Many school districts are now using remote learning or hybrid models combining remote and in-person learning. This can be difficult for all students, but students who need additional supports often find it even more challenging. Families of students with disabilities may be struggling with distance learning and how their children can be fully included, even in a remote environment.
Instructional Supports in Remote Learning that Facilitate Inclusion
Department of Education Guidance: Guidance from the US Department of Education1 clarifies that, if a child is in an inclusive placement during in-person learning, they should still be in an inclusive placement during remote learning. School districts must ensure that Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) are followed and that each student receives a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). Each eligible student with a disability must be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP developed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), or a plan developed under Section 504. Further, COVID-19 has not changed a student’s right to services in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), even though it has changed how general education systems operate. School systems need to determine how they will maintain LRE for each student depending on the way that they deliver services to students without disabilities, which will look different from district to district.2 For this to happen, families and schools must communicate and work together to make sure appropriate services are provided.
Access to instruction: Students with disabilities must be able to have access to instruction that will enable them to receive FAPE. US ED guidance clarifies that schools and districts may use IDEA funds to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the equipment and connectivity they need to participate in their education. The district can conduct a needs assessment to determine the number of students that will require the district to provide devices and/or internet access in order to access remote education. It is important to consider the technological needs of all students, including those with learning disabilities, assistive technology needs, and language barriers. Some students require additional in-home services to access a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). These services may include but are not limited to nursing for students who are medically fragile or paraprofessionals (aides) for students who may have difficulty accessing the alternative options for learning being offered. Many districts contract these services out to private agencies.
Some of these agencies may say that they are not contracted to go into students’ homes, only school. Per IDEA, the district must provide the services listed in the IEP even if they must contract another agency to do so. For some students, assistive technology may allow them to access instruction. Families and other IEP team members must work together to decide which in-home services are appropriate. Finally, some families of medically complex children may request that no aides or nurses come into their home during COVID for health reasons. This is an IEP team decision, which includes the parents, so the family and school must work together to benefit the student.
Supports for Students with Learning Disabilities: There are many ways to provide supports for students with learning differences. FAPE needs to be determined on an individual basis. While the delivery of services in a certain way might work for one student, it might not work for others. Again, the parent and the district must work together. The team should come up with creative ways to educate the student. For example, American Sign Language interpreters or captioning provided for deaf and hard of hearing students may meet the student’s needs. The teacher can read aloud classroom material to make it accessible for a visually impaired student. Teachers can also provide more inclusive opportunities by taking advantage of group activities with peers and assigning roles. For students who have difficulty following directions, students can either ask the teacher to repeat (unmute or post in chat), or for pre-recorded videos rewind and playback. To facilitate access to instruction, many schools are providing devices such as Chromebooks, or tablets, and internet access or “hot spots”. Bookshare (www.bookshare.org/cms/#content) is free to students with visual impairments, dyslexia, or other print disabilities. Students can have online access to the school library database. Modification of the curriculum will allow students to complete assignments and projects at home. A one-to-one aide can assist in implementing many of these suggestions (For more information, see the video “Instructional Assistants in the Virtual Classroom” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1s1GVZBmvns&feature=youtu.be).
Adapting the IEP: As noted earlier, it is important for families to know that the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed the individual student’s right to receive FAPE in LRE under federal law. The Office of Special Education Programs has reminded state and local education agencies that no matter what primary instructional delivery approach is chosen, they and IEP teams remain responsible for ensuring that FAPE is provided to all children with disabilities. As a result, COVID-19 and health and safety concerns that come with it require school districts to determine how to maintain each individual student’s right to be educated in the least restrictive environment under the current circumstances.
Supports to Help All Students: We know that everyone does this to the best of their ability, but this is a new day and age due to COVID and we might not see how routine noises can be a major distraction for students. Parents working from home should be aware that their own phone conversations, zoom meetings, and email “ping” notifications could be distracting to students in hearing distance.
The following tips are best practices for remote learning and can be helpful for maximizing inclusion and participation in remote settings:
1. Eliminate distractions
The student should have a designated work area. The workspace should be uncluttered. If possible, have the workspace in a quieter part of the house. Make sure the student has all supplies on hand before the virtual class begins so there will not be any interruptions once class begins. If there is more than one child, stagger their schedules if possible. If possible, mute all phones, electronics etc.
2. “Chunk” the assignment
This is a teaching strategy the teacher could be using. The teacher will break the information down by topic or “chunks”. This is because some students learn better by learning information in steps, rather than all at once. The teacher can then review each section, before moving to the next one. Teachers will be doing this in accordance with the IEP. (For more information on “chunking” in remote learning, see 4 Tips For Content Chunking In e-Learning at https://elearningindustry.com/4-tips-for-content-chunking-in-e-learning.)
