KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Learning from home is difficult enough for those used to being educated in a traditional classroom setting, but for K-12 students who receive special education services and instruction, the challenges are more complicated and amplified.
As government-mandated stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines continue during the pandemic, how can caregivers best serve students whose academic struggles require individualized learning techniques?
Dr. Luchara Wallace, an associate professor of special education and director of the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations at Western Michigan University, has some answers. As a former elementary and secondary school teacher who coordinated programming to support students with learning disabilities and emotional/behavioral disorders, a current family and policy studies researcher and a parent of a special needs student, her expertise makes her uniquely positioned to offer insight.
One important point she makes about the current status of K-12 education: No matter a student’s abilities, learning at home is not the same as homeschooling during this period.
“This is called triage and survival,” Wallace says.
A Proactive Approach
Students who have special needs and now must learn at home during the pandemic are not only separated from their fellow students, but also from specialists who provide them with necessary services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and additional literacy instruction.
Different school districts are meeting the challenge of altered educational delivery in different ways, as are individual teachers. Therefore, patience and perspective are needed, Wallace says.
The elimination of regular schooling, along with associated worries about the pandemic itself, can have cumulative negative effects on students, ranging from sleep disruptions to heightened anxiety or grief.
Wallace suggests caregivers continue to advocate for students by being proactive with their learning and keeping tabs on their emotional state.
“It’s up to families to keep a close eye and monitor children,” says Wallace.
Being proactive, she emphasizes, doesn’t mean being perfect. Modifications can be made to class assignments. Not all subjects may be able to be covered each day. Working with teachers to negotiate extra time for tests or projects is always an option. Creative and flexibility are crucial elements to assisting students with learning at home.
Maintaining routines is also important. Each student should be in regular contact with teachers for accountability and so they know educators still care about them and their efforts. Weekday schedules that require students to work on certain academic subjects at certain times will help generate a sense of normalcy and security.
“Case managers should always be looped into those conversations” with teachers about learning continuity, Wallace says, and annual reviews should be scheduled and maintained.
Above all, “Be comfortable and OK with not getting everything done. Your best is what you can do right now,” says Wallace. “Maybe your child is not focused enough to read at any given time, so read a passage for them and then ask them questions about it.”
Meanwhile, caregivers should practice self-care by taking teaching breaks when they need them and taking time to enjoy some beloved activities, Wallace says.
Free online education resources are available, and many others offer free trials. Here are some that Wallace suggests:
- Imagine Learning on YouTube, which supplements English, arts and math instruction.
- Epic, a book subscription service that can be used for students and families with a 30-day trial, and is free for teachers and their classrooms until June 30.
- We are Teachers featuring 20 free science videos.
Prevalence of need
The number of students with special needs being served in U.S schools is on the rise, with some experts attributing the increase to improved identification methods. In the U.S. Department of Education’s Condition of 2018 Education Report, the number of students aged 3 to 21 receiving special education services increased from 6.4 million to 7 million between 2011-12 and 2017-18. About 14 percent of students enrolled in public schools now receive such specialized instruction.
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