For the past 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to help students with special needs receive the high-quality education they deserve. During this time, I’ve guided them and their families as they navigate the common misconception that online learning can’t work for them. It can and it has.

But for those who are new to the online learning environment, making the switch during such a tumultuous time in our nation can be overwhelming to say the least.

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While the online classroom isn’t for everyone, the vast majority of the families I serve are happy with the supportive state-licensed teachers, interactive and engaging classes, and flexibility that online school offers them.

As more and more traditional brick-and-mortar schools turn to online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve received an increasing number of inquiries about how online school serves students of varying abilities.

Here are four ways parents can help children with special needs thrive in an online learning environment:

1. You don’t know what you don’t know

First, it’s important to acknowledge the difficulty of transitioning to an online learning environment for the first time—even under the best of circumstances. No doubt, this is an unbelievably challenging time that no one could have predicted. It’s okay to give yourself permission to feel uneasy about change—particularly when it comes to the education of your child. However, I urge you to do your best to get comfortable with the change and prepare to tackle new academic adventures alongside your child.

Traditional online school platforms are already designed with tried-and-true virtual learning methodologies in mind. However, because of the pandemic, thousands of traditional brick-and-mortar school districts across the country are essentially being compelled to introduce an online option for the first time. The intent, of course, is to provide a sense of learning continuity for each and every student. It’s important, though, that you give them—and yourself—time and permission to learn what strategies work best for your family, your school, and your student body. Reach out to your child’s special education teachers for the tips and tricks they have used to motivate and engage your child in the past.

2. Revisit your learning goals

Make sure you have a copy of your student’s Individualized Education Program or IEP. If you don’t have a copy, reach out to your school or district and ask for one. Then, work with your student’s teacher or a school administrator to determine the best ways to reach each individual goal.

Also, be sure that each accommodation on the IEP is easily defined. Spend time talking through any assistive technology resources that may be appropriate for your at-home learner. It would also be helpful to ask for suggestions or examples of how these accommodations can be implemented online or remotely.

3. Learn the ropes

It’s important that you try to devote a specific area in your home to class time and schoolwork. This will help encourage a classroom-like structure for both you and your kids.

For students with special needs, class is still in session--online

Also, do your best to familiarize yourself with the online resources and tools that your school or district has provided. For example, many online courses are embedded with specific accessibility features. It’s vital that you become accustomed to the ways these features can be used so that your children can learn how to use them too. If available and if you have the time, sign up for training on ways to use these embedded tools. Also, don’t forget to monitor how your child uses or could use each applicable tool in the future.

4. Join the conversation

Following your school’s or district’s guidance, participate in one-on-one, small group, or large group class sessions along with your child. If you’re unsure what would work best in terms of web-based instruction, ask your child’s teacher to meet with you one-on-one beforehand.

After you’ve decided what type of online environment works best for your child, encourage them to communicate with their peers. Social interaction is so important for building a sense of community, even in an online space. Some kids may initially be hesitant to speak up or participate in a virtual classroom. So, encourage your child to join in on ice breaker activities or communicate in other ways.

I realize that some important services that students with special needs require cannot be provided in a virtual or distance learning environment, but you may be surprised by everything that can be provided online. Distance learning provides a unique opportunity to gain a valuable perspective on your child’s learning potential. If you can, try to embrace it.

About the Author:

Jenny Kendall is the Senior Director of Special Programs at K12 Inc. Prior to joining K12, Jenny taught students with disabilities in grades K-12; and for ten years, she served adults with disabilities in independent living situations.


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