In these surreal and stressful times, teachers are stretching the bounds of their creativity to provide critical services through distance learning. The stakes could not be higher for our students and their families in terms of their mental and physical health. Inequity, which has always been deeply embedded in our educational system, has been compounded by the pandemic. Factors such as technology and broadband access and availability of hard-working parents to support distance learning outcomes expose the glaring fissures of inequity in the very foundations of our educational system, which is intended to be the great equalizer. Along with illuminating systemic problems, this pandemic is having a real human impact on the students we know and love, who had their routines completely disrupted.
Distance learning, along with any other educational resource, curricula, or strategy, will not be a perfect fit for all of our students. Many of our students will benefit from increased time and technology that embeds differentiation. On the other hand, many of our students — especially our younger students and/or students with more specialized needs — benefit from hand over hand support and will be unable to access distance learning without a parent’s support. Creativity and flexibility will also be necessary when finding ways for students to work on their social goals during a time of isolation. Lastly, educators are also balancing the needs and education of their own families while trying to navigate and implement new resources for their students.
As special educators, we are uniquely equipped to handle these challenges, since we are wired to provide highly individualized supports and seek innovative ways to support our students. These skillsets are more important than ever as we problem solve to support each family’s needs and preserve the relationships of our school community.
Parent Communication and Collaboration
While seven hours of Google Hangouts is not going to be a productive educational experience, the alternative of putting the burden entirely on parents is equally misguided. Parents are protecting, soothing, feeding, and now teaching their children with less supports in a time of deep uncertainty. Along with school, parents with children, who qualified for outside services through private companies, also saw these services transition to online.
Therefore, understanding parents’ emotional and physical bandwidths and their goals and needs for their children during this time is the first step in creating a distance learning plan, which can also be referred to as a family support plan. Here is an example of a Google Form that parents can fill out to illuminate how to best support the entire family. These questions can also be an informal interview over the phone – whatever modality is most accessible to the family. It is very simple but when calling parents, the first question I always ask is how they are doing. To be responsive to their needs, I have also asked all of the parents on my caseload how they prefer to communicate: calling, texting, video-conferencing, e-mailing, or group calls with service providers to accommodate all of the various calls they are currently receiving.
For more information on creating a Google Form for distance learning goals such as a parent survey:
Other resources for parents if they indicate they want to supplement learning opportunities at home include:
- Consistent communication. Based upon parents’ preferences, setting a regular parent check in time and/or creating a Google Form for parents to report progress on goals or send any questions are options to facilitate communication and support.
- Embedding IEP Goals into daily activities. After interviewing parents, you can create a matrix for how IEP goals can be practiced during daily activities around the house. The Illinois Autism Partnership at Easterseals Chicago created a great exemplar along with supplementary resources such as visual schedules, checklists, and visual icons to help with implementation! Here is another example of a routine-based learning opportunities matrix from Erica Jones.
- Sending weekly schedules. These academic schedules can be recommended activities on each day that address academic and social emotional development. I like to send my weekly schedule as a choice board with low-tech, mid-tech, and high-tech options to accommodate the needs and preferences of all students and families. Here is an example of a choice board for a preK special day class.
- Sending parent training videos. Below is an example of one I created for parents of students in a self-contained preschool class using Screencast-o-matic that took less than 15 minutes with simply my computer monitor and a very basic powerpoint (you would think my artistic skills would be better after this website!)
These discussions with families can also be formalized during an amendment process or online learning plan that illustrates the child’s Offer of FAPE has changed since the harm being at school due to our current health crisis outweighs other educational concerns. Of course, you should follow your state, district and school’s guidelines. For example, the California Department of Education issued guidance that amendments were not necessary for all students with IEPs.
Creating an Integrated Platform for Distance Learning
Wondering how all of these various web tools will fit together into a cohesive classroom?