3. Frequent breaks
Some students may need more frequent breaks than others. If the student is in a virtual class, h/she could even just stand for a bit instead of sitting the entire time. Make sure students ask for breaks appropriately (type into the chat, or raise their hand) before they act out. Parents can reinforce breaks by praising when they “use their words”. Breaks between activities can be taking a short walk (even inside), getting a snack or drink, etc. Over time, students may be able to tolerate longer times learning online and need less breaks. Proactively giving students regular breaks avoids disruptive behaviors
4. Adjust length of time if needed
Some students may have difficulty attending for long periods of time. Students may benefit from working for various shorter periods of time with breaks, rather one long session. Again, students may be able to focus for longer periods of time once they get more used to the remote learning environment. A great tool is a visual timer (www.TimeTimer.com) that students can use to work on projects for a set period of time. Students should be reinforced for the amount of time they work, even if just 5 minutes. As students progress, the time can be increased. Parents and teachers can discuss this as a way to facilitate an inclusive placement for a student who has difficulty attending to virtual instruction for lengthy periods of time. If the student can set the timer, it gives them responsibility for ending their own break and removes the responsibility from the parent.
5. Change the schedule
Most students benefit from having a daily schedule so they know what to expect. If possible, have the child work on the most difficult subject first, so as the day goes on, they’ll be able to tackle easier subjects later even if they are tired. However, if a child does better in the afternoon, schedule difficult topics then rather than in the morning. Some students may benefit from visual schedules (color-coded) or checklists to organize their day. Again, if they can choose the colors it is great to have them take ownership in the process. For more information on setting up a schedule, see http://blog.parentsquare.com/covid-19-tips/tip-9-help-families-set-up-daily-schedules-for-remote-learning.
6. Give specific feedback
When feedback is given, the goal is for the student to use the feedback to improve themselves or improve the way they accomplish the task. That means effective feedback to students must be clear and specific. Feedback from teachers and families must also be given in a way (e.g., mode of communication) so that the student can understand. Instead of using the usual “good job”, it is more reinforcing to say “I like the way you… (had your book open, or lined up items to count etc.) For more information on feedback in remote learning, go to article on distance learning from the TIES Center at https://tinyurl.com/y53tb3mr
Related Services in a Remote Setting and Inclusion
Guidance on related services during COVID-19: IDEA ensures continuity of special education and related services to children with disabilities. If a school district is unable to provide related services as stated in the IEP, students may be entitled to compensatory services.3 Compensatory services can be provided as “make up” sessions for missed services not provided by the district in accordance with the IEP. Find a tracking form and sample compensatory services letters here https://spanadvocacy.org/covid-19-resource-page
What are Related Services?: Related services can include, but are not limited to, any of the following:
• speech-language pathology and audiology services
• interpreting services
• psychological services
• physical and occupational therapy
• recreation, including therapeutic recreation
• early identification and assessment of disabilities in children
• counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling
• orientation and mobility services
• medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes
• school health services and school nurse services
• social work services in schools
• parent counseling and training
Other lesser-known related services include sensory integration (SI) (provided by a specially certified Occupational Therapist), and social skills. Some students are sensory “seekers” (i.e. need stimulation like movement) while others may be sensory “avoiders” (e.g. loud noises, bright lights etc.) SI activities can start in preschool and continue as needed up to transition. SI can be provided virtually in the same manner as OT.
Note that mental health services, such as counseling and psychological services, are also included under the related services section of the IEP. The need for these services has increased due to the pandemic. Also, note that there are related services for parents.5 This means that services for parents can be written into the IEP as well. These could include education about the child’s diagnosis, learning to use the technology that children are using, or family counseling.
Remote Related Services: In providing related services remotely, the starting point is the IEP. Begin by reviewing goals and the student’s needs, taking into consideration the complexity of the needs and disability. As a team, ask “how can this student be included?” Families can work with the members of the IEP team to identify goals that can be addressed at home. The intervention must include a realistic implementation plan that takes the child’s environment and accommodations into consideration.6
How Related Services can be best provided remotely: Best practices for remote related services must:
• Address access: Beyond technology access, some students may need captioning/audio description, different color/contrast, etc.
• Orient students: Student orientation ensures that they have the tools and skills needed to participate in inclusive sessions.
• Have a routine: Students will follow the routine of entering the session, turning the camera on, and mute microphone.
• Set expectations: All students need to know what to expect in the session.
• Be consistent: Consistency in having the same day/time/length of sessions will help include all students.
• Encourage participation: Encourage participation by using tools like polls so everyone does the activity together.
• Use the child’s strengths: A reading strength could be hyperlexia and could benefit from oral/written prompts to enhance comprehension and communication with peers, thus enhancing inclusion.
• Embed into daily activities: Practice during routines (e.g., bedtime, grooming, bathing, dressing, etc.) Daily routines such as mealtime can be reinforcing: for speech, name things on the table; for OT, use utensils (or adapted utensils), etc.
Inclusive remote related services: Some tips for providing related services remotely to include children are:
• Students participate in a group, instead of alone.
• The therapist can list supplies needed beforehand and students with similar abilities can do a project together. Alternatively, teams could include students with a range of strengths and challenges.
• The speech therapist can do a breakout room during remote instruction.
• Therapists can create breakout room groups for OT/PT activities, which can be done together.
Mental Health: COVID and school closures have been traumatic for many students. Students’ lives have been disrupted and some have lost friends or family. Racial incidents, bullying, and suicides have all increased. There must be a focus on social/emotional learning for students. Remote social/emotional and mental health related services could be provided remotely. Some ideas could be:
• To move in-school counseling appointments online.
• Teachers can reach out to parents about detecting early warning signs.
• Encourage virtual social opportunities. Virtual social opportunities could include workout groups for sports teams, virtual debate teams, clubs, etc.
• Schools and families may turn to outside resources, like the Children’s System of Care in some states.
Behavioral Supports: PBIS and remote instruction: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) will help address challenging behaviors and facilitate inclusion. Some ways this can be accomplished successfully remotely include to:
• Maintain school-wide behavior expectations: All students will benefit from the consistent language of the school’s PBIS expectations or values across physical and online settings.
• Consider behavior expectations during common activities: Behaviors must be maintained for all remote activities whether they are teacher-led instruction, independent work, one-on-one work, or small group activities.
• Think about behavior expectations during remote learning: Students need to know if they are supposed to answer orally or mute, “raise hand” virtually, stay on camera, and use of the chat function. Given the challenging circumstances under which students are learning, avoid overly punitive or over-intrusive discipline rules/behavior expectations.
• Use direct instruction: For direct instruction, teachers must explain the information rather than just post which could leave some students out or feeling frustrated.
• Differentiate support: Just like an in-person class, behavioral supports must be individualized based on the needs of the student. Staying on camera, for example, may be distracting for a child, so that is something the IEP should discuss. A Positive Behavior Intervention (or Support) Plan can proactively avoid challenging behaviors.
What parents can do…: Finally, here are some tips for families to help students with remote related services:
• Reinforce what the related services providers are doing: If a child receives a related service, if it’s not reinforced until the next session, it’s like going to the gym once a week and expecting to get in shape.
• Advocate for parent training when needed: For example, nonverbal children may use ASL, communication devices, etc.-remember parent training can be included as a related service in the IEP.
• Make sure the child is included in the same activities as the rest of the group: Again, if the child is in an inclusive in-person environment, the same must hold true for remote learning.
• There are parent resources for fun speech/OT/PT activities: Examples of fun speech activities for parents to do with children can be found under Resources. There is also information for PT/OT resources as well.
COVID-19 has brought many challenges to schools and families. Parents and schools must partner to make sure that remote learning and related services are satisfactorily provided to include all students.
Remote Control : Promoting Inclusion While Engaged in Distance Learning
Supports to Help all Students
Educating All Learners
Resource Library Search Subject/Grade/Disability
Strategies for families to help with speech at home
American occupational therapy association
Using OT in home routines
Using IEP OT goals at home
Social Emotional Learning in Remote Environments
Fun Speech, OT, & PT Activities for Families
Remote Mental Health for Schools
Managing Behavior at Home
Tracking Behavior for Remote Instruction
Inclusion: Related Services in a Remote Setting: Video
Instructional Supports TO Facilitate Inclusion in Remote Learning: Video
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Debbie Esposito is the Co-Director of the START EPSD Project, Parent Group Specialist, and Literacy, Inclusion, and NJTSS Project Coordinator at SPAN. She currently serves on the State Special Education Advisory Council as a Governor appointee.
Lauren Agoratus, M.A. is the parent of a young adult with autism and medical complexity. She serves as the State Coordinator for Family Voices-NJ and as the central coordinator in her state’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center. FVNJ and F2FHIC are both housed at the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) at www.spanadvocacy.org
Read the article here.