A few years ago, while observing an afterschool science cohort, I was introduced to a young boy I’ll call Jake. From the beginning Jake wasn’t hard to miss. While other students sat quietly and did their assignments, Jake was always moving. He seemed to get distracted easily and would frequently interrupt the teacher or disrupt his fellow classmates. This wasn’t because he was a bad kid, far from it.

The truth was Jake lived with both Autism and Tourette Syndrome.

As you can imagine, this made teaching Jake pretty difficult, but his teachers handled the situation like champs. I was truly amazed at the patience and kindness they displayed while helping him navigate each lesson. They became his biggest cheerleaders. Later, when Jake and his mother published a book that taught readers about children with Autism, his teachers couldn’t have been prouder. I’ll always be thankful to Jake for showing me what special-needs students can accomplish when given the environment they need to thrive.

The Virtual Landscape

Unfortunately, our present circumstances make learning almost impossible for kids like Jake. Remote schooling has many useful features, but it’s still been difficult for both teachers and students to master. Can you imagine how hard it must be for children with learning disabilities? Writing for Edutopia, Katy Reckdahl highlighted how students with ADHD were particularly prone to struggle when faced with virtual learning. She states,

In the physical classroom, teachers can generally see when students with ADHD are confused, fidgety, and in need of a quick refocus prompt—but many of these signals are lost in translation during Zoom instruction. And because learning from home is generally more independent, it requires more focus and organization, two qualities that are often in short supply for students with ADHD.”

Educators want to do everything in their power to help students thrive during this difficult season. But how do we make our virtual classrooms more comfortable for students wrestling with learning disabilities?

One Step at a Time  

Well, we can start by giving them (and ourselves) a little grace. The United States has been in a state of prolonged quarantine for almost a year now. There are going to be tears, there are going to be tantrums, and that’s okay. We’re all feeling the stress of the pandemic, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. What truly matters is that our students stay healthy and safe, and if that means teaching a few unorthodox lessons, well, we can figure out the rest later.

Secondly, make sure to establish regular schedules and routines. Students with Autism or ADHD often rely on set routines for structure and focus. Setting reminders in their virtual calendars or even displaying a virtual timer can help them stay on task. Posting a daily schedule can also help reduce anxiety, since students (both those with special needs and those without) can get flustered with the constant changes in remote learning.

Finally, make sure to check that your learning platforms are accessible to all students. For example, those with Dyslexia would likely prefer video lessons over written ones. For students with Autism, consider downloading specialty apps to help them with assignments. You can also assist students by taking time to review the features of whatever tools you’re using and explain how to operate them.

The Right Environment

Supporting students with learning disabilities can be hard, especially during a pandemic. Yet, these are the moments when they need us the most. We can still create environments where students like Jake are able to thrive. We simply need to show them the encouragement and understanding they need as they adapt to the new reality. For special needs students, having a supportive teacher can make all the difference. Let’s resolve to be that teacher.

We hope you are all staying healthy and safe during this difficult time. For more free educational resources, or ideas on how to promote healthy Social-Emotional Learning, simply follow this link!

*Today’s image is from Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. get your copy today!