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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.