5 Tips to Manage Distance Learning for Students with Special Needs

State and local protocols to begin the 2020-21 school year with distance learning is a reality for most, if not all, families of school-aged children. This necessary method of virtual instruction may be particularly difficult for students with special needs who might require more individualized attention or hands-on learning to successfully support goals and objectives within their individualized education plan (IEP).
However, with some preparation and support from resources, parents and students can successfully navigate the world of virtual learning. Below are five tips to help ease the pressure and stress of distance learning for special needs:

Know Your Child’s IEP

That document that is collecting dust in your closet can be a great tool for you. The most current IEP documents your child’s strengths and needs, their learning accommodations, and specific goals that align with TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). Familiarize yourself with what the ARD committee developed to help you prioritize what to focus on at home and what accommodations and learning “tweaks” your child may need to optimize learning.

Need some help understanding the educational verbiage? Reach out to your child’s special education case manager or request a virtual conference or staffing to help clarify ways you can help your student access instruction at home. If you have questions about how to advocate for your child to ensure he/she receives the appropriate services, please contact Heather Long, Director of Family Support Services at The Arc of San Antonio. Heather works with families and caregivers to develop and implement plans that address the immediate and long-term needs of children and adults with I/DD including crisis intervention, funding for services, educational options, residential placement, day activities, and vocational programs. Heather can be reached at [email protected]

Implement a Realistic Work Schedule

It is difficult for children to attend to an academic task for a long period of time, especially if they have short attention spans, sensory issues, or difficulty reading long passages at a time. Create a do-able home school schedule that balances online time with movement and “brain breaks.” For example, if your child has to sit in front of a monitor and receive direct instruction and guided practice for a period of time, follow this instructional time with a brief movement activity such as 10-minute access to a sensory tub of items, a Play-Doh break, a simple walk, or cooking. Helpful charts and visuals for “break” time activities and “first…..then…..” can be helpful and found online with a simple internet search. Check out “The Arc @ Home” for other ideas for “brain breaks,” including baking Shaun’s Freestyle Cookies – oatmeal raisin edition!

Create a Comfortable Work Environment

Think of your child’s preferences regarding comfort, positioning, and sensory needs. Do they take in information best sitting in a chair, or lying on their stomach, or sitting crisscross on a couch or bed? Are they easily distracted by a TV or other device that may be in view? Do they need a small fidget item when listening over Zoom? How do they typically process direct instruction at school or work independently? Consider these small aspects that may add up to big successes during home instruction.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Students may be less motivated to complete school tasks at home because they identify their home as their “rest” and leisure area. Try to incorporate multiple ways to reinforce your child when they are completing tasks, paying attention, or turning in assignments. For example, try scheduling in some positive attention with your child while they are sitting to listen to their teachers or academic videos through a simple conversation, verbal praise, and acknowledging their on-task behavior. Another way to reinforce a child may be to follow a highly undesired academic task (e.g. writing) with a highly-desired leisure activity (e.g. 15 minutes of a video game). Some students may respond to more frequent reinforcement that leads up to a larger reward, such as earning pennies or tokens on a token board for a small segment of work completed, leading up to a larger reward such as the video game time.

And finally…..

Give Yourself and Your Child’s School Staff some Grace!

You have heard it over and over, yet it’s so true…we are in this together! Give grace to yourself when you feel like you are at the end of your rope. Remind yourself that these are “uncharted waters” and everyone is learning how to navigate the virtual learning world until students return to on-campus learning. When frustration takes over, give yourself permission to take your own “brain break”…do something that temporarily separates yourself from the frustration, like going outside to garden, lying down for a brief nap, or calling a friend for some socialization. It’s OK not to know everything, and by reaching out and utilizing resources, parents and educational teams can meet the needs of students and provide a high-quality learning experience.

The Arc of San Antonio is here to help you! For more than 66 years, The Arc’s mission has been to enhance the lives of children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities I/DD) and their families. Our vision is to provide quality innovative services to individuals of all ages with I/DD in order to help them lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. Today, The Arc offers a continuum of comprehensive services for San Antonio-area children and adults with a broad range of developmental abilities. For more information, please email [email protected]

This guest post was submitted by The Arc of San Antonio. 

Heather Long, LBSW
Director of Family Support Services
The Arc of San Antonio

Anissa Moore, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
Licensed Educational Consultant and Board-Certified Behavior Analyst
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