(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
How can we best support students in “special education” programs in their return to “normal” classroom instruction?
The pandemic has created many challenges for all students, and particularly for students with learning differences.
This two-part series will explore ways we can best support these exceptional students as we begin the new school year.
Today, Elizabeth Stein, Ed.D., Ann Stiltner, Ann H. Lê, and Amy Gaines share their advice. All four were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
Today’s post is the latest in a series supporting educators entering the third COVID-19-affected school year.
The previous posts have been:
‘Humanize’ the School Experience
Elizabeth Stein, Ed.D. has been teaching, coaching, and consulting for more than 30 years including for grades K-12, specializing in universal design for learning (UDL), inclusive practices, and special education. Elizabeth is national-board-certified in literacy and the author of Elevating Co-Teaching through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017), as well as other publications:
At the conclusion of the 2020-21 school year, a universal sigh could be heard around the nation. This sigh revealed a consistent acknowledgement that this was a most challenging school year. In addition to personal challenges that the pandemic brought into the homes of our students’ lives, it forced everyone to migrate from in-person to remote teaching and learning. It was a learning curve experience at its finest.
Yet, throughout the experience, there were silver linings in its midst—just waiting to be noticed. Once noticed, these silver linings can be embraced as part of the answer as we plan for ways to best support students with special needs in classrooms as students return to in-person learning. The greatest silver lining for me came through my dialogue with many students as they shared their experiences through the school year.
Three themes came directly from the students as they shared their experiences. Many students:
1. Found it difficult to manage their time and attention to tasks.
2. Experienced increased anxiety and ability to regulate emotions.
3. Experienced increased motivation to do the work because they were able to pace themselves without “feeling the pressure of keeping up with the class.”
Let’s Stop Aiming for a “New Normal”
My hope is that schools will not settle into this idea of a “new normal.” My hope is that we learn from this past school year and be willing to move beyond our understanding of a “normal” classroom. My hope is that rather than aiming to normalize the return to an in-person school experience, we aim to humanize it. Let us consider the student feedback for a moment.
The students who had difficulty managing their time and attention admitted that they “missed their teachers helping them to know what to do.” These students felt lost without their teacher “right there” to constantly guide them. We can support students by including opportunities for them to strengthen their executive function skills. Let them set goals and plan out the steps to work toward completing a task. Provide space for students to manage their time—and experience incremental steps of success toward achieving their goals.
The next theme from students’ feedback involved them becoming more aware that they “worried all the time.” Their need to regulate their emotions and manage anxiety will need to be embedded within the school day—throughout all academic and nonacademic learning experiences. Harvard Business Review shares the article 3 Ways to Better Understand Your Emotions that includes a list of emotions to guide students to identify the language to understand and to communicate how they are feeling. Understanding how emotions affect learning can guide educators in making sure they create a learning environment where students feel safe and comfortable.
Finally, some students will need to be supported by giving them more opportunities to process, plan, and complete learning tasks without the step-by-step synchronization of teachers guiding their every move—and quite frankly—limiting the experience for students to think things through in a manner that makes sense to them. As the third theme points out, some students thrive when they are given the space to pace their learning in less rigid—whole class—ways. Project-based learning is one way to guide students to harness that intrinsic motivation that they experienced as they learned in the comfort of their homes. Why not balance traditional learning with more student-directed opportunities.
The best thing we can do to support students with disabilities is to hear what they have to say—and notice how they are perceiving and participating in learning experiences. We must ride the silver linings wave and create experiences that embrace and embed student voice and perspective. And when in doubt of how best to support students—just ask them!
‘Take the Time to Listen’
Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:
Below are 10 ways to help students in special education return to normal classroom instruction.
1. Be Patient
Many of us—students and teachers alike—have been through a lot these past few years. Be patient with students and yourself. We are all excited to get back to normal, but it may take time. But trust that it will come. Don’t rush it too quickly. Give yourself and others the time they need to adjust.
2. Make Time to Listen
A teacher cannot know what their students need if they don’t take the time to listen. Students’ communication skills and verbal-expression skills may be limited, and they may not be able to explain what is wrong. Remember to listen in all the different ways that students might be communicating with you. Listen to not just what they say but what they don’t say, what they do and don’t do, and pay attention to their body language.
