Special Educators Serve as a Source of Stability in Uncertain Times
special education, cognitive disability, accessibility, accommodations, multiple disabilities, attention, online learning
The lives of our students and their families were turned upside down this spring when our elementary school closed for in-person learning. The abruptness, uncertainty, change, and sadness were certainly experiences and emotions shared by most students, but they were amplified for many students with disabilities.
As an elementary special education teacher in a public school in Bethesda, Maryland, this experience made me realize just how vital our role is—not only for students, but for their families as well. During this time of instability, students and their caregivers were looking to us for a sense of normalcy, continuity, support, and leadership.
I’m proud of our school’s approach to including students with disabilities in every facet of our school community. Inclusion is a current that runs throughout our school. It’s an assumption for our entire staff. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a mentality that students without disabilities embrace, recognizing that differences in learning, development, or motor skills are not deficiencies, and understanding that we all have unique qualities that enrich our school community.
Thankfully, I have colleagues who made it their mission to be a source of stability for our students and families. Our team of special educators—which includes teachers and paraprofessionals—all united around the idea that we would tackle this challenge together by continuing to hold our students and ourselves to the highest expectations. This was our starting point, and everything that we considered always had to answer this call.
This mindset helped us get through the uncertain times, daily challenges, and range of emotions that were felt by adults and students alike. Now, as I prepare for virtual learning, which will last through at least February 2021, I’m considering what went well during the spring and how I will improve for the new school year. Knowing we can all learn from each other, I’m humbly sharing my reflections and ideas. I hope it contributes to your own thinking for how to best support students with disabilities and their families.
Become a Source of Stability
When our school closed in March 2020, I immediately asked myself a series of questions to help prioritize my efforts for transferring to virtual learning:
-What do my students need to feel secure and stable, with a sense of normalcy?
-What made our in-person schooling successful?
-What strategies, resources, and tools were most effective when we were meeting in person?
-What social-emotional challenges can I anticipate based on my knowledge of my students and our transfer to virtual learning?
The more I thought about these questions, the more my blurry picture of virtual learning came into focus. Immediately, I realized that my students thrive when they know and can anticipate their daily routine. I know they work best when they have direct, explicit instruction; opportunities for pre-teaching, frontloading, and vocabulary development; and guided practice delivered in a small group environment. I know they can excel when they have access to instruction that meets them where they are and that challenges them to grow. And I know they need a trusted adult to support their social-emotional needs.
In practice, being a source of stability translated into making logistical and academic information accessible and reliable for my students and their families, such as:
-Creating a reliable schedule that students could access on their own to increase their independence.
-Providing families with regular communication about the group and independent work for the week, with updates on how their child was faring.
-Presenting an attitude that reflected continued high expectations grounded in support for how I would facilitate our new classroom environment.
I adopted the slogan “Same great students, different classroom environment” to help us remember that even in these turbulent times, we remain the same caring, humorous, hardworking group of students and teachers. Much had changed. But at our core, much remained the same.
I won’t sugarcoat our experience. Many days were full of challenges and hiccups. Technology glitches sparked challenging behaviors (which happens to all of us!). Lack of access to some of the tools we routinely used in the classroom caused frustration for me and my students. We tackled a steep learning curve to find new and innovative ways to interact and engage with each other. But we got through, made it work, and learned to embrace and truly practice the art of being flexible.
"I make sure to remind all my students that they’re the same great group of kids—we just have a different type of classroom now."
Respect, Recognize, and Appreciate the Family-School Partnership
Throughout the spring, and in anticipation of the 2020–21 school year, family members have been fulfilling multiple roles they never envisioned: caregiver, chief technology officer, and chief academic officer—all while doing their best to carry out their daily professional responsibilities as well. I see my role as helping families know that they’re not alone in tackling these challenges.
In practice, this looked like:
-Making virtual IEP team meetings run smoothly by communicating with parents about their goals and concerns prior to the meeting, creating a detailed agenda to support meeting facilitation, and providing timely follow-up documents.
-Creating a Google Classroom to serve as a one-stop shop for all information needed for a school day and week.
-Creating a customized, color-coded schedule for each student, with all the logistical information needed to participate in each class, and teaching students to use Google calendar to view their schedule.
-Creating a weekly independent work schedule that was emailed to parents on Sunday before the start of the school week.
-Creating and using social stories to help explain and respond to unexpected events, such as difficulties with technology.
-Troubleshooting technological challenges.
Support from a parent was especially important for one of my students, Sophie (name has been changed), who has significant cognitive and physical disabilities. During in-person schooling, Sophie worked with two amazing paraprofessionals throughout the school day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon). Sophie needs adult support for her academic, cognitive, communication, motor, and functional needs. I tried to imagine how a shift to virtual learning would work for Sophie. How could we anticipate her needs and address them in a virtual setting?
The answer was the continued development and growth of a meaningful partnership between Sophie’s mom, a paraprofessional, and myself. In practice, this partnership meant constant communication about what worked well in the instructional lesson, what needed to be adjusted, and how to integrate high- and low-tech supports to deliver instruction and measure Sophie’s knowledge and skills. It meant:
-Giving Sophie a choice in the instructional content to gain her buy-in.
-Customizing Sophie’s academic materials to draw her in with high-interest topics that reinforced academic skills.
