During these uncertain times educators across the globe have developed new and creative ways to provide access to individualized instruction for students with extensive support needs through distance learning. The TASH Early Career Research Network reached out to teachers across the nation to inquire about their experiences supporting students and to share resources they found useful during this time along with successes and struggles attached to this new way of learning.
The most enjoyable aspects of distance learning and successes teachers are experiencing include building relationships with the families that has often led to a stronger educational community among teachers and families. Sean Phelan in Kansas said, the most enjoyable aspects of distance learning have been “help[ing] my seniors get ready for college in the fall… I have been able to help them practice time management skills and advocacy in a true College Boot Camp.” Sean also has implemented projects using Disney to create a theme park in which each family member takes part. Educators in Colorado teaching students with visual impairments expressed the joys of family involvement and seeing students in their home environment by using Zoom to meet with groups of students to provide a social environment which is greatly needed during this time, along with teamwork from staff. In addition to whole family support, Grace in Kansas stated, “I have enjoyed class meetings where students get to share their thoughts or respond to a question,” and Reagan Strange in Missouri stated that creating materials with a parent to target their students IEP goals at home, created a stronger school-family relationship which may not have occurred without distance learning.
While distance learning has led to success in building stronger relationships with families and innovative ways of teaching, some educators have faced challenges. Such challenges include insuring students with extensive support needs express themselves without their message being misinterpreted. Savannah in Colorado acknowledged how “parents are busy, and accessibility isn’t independent, so a lot of parent buy in is needed.” In addition, another educator in Colorado shared, “technology and resources are not [always] accessible to families.” There is also difficulty with contacting some families. Grace in Kansas expressed her concern for students she has not been able to contact, “I worry for their health and hope they have supports in place to weather this season.” Keeping families engaged is also a concern Cara Johnson in Colorado has as well. Special education teachers also expressed difficulty coordinating with general education teachers, who as Grace said, lack the “experience in modifying activities for students with extensive support needs… the student is often accidentally left out of general education activities because they are focused on simple activities they can do at home for health and wellbeing, not grade-level material that is harder for the student to engage in while in the home setting.”
Advice for Educators
Through the success and challenges shared by these educators and the many unheard stories from other educators, there is still hope. The talented educators who contributed their input for this blog were willing to share advice for educators supporting students with extensive support needs and provide resources which may help to facilitate distance learning. One teacher in Colorado stated, “this is new for all of us and everything will probably not go as planned. If it is not perfect and [you] are having a difficult time reaching out to families or students, that doesn’t mean you’re not putting forth the effort.” Overall, the educators suggested staying positive, doing what they can, and trying innovative practices. Lastly, Reagan in Missouri recommended taking it day by day, right now “it is about maintaining relationships with your students, relationships with your student’s families. Just supporting them in whatever way they may need… a little goes a long way and the relationship really does matter right now.”
Additionally, Kayla Tuton an Educational Consultant at the University of New Mexico Center for Developmental and Disability (UNM-CDD) stated that it may be important for teachers to provide parents with a means to support student behavior at home, “[positive reinforcement] is successful through distance learning when a teacher has already set up a strong instructional control (i.e., behavior management system in the classroom that can be adopted or modified online).
Resources for Educators
Reagan Strange discussed an IEP goal matrix that has helped her organize instruction and support families. She shared that it is, “a simple table…[with] the left column [stating the] IEP goal and the right [column with] a few simple activities of how [the family] can teach and practice these goals in a natural way and in their home on a daily basis”. A blank version of the IEP Activity Matrix and a completed sample matrix may be found at this Resource Padlet created by TASH member Dr. Amy Hanreddy under the “Progress Monitoring” column.
Educators like Cara Johnson, Savannah, and others are utilizing Zoom to meet with students and families to work on social skills, reading activities, and consultation with parents. Savannah also reported using “families and staff that are ready to support.”
Sean Phelan has created “choice boards” and Grace has utilized the Kansas City State Department of Education official website, Teachers-Pay-Teachers, district-created resources, and has held weekly video check-ins with other center based teachers to share ideas and ask questions”.
Kayla Tuton provided a list of resources as well including:
Seesaw and Flipgrid are geared towards students with disabilities in grades K-3, or based on teaching needs. Such websites provide quick videos and allow for interactive screen time.
Near Pod is geared towards general and special education students in grades 1-12 and can be used with students ranging from a beginning to advanced level of familiarity with technology and working online as well. Teachers can easily import previous or new classroom lessons; the program will allow the teacher to make an interactive lesson (questions, videos games for learning, etc.).
Screencastify is geared towards general and special education students in grades 1-12 and may be used with students ranging from beginning to advanced levels. Teachers can record their screen to teach students or families what to do with an online lesson or application. It will also walk families through every single step.
Padlet is geared towards general and special education students in grades K-12 and is used as a large posting page. Teachers can post videos or instructions, and parents can post a response to the assignment.
Jorden Morales is a TASH member and an advocate for her daughter with multiple disabilities. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico in special education with an interest in literacy, friendship, and peer support arrangements for students with complex support needs. Jorden has worked as an educator for ten years primarily in elementary inclusive classroom settings.