3. Modify, Modify, Modify
Remember to make use of the modifications and accommodations available in a student’s IEP if they are struggling with an assignment, having a hard time focusing, challenged getting motivated, or any other issue. Reach out to special education staff for guidance. Try and then try again to find the right combinations of supports to help students adjust.
4. Rapport Is Key
Make creating rapport a key goal in the first few weeks back to normal classroom instruction. Take time to develop or reestablish rapport with ice breakers, games, and getting to know you activities. These activities are proactive ways to create bonds among students that can help if issues develop later in the year.
5. Support Students Dealing With Change
Some students, like those on the autism spectrum, might have issues adjusting to change. These might be changes to the schedule, to a new teacher, to a new classroom, to a new school, or to anything new. Social stories, chances for visits/tours ahead of time, and lots of school-home communication can help with the adjustment back to normal classroom instruction.
6. Review, Review, and Review Routines
Don’t expect students to remember established classroom routines. These past years had many distractions that might make it hard to remember common procedures. Routines might not come back quickly. Spend time reviewing routines and allow student input to tweak existing procedures.
7. Implement Strategies to Assist With Focusing
Some students, especially those with focusing issues like ADHD, may find it hard to stay still in a classroom. They may have become used to movement breaks and other outlets they had at home that helped them stay on task. It may be challenging for them to transition to staying focused in a classroom setting. Rewards and behavior contracts may help them adjust back to learning in a classroom.
8. Help Students Stay on Track
Some students may have become used to their parent’s immediate help at home, or others may not be used to problem-solving on their own. They may be more dependent on teacher direction. Don’t forget to be explicit and make liberal use of cues and prompts to help them stay on track.
9. Connect With Families
Establish parent-teacher communication early on with the parents of special-needs students. Last school year, our special education administration asked us to begin the year by calling our parents and having what they called a “Hopes and Dreams” conversation. We discussed what parents wanted for the year ahead and how their child was dealing with the pandemic. It turned out to be a helpful and proactive way to establish lines of communication and create a positive and supportive relationship.
10. Spend Time on Social-Skills Development
Many students are out of practice dealing with their peers. They may have forgotten how to use their words and take turns. They may be inpatient and can’t remember what it is like to share the teacher’s attention with a classroom full of other students. Teacher modeling and role-plays could be useful.
Together, these suggestions are proactive ways to make the return back to normal classroom instruction a smooth transition for your students with special needs.
‘Cultivate Peer-to-Peer Connections’
Ann H. Lê is a published author in a variety of educational journals and textbook chapters, as well as a guest speaker at statewide conferences, university forums, and a radio show at Stanford University. She currently serves as the behavioral & mental-health program specialist at Tomball ISD, an external evaluator for teacher-candidates in Texas, and a consultant to Texas-wide school districts in the special education assessment of Vietnamese students:
The complexities that educators face in today’s educational world had been fully acknowledged even before the COVID-19 pandemic. As related to their identified disability(ies), our students served in special education programs have worked hard to “catch up” to their same age/grade peers through schools’ efforts in promoting inclusive practices to increase access to the general education curriculum. As students return to “normal” classroom instruction, here are recommendations to best support our students with disabilities.
- Parental Support: During the pandemic, most parents have become their children’s interim teacher, witnessing firsthand the ups and downs of planning, organizing, executing, and reteaching lessons presented to students through online/virtual formats. Educators need to utilize this opportunity to strengthen the home-school relationship. This in turn will help students to transition more smoothly, help to build a positive relationship with parents, and increase parent involvement.
- Teacher Support: District and campus leaders should develop meaningful ways to help support our educators. A little appreciation goes a long way, especially in the field of special education. Most of our students in special education thrive when they have consistency and know what to expect; this starts by having teachers (general education and special education) who stay, believe in them, and understand their needs. Ensuring that quality teachers are hired and are provided with needed support (e.g., paperwork, planning time, collaboration with other teachers) benefits all, especially the students.
- Know the Individual Student: Students in special education programs are provided with an Individualized Education Program, which provides specific accommodations, modifications, and/or supports that are needed in order for the student to make progress. All students are unique. Know your students as individuals instead of identifying them by their diagnosis.
General Recommendations: Special education and general education teachers can both provide to assist ALL students:
- Keep classrooms organized to help minimize stress and distractions.
