Supporting Students with Significant Needs in Distance Learning

by Nicole Abera

Keywords

Autism, special education, online learning, speech language, online learning, technology, UDL

The Katherine Thomas School (KTS) is a special education day school in the DC metro area that serves students with significant language-based disabilities and autism from preschool through the 12th grade. KTS is a program of The Treatment and Learning Centers of Rockville, Maryland. All of our students require full-time support and services outside of general education classrooms. Approximately half of the students at KTS are placed by their local jurisdictions in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC. The rest are privately placed and tuition is paid by their families. KTS students are from diverse backgrounds—46 percent white, 17 percent Asian American, 15 percent African American, 9 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent multirace students.

Laying the Foundation With Access to Technology

Technology is a big part of who we are as a school. We use technology every day to meet the needs of our students with communication impairments and to support and scaffold students in learning. Walking into one of our face-to-face classrooms, you would have seen students using technology like Promethean Boards and SMART Boards, FM systems, Chromebooks, alternative communication devices, and iPads. They used platforms like Google Classroom and the multitude of Google Chrome extensions (e.g., Kami, which allows students to type on PDF docs posted on Google Classroom), and Flipgrid, which allows students to create short videos to respond to prompts posed by their teacher without the stress of being “live.” Because technology is so critical to how we support our students, our first goal when we closed was to make sure that every student had the technology they needed to participate in learning from home—and that every student had internet access.

We immediately sent a letter and a survey to parents to find out who had access to broadband internet and to assess whether the technology we sent home would meet their needs. We helped families who didn’t have internet access by arranging times for parents to pick up Chromebooks, iPads, and/or internet hotspots, or dropping them off at students’ homes. We also worked with some families to get them signed up for free or low-cost internet service. Our IT department worked hard to get everyone the technology they needed quickly and to address problems with hardware right away.

Once we had ensured that our students and families had access to the technology, we worked to support them in using it effectively in the new distance learning format. All of our students had used the technology at school, but still, we did run into some challenges. For example, some of our families found that simultaneously managing Zoom sessions for multiple children and their own work schedules was not possible. To support these families, we offered alternative times in the early morning or evening for related services or for individual academic sessions. Some students had difficulty using the Chromebooks or iPads all day because of attention issues or their need for constant 1:1 adult support. For these students, we made 1:1 support time blocks available during class time or at another time that was convenient for their families.

Communicating With Families and Establishing Routines

At the start of the closure, we wanted to give parents the opportunity to ask our staff questions, so we set up office hours and individual meeting times where parents could virtually connect with us. This helped us establish and expand our relationships with families in this new distance context early in our move to learning at home. We then cleared the schedule of our media and technology teacher so that her primary focus would be responding to and troubleshooting technology challenges with parents. Additionally, our entire staff has stuck by our policy of responding to family communication within 24 hours. We hold weekly classroom or grade-level team meetings to discuss student progress, as well as weekly all-staff meetings to make sure all staff members are in the loop on any challenges or changes for virtual learning.

Our students rely heavily on their schedules to feel a sense of comfort in routines, to understand expectations for their participation, and for support in executive functioning. Transitions and changes to routines can be disruptive to our students and can get them off track for significant periods of time. The closure presented a big challenge: How would we create a transition to distance learning that would lessen the burden of such a significant change to our students everyday life?

We immediately worked to create a plan to help families establish a home learning routine and work space. For example, we created a single, accessible, virtual document that would house each student’s daily schedule. The schedule included all of the information students and parents would need to navigate their day, including the name and a picture of each teacher/specialist associated with each session. We rendered the schedule so that students could click on each teacher’s name or face and be brought directly to their live session in Zoom. We also let families know that we would continue to use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to motivate students through issuing tokens when students showed that they were going above and beyond to display KTS values (Kind Thinking Student).

Many KTS students are on the autism spectrum and struggle with changes in schedule and routine. Distance learning schedules were created to be as similar as possible to their usual schedule. Student schedules generally include a daily morning meeting and announcements, followed by approximately three hours of academic instruction, pragmatic and social skills lessons, specials classes (art, music, PE, drama) with teachers, plus any related services at the elementary and middle school levels. Because early childhood students generally have shorter attention spans and need more flexibility, some lessons, music, PE, art, and drama are pre-recorded so that they can be done at a time that’s most supportive for the student and family. Morning announcements are read and recorded on Flipgrid by different students each day. The announcement also reminds students what to expect each day, and gives students opportunities to see and be seen by all staff and students. We have also held virtual birthday parties and other events over Zoom as a way to engage and motivate students and to highlight special events.

We also worked with families to create a consistent learning space for students at home. During the initial phase of virtual learning, we made recommendations to families for setting up students’ work spaces and materials. We also created and shared Social Stories to review with students, focusing on their new virtual learning schedule and routine, the norms and expectations of online classes, and how to be flexible and have a “Plan B” if their schedule doesn’t go as expected.

