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  • Connecting With Students

    Connecting With Students Understood Distance learning isn't just about lessons. See what some teachers are doing to maintain contact with students and families. LINK TO RESOURCE

  • Guide to Selecting Alternative Service Models During School Closure

    Guide to Selecting Alternative Service Models During School Closure Diverse Learners Cooperative Educators looking for ways to meet IEP service mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic can explore framing mindsets and options here. Sample service scenarios show what interventions and related services could look like when provided remotely. LINK TO RESOURCE

  • Caring for Your Child’s Hearing Health at Home: Guidance for Maintaining Hearing Devices, Improving Communication

    Caring for Your Child’s Hearing Health at Home: Guidance for Maintaining Hearing Devices, Improving Communication American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) As families shelter in place due to COVID-19, children with hearing loss may need additional help. ASHA offers this guidance to parents (available in English and in Spanish) about hearing aids, communication habits, and prioritizing regular care. LINK TO RESOURCE

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Blog Posts (72)

  • Parents vs. teachers? For special education, together is better.

    This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on August 10, 2020 by Hallie Golden. For one week in March, Patty Leitz watched her 7-year-old son, Michael, who has been diagnosed with severe autism and is nonverbal, not follow her directions or even respond when she’d try to teach him at home. Then everything changed. Michael’s special education teacher started sending her not only a video greeting for Michael and lesson plans and timing for everything every day, but also a five- to six-minute video for Ms. Leitz. In it, the teacher walked her through exactly how to teach her son. “As soon as I came along and imitated the teacher and used the exact words that the teacher uses, all of a sudden he’s complying and doing everything immediately,” says the Columbus, Ohio, mother. The daily lessons for both student and parent meant that Michael was keeping up with his skills. But they also empowered his mother, helping her realize that she can be an effective part of his education. “To be able to sit there and watch my kid count money, knew a quarter is 25 cents, that he knew how to tell time, it was amazing,” she says. Families and educators of the estimated 7 million special education students in the United States faced a myriad of challenges in the spring, as well as some out-of-the-box successes, after the coronavirus forced many to suddenly navigate remote learning. Heading into the fall with a majority of the nation’s largest school districts planning to start the year online-only, parents and teachers again face the task of managing learning. This time around, though, adults won’t be starting from scratch, but building off of the long list of lessons learned in the spring. Among them: Collaboration is key. “This is where the parent is critical,” says Sean Smith, special education professor at the University of Kansas, who says the crucial role of guardians, particularly at the elementary level, was a surprise for some in the spring. “Part of the job of the teacher is to actually empower and interact and facilitate with the parent or the adult.” Already districts, often asked about how they are planning to help their special education population, are prioritizing solutions and training. Some schools have explored offering evening or weekend support, in order to better accommodate families where parents work full time, says Professor Smith. The idea of having special education students start in person has also been suggested, with some parents petitioning for it, and some districts planning to give students priority access to buses to get them to on-site instruction. Some students already have been attending summer school. Special education in the U.S. is based on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which requires that districts provide individualized, appropriate, and free education for children with disabilities. It includes specifications about creating each student’s individualized education program, or IEP, which details annual goals and service needs. In addition to academic instruction, some students require physical and occupational therapy, all of which has often been difficult to provide during the pandemic and has resulted in lawsuits by parents. The Department of Education, while encouraging