Supporting Students with Disabilities During Covid

“There are times when we need to be firm. This is a time where we need to be as flexible as possible” - Michael Zwaagstra, Author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning

In the United States, roughly 7 million students between the ages of 3 and 21 have special needs—also known as disabilities. Students with Disabilities (SWD) need to work harder to achieve the goals in their Individualized Education Programs (IEP). Coupled with the Coronavirus pandemic and school closures, educating SWD has become extremely challenging for all teachers. Such students need patience, time, and teachers who understand their needs and are willing to implement various teaching methods and strategies. When working with SWD, it is imperative to implement 4 basic steps to ensure students access their Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in a synchronous virtual setting using Remote-Live Instruction.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Focus First on Basic Needs

Remember in college, when we all learned about Maslow’s five-tiered triangle of human needs? A quick synopsis tells us the needs lower in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to their higher needs. In order from bottom to top, the needs are: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization. It is important to understand that no learning will take place unless a student’s physiological and safety needs are being met. You can communicate with the parents of your younger students or speak directly to your older students and ensure their basic needs are being met. If they are not, then speak with your school’s administrative team so they can assist or connect them with local resources and community agencies that offer basic resources during this pandemic. Remember if we take care of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs first then the individual can bloom.

Review the Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

The information provided in an IEP can provide teachers a deeper understanding of their student’s strengths and challenges. It lays out exactly how the school will help the student meet the goals on the IEP which will, in turn, improve academic achievement. Although schools had to shut down in March and were unable to hold IEP meetings to review its components for educating SWD in synchronous virtual settings, there is still pertinent information that could be transferred to the virtual setting. The IEP components that discuss how disabilities affect the students’ learning, their accommodations, and related services needed to access their education are extremely informative and can guide teachers to what actually “works” when working with SWD. In addition, the IEP is similar to a prescription given by a doctor in that it’s based on the individual students, it targets their learning needs, and ensures improvement upon their goals.

Provide the Equipment, Materials, & Support Needed to Access FAPE

It is necessary for SWD to have the equipment and materials needed for Remote-Live Instruction. This includes a laptop and textbooks for their classes. This also includes access to the internet, which may be provided to families through portable Wi-Fi devices. But none of this will make a difference if SWD or parents do not understand how to get onto their school’s designated online platform to receive their instruction. Teachers must ensure students and parents understand how, and when, to access the online platform. They must also have a phone number or email to contact if they have issues accessing and entering the Zoom rooms for Remote-Live Instruction.

ASK FOR HELP! Teaching Students with Disabilities is not easy, but it is SO REWARDING!

Providing Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in a classroom before the pandemic was challenging enough. However, trying to offer SDI virtually is even more challenging and frustrating. SDI is defined by the “Individual with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA) as “adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” 34 CFR §300.39(b)(3). Just to think, if it’s extremely challenging and frustrating to you, imagine how your students feel if you have not been able to provide steps 1-3. So, ASK FOR HELP! SDI is the unique combination of instruction, intervention, supplementary aids, accommodations, and other adaptations and support that the IEP team selects to ensure student growth. If you are a general education teacher, contact a special education teacher for guidance on what strategies work with your SWD. If you are a special education teacher, contact your school’s administration to review the IEP and discuss what strategies will work best during Remote-Live Instruction. In short, you should not be doing this alone!

In closing, this list could have easily been 100 steps or more, as working with SWD requires patience, organization, creativity, acceptance, and an intuitive and calming nature. So focus on the basics and build from there. Remember, as Ignacio Estrada once said, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

To hear more about this topic listen to Lily Salazar interview teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning, Michael Zwaagstra on Teach the Way They Learn here.

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