Friday, Dec 11, 2020
Online learning poses specific challenges for students with disabilities
by Keith Fernbach
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down schools, teachers and students had to pivot to learning in a remote format. While this shift has affected millions of students, it has had a more adverse impact on students with disabilities than on other groups.
“The needs of this population are different than those of general education students,” says Lauren Delisio, an assistant professor in Rider University’s College of Education and Human Services, “and it’s harder to meet those needs in a virtual environment.”
Delisio says that even within the same class, the disabilities of the students can be very diverse and each child may require specialized instruction.
“They may have different language needs or ways of communicating, or they may learn better auditorally rather than visually,” she says. “Often when teachers are in a classroom and they see that something isn’t working, they figure out what else they can do. It’s harder to know what they need and make adjustments when you’re not with them in person.”
The change to remote learning was also less than ideal because many students with disabilities benefit from having a daily routine. “Suddenly they were without the accommodations and supports they normally receive in the classroom,” she says. “And while teachers have been very creative in how they’ve adapted, it’s still difficult to provide the same level of specific, individualized modification when they’re not physically with them.”
Delisio, who teaches special education courses at Rider, has made numerous modifications in her own teaching in order to prepare her students to teach in this new environment.
One of the biggest challenges she’s faced is how to help those in her classes gain valuable field experience with students with disabilities when the pandemic has prevented them from working in classrooms.
Through a partnership with Hopewell Valley Central High School, her students have been able to take an active role in designing online learning experiences for special education students at the school, even though they can’t be there with them in person.
Cooperating teachers at the high school shared profiles on 14 special education students, and Delisio’s students created individualized lesson plans tailored to each of the students. The lesson plans emphasized techniques such as visual supports, breaking down larger tasks into smaller components and asking yes/no questions rather than open-ended ones.
“We’re trying to demonstrate that you can still provide specific accommodations and modifications based on the individual needs of the students in a virtual learning environment,” says Delisio.
These lessons have covered a wide range of topics, including proper hygiene, managing money, making crafts and a taking virtual tour of national monuments in Washington, D.C.
“My students were able to get feedback from me and the cooperating teachers on what worked well for these specific students and their individual needs, and what they could do differently,” Delisio says.
Delisio has also made modifications in her own teaching. She says one of her goals as an instructor is to model techniques that her students will then be able to use when they become teachers. This includes demonstrating ways to build rapport with students. In past years, she would make it a habit to arrive at class early and spend time informally chatting with them. “I’m really big on building those relationships with your students," she says. "I try to do it and then hopefully they try to do it with their kids.”
Since she’s teaching remotely this year, she has had to try a new approach. She created a series of discussion boards on topics unrelated to course content. For example, she’s asked her students to share pictures of their pets, kids, favorite vacation spots and Halloween costumes. Students also have the opportunity to comment on each other’s photos.
“I wanted to model that you can still build relationships with your students even if it’s in an asynchronous, online environment,” she says. “It may not be the same, but you can still do it.”
She also took the extra step of scheduling individualized sessions with each of her students. “Since I don’t get to seen them in a live class setting, I just want to check in with them to further build those relationships," she says. "I’m trying to model that you can still do these things but just in a different, more creative way.”
Another point of emphasis in her teaching is the importance of organization. She says this is a critical skill for special education instructors. “If you’re going to be teaching children with disabilities who have difficulty in this area, then you need to be extra organized yourself,” she says. “That means, for example, that if a student opens up your Canvas site, it should be easy for them to find information such as which assignments are due that week, and where they need to submit them.”
Even when life goes back to normal, Delisio says one important lesson to come out of this is the importance of adaptability. “You have to be flexible in education to begin with because circumstances are constantly changing, whether it’s the curriculum or new laws or the unique challenges we’ve faced this year,” she says. “This has been hard. Teachers are struggling, parents are struggling and kids are struggling. But as much as this is not ideal for anybody, you just have to do your best. And if we can be flexible and creative, we can come up with solutions that will work.”