Special Education Resources for Teachers to Use During Distance Learning

by Heather Nelson

Tailoring your special education resources for remote learning is more important than ever during this time of COVID-19 and schools moving to virtual instruction to keep students and families safe. With stay-at-home orders placed across the country amid the pandemic, distance learning quickly became the norm.

And while adjusting to new remote learning programs is a challenge for many students and teachers, the learning curve can be steeper for special education teachers and their students.

The Challenges of Distance Learning in Special Education

Special education teachers have a responsibility to help their students succeed in accordance with their Individual Educational Programs (IEPs), which create the structure for their individualized lessons and face-to-face guidance.

Distance learning often necessitates a certain level of ease and familiarity with technology, as well as sustained attention, motivation, organization, and cooperation. These are specific challenges for some students with disabilities.

In a classroom setting, students rely on their teachers to help them navigate these challenges. At home, it can be different.

“The loss of sustained physical presence for the purpose of socializing has been a significant loss for teachers and students across all populations during this time,” said Kathleen Bautista, Ed.D., assistant professor in the Division of Teacher Education at Azusa Pacific University. Bautista has decades of experience teaching students enrolled in special education programs and also served as a principal and director of special education. “Direct instruction of social skills has been exceedingly important and also very challenging,” she noted.

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.

Special Education Online Resources and Apps

Fortunately, there are a plethora of online resources and apps to help your special education students succeed. Take some time to look through what’s available for free (or funded by your district), and then try one or two resources to see what works best for you and your students.

Here’s a list of popular resources and apps that can facilitate special education learning goals:

  • ClassDojo is a distance learning app that allows students, teachers, and families to stay connected digitally through photos, videos, and messages about what they’re learning together and at home.
  • Kahoot! is a free game-based learning platform that lets your students grow academically through fun interactive games. Games are categorized by level and subject, so you can recommend games based on your individual students’ needs.
  • Padlet can help your classroom share answers and information together using a digital bulletin board that every student can see and contribute to.
  • Flipgrid is a website that allows you to create “grids” to lead video discussions with your students. Each grid is like a message board where you can pose questions and then have students post video responses for their classmates to watch and for you to respond to.
  • Audiobooks are perfect for students who are learning reading skills, allowing them to follow along independently while you’re teaching remotely.
  • Word prediction software can help special needs students engage with writing assignments on their own. While various word prediction programs exist, you can find specific ones to help your students with dyslexia, motor skill issues, spelling difficulties, and more.

How to Help Your Special Needs Students Learn Remotely

Special education resources can be both formal and informal. With a combination of both, students can feel supported socially, emotionally, and academically. Here are three strategies for making the most of available resources and effectively supporting students.

1. Connect with Students Emotionally

“Emotional well-being is something we all must be cognizant of during times of extreme change that we are currently dealing with,” said Bautista. “This is especially important for our students with special needs. In a time of crisis, emotional needs exceed academic achievement and should be our first priority.”

To connect with special needs students remotely, you can send them letters, get to know them better with the help of a parent questionnaire, and take time to talk about their interests in class meetings. Every touch point helps build that supportive relationship.

2. Schedule Time Together as a Class

It’s also a good idea to prioritize time together as a class. Providing online instruction to the whole class is vital in creating a social presence and routine for your students. It’s a time for them to see their friends, learn a concept collaboratively, and find comfort in being together virtually.

Schedule smaller group lessons after periods of whole-class instruction. And plan intentional breaks for students before bringing them back for instruction with the entire class.

3. Make Teaching Videos

As much as students love watching videos, they tend to love watching videos of their teachers even more. Try recording videos of yourself that students can watch and re-watch.

For instance, teach a lesson on academics or social skills or share a favorite story. Then, follow it up with a way for students to respond through drawing, writing, or sending a video response. Not only does this give students a chance to learn at their pace, but it allows them another chance to connect with you on a personal level (and frees up the computer for students sharing with their siblings).

4. Communicate Frequently with Parents and Families

“Partnerships with parents are always essential, but even more so during distance learning,” said Bautista. She suggests creating newsletters to inform parents of class assignments, schedules, and the strategies you are using in class to help families best support their child.

“Parents and guardians can also provide you with valuable information on their child’s motivation, effort, and frustrations,” she says, so keep the lines of communication open via phone calls and emails.

5. Collaborate with Your Team Members

Service providers such as speech, occupational, and physical therapists will also be working with your students. “You will want to coordinate students’ schedules to accommodate all of their services,” said Bautista.

Be certain to also assign opportunities for your instructional assistant to work individually or in small groups with your students.

6. Keep IEP Meetings On Track

Annual and triennial IEP meetings will need to stay on track during distance learning. Bautista says it’s wise to schedule them at the beginning of the year with your administrator, parents or guardians, and support providers to ensure everyone is on the same page.

With meetings now taking place virtually, make sure your notices include information about how to log in to the online meeting.

Whether you’re creating individual activities for hands-on learning or starring in videos tailored to their IEP goals, thanks to resources like the ones above, your special education students can grow and flourish in a digital classroom.

Curious to learn about other resources that can benefit your career as an educator? Visit the Azusa Pacific University website to explore its School of Education.