Reaching kids with learning differences can be tough in any classroom, but perhaps none more so than a remote or blended learning environment. The COVID-19 shutdowns ushered in an age of digital learning that few in education were prepared for, and even as most schools return to in-person instruction, many educators predict that online learning options are, to some extent, here to stay.
Challenges aside, a distance learning environment can also have surprising benefits for some learning differences. For teachers, the question is: What are these strengths, and how can we use digital tools and strategies to enhance those strengths?
Environment Matters in Catering to Learning Differences
Educators spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how to choose and present content that will give their students the best education possible. What’s the right curriculum? How can I make this classroom activity more engaging? How can I address the whole student, and not just their academic performance?
These questions are essential and worthy of the time spent on answering them. But for students with certain learning differences, sometimes content and presentation aren’t the only factors in whether they’ll be able to perform well in school. Especially for students with ADHD or ASD, environmental factors can have a huge impact on their ability to concentrate on the task at hand. And for many, learning at home was an excellent antidote to the many potential distractions and overwhelming stimuli of a classroom.
In a report from NPR on remote learning during the pandemic, several parents (and their kids) shared how online learning actually helped students with their learning differences. For example, learning at home gave opportunities for:
- More breaks: Bobby, a middle schooler with ADHD and chronic seizures, has known for a long time that he benefits from getting up and walking around frequently during the day. However, in a traditional classroom, this is not always possible or socially comfortable. But while learning remotely, he didn’t have this issue and could take breaks whenever his mind and body needed to.
- More access to learning materials: Bobby also had trouble remembering assignments when he participated in in-person school. However, online, he had constant access to all of his assignments and learning materials, and could even rewind and listen to his teachers’ words multiple times when he needed to.
- Less social pressure: Students who struggle to understand and respond to social cues often deal with high levels of anxiety in a school setting. Remote learning takes these pressures off, allowing them to focus on academics.
- Fewer distractions: Upcoming senior Ava reported going from nearly failing to getting all A’s once she switched to remote learning. Since she has ADHD, she had trouble with all the people and stimuli involved in a traditional classroom, and being at home allowed her to concentrate much better.
If your school doesn’t practice any kind of distance learning, what can these stories tell us about setting up a space conducive to learning within a school building? Mr. Monroe has some tips on how to bring the strengths of an “at-home” learning environment to your classroom:
@mrmonroeandnala ♬ If I Had Eyes (Originally Performed by Jack Johnson) [Instrumental Version] – Hit The Button Karaoke
Using Digital Education Tools for IEP Students
Whether your school is in-person, hybrid, or remote, digital tools almost certainly have a place in the classroom. Here are a few that might help students with learning differences thrive regardless of their environment.
- Audio tools: Students who are auditory learners, or who have dyslexia or dysgraphia, may have trouble reading and writing on paper. Being able to intake or produce content in different formats might help them get past the frustrations of reading and writing, and instead focus on learning objectives.
- Audiobooks: This article from Understood.org helps you find free audiobooks for your students.
- Text-to-speech: Text-to-speech isn’t the same as an audiobook, but sometimes it can help with learning anyway. This article highlights the differences between the two technologies and how you can use them with students.
- Math tools: Did you know there are apps that can walk students through math problems as complex as trigonometry, linear equations, and quadratic equations? Check out these apps that allow students to write, graph, and solve equations, helping them to visualize these problems in different ways.
- Organization and scheduling tools: Students with ADHD or ASD often struggle with executive functioning skills. That is, they might have trouble with staying organized, meeting deadlines, and knowing what to do next when they complete an assignment or run into an issue. These tools can help students stay focused.
- Cold Turkey: This program allows you to block certain websites or apps to help you focus.
Serving Kids with Learning Differences in the Online Classroom and Beyond
So now we know the strengths of students with learning differences in an online environment, and the tools that can help them learn. How can teachers bring this knowledge together to support students learning remotely or otherwise? ASCD offers the following strategies:
- Collaboration is key. IEP teams exist for a reason; that is, students with special needs benefit from input from not only their primary teacher(s), but also their parents and other specialists who understand their strengths and needs. Even if IEP teams aren’t meeting regularly in person, that doesn’t mean communication should stop. Quite the opposite. Rather, teachers must remember they can’t (and shouldn’t) try to solve issues on their own, but should reach out to family members if a student with learning differences is struggling with digital learning options. It’s often the case that the whole family needs help navigating the technology to help the student succeed.
- Start small and teach every new skill. When it comes to technology, teachers should never assume students and their families will know or be able to figure out how to use a new tool. Rather, you’ll see more success if you start out with simple tools and provide explicit instruction each time you introduce a new task or routine. This principle is also key to keep in mind when students adjust to a new routine—whether that’s changing from an in-person to hybrid model or vice versa. The benefits of online learning can be a double-edged sword for some students with learning differences. For some, the freedoms at home can prove to be more of a distraction, and it might take a long time for them to adjust to being able to succeed in such an environment.
- Universal design for learning remains paramount. Tried-and-true inclusive classroom strategies such as scaffolding, accessibility, and universal design for learning become all the more important when you add the variable of different modes of learning. As ASCD puts it, “Educators should be mindful about presenting in only one presentation mode (visuals with no audio or audio with no visuals) and should accept various kinds of student participation.” For example, if you have a participation requirement, you might allow students to fill that requirement in multiple ways, such as speaking aloud, writing down their answers, or giving a thumbs-up to show they understand.