What is the Future of Virtual Special Education?

The COVID-19 pandemic rages on. What we thought might be a temporary speed bump is now a protracted mountain climb!

 Female special education administrator observes virtual special education session on laptop, wearing headphones and taking notes.Last spring’s flexibility in meeting students’ individualized education program (IEP) goals and delivering precise levels of service is gone. As one of our clients said, “It’s game time now.”

While parents, teachers, and related services providers hope for a speedy return to in-person instruction, remote learning may be a permanent part of education going forward.

This shift means virtual special education will remain necessary, too.

At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we’ve been envisioning special education’s future in the digital environment. Much of the structure, adaptations, one-on-one support, and natural peer interaction as part of effective special education programming are gone.

But going virtual also opens possibilities for:

  • Engaging students at a new level.
  • Empowering caregivers to support them more actively and effectively.
  • Realizing more fully the inclusion these students need to succeed.

Including Students Who Get Special Education Remains Critical

Decades ago, students with disabilities were thrown into regular education classrooms to “sink or swim.” In contrast, the inclusion model advocates for as many “life preservers” or “lifeboats” as needed to ensure all students experience optimal educational outcomes.

If virtual special education simply puts students with special needs into an online general education class without adaptations or supports, we’re reliving integration’s early days. We have to remember the inclusion model’s two core tenets:

  • Students with special needs have the right to be educated alongside their peers in the least restrictive environment.
  • Students’ optimal participation must be supported through structural changes to organization, curriculum, teaching, and learning strategies, among other factors.

How do we apply these principles in remote learning? Let’s think about some challenges the home environment presents, and what supports we can implement to meet them.  

Simple Strategies for Keeping Students Focused on Instruction 

Young middle school girl performs pushups against a wall at home as a movement break in her online learning session.

Anyone who’s spent more than a couple hours a day on video conferences knows staying “tuned in” is tough. Even adults struggle with sitting and staring at a screen for long periods of time.

Embedding sensory strategies in the virtual classroom can powerfully increase students’ focus and attention. Adding proprioceptive (deep pressure) activities can also help students with self-regulation and calming.

Options in the home include:

  • Doing pushups against a wall.
  • Hugging a pillow tightly.
  • Locking the hands, placing them on the top of the head, and pressing down to produce gentle pressure.

Incorporating movement breaks into lessons—stretches, yoga, jumping jacks—can restore students to a calmer, more alert state in which learning can take place.

Empowering Parents to Be More Effective In-Person Supports

Increasing virtual special education’s impact means making the most of a student’s caregivers. In the absence of classroom paraprofessionals, related services require participation from both students and their caregivers at home.

Suggesting how families can set up the home for success makes a great first step. Some examples include:

  • Moving from one room to another for occasional changes of pace.
  • Providing healthy snacks and beverages during the instructional day.
  • Ensuring students have the materials they need at the time required.
  • Finding ways to minimize distractions from other family members, especially during testing or other assessments.
  • Helping students stay on task and on schedule.

Your related services providers can give parents strategies that let students keep working on their IEP goals at home. They can consult with families directly, conduct home programs, or share pre-taped instructional videos demonstrating activities and techniques.

Stay on the Lookout for Ways to Optimize Peer Interactions

Virtual special education can make typical students feel isolated. For those with special needs, particularly intellectual or communication disorders, it can feel like solitary confinement.

Some school districts have created virtual classrooms where students and parents discuss what’s working and share ideas for making the school day easier on everyone. Connecting families virtually encourages ongoing social connections.

Virtual study groups can bring students into smaller, more intimate learning communities.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, or related service providers can moderate these groups and consult with students on areas where they struggle.  

Older elementary school students in classroom gently press their hands on top of their head for proprioceptive sensory input.

Stick With the MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support) Model 

We know teachers worry students having difficulties will go unidentified and only be found once a significant negative academic impact has happened. This concern is valid. Parents can easily mistake impairment for lack of effort.

Using the MTSS approach in online learning can help. Both parents and teachers can benefit from Tier 1 supports like in-services, pre-recorded “tip times” from resource room teachers and therapists, and access to therapeutic strategies.

When students are identified as needing support for such issues as handwriting, sensory, or articulation, suggest related services providers do some short-term small group interventions, instead of jumping to formal assessments.

You can also have providers offer virtual office hours so teachers, students, and parents can sign up for one-on-one check-ins to troubleshoot potential problems.  

Let PTS Provide Virtual Special Education Resources You Need

Implementing virtual special education can be daunting.

But, here’s an encouraging thought: We can take some cues from our students! Many of them interact socially using technology every day. This transition may be easier for some of them than it is for many adults.

Let’s find ways to tap into students’ virtual worlds. Let’s help them connect while giving them the safety net they need to benefit from a truly inclusive education.

For more information about how PTS can support your program during this school year like no other, call us today at 610-941-7020 or reach out to us online.

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