Special Ed Students Have Lost Many Services. Here’s How SEL Strategies Can Help

This article originally appeared in EdSurge on June 4, 2020 by By Christina Cipriano and Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann.


This is the first of a three-part series looking at how social-emotional learning strategies can support teachers of students with learning differences during the pandemic.

The necessary and rapid move to distance learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been disabling for our education system.


All teachers and students are currently experiencing challenges with accessibility, the promotion of emotional and physical wellness, and academic progress—issues that the special education community knows all too well.


And our teachers are under tremendous pressure. It’s no wonder in a recent survey more than 5,000 teachers across the country reported feeling overwhelmed, anxious and stressed daily. We asked the same questions to more than 1,000 special educators and they added feeling exhausted, frustrated and confused.


For teachers of students who learn and think differently, the transition to distance learning continues to present additional challenges above and beyond those facing teachers of neurotypical learners.


Can my most vulnerable students tolerate distance learning? Can best practice be translated to this way of educating? Will we ever catch up for time lost? These questions and more are echoing through the special education ecosystem while federal recommendations and guidelines pivot aggressively around discussion of waivers, accountability and budgets.

And yet, alongside our heightened emotions, mounting challenges and evolving circumstances, there is an unexpected emergent pathway to educational equity.


Without warning, the rapid transition to remote instruction has unintentionally allowed the broader education community to empathize with the experience of disability within what was our in-person, brick-and-mortar education system. The pandemic has created an opportunity for perspective-taking at scale: We are all facing challenges now, whether related to issues of access, feelings of isolation or experiencing what it is like to learn differently. Can this lived experience propel us to leverage empathy and take action in ways that move us all toward a more inclusive educational system?


Social and emotional learning (SEL) can provide us with the basis for support and inclusion through the pandemic and beyond. We can reframe this difficult time as an opportunity to connect, to care for each other, to innovate and to move us all toward a more inclusive practice where all teachers and students can thrive.


By leaning into SEL—the teaching of an interrelated set of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies that underscore our capacity to learn, develop and maintain mutually supportive relationships, and be both physically and psychologically healthy—we can use strategies during this time that will be generalizable to all our students when we are able to return to in-person classrooms.


Throughout this series, we’ll take a deep dive into three of the challenges currently facing educators of students who learn and think differently, and explore how SEL strategies support reframing and addressing those challenges now and in the long term. We’ll start by addressing the first one here.


The challenge: Our students have lost their services.

For students who learn and think differently, when the doors of their school buildings closed in March, so did their related educational services.

Students with individual education plans (IEPs) may receive a host of related educational services, including speech, physical and occupational therapies, and applied behavior analysis programs facilitated by specially trained educators. In close coordination with the classroom teacher, these services are an integral part of each student’s educational experience, and are often administered in one-to-one or small-group settings.


A recent survey revealed that distanced instruction has presented a barrier to service delivery that is far greater than we could have ever imagined: Since school buildings closed, it is estimated that only 20 percent of students with IEPs are receiving the services they are entitled to as part of their remote-education programming. Let that sink in. That’s one in every five students.


The challenge of how to provide services in a remote environment is multidimensional. Most related educational services are designed to require close, hand-over-hand contact with a teacher and utilize physical manipulatives and school-based resources for support and execution.


That is, until now.


Reframing the challenge: Our students have lost their services as we once knew them.

The challenge of service provision during COVID-19 closures presents an opportunity for innovation within and across our relationships and network. Educators across the country asked, How can we advocate for and access the resources we need to service our students now that these services must, by necessity, look and feel differently?


We can work together more.

Although distance presents a challenge to service delivery, it is possible to connect with colleagues as resources and for support in ways never imagined.

There are stories rippling across the country of educators and providers learning from each other and innovating with novel service delivery models through telehealth and web-mediated platforms. Approaches range from direct service provision to models that rely heavily on parent support and coaching, giving a window into the lives of our students at home.


At the student level, general and special educators are working together to identify strategies that provide better accessibility to learning at a distance for all.

At a macro level, disability organizations are finding ways to work together that would never have happened before the pandemic. Over 40 educational organizations have banded together to create the Educating All Learners Alliance, a hub of curated tools, strategies and tips, as well as models for best practices from the field to support students with disabilities during distance learning and beyond. The alliance intends to help educators and administrators learn from each other by highlighting the voices of practitioners working to implement solutions and improving as they go.


We can improve how we already work together.

At the same time, we have an opportunity to deepen our relationships with each other. We can leverage all the people in our lives to support student learning and work together to grow our respective practices and solutions to the barriers our students are facing in learning.


At East High School in Rochester, N.Y., first year teacher Gavin Jenkins and New York state master teacher Mary Courtney are co-teaching 9th grade chemistry for the first time. With support from school administrators, they have created an accessible weekly approach to distance science learning that emphasizes hands-on experimentation, the use of common household materials, student explanation and the development of science literacy.

Jenkins and Courtney are using support and scaffold strategies that they know will work for special education students as the foundation to their approach. The result is a transformed, universally-designed classroom where all students can learn.


We can promote teacher-parent-student solidarity.

In many ways, we are all operating in self-contained learning environments right now—classrooms isolated into singular communities and separated from the larger school setting. Best practice from self-contained settings suggests we make solidarity—the consistent presentation of teamwork—visible to students at all times. This means that as educators we need to orient colleagues, parents and students with “we” instead of “me” because we are co-responsible for learning.


Teachers and related service providers are now dependent upon parents and caregivers to execute remote instruction and service provision. If all the individuals responsible for the students’ education are not on the same page—or even worse, undermining each other’s directions—the results can be disruptive and de-motivating for student learning.

Teachers and parents can demonstrate this solidarity to students by maintaining predictable classroom routines, rules and procedures as consistently as possible, regardless of conditions. Teachers and parents should use “we” language when speaking with students to reiterate that we are all united in our directions and decisions. Even from a distance, we can all use “we” instead of “me” in an effort to make our collective commitment to student learning visible.


In working to support a middle school student with complex communication needs and behavioral challenges from a distance, speech and language pathologist Rebecca Eisenberg had to work closely with this student’s mother to develop a set of possible solutions.

With this approach, Rebecca and mom were able to involve this student in defining an experience that would work for him, laying the basis for student agency and motivation, while also supporting his comfort by orienting to the situation as a team.

Rebecca shared, “Teletherapy can be very successful for students with complex communication needs and behavioral challenges. Being empathetic, knowing how to use technology quickly and efficiently, and having appropriate activities are key… I also think collaboration with parents is absolutely necessary for success. We’re a team with the same goal!


We can do better. Indeed, we already are.


SEL has the potential to provide each of us with the skills necessary to access education, be emotionally available to teach and learn and develop the interpersonal and self-regulation skills to thrive in learning and life. We did not choose for the pandemic to happen, but we can control how we respond to it. We can use SEL to inform our innovations in the interest of all our learners, and we can—and we will—carry the lessons we learn during this time to effect change for what services look like for all our students hereafter.


Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is a Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at the Yale School of Medicine. Follow her @drchriscip.


Gabbie Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.D., is Executive Director and Chief Scientist at EdTogether and an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow her @g_schlichtmann.

Their research was funded by a grant from The OAK Foundation (OCAY-19-407).

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