To help integrate resources into an accessible platform for all of your distance teaching needs, I created a table that identifies the functions of many of the popular Web 2.0 tools currently being used for classroom instruction and communication with students and families. Ideally, you would be able to create one streamlined platform for your classroom by only needing to use up to three of these programs for the sanity of all stakeholders navigating the world of distance learning!
|Video conferencing||Messaging parent/|
|Assignment posting||Outside content available||Feedback for student work|
There are myriad online tools out there to use on your instructional platform, which can be overwhelming when trying to put together a lesson. Instead of focusing on content specific resources for each subject, I put together a list of instructional tools and how they could be differentiated for any lesson on this Padlet. Please share your ideas or resources as well!
Maintaining Relationships and Community and Addressing Social Skills Goals
“What is a school without a school?”Seth Lavin, Principal
This question is posed in an emotionally resonant op-ed by a principal in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). I interpreted the question to be: what happens to the emotional bonds of the school community without the traditional space of a four-walled classroom? In the past few weeks, the stark reality has set in that this school year we will not be returning to our classrooms to see the students we love so dearly. Through creativity, flexibility and collaboration with families, we can still salvage the relationships that leave a life-long impact on our students and find innovative ways to support our students with social skills goals — even in the midst of the isolation of quarantine.
Solution #1: Social interaction through video conferencing:
Online is not a perfect medium for socializing, since screen time is no replacement for face to face interactions. However, checking in with students and facilitating social interactions is more important than ever for their continued social development and overall mental health. Many parents have said their children are understandably very bored and miss school, their teachers, and their friends.
Some creative ways to video conference with students to continue building relationships include: birthday celebrations, dance parties, and scavenger hunts around the house. Circle or story time can bring a shred of normalcy and reminiscence of the classroom experience to students’ homes. Simple games such as Charades or I Spy (limited to each person’s computer screen) allow for students to practice skills such as communication, turn taking and reciprocal play. Explicit instruction of social skills can also occur over video conferencing by using existing curricula such as Zones of Regulation or Second Step. In light of recent events, Conscious Discipline is also offering 200 hundred free resources to help parents and teachers support students’ social emotional growth.
Solution #2: Play opportunities with family:
While in quarantine, direct social interactions are usually limited to members of a household. As an early childhood special education teacher, I am especially invested in gauging if parents have the time and energy to provide play opportunities for children in the home and away — even momentarily — from screens. Bubbles, Play-doh, Legos, blocks and water tables are always my top activity suggestions to try with young students. Then the parent can follow the child’s lead with what is the most highly motivating (which could change every 5 minutes).
During these play activities, parents can work with students on name recall, requesting, fine motor skills, turn taking, sharing, and one of my favorite skills as a teacher: cleaning up. Parents of younger students can also incorporate apps such as Sesame Street – Breathe to explicitly teach social skills. For older students, parents can play more complex games or puzzles that work on these foundational skills along with self-regulation, attention to task, following directions, and handling loss or frustration. To provide reinforcement for positive behaviors, parents of students of all ages can implement behavioral strategies from school such as sticker charts or ClassDojo points. Regardless of our current health crisis, generalizing behavior plans is a best practice and provides more consistency for the student.
Solution #3: Let parents know that they are already teaching!
Teaching does not always need to be through highly structured activities, and whether parents know it or not they are imprinting very important social emotional lessons on their children. Our brains are hard-wired to mimic, which is why students are currently learning in the naturalistic setting of their own homes. The discovery of mirror neurons explains our imitative nature – these neurons fire both when observing and executing an action. Think of a baby smiling after you smile first or toddlers flipping through the pages of a book before they can even read but have seen adults do so. Scientists speculate mirror neurons form the basis for children’s social skills, since these neurons allow for imitation of language, behaviors, and even empathy. Therefore, when communicating, managing stress, showing affection and empathy, parents are modeling and teaching students lessons that will contribute to their overall ability to have healthy, functioning relationships and have a good quality of life.
Therefore, my message to parents is: Love them up now! Your love and support will help them grow up into empathetic, caring adults, who will be lifelong learners. We will take this quarantine one day at a time, and we will continue to be here when school resumes in person to support your children reach their fullest potential.
More tips to put parents at ease are in this video: