Virtual learning offers clear student achievement benefits for students with special needs; however, we also know educators face unique challenges trying to engage these students through remote instruction. Let’s consider how principals and other school leaders can support students with IEPs in virtual learning.
Why do many students with IEPs struggle with virtual learning?
When the pandemic forced schools to close, school leaders quickly realized the challenges teachers face in virtual learning with students with IEPs. EdWeek explains:
“Under federal law, these students are eligible for special education services designed to help them succeed in school. But those services are not always easily transferable to distance learning…”
Some of the major challenges teaching special education students in a virtual environment include:
- Online-only communications — Many students with special needs already struggle with communication in an in-person environment. They may not be able to pick up on nonverbal social cues, or have trouble converting their thoughts into verbal or written language. The physical distance associated with virtual communications adds another layer of difficulty.
- English language barriers — In 2017, 10.1% of US public school students were English language learners (ELLs). Teachers must take the extra step of ensuring their virtual lessons support English language learning, and are accessible to students who are not yet proficient in English. Other students with IEPs who can speak English may live with non-English speaking families. In virtual learning, teachers rely on partnerships with family members who act as their eyes and ears on students at home; it can be difficult to build partnerships with caregivers who speak a language the teacher cannot speak.
- Accessibility limitations — Special education students often need accommodations to make learning materials accessible for them. For example, some students may be visually impaired and need auditory learning options. Teachers must consider their students’ individual accessibility needs as they design virtual lessons.
- Less structure — Edutopia points out that “[u]pending a regular routine can be especially upsetting for students with special needs” who rely on outside structure to help regulate their emotions. When students with IEPs complete virtual learning from home, they may feel uncomfortable with a less structured learning environment than they enjoy at school.
Fortunately, there are some practical action steps principals and other school leaders can take to meet students’ special needs through virtual learning.
1. Help teachers develop a communication plan with parents and caregivers.
In remote learning, parents and other caregivers are vital partners in students’ success — especially for students with IEPs. Teachers rely on caregivers to help them understand students’ individual communication needs to support student progress through the virtual curriculum. Additionally, teachers need caregivers’ help keeping students on track with their learning activities and goals.
Principals can support teachers of special education students by providing a framework to create communication plans with each family. Start by recommending questions teachers should ask caregivers to inform their communication plans.
Teachers may need to ask questions like:
- What times of day will you be available to help your student with their virtual learning? What times are most convenient for me to reach out to you? Which communication channels do you prefer (e.g., phone call, email, etc.)?
- What electronic devices are available to your student at home? During which times of day does your student have access to these devices?
- Does your home have a space for your student to engage in sensory-friendly activities when they need breaks from a virtual environment?
Additionally, set expectations for how often teachers should reach out to caregivers. Keep in mind that some caregivers may feel uncomfortable starting a conversation or advocating for their students’ learning.
Does your school serve ELLs and students from non-English speaking families? Work with your district, local nonprofit agencies, and other community organizations to provide translators and interpreters for teachers who work with these students. Provide guidance about how and when teachers should work with translators and interpreters.
2. Train teachers to make learning materials accessible for all students.
Teachers who are new to remote learning may not have experience creating virtual lesson plans that are accessible for all students. Most virtual learning platforms offer a plethora of accessibility options. Make sure you allocate time for teachers to complete trainings with your virtual learning providers to learn how to use these features.
Also, ensure your teachers know how to access the additional supports your school or district offers to students with IEPs. For example, teachers may be able to work with behavioral specialists or other support professionals to promote better learning.
Learn more about creating an equitable, inclusive environment for students in virtual learning.
3. Become familiar with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.
The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is an evidence-based approach to developing a learning environment that supports all students, and especially students with different abilities and special needs. The UDL creators explain that the UDL guidelines “offer a set of concrete suggestions…to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.”
Essentially, the UDL framework helps schools, districts, and even individual teachers focus on students as individuals to differentiate and personalize their learning. In UDL, there are three main areas of focus that promote student achievement:
- Engagement — Lessons should recruit interest by giving students choice and autonomy to direct their own learning. Teachers should help students set their own learning goals, and then provide feedback and other support to help them achieve those goals. Also, teachers should help students learn and use methods of self regulation.
- Representation — Every lesson should offer different options (such as visual and auditory options) for students to consume the information. Teachers must use clear language to help students absorb the information and put it into practice. Finally, teachers should guide students through their comprehension of new material.
- Action & Expression — Students should have the opportunity to practice using different methods, tools, and media to respond to what they’ve learned. The school and teachers should provide “graduated levels of support for practice and performance” to support students at each stage of their learning journey.
Many schools and districts purchase a pre-made virtual curriculum that teachers can tweak as needed through the school year. As you evaluate curriculum options and virtual learning platforms, consider using the UDL Scan Tool from The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities. This tool can help your team find resources that are UDL-friendly.
4. Plan a robust professional development program for teachers of students with IEPs.
You may feel like you haven’t been able to provide enough support for teachers of students with IEPs, and you’re not alone. According to the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University, school leaders face a turnover rate of about 25% among special education teachers. These teachers frequently report that they have left their jobs because of a lack of support from administrators and colleagues.
Teachers of students with IEPs need consistent, frequent, and evidence-based professional development to learn best practices in promoting student achievement. This is especially true for new teachers and educators who are new to teaching students with special needs.
The Center for Student Achievement Solutions works to match your school and district leaders with an educational consultant who has relevant experience to meet your team’s challenges. Schedule a free call with us now to start building a customized professional development plan for your teachers. You can also read our article about “How to Plan Teacher Professional Development for School Improvement.”