Addressing Challenges in Online Special Education

Josh Duke


We have covered a lot of topics since the coronavirus forced schools to move online. We have shared tips on how to work and learn remotely, wellness advice for teachers, and collected a list of online resources. We wanted to be sure to add one more important piece to this discussion: how to help students with disabilities as well as their families.

We interviewed Dr. Jenny Root, associate professor of special education, and Addie McConomy, doctoral student in the special education program. In this multi-part series, we will discuss 1) challenges facing students with disabilities and their instructors, 2) how parents can support their child with special needs through the COVID-19 pandemic and 3) online resources for special education teachers. In this first post, we will address the specific challenges facing students with disabilities, their families and their teachers, as well as offer some tips on how to address them.


Sudden Transition

One of the biggest challenges facing students in general is the abrupt transition to online learning. “Using technology to teach and support students with disabilities is not new to special education teachers,” says Root. “However, the recent abrupt transition to distance learning goes far outside the typical use of technology, as teachers are not physically able to support and engage students with the technology.” To help students adjust, Root recommends that teachers should “use the same software and routines that their students are familiar with as much as possible.”

There are quite a few reliable software, tools and videos that Root recommends. Her favorites include:


Staying Engaged

Special education teachers will also find student engagement to be a particular challenge. While in the classroom, teachers can adjust instruction on the fly thanks to student feedback. In distance learning, however, Root says that it becomes more difficult for teachers to know how and when to adjust learning.

Because of this, Root recommends that teachers create an “authentic way to assess student learning and engagement in a distance learning setting.” Something as simple as a daily or weekly check-in sheet can provide feedback to ensure that students stay engaged. Root recommends a check-in sheet to be accessible by both students and their parents or caregivers. That way, teachers can query both students and their parent/caregiver to find out what the student likes or dislikes about distance learning, any problems they are encountering, what they miss about their classroom, and any other topic that keeps the student engaged.

A check-in form does not have to be elaborate. In fact, Root recommends using something as simple as Google Forms, which she likes particularly because teachers can create surveys, vary response options, and modify questions easily.


Helping Parents

“Although parents are the best experts on their children, they are not teachers,” Root says. “They are not prepared for delivering instruction using evidence-based practices.” The transition from being a parent to being both a parent and teacher is not an easy one. Further complicating the issue is that many special education teachers “are not experts in coaching others, especially at a distance, to implement the strategies they know work best to teach their students.” No one expects parents to suddenly become expert teachers.

Root suggests the work of one of her peers, Dr. Sarah Powell, associate professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin. Powell has created a number of short videos on the topic of math education that may help parents and teachers alike navigate the challenge of distance learning.


Addressing Students with Extensive Support Needs

While all students will need help during the coronavirus pandemic, Root believes that students with extensive support needs should be especially considered. Students with extensive support needs include individuals with autism, intellectual disabilities or multiple disabilities. “Because many of these students have complex communication needs and are not able to talk, their teachers rely on visual supports and providing choices for responding, which is difficult to replicate in an online format,” she says.

To help parents and caregivers of these students, Root recommends the YouTube channel of a special education teacher in Montana named Ms. Thai. In the videos, she uses research-based curriculum for her elementary students with extensive support needs. Root recommends that parents and teachers alike watch the videos to gain some understanding and become inspired to create similar lessons for their own students.


Service Documentation

One final challenge that Root identifies is specific to teachers. She points out that special education teachers will need a way to document and record their service minutes. “The regulation for this is changing rapidly from both the state and federal level,” she says. “For now, teachers should document the instructional minutes they provide to their students. Teachers can record the number of minutes they provide instruction and the time that parents will be facilitating the learning materials provided by the teacher.”