The 2020 pandemic forced the world into isolation. Physical contact meant an increase in the chances of infection resulting in most of the operations to be shifted into a virtual medium. Schools also had to convert all of their classes into a digital medium. While adapting into this change is difficult for most children, for special needs children, adjusting to online learning could be a major struggle.
Some of the most common difficulties that are broadly faced by children of special needs in online classes are to sustain attention, some may find being on camera excessively uncomfortable and distressful, being seated in one place for 6-8 hours may feel like punishment on a daily basis and some may become increasingly fidgety as a result of not receiving individualised attention.
To cope with these difficulties here are some strategies that parents and teachers can adopt to ensure that learning for each child is optimized despite altered environments.
- Parental involvement plays a significant role –
Parents have an added responsibility to ensure that they are able to provide a classroom experience within the house for their children. However, they may need regular guidance for the same. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that the school creates a platform to regularly check in with them like creating a Google classroom group just for parents of children with special needs so they can connect to each other and swap ideas about what’s working well (and what’s not) at home. While teachers are likely to create instructional videos (or written directions) for students, special education educators should also advise creating them for parents to teach them how to set up and support their children in various activities. Teachers can also think of ways parents can use generic objects in the home to teach skills, like toothpicks, or coins, which can be repurposed as math manipulatives.
- Integrating sensory modalities into learning –
Students with special needs may need additional sensory modifications and supports—listed in their IEPs—to help them learn and grow. Parents can use simple objects like coloured play dough and bubble wrap or brain-based games like Jenga if students need to release energy. Rice and beans placed inside pockets can substitute as a weighted vest or blanket to provide a sense of security, while writing and drawing in shaving cream can reduce tension while boosting language development. Even hugs, deep breathing, or allowing a child to run around outside can help.
- Maintaining structure and routine –
Creating a daily list of activities, broken into small chunks with plenty of breaks and to follow a similar order to the schedule students had at school. Because many students with special needs respond well to visual cues, a schedule board (tactile or digital) with images of activities that prompt students what to do when can be helpful. Tiny changes like using a kitchen timer, which reminds students of a bell schedule at school may deem helpful.
- Team collaboration optimises results –
One of the challenges for students with special needs is that their support is more disjointed and remote. This is why building out a team of support is even more critical than ever before. Collaboration among other educators, support staff, and especially parents is key. If you are an individual teacher who is struggling to support diverse learners in your classroom, consult with your school psychologist, special education team, and counselling support staff. These team members are on the forefront of emerging best practices and can consult with you to come up with innovative ways to ensure that kids feel connected, engaged, and supported.
- Creativity is key –
For teachers and parents this transition acts as a test to their creative abilities. From incorporating small changes like including the usage of break out rooms during classes to ensure that children with special needs get extra instruction, encouragement, and support during tasks that they may not be able to do in the large group or independently, to creating a Bitmoji classroom full of online calming strategies for children who need a brain break, mindfulness activity, movement break, or self-regulation tools to use when they feel overwhelmed.
Teachers must ensure that students with special needs are encouraged through class participation by giving them a chance to answer questions, present to the class and participate in discussions. Tiny words of encouragement can go a long way to ensure that students feel motivated and enthusiastic for online classes.
These are trying times for every individual especially for our children. Therefore, we must ensure that we try to put our best foot forward in providing for our children so that their growth does not stall and that they can emerge ever so strongly from these difficult times.