By Erica Rimlinger and Carolyn Conte
Teaching kids with special needs is not just a vocation. It is a specialized skill, and for some, even a calling. Before COVID-19 shuttered schools this spring, parents of kids with special needs found themselves, overnight, forced to assume the role of special educator, all while parenting, quarantining and, in some cases, simultaneously performing other jobs.
Students face difficulties sitting in one place for many hours, missing routines, missing friends, technological challenges, and especially the difficulty learning without the usual levels of support. Fine motor skills and other challenges may make responding in the chatbox difficult. For students with organizational weaknesses, it may be challenging to manage all the login information and class times.
With public schools in the Baltimore area having had a virtual start, parents face this news with hard-won insight into the strategy, energy, time and skill required to help kids learn despite these difficulties. We consulted the experts to find answers, and hopefully, a bit of reassurance as well. Parents of kids with special needs have the following tools going back to the kitchen table this fall:
Your child’s rights
Education attorney Alexandra Rosenblatt, whose second-grade daughter has Down syndrome, wants to remind parents that a child has the same educational rights at the kitchen table as they do in the school building.
“While almost all children struggle with virtual learning, the struggle for children with disabilities is significantly greater,” Rosenblatt said. “Schools still need to follow the IEP (Individualized Education Program), monitor progress and hold IEP team meetings” just like before. “I see a lot of parents hesitant to request more support, services and modifications to meet their child’s needs. Some parents worry about being a ‘problem parent.’ Some parents simply don’t know they have the right to ask for more support and services.”
What happened when schools closed in the spring isn’t going to cut it this fall, according to Rosenblatt. She advises parents take time to identify what didn’t work last time and improve.
For example: “If the recorded videos did not work for your child, then advocate for more live instruction. If whole class or small group virtual learning didn’t work for your child, then advocate for more one-to-one instruction. If the work presented was not modified the way it should have been, ensure the school is modifying the workload and worksheets based on how your child learns best.”
Martha Goodman, coordinator of the Maryland Special Needs Advocacy Project at the Macks Center for Jewish Education, agreed that, if a student needs specialized equipment, ask for it. “This can include specialized seating, larger keyboards or monitors, materials printed out, rather than on screen, or speech to text software,” she said.
Now that you’ve advocated for your child’s rights, what can you yourself do to make learning at home easier this time?
“Every family is finding distance learning very challenging! But yes, of course, children with special learning needs are having a particularly hard time,” Goodman said.
She recommends keeping a strict routine and being organized. “Having a set space with all the supplies needed can also help. If you don’t have room for a dedicated classroom space, maybe keeping everything the student needs in a box or container can help make sure the student is ready with books, paper and writing supplies,” Goodman said.
Parents can set up clickable icons on their desktops for each class, and alarms to notify the student. Visual schedules are also helpful.
Goodman also noted that, in some online learning platforms, it is possible to turn off the screen that shows yourself while still remaining visible to the teacher and other participants.
“This is useful if looking at himself causes a child anxiety or is very distracting,” she said. “If it’s not a tech option, a well-placed sticky note can also help. If your child doesn’t like to have the camera on, consider incentives, and ‘spotlighting’ the teacher, so she doesn’t see herself during class. Note: it is beneficial for teachers to have the camera on, but BCPS has stated that they cannot require the cameras to be on.”
Another tip Goodman shared is to try using fidget toys or different seat cushions if the child has trouble staying in front of a screen. “Create opportunities for movement when they are able to move,” she said.
For deaf children, in many platforms, captions are available. Often, they can be saved so material can be reviewed.
Maryland Special Needs Advocacy Project at the Macks Center for Jewish Education is always available to provide free advocacy and advice, for those who need it.
“Celebrate the small victories of each day,” Goodman concluded. “While parents are a child’s first teachers and her lifelong teachers, try to keep home a happy, peaceful place.”
An IEP is the individualized education program. What’s in the IEP? Annie McLaughlin, a board-certified behavior analyst and parent, advises parents to find out — in great detail.
“Spend time reviewing your child’s IEP and try to understand what your child knows and doesn’t know,” she said. McLaughlin, who works with parents to translate and construct better IEPs, encourages parents to ask educators questions such as, “What are these goals based on? How did you choose that number? How are you measuring progress? What supports are used in the classroom? Can I make that happen at home? How?”
McLaughlin also encourages parents to seek definitions for terms that would be unfamiliar to a layperson, such as “grade-level phonics.” “Go to the common core website. Email teachers,” McLaughlin said. “Get examples. Ask the teacher, ‘Can you take a video of yourself doing that skill?’ Ask them to train you.”
Rosenblatt agrees parents should be as informed as they can and keep detailed records. “Keep an electronic or physical COVID notebook,” she advises. “Make notes each day about how successful learning was, whether the work and instruction were appropriate for your child, what behavioral and academic challenges your child experienced that day, and your own observations about what skills your child is losing or gaining. Children will be entitled to compensatory or make-up services. Keeping your own data on what didn’t work and why will help get that compensation down the road.”
If you “know in your gut” your child is falling behind, having that “data piece is so important, so you can show what’s happening,” she said. And parents don’t have to go in to IEP meetings alone. “If parents who don’t know how to articulate or find what data they need to support what they’re asking, that’s where advocates and lawyers can help.” Don’t assume if you’re not getting something, that it can’t be done, she said. “If it’s doable in one district, it’s doable in another.”
When it comes to remote learning, IEPs should still be written to meet all the educational needs of the child. Only supports that are school-building dependent should be removed (for example, “Johnny will go to the nurse’s office to get his medication” ).
Your job isn’t to make home a workplace for yourself. At the end of the day, that is still the teacher’s job. As a caregiver, enlist your child’s educational team for support. Teachers are trained to do the heavy lifting academically
Rosenblatt concurs that parents shouldn’t expect to teach, but play a supporting role. “Children with learning differences and deficits need a lot more specialized instruction that parents simply cannot provide and should not be expected to provide,” Rosenblatt said. “I strongly urge schools and parents to add services and supports into the distance-learning plans to address caregiver training and support. If caregivers cannot be available to help with the instruction, the school needs to address this in the distance learning plans.”
McLaughlin said, “As much as possible, parents should familiarize themselves with the technology tools that the school will be using. If you need training on how to use the technology, ask for that through the special educator or the IEP process.”
More than anything, speak up if you need help. “Communication is key,” McLaughlin said. “Let the special educators know what is working for your child and what isn’t working. The special educator should be able to look at the individual learning characteristics of your child to recommend supports that can help. Even if they don’t know what the answer is, raise the question.”
Teachers want parents to approach them with questions and concerns, Gardiner said. She encourages parents to speak out and ask everything. “Don’t hold back. I feel like some issues took longer to fix because parents didn’t want to trouble me by asking when they came up,” she said. “Ask as soon as you have an issue! It’s my job.”