“Having multiple ways of teaching and learning has been very helpful during this time. Every student learns differently, and it’s more important than ever to teach and assess our students’ learning in multiple ways. This is a great opportunity to expand or begin to build Universal Design for Learning into your practices.”

Prioritizing Engagement and Increasing Demands on Students Over Time

To lower student stress and to facilitate a smooth transition to distance learning, we spent the first few weeks after the closure focused on reviewing topics and skills that students had already been taught. We held back on providing the full schedule of related services (e.g., speech/language, occupational therapy, counseling) until the third week of closure, as we wanted students to get comfortable with learning at home and their new schedules. It’s important to note, however, that we did have those providers available for any support that was needed during those early weeks, and staff met with students as appropriate during that time.

We wanted our students to be excited about logging onto their lessons, so we worked on creating live Zoom sessions that prioritize engagement while also lowering the stress students might feel in having lessons delivered at a distance. Teachers begin their lessons with a movement activity and then provide an engaging hook so that students are excited to start their lesson. For example, our ELA classes always begin with a short movement break (e.g., Brain Gym) followed by a “bad joke” of the day or a short story with an idiom that students need to solve. These stories or jokes are usually engaging for students while addressing their language deficits.

As the weeks progressed and our students demonstrated their ability to thrive with this new way of learning, we began to increase the demands we placed on them, introducing new content via lessons. In increasing our expectations and the demands on students, we needed to be mindful of the increased demands we were placing on parents. Most of our students need support from home during lessons. This support can be a lot for parents to handle when they’re also trying to manage life at home with work and other children.

To respond to parent needs during this time of ramping up demands on students, we decided to scale back time or goal expectations for some students’ related services. This decision was a difficult trade-off. On the one hand, students are not spending as much time working with their SLP, OT, or counselor to address all of their IEP goals. On the other hand, they and their families are less stressed about maintaining the new, very full schedule and have more time to play, interact with one another, and do activities of their choice. During this time of uncertainty and stress for students and families, we had to balance the continuity of learning with being sensitive to students’ and families’ need for consistency, control over as much as possible in their lives, and a peaceful home environment. We have continued to use families’ survey feedback as we tweak our program every couple of weeks. Furthermore, as we increased the demands on students, we needed to make sure that we were being flexible to meet the needs of our families’ schedules. As mentioned above, we have pre-recorded some specials classes for our younger students so they can attend those classes when it’s most convenient for them and their families. We also have worked with families to schedule related services at times that work best for them.

As we have increased demands on students, one significant challenge that has emerged is determining what work is coming from students independently versus with significant help from parents. We were very relaxed with this issue at the beginning of distance learning. But as the weeks have progressed, teachers found themselves having to ask families to give the students the opportunity to show what they know. We observed that parents were working hard during virtual classes to have their children look just right, do their best work, and earn good grades. We found that they were over-prompting students off camera and giving them more support with classwork than is appropriate. For example, staff could regularly hear or see parents whispering or mouthing the answers to their children during class. This made it difficult for teachers to gauge what students were really learning—whether students were doing the work themselves or if the output was too heavily influenced by parents—and to mark progress.

Our social workers followed up with communication to parents, letting them know that it was OK for kids to not sit perfectly still and to not get every answer correct. We also reiterated that the goals of virtual learning, like that of in-person learning, are for students to actively engage in learning experiences with staff and other students, to do their very best work, and to be flexible with correcting mistakes so they could keep learning. We have observed that parents have begun to allow their students to be somewhat more independent as virtual learning has continued. However, this continues to be a struggle.

All learners differ in the ways that they can navigate learning environments and express what they know, but this is especially true of our students. For example, some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not in speech, and vice versa. To help students demonstrate their learning, we found that we needed to make sure students had many options. We encouraged students to type, use pictures, act it out, and/or suggest other ways they felt able to demonstrate their learning. We’re prioritizing flexibility and learning from our students as they navigate many ways, new and old, to demonstrate what they know!

Our Learnings

Moving into virtual learning has been a challenge. But it has given our school wonderful opportunities to be more flexible, build more trust among staff, parents, and students, and experiment with and learn from new ways of teaching. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting closure of our physical building had the potential to negatively impact our students’ feelings of safety, motivation, learning, and growth. Having technology and clear and consistent procedures built into our program made it possible for us to roll out virtual learning relatively quickly, with schedules that were flexible and that included all the needed classes and therapy sessions. Consistent and transparent communication between school staff and parents (and students, where appropriate) have helped us to all be on the same page about what to expect, to trust each other more, and to strengthen our school community. This is a learning process, and we’ll continue to make adjustments. I want to emphasize that our move to distance learning has been a team effort. The school’s TLC leadership team, administrative team, teachers, assistant teachers, paraprofessionals, clinicians, IT department, students, and parents have all contributed to our success in starting and carrying out effective virtual learning at KTS, and we’re continuing to learn and grow together.

