Engaging Students With Special Needs in Home and Virtual Learning

By Dr. Stephanie Nilsen, Kimber Underdown, Katie Sprute, Dr. Crystal McCabe, Virginia Murray, Dr. Rebekah Dyer, Dr. Marjaneh Gilpatrick, and Tracy Vasquez

a student working on schoolwork at home with his mother

Educators and parents of students with special needs are navigating a new normal. Currently, almost all schools are delivering instruction via distance learning or by sending packets home for students to complete. Parents and family members are working from home and figuring out the best way to support their students’ learning goals and engagement remotely. Fortunately, our College of Education faculty members are expert practitioners in preparing teacher candidates to effectively engage with students with special needs and their families. Here are some of their insights on how to navigate this new normal:

Connect First

Before moving into any tasks, routines or requirements, connect with your child – really seek the gleam in their eye and the smile on their face! Take a minute to observe and see what they care most about in the moment. Then, get down on their level by kneeling or sitting on the floor. Engage in favorite connecting activities, such as singing, imitating each other, playing with favored objects or tickling/rough and tumble play. Before a child can learn, they need to feel connected emotionally to the relationship. Then, when the learning activity is introduced, continue that back-and-forth, engaging and connected relationship by choosing activities that are collaborative, interactive and play-based. It’s about togetherness and meaning, not about a to-do list, so focus on being together and finding joy in the activities you embark on. -Stephanie Nilsen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor

Establish a Daily Routine With a Visual Schedule

All students benefit from structure. It is the predictability that helps them make sense of their day and anticipate what’s next. With students out of school, their typical days take on a different look than usual, which can lead to stress, anxiety and behavioral challenges. If you keep a regular schedule with your child, they will feel more secure in this uncertain time.

Be sure to consider what is most important in your day and for your child, and schedule that in the most productive time of day for you both. Make sure you add some fun things to your day and try not to stress too much on the less important things. Now is the time to choose your battles. Be sure to add some down time and be a bit flexible, too, as this is not the time to be inflexible. Make your schedule a visual one, perhaps by having your child help illustrate it! Add in some rewards and positive feedback for adhering to the schedule each day. Most importantly, add in some fun, and try to connect with other parents via Zoom or Facetime. -Kimber Underdown, M.A.T., Associate Professor and Katie Sprute, M.Ed., Faculty Chair

Use High-Interest Topics

Picking high-interest topics will help to engage the students by making the material something they are interested in learning about. Through this engagement you could tie the topic to all subject areas. For example, if the student has an interest in trains, they could read about trains (or have it read to them through the computer), write about what they know about trains, research the history of trains, watch videos of trains and even create math problems that involve train situations (how many passengers are there, how far did they travel, what time will they arrive, etc.). -Crystal McCabe, Ph.D., LAC, Associate Professor

Incorporate Applicable Home Activities

Parents can think of activities in their own homes that would facilitate communication, following directions and academics at the same time. For example, students can practice following directions by following a recipe and work on math and science at the same time. Scavenger hunts and Simon Says are other engaging and easy games to build skills in listening, reading and following directions. Writing letters to friends and family can also help foster communication skills and academic skills. Using jellybeans or marshmallows and toothpicks, siblings could work together or have a competition for the strongest or largest structure. -Virginia Murray, M.A., Faculty Lead, Special Education

Utilize Technology

There are many technological tools that can be used to support students with exceptional needs, many of which can be relied on to supplement curriculum and increase student independence. For instance, video conferencing can enhance the student’s abilities to communicate progress and set new goals; skill-building apps can reinforce skills and provide opportunities to practice reading comprehension and fluency or mathematics problem solving strategies. This can be very helpful as many parents are working from home while supporting their child in their schoolwork. -Rebekah Dyer, Ed.D. Associate Professor

With the school closures, students with special needs may be at a higher risk of losing the academic gains they have achieved up to this point in the school year, so it is critically important that parents and families have the necessary tools and strategies to ensure their academic needs are met.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.