-Being flexible with Sophie’s schedule so that we could deliver instruction in shorter bursts of time and during times of the day when she was more alert. Due to her disability, it takes Sophie an immense amount of energy to engage in academics. After her mom suggested that Sophie take a nap in the middle of the day, we immediately saw an incredible improvement in her engagement and mood during afternoon classes.
-Being flexible, nimble, and without ego to make adjustments that would allow Sophie to thrive in this new educational setting. Our strong partnership was vital to Sophie’s growth.
Autonomy and Trust With School Leadership
All that I have discussed wouldn’t have been possible without support from our principal and assistant principal. From the beginning of the school year, they demonstrated their investment and commitment to supporting students with disabilities—and to supporting us as special educators. Their approach only strengthened during our shift to virtual learning. Specifically, our school leaders:
-Served as a resource by ensuring that we were aware of and comfortable with implementing the new protocols required to carry out special education in a virtual setting.
-Listened, advised, and had an open-door policy. They sought us out and encouraged us to ask questions about our new learning environment.
-Participated in our weekly special education team meetings to listen, learn, and advise in real time.
-Challenged us to consider how to best organize our staff to meet our new compliance requirements and provide innovative instruction.
-Prioritized staff training about how to use online platforms, which was especially important for our paraprofessionals who needed a thorough understanding to facilitate instruction or support.
-Enabled special educators to create our own schedules with our students. My goal was to create continuity with my students, so allowing me to design a schedule that prioritized my students’ needs was important. For example, during in-person learning, I would meet with many students in a small resource-room setting to support reading, writing, and math interventions and supports. We replicated this schedule within a virtual setting.
Perhaps the most important way our administrators have prioritized the needs of students with disabilities is by allowing us to loop, or advance to the next grade, with our students. As we will not be going back to an in-person learning environment until February 2021 (at the earliest), it’s important that teachers who already know students’ unique needs be allowed to move with them into the next school year. We’ve developed trusting relationships with our students, we know their families, and we’ve worked to create their “new normal” when it comes to the school environment. Being able to continue with our students will put them at ease and make them more available for learning in the new school year.
What we learned/big takeaway
We must continue to keep expectations high. How we reach those goals might look different, but the expectation itself remains intact. I made sure that the students I worked with knew that while we were learning virtually, I was going to expect the same level of commitment and effort from them, because I know they’re capable of achieving great things!
It’s essential for teachers to convey a sense of making this new normal work, both for students and for families. Students take their cues from how their teachers respond. Our response needs to be that while school may “look” different, excellent teaching and learning still occur.
It’s also important to remind students that even in a virtual learning setting, a lot about school remains the same. Keep the themes that kids expect in school, keep the rules that apply in school, and keep the high expectations for student achievement.
I used the summer to work toward figuring out how to best adapt instructional strategies that have been dependent on in-person interactions. For example, I’ve been trying out online math manipulatives and online reading intervention tools. This also helped me be aware of what kind of materials students needed that couldn’t be provided online.
What we are still figuring out
Focus on the good, and set the tone and expectation that educators will make this the best possible learning experience for each student during this uncertain time.
What I would tell other leaders during this time
Sample IEP Meeting Agenda - In this case study, Kim Hymes introduces several tools she used during virtual learning, including this sample IEP meeting agenda that was filled in and shared with parents prior to the meeting.
Sample Student Schedule - Kim noted that her students thrive best with a predictable schedule and routine. This is an example of a schedule that would be personalized and shared with each student and their families.
Social Story regarding Zoom - Another tool that Kim used with her students as needed, this social story addresses situations where Zoom meetings don’t end or begin on time.
Sample IEP Snapshot - This resource is an example of an abbreviated form of a student’s IEP used by Kim. This resource can be a helpful tool while planning for services and support.
How to Break Down Communication Barriers Between Teachers and Families - Kim credits some of her success in the spring to regular communication with families. This resource breaks down common barriers that can get in the way of building a relationship between teachers and families.
Creating a PBIS Behavior Teaching Matrix for Online Instruction - A key element of Kim’s school’s philosophy is high expectations. This resource from Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS) helps schools translate behavioral expectations into the virtual environment.
Offline Choice Boards: How Are You Integrating Offline Learning Into Your Online Class? - One strategy that Kim uses in the case study is that of student choice in learning activities. This resource contains one such example that blends online learning with offline activities.
Supporting Learners With Significant Disabilities: 5 Ideas for Virtual Education - Kim gives an example of one student whose paraprofessional support was transferred to the virtual classroom in a creative way. This resource provides a few other ideas for how school staff can support students with disabilities during virtual learning.
Bethesda Elementary School is located in Bethesda, Maryland, an urbanized community just northwest of Washington, D.C. The school serves approximately 670 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, 10% of whom are students with disabilities, 10% of whom receive free and reduced lunch, and approximately 20% of whom are English language learners.
Bethesda Elementary School serves students with disabilities in a variety of ways, including through a Home School Model approach by which students access the general education curriculum in their neighborhood school alongside their peers without disabilities using a variety of instructional models that may include instruction in a general education environment and/or a self-contained setting. In addition, Bethesda Elementary School has a School/Community-Based program with services designed for students who have the most significant intellectual disabilities and/or multiple disabilities.
About the Author
Kim Hymes is a special education teacher at a public elementary school in Bethesda, Maryland. In this role, she works with students with a range of disabilities and across multiple grade levels. Before becoming a special education teacher, Kim was the director of federal outreach at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, where she designed and implemented NCLD’s legislative and regulatory agenda to improve the lives of children with disabilities, their families, and the educators who work on their behalf.