Meeting Students Where They Are: Strategies for Adapting Services for Students with Disabilities
by Anonymous Paraprofessional on April 15th 2020
leadership, physical disabilities, Social Emotional Learning, emotions, high school, online learning, access, special education
Note on Confidentiality: The author of this piece works with a small number of students who have distinctive disability profiles. In order to ensure her students’ confidentiality, we have kept her school’s name and its location anonymous.
I’ll be honest. When we first started doing virtual learning I felt really horrible about how things were going. All three of my students faced challenges in transitioning to the virtual learning environment.
One of my students (who has a social and emotional disorder) had internet connection issues that made it nearly impossible for us to virtually meet. Our internet connection problems were compounded by the fact that I wasn’t sure how seriously she was taking the situation. Even in a brick and mortar setting this student struggled a lot with motivation and in the first few days of remote learning she simply didn’t come to our meetings.
Another one of my students has significant physical disabilities. Due to the nature of her disabilities the switch to remote learning put significant strain on her parents and they had a hard time accepting the reality of the virtual situation. The student herself was also nervous about the transition to a virtual environment. She is in the first year of a transitional program for students aged 18-21 and she was crushed at the prospect of not being able to see her friends in class anymore.
My student with dyslexia was alarmed when he realized that there is far more reading in a virtual learning environment. While he has software that converts text to speech the voice is very robotic. He found that listening to long stretches of the robotic voice to be almost as challenging as reading.
"It took a lot of trial and error, but I’m happy to say that things have drastically improved over the last few weeks, and I feel really good about the level of service that I’m now providing to my students."
The internet connectivity issue was tricky and is unfortunately common in our rural environment. The remote learning plan we developed for my student with a social and emotional disorder involved a half hour check-in call every day. At first the student didn’t show up to our meetings at all but after a few days of her case manager’s consistent reminders she seemed to recognize that she still has responsibilities in this virtual environment. We began troubleshooting ways to get her internet to work.
First we tried Zoom but her internet connection wouldn’t support that. We moved to Google Hangouts but the connection kept cutting out. We spent the entire allotted thirty minutes for our session just trying to establish a connection. Finally we figured out that we could get Google Hangouts to work if we had my video on and hers off. Now it works great and we work hard together for thirty minutes every day.
Services for my student with significant physical disabilities have actually translated quite well to a virtual environment. In a brick and mortar setting I would attend two of her classes with her, take notes for her and have a separate one-on-one session to work through material together. In the virtual environment, I can still “attend” those classes and take notes for her in a Google Doc. I’ve found Zoom’s screen sharing feature to be incredibly useful for going over materials together. I can pull up readings or worksheets on my screen for us both to look at, and the experience is almost exactly the same as sitting together and looking at the same book.
Her concerns about a lack of social connection have been eased a bit as well. Her transition program has begun live classes, and they keep the Google Classroom open for a window of time before and after the class period. She now chats with her friends every day.
Of course, her parents deserve a lot of credit for how well her services have translated to the virtual environment. After a bumpy start they have risen to the occasion and have been a huge help. We take a “divide and conquer” approach. Her parents will help her with some aspects and I help her with others. They know I am doing as much to help as I can and they appreciate that.
My student with dyslexia still struggles with the robotic nature of the voice of her text to speech software, but our real breakthrough has been his mindset during this crisis. Since he does not require extensive supports, I asked him after the first week whether he was still finding our meetings helpful. He told me emphatically that he finds enormous comfort in our daily check-ins. While we do spend some of the time going through the work our video calls have become emotional check-ins too because that is what he seems to need right now.
While I am pleased with the way my services have evolved to fit the needs of my students, I am finding this experience challenging in many ways. I am working much longer hours than I ever was before and the work has been both exhausting and stressful. I have to spend a lot more time preparing and planning for each session with a student so that I can make sure we’re getting the most out of the limited time we have. Also for my students without live instruction, I have found that special education professionals are essentially being tasked with teaching the curriculum to students now. We are not high school teachers but we’re having to interpret general educators lessons and assignments in a way that feels a lot like teaching the subject matter. I understand why it’s happening, but I feel a lot of pressure on that front.
What we learned/big takeaway
Different students need different things during this time. My students have a wide array of disabilities, but they also have varying individual circumstances, interests, and levels of motivation. It took some trial and error, but I have been able to tailor my services to fit what each student needs during this time.
The social component. It’s so important for students with disabilities. While one of my students’ transition programs has made some progress on this front, my school has not yet found a way to create time for students to virtually socialize.
What we are still figuring out
Be careful not to discount students’ abilities and make it too easy for them. Students’ IEPs are still standing, and unless their IEP says we can help them in a certain way (turning in work for them, e.g.), we should expect it of them. Students still need to be working towards the goals outlined in their IEPs.
What I would tell other leaders during this time
KAMI - The subject of this case study mentions that one of their students uses text-to-speech software. This resource provides more information about the specific tool they use.
5 Tips for Supporting Students Socially and Emotionally During Distance Learning - The case study discusses students with social-emotional disabilities. This resource from Understood offers strategies to support students with emotional regulation during virtual learning.
Navigating COVID-19 When Your Child/Youth has a Disability - The case study focuses on students with significant physical disabilities. This resource provides suggestions for issues facing those with specific impairments or disabilities.
Engagement and Motivation- Helping Handout for Home - The subject of this case study shares that the students she works with can sometimes struggle with motivation to begin and complete their assignments. This resource provides considerations, recommendations, and additional resources to help families and educational teams build engagement and motivation in children.
Ten Ideas for Keeping Students with Diverse Learning Needs Engaged At Home - The parents of the students featured in this case study played a part in the switch to remote learning’s success. This resource provides ten ideas for keeping students with diverse learning needs engaged at home and emphasizes the collaborative things that educators and parents can do for each.
Collaborative for Inclusive Education Podcast - The case study’s subject touches on a number of the issues her students encountered during the transition to remote learning. This podcast showcases conversations with practitioners around how they handled similar challenges.
The author works at a small rural high school. Further information regarding her school has been omitted to preserve her students’ confidentiality.
About the Author
The author has been working as a paraprofessional since 2008. She works primarily in special education, which entails working with students with learning or significant physical disabilities either one-on-one or with multiple students at a time. Generally speaking, paraprofessionals work within a student's IEP to help them meet their goals, whether educational, social, or both. The author spent the first 10 years at the elementary level, and is currently at the high school level, a position she sought in order to gain experience with the young adult population.