- Maintain and encourage a positive outlook; focus on the good.
- Provide opportunities for small successes and then celebrate them.
- Give assignments/tasks in small, manageable chunks.
- Acknowledge the students’ feelings and their lived experiences; incorporate student interests/experiences into lessons.
- Cultivate peer-to-peer connections; social-emotional growth is crucial as we all return to in-person instruction.
- Keep classrooms organized to help minimize stress and distractions.
Throughout this pandemic, we (adults and children) have all become learners and we have all become experts in navigating the many aspects of our lives that were impacted by COVID-19. This is the time where we ASK others to share their perspectives to find out what to do and what not do because transitioning from virtual learning should not be a mechanical transaction.
This is a great opportunity for educators and families to come together and work with one another to find out what each one needs for the benefit of our students. It is no surprise that education has evolved over the past century. We must embrace the world and reality our children are living in today and move past traditional ways. Let them be inquisitive. Let them discover. Learning is about asking questions and being open to new solutions.
The important thing is, we as educators should work toward building a positive, trusting relationship with our students and their families. We must cultivate the link from our lessons to the world outside instead of focusing on traditional curriculum-based core competencies. Focus on student needs, and the rest will follow.
Amy Gaines is a junior high special education teacher with the William S. Hart Union High School District in Santa Clarita, Calif. Amy has published two book chapters, a supplemental chapter in What Really Works with Exceptional Learners (2017) by Corwin Press, and a chapter on HLP 1: Collaboration, in High-Leverage Practices in Special Education by Slack Publishing (slated for publication in 2022):
After returning from distance learning, I was able to really appreciate the extent to which my students “lost” a lot of the practical, soft skills that are instrumental to classroom and social success. As the kids and I reconnected, I found that I really needed to have an explicit, layered approach, and the rules and procedures I typically lay out in the first few weeks of school needed to be more detailed than what is typical for my program.
On a totally practical note, several of my 7th graders had forgotten how to plan for bathroom and food breaks. Now, I don’t believe in withholding bathroom opportunities, but a classroom can’t be successful if it’s a total free-for-all, so I do encourage the kids to plan and wait for natural transitions. This became something I needed to get ahead of and really hammer home to them when we returned so as not to embarrass the kids or inadvertently reinforce attention seeking or escape behaviors.
This issue segues to general time-management skills, which are really important for all kids and something kids with special needs often struggle with. I believe that, as we return to school full time, this will likely be one of the areas with which kids will need a lot of guidance. In terms of really practical strategies, the simple technique that is baked into my daily structure is after I give instructions and answer all relevant questions, I discuss with the kids exactly how to prioritize tasks, plan, and move through anticipated challenges. As a class, we estimate a general time frame for each section or problem set, and I write these time frames down for the kids to copy onto their own paper. This helps the kids to independently determine if they’re working too quickly or too slowly. Either way, we have supports built in to address such issues.
For example, in order to prevent kids from rushing (so they can enjoy preferred activities), I require them to show me what they’ve done at the end of each section or period of time (depending on the particular assignment). This builds in the opportunity for kids to get personalized, almost immediate feedback, and serves to jump-start kids who may need support moving through more challenging tasks, while maintaining an expectation that they initiate tasks independently.
The third area I believe has been massively neglected during distance learning is motor skills—both fine and gross. While both are important, I have been thinking a lot about how to reincorporate good old-fashioned finger work such as writing, drawing, folding, measuring, tracing, shading, cutting, and using a straight edge. During the first few weeks we were back in the classroom, I tried to find time each day to incorporate as many opportunities to practice these skills as possible. One of my favorite assignments is called a One-Pager, which is a fairly open-ended assignment that lends itself easily to many of these skills. It is also easy to differentiate, depending on the needs of the kids. I often assign a One-Pager as an end-of-unit assessment, and the kids love them as they promote engagement, critical thinking, motor planning, and they’re just really nice to do. Kids are proud of their work, and they have something special to share with their peers.
Of course, there are so many unforeseen consequences that I am confident will be ironed out this fall, but these are some of the glaring areas I am looking forward to proactively addressing as we return.
Thanks to Elizabeth, Ann, Ann, and Amy for contributing their reflections.
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