flexibility, has generally not allowed waivers for IEP rules and has been firm in its message to schools: Find a way. Lisa Thomas, associate director at the American Federation of Teachers, a union, says after the switch to remote learning in the spring, she noticed teachers and specialists, including occupational and physical therapists, working more collaboratively with each other and parents in order to adapt to the new reality. “This pandemic forced a level of collaboration that they typically just didn’t have the opportunity to do in a regular school day,” she says. In her own family, says Ms. Thomas, she saw a Maryland district develop a remote learning service plan as a supplement to her daughter’s IEP. With the teacher, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and other specialists all working together, they conducted an audit of her daughter’s services and figured out how all but seven hours of her 32-hour IEP could be done remotely. Even so, working together will likely mean frequent reevaluation of what’s working and what isn’t. In March, when Chris and Jill Reffett helped their 9-year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, participate in a Zoom social hour set up by her teacher, it was clear almost immediately it wasn’t going to work for her. The sessions were meant to give the students in the second grade classroom in Lawrence, Kansas, a chance to be around each other as they did an art project or some other type of activity together. “She couldn’t get that they could actually see her on the other side. And to her it was noisy, it was uncontrolled,” says Ms. Reffett. “It made me a little bonkers. So for her, with ADHD, it was too much.” Mr. Reffett says they ended up only having their daughter take part a few times, before skipping the social sessions altogether. Julie Shepard and her husband in Spokane, Washington, had a similar experience with their 7-year-old son, Demetri, who has been diagnosed with autism and is legally blind. For two months in the spring, Ms. Shepard managed to carve out time for his general education and special education lessons, as well as his more specialized services, including vision therapies. But the tablet he was using was too small for him to see clearly, and Demetri, who typically loves school, was becoming increasingly frustrated and angry trying to learn remotely. In May, she realized that this wasn’t working for her or her son: “It’s full time, and I can’t do my job and do his teaching full time,” she says. They temporarily switched to just focusing on general education lessons and attending only one digital therapy appointment a week. The change improved his mood and allowed Ms. Shepard to keep up with everything, but his instructors told her he is falling behind. This fall, overcoming situations like those will occupy special education teachers, who are already gleaning insights from the spring. Kareem Neal teaches 15 high school students in a self-contained special education classroom in Phoenix. In the spring, he started holding virtual class meetings every Monday with students and their families, and once a day one-on-one virtual lessons with each of his pupils. The result, he says, was a lot more communication and a stronger relationship with each family. He also says he has a better understanding of his students from observing them at home, pointing to one in particular as an example. “I think it was really a telling thing to me to say, ‘Wow, he is in my classroom getting all the attention he can because he may go home and not get much,’” says Mr. Neal.   For some students, though, being at home may offer fewer distractions than a busy classroom, says Denise Stile Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national organization that helps to protect the rights of students with disabilities. A child may also thrive off of virtual sessions in which they are the central focus of their teacher’s attention, she adds. For her own 7-year-old grandchild, who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome, she says simply being out of his special education classroom and among his typically developing siblings at home helped him: “He’s been saying a lot more words spontaneously because of that and really imitating what they’re doing all day long.” Overall, she says she has mixed feelings about the fall. “[I'm hopeful] that we all can take what we’ve learned from this process into the new school year. But we also are concerned because of the unknowns. We don’t know how long this is all going to last. We don’t know what the continued effect is going to be for some students or whether they’ll receive the services that they need. And that’s worrisome."

