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Strategies to Support Students with Learning Differences in the COVID-19 Educational Landscape

by Dr. Mandi Davis Skerbetz

As a society we are working to pivot and develop new routines due to the impact of COVID-19. The world of education, which historically is resistant to change, has been forced to evolve. Educators have been in a race against time to develop new learning environments and platforms that allow instruction to take place, while ensuring the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. In this race against time and limited research and best practices available, educators have fallen into the old practice of planning for the average student; students that do not fit that profile are often an afterthought.

Students with learning differences are a subgroup of students that has found this ever-changing state of education and the “new” normal difficult to navigate. The amount of cognitive shifting that is necessary to find success within a hybrid, virtual, or e-learning landscape is taxing for all students, let alone students that have weaknesses with processing, working memory, and executive functioning skills. It is more important now than ever for families and educators to work together to support students with learning differences.

Families and educators should work together to determine strategies, specifically, accommodations and modifications that will best support their student within a virtual setting. When considering supports for students with learning differences, accommodations and modifications are typically organized into four categories: presentation, response, environment, and timing/scheduling. The following are accommodations and modifications that families and educators should consider when developing plans to support students in a hybrid, virtual or e-learning environment.

Presentation Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Use audio recordings or text-to speech programs
  • Increase the font size of digitally presented text
  • Increase the spacing/amount of text presented digitally
  • Include visual representations and cues (clipart, memes, gifs) with written text
  • Include verbal summaries and cues (recorded) with written text
  • Chunk information presented into discrete pieces of information
  • Limit note taking during digital lessons, provide notes before the lesson or transcript after the lesson
  • Provide digital graphic organizers, skeleton notes, advanced organizers, anchor charts, and information keys
  • Provide videos of instruction for students to return to as needed
  • Provide verbal cues (sounds and audio recordings) embedded in lectures and digitally presented text
  • Provide all instructions for assignments in concise, written format; paired with a video explanation
  • Determine a consistent way digital information will be organized across teachers and courses

Response Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Provide students choice on how they submit responses and assignments:
    • Video or audio recordings of themselves providing answers (Loom, Flipgrid, etc…)
    • Pictures of handwritten work
    • Typed responses (use of Text to Speech programs as needed)
  • Provide students with online calculators or assistive technology tools specific to math
  • Provide students manipulatives
    • Tangible manipulatives sent home by the teacher
    • Printable manipulatives
    • Virtual manipulatives
  • Provide students increased wait time, cues, and alternatives (writing, circling, pointing, gestures) when asked to speak or present in front of online class
  • Provide digital graphic organizers, sentence starters, or templates for writing activities
  • Include the use of Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation assistive technology supports

Environment Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Provide a designated space for e-learning to take place, free from auditory and visual distractions
  • Provide sensory and fidget items to students while they are engaged in digital instruction
  • Allow the use of headphones or earbuds
  • Provide small group or one-on-one learning using breakout rooms or individual on-line conferences

Timing/Scheduling Accommodations and Modifications in a Virtual Setting:

  • Embed frequent guided and unguided brain breaks
  • Embed physical/kinesthetic instruction and movement
  • Increase the amount of time provided to complete a task
  • Allow extended time beyond what would typically be allowed during in-person instruction
  • Chunk larger assignments into smaller tasks and provide individual due dates over several days, instead of one due date for all the smaller tasks
  • Provide a written outline of due dates no more than one week at a time
  • Embed visual timers into online instruction
  • Provide visual timers for breaks
  • Provide consistent visual schedule or outline for each day or class period

Even though we, as special educators, are in unchartered territories it is important to remember that we must support students on an individual basis. There should never be a one size fits all approach to education regardless of learning environment. When designing a plan to support your child during online learning first consider individual strengths and then select accommodations and modifications listed above that will help to support specific areas of weakness.

Dr. Mandi Davis Skerbetz is currently the Assistant Head of School at Dallas Academy, a private school for students with learning differences in Dallas, TX, as well as  an Adjunct Professor for Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Skerbetz has focused her career as a teacher, school district administrator, professor, researcher, and consultant in the area of implementing evidence-based practices for students receiving Special Education for over 17 years.

In 2015, Dr. Skerbetz was the recipient of the Extra Mile Award from the Council of Graduate Students in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. She received the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh Founding Advisory Board Member and Faculty Fellow Award in 2016. The University of Pittsburgh, School of Education awarded Dr. Skerbetz with the Early Career Award in 2017.

Dr. Skerbetz holds an Ed.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in the Education of Students with Mental and Physical Disabilities, a M.Ed. in Special Education and a B.S. in Elementary Education from Duquesne University.

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