Teaching children at home is proving to be a struggle for nearly all involved during the coronavirus pandemic, but this new educational reality is extra tough on one particular population: students who require special education—and their parents.
These students’ needs are varied and more nuanced than those in traditional education, which can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and helpless. As Jackie Spinner wrote in the Washington Post:
I am really worried that my autistic son will lose—or fail to maintain—skills while he’s learning at home. It’s a concern for many parents of kids with diverse learning needs, for good reason.
There’s no manual for getting through this unprecedented time, but we’ve collected a few ways you can help teach your child with special needs—and hopefully maintain your own sanity.
Keep a schedule
Children require structure, and this is especially true of those with functional needs. That may mean being stern, says Suanne Nolan, a special education teacher at Harris Elementary School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“Most of the kids in my classroom thrive on structure,” she says. “They can’t verbalise that or tell you they like it, but change is hard for them. The more you can do to follow a schedule,” the better.
One way to help your students maintain a schedule is to keep it loose, says Adam O’Neill, a world history teacher at Manhattan High School in Kansas who teaches special education students. Don’t worry about reading from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and doing maths from 2 to 3 p.m. Instead, it’s about “reading in the morning” and “maths in the afternoon.”
Because many students with functional needs respond well to verbal cues, another special education teacher tells Edutopia that in addition to displaying a schedule board with images of activities, a ringing kitchen timer can remind students of the bell at school telling them it’s time to move to the next activity.
Use what you have at home
Nolan sends what she calls “daily extras” to families, which include an example schedule and activities that use items many have at home, such as edible playdough with powdered sugar or marshmallow slime.
Jamie Desrochers, the director of special education at Pennsylvania’s PA Distance Learning Charter School, suggested to NPR that instead of using blocks for counting, for example, parents can use pasta. In a lesson about surface area, students can count the number of tiles in the kitchen or how many steps it takes to cross a room. And they can learn maths concepts by measuring out recipe ingredients.
Tailor subjects to your child’s interests
Like any child, it’s easier for a student with functional needs to pay attention when the work is engaging. To make it engaging, Heather Haynes Smith, associate education professor at Trinity University in Texas, suggests adjusting lessons to your child’s interests.
One way Smith does this, she told the Washington Post, is by tailoring what she teaches to what her son is doing anyway. If he’s playing with trains, she’ll use a book or dry erase board to help him find words that rhyme with “train” or ask him to make up a story about trains.
Know where your child is academically
Parents of children with an IEP, or Individualised Education Program, are likely already familiar with their students’ goals and accommodations, but that doesn’t mean they know how to achieve those goals or implement those accommodations.
Karin Fisher, assistant professor of elementary and special education at Georgia Southern University, told the Washington Post that parents should simply reach out to their students’ teachers and ask. Nolan, the Fort Wayne special education teacher, says she is making it a point to answer parent questions, but knows it’s not easy for them. In some cases, parents are essential employees at restaurants or gas stations, and may not be around much to work with their kids. Others are working from home or have other children in general education who have a more concrete to-do list from their school.
“People have choices to make right now,” Nolan says. “It’s kind of ugly. I just want them to know I’m willing to help them if they want me to.”
Turn to teacher-approved resources
In a recent daily extra, Nolan included a link to a Storyline Online video of Chris Pine reading Clark the Shark, a book about consideration. Parents can follow up with examples of how to be considerate from the Be Kind People Project, then ask their children which of four examples illustrates consideration:
Moving your bag off a chair so someone can sit.
Not covering your sneeze while sitting with a friend on the bus.
Yelling for someone at the drinking fountain to hurry up.
Sharing the markers at your table.
The PA Distance Learning Charter School, which is entirely online, uses PresenceLearning to help with special education services that are traditionally delivered in-person, such as various forms of therapy, according to NPR.
Peoria Public Schools in Illinois also tweeted a list of YouTube channels shared by another school that include instruction categories like social/emotional, science, relaxing/calming and speech.
Thank you Glen Oak Community Learning Center for sharing these resources! pic.twitter.com/bPJfKTqp4U
— PSD150 (@PEORIA150) March 30, 2020
Be kind to yourself
What if you have a Zoom meeting at 10 a.m. that overlaps with your general education student’s remote history class, which is when your special education student wants to work on sensory play? And you only have one device? And neither of your kids can work independently, as in the case of Spinner, the Washington Post writer?
My kindergartner has a hard time staying on task, especially when he is required to write, which he doesn’t like to do. My autistic son has a dedicated aide at school, and while he is doing much better at working by himself, at least at home, he needs much more assistance than a typical second-grader.
At no other point in history could this problem even occur.
There’s an understanding that the learning is going to be at a minimum right now, says O’Neill, the world history teacher in Kansas. Mums and dads can’t provide a learning environment that’s as dynamic as the one in the classroom, and that’s ok.
“What’s probably hard for parents to understand right now is that instructional teaching is extremely well thought-out,” he says. “There’s a better awareness from teachers that it is difficult to meet students where they are. That takes some experience. That takes some effort. That takes some planning.”
This is a traumatic time, and the important thing, O’Neill says, is to be understanding.
“Parents have lost jobs or income,” he says. “They’re working from home. Schedules are turned upside down. Students are missing social interactions. They’re missing purpose and meaning from drama or art or sports or band. All those things students look forward to that are byproducts of how we educate, all those things are being taken away, as well. I think we all need to be careful that we understand what’s going on in everybody’s life.”