  • Two Chicago families, two experiences: Stories spotlight challenges ahead for special education

    This article was published on August 10, 2020, in Chalkbeat by Samatha Smylie. As part of a summer program for children with disabilities, Nicole Abreu’s daughter, a rising third-grader at Jahn Elementary on Chicago’s North Side, has been able to receive speech-language therapy, services for the visually impaired, and help with her assignments from both a teacher and a paraprofessional. “The teacher is making the best of a very difficult situation because she has my daughter, who is a rising third-grader, and also like some middle school boys. She has been working super hard to try and accommodate all of us along with the paraprofessional,” said Abreu. Her experience hasn’t been perfect. She hasn’t received the occupational or physical therapy guaranteed by her individualized education program. While she has had some access to a social worker through assignments, they haven’t been able to have teletherapy sessions. But Abreu has had a far better time getting the necessary special education services for her daughter than Anna, a mother of a rising fourth-grader with dyslexia. Anna, who asked Chalkbeat to withhold her last name and her son’s name due to privacy concerns, has been acting as both a mother and a special education classroom assistant to get her son to focus on his schoolwork. Her son is currently enrolled at a therapeutic day school in LaGrange, in a southwest suburb of Chicago, through Chicago Public Schools. “His teachers are just expecting everything to be done on zoom. To be quite honest that doesn’t work for my son. It’s overwhelming to him and he doesn’t learn very well,” Anna said. Looking ahead at the fall, she needs more guidance from his teachers to assist him with his schoolwork and wants more collaboration between her and the teacher to create a learning environment at home that’s similar to school. Students with special needs have been particularly hard hit by school closures in Chicago during the coronavirus pandemic. Vital services, many of which can only be done in person, disappeared for weeks when campuses shuttered in March — and some students weren’t able to access them for the rest of the school year. Some parents were hoping that the extended school year would give their child a chance to make up for lost time. But, they found programming riddled with the same issues as the spring: limited access to clinicians, difficulty navigating online applications, and not enough time with teachers and classroom assistants. The experiences of these two families — which show how difficult it has been for schools to serve children with special needs outside of the school building and just how wildly such services can vary by individual school — spotlight the challenges ahead as Chicago starts the year remotely. Chicago Public Schools said in a statement that the district prioritized students who displayed the need for summer programming, and the goal of the program was to prevent “significant skill loss” caused by the interruption of services. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the extended school year had problems, Mary Fahey Hughes, special education parent liaison at Raise Your Hand Illinois, said. “During non-COVID times, there’s not a continuum of staff to serve kids. There’s a huge learning curve for educators getting to know the kids and their IEPs. Two to three weeks into it before any learning starts with a new teacher, and then it’s two or three weeks later and it’s over,” Fahey Hughes said. She said that this issue has worsened with remote learning. Chris Yun, education policy analyst at Access Living, a disability rights advocacy organization, said that parents who were approved for summer programming were hoping to regain some learning lost over the spring. “During the spring, people was like, ‘This is an emergency situation, we just need to endure this. Then in the summertime, maybe we can come back, restart and then we can recoup whatever is lost.’ Because of the COVID situation, summer just became the same thing as a spring situation,” Yun said. With spring and summer done, advocates and parents are wondering what Chicago will do to improve special education services for the fall. In its tentative plan, the district had said that it would bring back some students in special education for full-time, in-person schooling, while others would select either all-remote or a hybrid model. But on Wednesday, the district announced that it will start the school year all-remote because of rising numbers of coronavirus cases in the city. Schools chief Janice Jackson pledged that the district will pay attention to the needs of special education students by releasing detailed guidance for one-on-one support and small group instruction remotely. Even before Chicago made the announcement, Anna and Abreu were going to choose remote learning for their children due to health concerns. However, they are worried about how it will go in the fall. “I’m worried that he’s not going to get his reading instruction because he struggled to read. He struggled with social emotional growth and him not getting the socializing with other kids and that’s the hard part,” Anna said. Abreu hopes that the fall is more like the summer for her daughter. “There was more live instruction during the summer and she’s getting the actual minutes in her individualized education plan and not a small proportion of them,” she said. In the fall, special education advocates want school districts throughout the nation to take steps to ensure that students have access to teachers, classroom assistants, and clinicians so that students can receive additional services. Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Disabilities based in Washington, D.C., said that school districts around the country will need to develop a robust infrastructure and capacity to provide special education services to students remotely. “If you haven’t yet found a way to deliver speech therapy to your students virtually, you’ve got to find a platform that works for you and make sure you’ve got the personnel available to do that one-on-one with students or in small groups,” she said. In addition to providing services, Yun, at Access Living, said that schools need more staff to help students with their work online, IEP teams must assess loss of learning over the spring and summer, and work with families to create new goals for students. For Yun this isn’t just about students with disabilities achieving academically — special education services can give them critical life skills. “For every child in the US at this moment, we have lots of concern about their learning. But, for one particular group of students, the difficulty is much harder because of the pandemic, lack of adequate support and bureaucracy, ” she said.

  • Jones: Prioritize Active Learning. Age Matters. Teachers Hold the Key. Ways to Help Special Ed Kids,

