Parents as Teachers: Supporting Student with Disabilities

Josh Duke


This is the second post in our series on helping students with special needs during the coronavirus outbreak. In the first post, we examined the challenges facing students with disabilities, their families and their teachers as school moves temporarily online. In this post, we asked Dr. Jenny Root and special education doctoral student Addy McConomy to outline ways that parents can support their students during this time.

Parents and guardians everywhere are discovering that they are now playing two roles: caregiver and educator. This can be especially difficult as they continue manage their household, work from home at their own job, or deal with emotional and mental stress caused by the pandemic. With that in mind, we wanted to provide a few tips for parents suddenly serving as teachers for students with disabilities.

Setting the Right Tone

The first step, says Root, is to acknowledge the situation we are all living in. “Accept that this time will be challenging for everyone!” she says. The idea of normalcy has shifted dramatically in a brief period of time, and the best most of us can do is approximate the life we lived a few months ago.

Despite this rapid change, she says that it is important to try and minimize stress and anxiety before attempting to teach a child. Knowing how to do this will be on an individual basis. “Some students may feel less anxiety if they have access to information about COVID-19. Other students should only be given minimal, developmentally appropriate information,” she says.

For parents interested in sharing information about the coronavirus, Root recommends a guide put together by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), which was created using input from school nurses and school psychologists. McConomy also recommends a children’s coloring book from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as an appropriate way to teach children about the virus.

Home Life

Aside from creating a safe environment to learn in, parents can also help students with disabilities by creating a schedule. Root recommends that this schedule allows for some flexibility and also promotes activities that a child will enjoy. This can be something as simple as taking out toys or activities in the morning and putting them up at a specific time. To keep things interesting and children entertained, she recommends rotating out these toys and activities. If parents have other children, Root suggests making sure that a schedule also incorporates their needs, as well.

Root also recommends finding ways to incorporate education in everyday life. For example, “Making a meal can be a math lesson, a reading lesson and a social studies lesson all in one!” Something like making cookies involves following directions and measuring ingredients, and afterwards, children get to enjoy a delicious snack.

Communicate with Educators

One of the biggest challenges facing parents is the fact that many of them are not teachers and are not trained to use evidence-based practices. The fact that special education teachers are relying on someone other than themselves to deliver the instruction can create problems.

For this reason, it is important for parents to stay in contact with their child’s teachers. Teachers will be looking for feedback to help them address the needs of their students, and parents will be the primary observer of their child’s response to lessons. “While there will likely be lessons and assignments that are not ideal, parent should feel comfortable reaching out to teachers when the distance learning is consistently not effective,” says Root. “Now more than ever teachers will need to look at each student’s individual needs and strengths in relation to the support their family is able to provide to make educational decisions.”

One of the biggest impacts of distance learning on students is the loss of socializing with their peers in the classroom. While virtual hangouts are not ideal, they still offer a chance for children to connect with their friends and classmates. If possible, Root recommends setting up video chats with fellow students to allow your child time to socialize. Parents can even set up virtual playdates or celebrations for special occasions, like birthdays. Teachers can help facilitate these video chats, so parents should be sure to communicate with teachers to plan special events.