How to Make Distance Learning Work This Fall
Last week, we had an honest and reassuring conversation (if you missed it, watch the video here!) with four special education professionals about how to make distance learning work this fall. CSUN professor of special education Dr. Amy Hanreddy, CSULA professor emerita of special education Dr. Mary Falvey, elementary school special education teacher Taylor Anderson, and high school special education teacher Brie Mahlstedt had incredibly helpful advice for how to significantly improve the distance learning experience as we start the new school year. So read on to create your action plan for this semester and take heart that things SHOULD be better!
Communicate, Collaborate, Be Honest, and Give Feedback
In the spring, when distance learning began, Dr. Amy Hanreddy’s team at CSUN studied what worked best for students with significant support needs, and found there was a need for more interaction with teachers and more collaboration in designing programs. She feels that distance learning will be much improved going forward: “With the new state requirement for daily live instruction (SB 98), there will be many more opportunities for daily, regular interaction between students and teachers,” she tells us. Dr. Hanreddy adds that we can’t let our experiences in the spring impact our expectations for the fall: “Every teacher I know has spent the summer putting together a more coherent plan. It’s not going to be perfect, but it will be significantly better than it was in the spring.”
Brie Mahlstedt, who teaches high school special education, agrees that communication is key: “I want to make sure parents know that I’m there for them too; it’s a team approach and we need to make sure it works for everyone.” She adds that if you’re not getting the communication you need, call or email your teachers and ask for it. Brie also asks us to be upfront and honest about our concerns and expectations, and what our goals are for our kids: “It could be just one goal, like making a friend. If we know what’s important to you right off the bat, we can help you going forward.”
Taylor Anderson, who teaches a class of younger elementary students with multiple disabilities, also stresses the importance of honesty and communication. “My students’ parents were really honest and open with me from the beginning and shared their struggles with me; because of that, I was able to adapt my lessons and expectations,” she says.
Dr. Mary Falvey, who has spent much of her career educating others about inclusive practices, highlights the importance of co-planning between general education and special education: “If we can co-plan ahead of time, incorporate different ways of learning, and let students show that they learned something, it makes a huge difference for the kiddos.”
Make Lessons More Fun and Engaging
One of the hardest things about distance learning is getting our kids to pay attention and remain engaged. Our panelists had great ideas for making distance learning more fun — Brie says that her class thrives on competition, so she puts students into teams and turns everything into a game.
Taylor gives an example of when she taught a unit about money and gave her students activities to do at home: “A parent called me and told me they made a cupcake shop at home (out of Play-Doh) and ‘sold’ them, and the whole family got involved.” She says that play-based learning is really important, especially with younger kids: “If something isn’t working, try to find a way to make it more fun or functional. Instead of a worksheet, come up with a game or interactive activity. Goals can still be achieved in a fun space.”
Inclusion, Accommodations, and Support at Home
A huge concern about distance learning is that our kids aren’t getting the accommodations and modifications that they usually receive in the classroom. Our panelists made it clear that you should be getting the same accommodations at home that you did in the classroom, and you need to speak up if you aren’t.
Dr. Falvey is currently working as an inclusion facilitator for a 2nd grade student who has Down syndrome. “There’s been limited collaboration with his general education teacher; nothing was being accommodated and he wasn’t able to meaningfully access the materials, so I printed all his worksheets and assignments and did the modifications myself,” she tells us. “Whether there’s an inclusion facilitator or not, we need to clarify who is responsible for making the accommodations so the student can meaningfully participate. I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping everyone in the loop.”
Brie adds that if something is listed in the student’s IEP modifications and goals, they should have access to it: “If a picture schedule helps them organize their day, that should be available to the parents. We can email it and they can print it out, or the teacher can print it out and put it together.” She will train caregivers or siblings on how to help the student, and once used her daughter as a model to show the correct hand grip for a student over Zoom. “It’s very challenging to help your child with higher support needs while you have a toddler running around, so we taught the younger sibling how to help the older one,” Brie says. She also recommends talking to your occupational and physical therapists: “They should be involved in these decisions and can send exercises to do at home. If you’re having a specific challenge, ask your teacher for help. If we can’t help, we have plenty of service providers who can.”
If your child has an instructional or classroom aide, Dr. Falvey says that the aide should call the student after the Zoom lesson and ask how it went, what the student understood, and what the student might need: “They should also help out with schedules, modifications to lessons, and making visual aids. The student and aide should both have the same text that they read together, giving the student a little more one-on-one instruction.”
Dr. Falvey adds that you can see if there are siblings or other peers who can help out, such as a classmate doing some reading for the student in a Zoom breakout room. For additional support, Dr. Hanreddy recommends looking at Regional Center’s respite and specialized supervision services: “It’s a very individual decision and depends on what you’re comfortable with, but it’s good to find out what your options are.”
Be Realistic, Start Small, and Find Out What Works for Your Kid
We can’t do everything and do it perfectly — we need to reframe our expectations and have patience with ourselves and our kids. As Dr. Hanreddy puts it: “Now is the time to figure out what is realistic for you and for your kids. It’s important for families to set goals for what they want to accomplish with their kids this year and what they can let go of.” She also suggests trying to find some things your child can do independently during the day: “It could be more passive, like watching a playlist of videos related to the curriculum, or something more active.”
Taylor often talks to parents about what they already do at home: “How can we get students involved? Doing the dishes and folding laundry are functional skills. Maybe if kids can’t do a worksheet on their own, they can work on matching the spoons while they help you put the silverware away.”
Things are bound to get frustrating at times, but Brie suggests that teachers and parents try to be upbeat because kids feed off of that. In addition, she believes creating reward systems can be really helpful: “I have a student who is motivated by me in particular, so I’ll check in with her and send her a video or email. Find out what works for your kid — what’s their currency? Build on that one small thing at a time.”
Document What Works and What Doesn’t
IEPs will look different and most will be done virtually, but that doesn’t mean our kids can’t make the same amount of progress. Dr. Hanreddy says we have to be careful about making assumptions that the only assessments that count are the high-stakes standardized ones: “Even in the best of times, that’s not always the best way to make evaluations.” She asks us to consider the many other ways to measure student progress: “How can we work together as a team to make sure our kids are moving forward?” She notes that there are protocols for conducting virtual assessments, if it’s possible for the child, and that assessments can be based on interviews and surveys. “Some schools and districts are looking at the possibility of providing in-person assessments using safety protocols (like masks and Plexiglas) when they can’t be done virtually and services are contingent on it,” Dr. Hanreddy adds.
We also need to make sure that students are assessed not just on the basis of their IEP, but also on grade-level core curriculum. “With Google Classroom, we can use those products to help with our assessments. They’re often better than the tools we use in face-to-face assessments,“ Dr. Falvey says. “We need to document and keep track of what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. We should be constantly evaluating and allowing kids to move forward.”
Have Fun and Stay Hopeful
The knowledge, enthusiasm, creative thinking, and insights that these super-educator panelists had to offer gives us hope that distance learning will go more smoothly this semester. “Honest communication is so important,” Brie says, adding that it helps her to know where her parents and students stand, and what went well in the spring as well as over the summer. Taylor reiterates the importance of collaboration: “We have to reframe our mindsets and expectations to understand that this will be different for students, teachers, and parents. We have to work together.” Dr. Falvey wants us to “learn to have fun and be realistic about expectations, but still have high expectations for our students.” And finally, Dr. Hanreddy asks that we approach distance learning “with a mindset of problem solving and hope,” encouraging us to “work on establishing a trusting relationship between the professionals and the families, and know that everyone is working as hard as they can.”