    This article originally appeared in the 74 and is authored by EALA Founding Partner NCLD Executive Director Lindsay Jones. This spring marked three years since the groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling on a case involving a fifth-grader with autism, Endrew F. The decision set a new standard: School districts must provide an education that allows each student with a disability to make meaningful academic progress. Despite legal wins and a growing body of research that shows that most students with disabilities can perform at or above grade level, the proficiency and graduation rates for students with disabilities continue to trail those of their peers. The U.S. education system has yet to find a way to accelerate learning, or, as TNTP defines it, “put every student on a fast track to grade level,” at scale. COVID-19 increased the size of the problem, but it also might provide a terrific opportunity to attack it. After the virus shuttered schools in March, experts predicted that students would begin the next school year potentially up to a year behind in math. Instructional losses like this will only exacerbate the achievement gap for students with disabilities and other historically marginalized populations (including, among others, students of color, low-income students and English learners), given their inequitable access to distance learning opportunities. The acceleration conversation can no longer be about a few lucky students. Our schools now have an opportunity to identify and scale successful approaches that can help everyone make enough progress to catch up and truly thrive. Policymakers and schools can draw from research and pockets of success to mitigate instructional loss from COVID and reimagine general and special education for years to come. To accelerate learning, students must make more than a year of growth in one academic year — something children at very few schools did even before the pandemic. In some instances, efforts to meet struggling students at their level and remediate education only exacerbate the problem. But there are bright spots, and we can learn from those. The California Acceleration Project has worked with community colleges to successfully redesign remedial college courses. Remedial classes — typically designed to help students make up only content they’ve missed — were restructured to become accelerated courses. Because of the redesign, these courses allowed students to complete prerequisite and college-level content at the same time and increased their likelihood of completing the college-level course by 2.3 to 4.5 times. High schools that serve students who are not on track to graduate — often referred to as acceleration schools —prioritize how much students have learned over how much time they have spent in a classroom and embrace student-led, project-based instruction. Outcomes vary, but some of these schools, including OPPortunity Academy Hartford, have higher graduation rates than traditional high schools in the same town or state. In math, skills build on one another. In order to accelerate the process, Teach to One provides a personalized learning model that ensures that students have the opportunity to gain math skills at the right moment for them. This approach requires creating a custom math curriculum using a specialized algorithm for each child, focusing on the most needed prerequisite skills while exposing students to grade-level content. Research on the approach is mixed, but Joel Rose, founder of the organization that created Teach to One, asserts that if enough time is spent meeting kids where they are, it will ultimately accelerate learning. These approaches are different, and context is critical to their success, but there are common threads across these and other successful strategies. Reorganize and focus instruction. Requiring students to follow the same curriculum and learning progression tethers them to a growth trajectory that will at best run parallel to grade-level standards. Instead, acceleration must reorganize and focus future instruction. Successful efforts resist the pressure to cover everything and instead condense material, reduce redundancies in learning progressions and integrate grade-level and prerequisite skills. Focus on strengths. Research shows that embracing individual strengths and using those to personalize instruction and identify necessary accommodations will maximize learning and pique student interest. Twice-exceptional students — children who are both gifted and have a disability — have been a test case in this approach. Models that improve outcomes are those that prioritize student strengths when designing a learning plan and incorporate accommodations to fill gaps as necessary. Prioritize active learning and deep engagement. Engaging, rigorous content that is aligned to student interests matters greatly and can dramatically improve learning outcomes. Students meet expectations and dedicate more effort when the material is compelling and relates to their life. Challenging content is essential, and some acceleration models offer project-based learning that requires students to engage with their community or apply new skills and knowledge to solve real-life problems, usually over a long period of time. Age matters. Schools must tailor models for student age and development. Research shows that reteaching unlearned content is effective in early elementary grades and is necessary to layer skills for more advanced standards. However, in older elementary grades and beyond, a focus on remedial content is detrimental. Older students fare much better when schools foster critical thinking, self-regulation and self-motivation to help with new grade-level content retention. Teachers hold the key. Educator knowledge is a critical component of all models. Any wide-scale acceleration effort will reimagine education, and teachers will need tools and resources to ensure that they implement the strategies consistently and appropriately. Research shows that any school improvement model must include adequate professional support and growth. Changes in education implementation will fail unless educators receive high-quality professional development and opportunities for collaborative problem-solving. Accelerating learning won’t be easy. For decades, parents, teachers, advocates and policymakers have fought to improve special education and change students’ learning trajectories, but there are still significant achievement gaps between students with disabilities and their peers. The same is true for other marginalized populations. Regardless, we cannot let schools return to “normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an opportunity to reimagine instruction and adopt approaches that forever change learning progressions for all students. Let’s learn from what works as schools adopt policies and curriculum for the 2020-21 academic year and apply that to rethink what is possible for 7.1 million students in special education. Lindsay E. Jones is president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, an organization whose mission is to improve the lives of the 1 in 5 children and adults nationwide with learning and attention issues. You can find NCLD’s “Planning for Equity and Inclusion: A Guide to Reopening Schools” here.

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