EdCuration Blog: Learning in Action

Supporting your Students with Special Needs through Structure, Sensory Supports and Frequent Check Ins

Apr 20, 2021 6:31:47 PM / by EdCuration Staff Writer

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Just weeks after the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Amy Neilson made the agonizing decision to pull her 5-year-old son with special needs out of his distance learning Kinder class.  After experiencing a series of regressions in her son’s behavior and well-being,  Neilson consulted with friends, family, and school staff before reaching a decision to withdraw her son from school.  The toll had just been too much.

Remote schooling has been a steep and challenging learning curve for many, but it has been an especially precarious season for students with special needs.  What have we learned so far and what can we do better?  Here are three non-negotiables, from experts working directly with special needs learners. 

1. Structure

Certain learners, including those with dyslexia, are more likely to have difficulty with sequencing, explains IDL, an online software that improves literacy ability for students with dyslexia or associated learning difficulties. This can create challenges when it comes to putting things in order, following a series of directives, or predicting next-steps in their learning day.  “As a result,” says IDL, “It’s important to have structure in lessons that gradually builds the learner’s knowledge and provides time for revision and to review what has been learned. Structure alleviates pressure on memory skills and develops automaticity and confidence.”

This same thought is echoed by Nora Flemming, for Edutopia. “Educators in our audience say that many students with special needs thrive within the structure of the school day.” And they worried that “students may be disproportionately impacted by the upheaval brought on by the coronavirus”.

We can take a few straightforward steps to help to establish and maintain structure in the learning day, like working to follow a consistent schedule.  Students with special needs are also likely to benefit from having their day “chunked out”, or broken into small, manageable segments (separated by brain breaks and physical stretching).  Using tactile cues for change, like hand signals or kitchen timers can also facilitate a sense of structure in the virtual or hybrid classroom.  

The National Center for Learning Disabilities adds one thing to the very top of this list: clear and specific instructions. “All students, especially those with disabilities, will need clear directions about your expectations for online learning. Be specific about how they need to engage with you and with peers, work alone or with parent oversight, and submit work. And offer different options for communicating with you when they’re struggling.”

2. Sensory supports

Many students with special needs rely upon sensory modifications and supports to make learning “stick”.  In fact, for many kids, multisensory learning isn’t just a nicety- it’s part of their legally binding IEP.  Embedding these supports doesn’t have to be time or money-intensive, but it does require that you get to know your student in order to determine what kinds of sensory modifications she/he/they might need. 

In some cases, teachers may partner with caretakers in the home to provide rice buckets, shaving cream, or play dough to practice skill sets. Or, the student may be pop with bubble wrap (mic off!) or employ a similar kinesthetic element to help center focus and engagement during virtual class hours.

Finally, it’s important that students, including those with special needs, have access to social-emotional toolsets (and explicit instruction in how to use them). Unfortunately, virtual and hybrid models provide more opportunities for students with special needs to feel frustrated or overwhelmed with the school day.  Having SEL resources available can help redirect attention back to the task at hand, minimizing lost learning time. Here’s a home-to-school resource that works great for this!

3. Frequent check-ins

Frequent check-in and formative assessments are central to serving special needs students in brick-and-mortar classrooms.  These practices are more challenging to implement in virtual and hybrid learning environments. There are many barriers at work here: distance, impaired relationship-building, and even the ability to read critical facial expressions and gestures.  Not to mention, the ever-elusive aspect of teacher time- time to plan, teach, differentiate… and keep up with IEPs. 

The writers of a special report from Azusa University point out: “With special education teachers spending more time on documentation and paperwork—creating materials for each student so they have what they need to learn and connecting with parents and caregivers who can help support their students—this new way of learning requires resources.” So, what resources can we call upon or build-out in our schools and districts?

Rebecca Branstetter, writing for Greater Good Magazine shares, “One of the strategies that came up over and over in my online communities was using individual and small-group breakout rooms on Zoom. This virtual “push-in” support can give children with special needs extra instruction, encouragement, and support during tasks that they may not be able to do in the large group or independently.”

Built-in progress monitoring tools, like that embedded into IDL Literacy’s platform, can also be beneficial.  They can ensure a level of consistency (and also take some of the weight of formative assessment off of the teacher).  Verbal check-ins and mental health check-ins (applications like PearDeck have pre-made slide decks just for this!) are also important.   

Keep in mind, too, that check-ins shouldn’t stop with just the students. “If you are an individual teacher who is struggling to support diverse learners in your classroom,” Branstetter recommends consulting "with your school psychologist, special education team, and counseling support staff. These team members are on the forefront of emerging best practices and can consult with you to come up with innovative ways to ensure that kids feel connected, engaged, and supported.”

And, of course, don’t forget the value of our biggest resource of all: parents. Connecting and checking in with students’ families is critically important in the context of distance and hybrid learning.  Remember,  caretakers in the home are not acting as the key supports during a child’s learning day.  

Creating strong partnerships with parents is essential. “Families will likely be reaching out to multiple individuals who provide educational and therapeutic services to their child,” the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) reminds us. The organization suggests “creating and sharing a plan to ensure ongoing communication, and determine who the point persons will be so expectations are met and messages from the school are consistent and clear.”

The last year’s shift to distance and hybrid learning brought upon unexpected challenges for many of us. It has certainly shaped a new normal for how students learn… and how teachers teach. 

As we continue to grow and refine our non-traditional school programming, it’s important to keep our students with special needs centered in conversations that affect their learning. “It’s the law,” the NCLD concludes. “And even (or perhaps especially) in times like these, we need to safeguard these students’ rights to a free and appropriate education”. 

Amy Nielson, reflecting on the incredible year (and the tough choices she was forced to make on her son’s behalf) says: “Pre-COVID, my son experienced great success in a wonderful ESE Pre-K program. He is an enthusiastic learner who thrives in an appropriate educational setting.”  

Perhaps we’ve learned enough to better serve students like Amy’s son as we move forward.  There’s a high likelihood that even after the dust of this pandemic era has settled, virtual and hybrid learning options will continue to be a part of the educational landscape. How we serve all students through these various windows of learning does matter. 


Topics: Literacy, Early Childhood Education, special education

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