Reflections

What we learned/big takeaway

Communicating to our families, students, and staff with flexibility and openness has been important throughout our transition to distance learning. As most of our students need predictability in their everyday life to be successful, we’ve found it crucial to be open with them about what’s happening and what’s going to happen next.

One initial and ongoing challenge has been uncertainty regarding funding and resources to make virtual learning happen. Over the past several months, we’ve been unsure whether we’d be paid for services by funding sources. Some private-pay families have also run into financial challenges that have impacted their ability to pay for tuition and services. Our TLC executive director and leadership team have been supportive of the school and have pushed us to do right by students while taking the risk of not being paid. We’ve been fortunate to win some grant money for extra technology, but we’ve had to rely on our donors and other supporters to allow the school to run virtually and to meet the increased costs associated with technology.

With regard to the curriculum, we’re working on finding ways to stay true to who we are as a school. Our learning has always been very hands-on and experiential. This approach has been critical to the long-term success of our students who, despite having significant needs, are almost all able to graduate with a diploma and move on to gainful employment or postsecondary education. It’s been challenging to find ways to move our hands-on and experiential approach to learning online. We have begun to incorporate more hands-on and movement-based activities into our daily routines, including cooking lessons (with support from parents), Friday Dance Parties, and PBIS choice days where students are able to cash in their virtual KTS PBIS Bucks to “buy” time to do fun activities online with staff members.

What we are still figuring out

It’s important to be open with parents and students about what’s happening and what will happen next. Don’t hold back on being transparent about what you know and where you’re headed. And in this transparency, communicate and solicit regular feedback. There’s no way to predict where this will go, but we can keep our families and students informed and engage them as partners in defining the direction.

What I would tell other leaders during this time

Resources

  • UDL Remote Learning Resources - Nicole Abera attributes some of the successes her schools has experienced to their already established norms of teaching and assessing student learning in different ways.  This resource from CAST provides tools for schools to use Univeral Design for Learning (UDL) principles during virtual learning.

  • In-Home Suggestions for Parents during Quarantine - More than half of the students attending Nicole’s school are diagnosed with autism.  This resource provides suggestions for families on how to support their child with autism during remote learning.

  • Teacher Guide to Online Learning - Nicole underscores the importance of building relationships with parents during online learning.  This comprehensive guide from Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute offers practical tips and links to resources on many aspects of virtual learning, including communication with families.

  • Virtual Progress Monitoring - The teachers at Nicole’s school mention some challenges associated with determining student learning and progress.  This resource provides considerations and resources for gathering and using progress data during virtual learning.

  • Unstuckontarget.com - Online platform for parents with kids with autism spectrum disorder. Teachers at Nicole’s school use it as a self regulation tool for students when they seem to be inflexible when a problem arises.

  • PBIS Materials - Nicole’s school uses a PBIS framework to motivate and encourage positive student behavior.  This resource is a link to an extensive collection of materials for implementing the PBIS on the classroom, school, and district levels.

  • Flipgrid - An example of one technology that Nicole’s school is using, this resource provides additional information on the Flipgrid tool.

  • Kami Extension - PDF and Document Annotation - Teachers in Nicole’s school use the Kami extension to encourage students to write directly into PDF documents.  This link provides further information about the extension and its uses.

  • EdPuzzle - Used in ELA classes. This website allows the creator to embed questions in YouTube video content, so that you can keep the viewer engaged. It will also report the accuracy of the viewer's responses.

School background

The Katherine Thomas School (KTS) is a full-time special education day school in the DC metro area that serves preschool through grade 12. All the students at KTS require full-time special education outside of general education. Most of the students have significant language-based disabilities; 65 percent have autism spectrum disorders or present in a similar way. Half of the students at KTS are placed through their school districts, while the other half are placed unilaterally by their parents.

About the Author

Nicole Abera, PhD, has worked with children with disabilities in various capacities since 2001. Before joining the KTS team, she spent several years teaching children with autism and language-based learning disabilities in public and private settings, developing curriculum, coaching teachers, overseeing special education and related services for a large public charter school district, and playing an instrumental role in opening a learning center for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities in Washington, DC. Abera has also served as an adjunct professor of special education at the University of Maryland at College Park, a peer reviewer for the Global Education Review, and a Fulbright Fellow in Ethiopia. She has worked closely with families and school teams to create robust plans to meet students’ individual needs and has been dedicated to supporting school staff to teach students in the most effective ways. Abera holds a doctorate in special education from the University of Maryland, as well as an MA in international training and education and a BA in communication disorders.

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