning differences and more related to the fast change everyone is facing.


    Read: Updated: 41 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic


  8. Be transparent about your own struggles. Share your challenges. Empathize with: “I know this is hard. To be honest, all of us are struggling with how to get things done. It’s good we have each other to talk to about it.”

  9. Listen. Ask students for their ideas about what might make the work easier.
  10. Take breaks. Students need them to focus. And parents will need breaks to be there and be present for their children.

Oksana Hagerty is an educational and developmental psychologist, who serves as a learning specialist and the assistant director of the Center for Student Success​, and Nicki Nance is a licensed psychotherapist and an associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. Beacon College is a nonprofit liberal arts school and baccalaureate institution dedicated to educating primarily neurodivergent students with learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia and other learning differences.