Students with special needs were disproportionately affected by COVID-related learning disruptions--focusing on the whole child can help

Special education students need a whole child approach

Students with special needs were disproportionately affected by COVID-related learning disruptions--focusing on the whole child will help get them back on track

Whatever the child needs, we provide. We have literacy coaches, math coaches, and assistive technology experts. We focus on individualized learning and also are developing our teachers and student’s capacity for Process Based Learning (PBL).  We don’t try to fit our students into the systems we have, rather we do the opposite and build our systems around the students we have.

As an educational service agency, we are fortunate to have more resources and more adults to wrap around our students. But the fact that our model is the exception and not the rule, is frustrating. Students with special needs often require access to tools, edtech, and assistive tech to be able to level up and perform right alongside their peers. But they also need high quality learning opportunities. Achieving literacy and numeracy cannot be the only thing we aspire to for these students. They can achieve so much more, and they deserve to achieve more, even if it requires more resources.

Creating Learning Spaces That Allow Students to “Be”

It seems obvious, but if you are going to adopt a “whole-child” approach that values and celebrates the uniqueness and specialness of each individual child, then the physical design of the space must also reflect those values. Some students cannot concentrate if they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair. That’s an easy fix. But some students cannot focus or breathe properly unless they are lying on their stomachs. Not only have we designed our spaces to accommodate these types of needs, but critically, we have normalized the idea that we can and should do what we can to ensure students can show up ready to learn.  The “traditional” classroom, with rows of desks in perfect lines, was designed as a way to manage—or quash—disruptive behavior. And that’s great if your ultimate goal is compliance. But that’s not “whole-child,” is it? We want our students to learn and thrive, and if they can’t do that when they are uncomfortable, then we have an obligation to make those changes.

But we also are working very hard to model and promote agency and self-regulation, and so we have also created “zones” within our learning spaces where students can move to if they can’t otherwise communicate a need to an adult. For example, maybe a student begins to feel very anxious, and the noise and everyday classroom conversations are becoming overwhelming and they feel themselves shutting down. They may not have the ability at that stage to raise their hand, interrupt class, and politely ask if they can go somewhere quiet. Instead, we have those spaces built into our classrooms, and our students know that they can access those spaces when they need it, no matter what, no questions asked. Autonomy. Agency. Self-regulation. That’s what it looks like to model these skills.

Another physical space that is woefully underutilized—in all schools, for all students, but particularly for students with special needs—is the outdoors. At Ulster, we have an outdoor education program, Camp Ramapo, that all of our students are able to visit multiple times throughout the school year, with some of our highest need students having even more frequent rotations. We’ve found that being in nature and using nature to guide learning has a beneficial effect on our most aggressive students. In addition to academic lessons, students at Camp Ramapo also receive therapeutic support. While we recognize that this type of space may not be feasible in every school or district, but schools can and should be utilizing outdoor spaces for formal learning more than they typically do.

Love Is Not Enough

Social-emotional learning is nothing new at Ulster, especially in our special education classes. Love and nurturing are where everything starts for us. Community and relationships are at the center of our work; our district leadership prioritizes a teamwork approach to school culture where at the foundation of a strong, inclusive learning community. Trust me when I tell you that we very much value love and respect and dignity.

But love is not enough.

These kids need to learn. Love is necessary, but not sufficient, so we’ve been pushing back on this pervasive idea that love is all we need. These are smart kids, and they can succeed in school and in life, but we need to find the right combination of support and offerings—and plenty of love—to help them unlock their potential.

If we start with the assumption that these students are capable and worthy of a quality education experience, the whole game changes. We don’t need to “fix” kids. They are already whole. We, as an education system, just need to give the whole child the tools and support they need to self-regulate and find a passion for learning.

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