Special education has to be one of the most challenging jobs in the teaching sector. SPED professionals must deliver highly specialized teaching methods to help a huge range of different learning conditions, balance social and emotional growth with solid learning progress, and ultimately equip their students for a world that poses many real challenges.
With all of these expectations to juggle, remote learning has understandably been a monumental challenge. Disrupting carefully scaffolded structures and physically separating special needs students from their committed educators, the situation appears bleak. But it’s far from stopping the dedicated educators who are fighting to help their students regardless of the circumstances.
Here’s how one determined Kami Hero, Cristi Bruce, Special Education Teacher at Wayne Schools in New Jersey USA, has supported her students throughout distance learning.
Life before lockdown
Focusing mainly on middle school, Cristi works with a wide range of students with special needs, preferably in small groups or one to one. As an English Language Arts teacher, one of her main responsibilities is to improve reading fluency and comprehension, ideally reaching the appropriate grade level. It’s with some relief that Cristi reports that she and a colleague were already very comfortable teaching in their school’s Google Education environment prior to lockdown.
“Thank God we found Kami before distance learning! In fact, we were pretty well set up going in. All of our Chromebooks had the Kami extension installed, we had persuaded our district to purchase it. And best of all we had already taught our kids how to open Kami and complete work with it.”
Using Kami alongside Google Classroom in a well established 1:1 device school meant Cristi’s students were equipped. They already had a basic working knowledge of their key digital tools and had some strategies in place prior to the dramatic shift to online learning.
Remote learning challenges for students who have special needs
Challenge is probably the most common word associated with the near-global movement to close schools and put education systems online. Indeed remote learning for special education has been tougher than most school shutdown journeys. Cristi very aptly highlighted some of the key difficulties being faced by students who receive special services and teachers:
By far the most significant challenge to overcome was the sudden and total shattering of carefully planned and often individually developed routines. Undermining sometimes years of work by staff and parents, it meant that many students simply didn’t have the tools they needed to engage with school at all, let alone continue progressing.
Those students who were lucky enough to have parents available to help could attempt to rebuild these structures, but it took time. Those without parental guidance, often with big, busy families or whose parents provided essential services, had to struggle to rebalance their own learning with remote help from school staff with varying degrees of success.
“It’s taken them a long time to adjust, and to be honest, a lot of them are still not adjusted.”
Coping with anxiety
The next issue to contend with was a universal one. The anxiety of life in a global pandemic is difficult for adults and had a profound physiological and personal impact on Cristi’s students.
“Two of my students had parents hospitalized with COVID-19. We needed to make sure they were okay before any learning could happen, and there were a couple of weeks when there was no work coming in from them—and that was fine.”
Like many experienced educators, Cristi understood that her first responsibility was to focus on her student’s emotional health.
“Social-emotional health is paramount over academics. Academics is very much a secondary goal.”
Separation from specialists
Suddenly separated from their teachers and given only digital texts and content to work from, many students were truly isolated from the face to face that they desperately needed.
“Students with special needs need to see or at least hear their teacher’s voice. They require texts read out to them by a familiar person—it’s so important.”
Technical issues and tech confidence
Moving to totally online learning systems was challenging for many students, but for students with learning difficulties, it was totally overwhelming.
“There was a lot of panic in the first week! Google constantly gives you notifications and they had all these new directions that they couldn’t follow.”
Working out how to complete the processes required to open and save work required as much effort as learning the content within them.
“It was so overwhelming for them that sometimes they wouldn’t even attempt it. We had to work really hard to turn down that anxiety and persuade and reassure them that they could do it.”
Finding strategies that worked
Fortunately for students with special needs and their families, our dedicated teachers did not give up the good fight despite the monumental challenges they faced. Indeed many, like Cristi, found some ingenious and handcrafted strategies to help their students continue to learn throughout remote learning. Cristi told us about her key ways forward:
Making space for face to face time
The importance of social and emotional wellbeing, alongside the flood of questions Cristi, receives every day from her students, gave her an idea.
Now, almost 3 months into Cristi’s Zoom class, her students don’t just always attend; they actively enjoy the structure and time it gives them to learn.
“Everyone thought it would be chaotic and that they [students] just wanted to chat with each other, but it really wasn’t. There was definitely a need for some socializing, but they all came because they wanted that help and to have someone help them organize their day so they could get on and be successful.”
Now that a lot of the tech issues have been solved and the students are getting to grips with their routine, Cristi is finding this time is increasingly becoming teaching.
“They want their feedback on work they’ve completed, and sometimes I can even help them with their other subjects.”
Kami has been a staple for Cristi and her students ever since her school went 1:1, but in remote learning, it was a true lifesaver for students with special needs.
“All of the tools, the Dictionary and Text to Speech [in particular], they knew how to use them to express themselves and actually comprehend the work they were being asked to do.”
There are a few specific ways that Kami has helped Cristi and her students during distance learning:
- Hearing the teacher’s voice:
The importance of a familiar voice and teaching style cannot be underplayed in special education.
“Students with special needs benefit from hearing things in their own teacher’s voice in order to understand the directions.”
With Kami, teachers could leave audio and visual comments in their students’ work to provide the sort of multimedia familiarity they needed.
“We would put an audio comment, pinpoint things for them… [and with Video Comments] we could explain things right on that document and then use the highlight to show specific areas—so then it’s all right there for them.”
Even better, Kami allows teachers to modify specific student’s copies of assigned work before it’s sent out.
“We can go in and help specific students if they are struggling, putting in comments or little hints for them—giving them that extra support that they need. And nobody else needed to know in the class which students needed a bit more teacher assistance. They all have the same document. That’s important.”
- Accessibility tools:
Perhaps Kami’s greatest strength is that it provides real freedom of expression. Students can type, speak, sign, or draw their answers and thoughts.
“Some kids are truly artistic and prefer to draw their responses, another great feature that Kami allows! It’s also great for game day for Pictionary, Hangman, Scattergories, or whatever they think up!”
Alongside this, accessibility tools like the Text to Speech function meant that Cristi’s students can really get to grips with the content being given to them.
- Practicing phonics:
“I also teach a supported reading class covering basic reading skills for example, decoding words. It was terrible at the beginning because the 8th graders just didn’t want to come onto the Zoom call to decode words! But to help them, I needed to hear them read out loud and make the sounds and they needed to hear me provide them with the feedback. Now I have them do their phonics pages in Kami and they leave me an audio comment. I leave one for them and then I have them do one back. This has been extremely successful. Kami to the rescue again!”
Has remote learning had any positives?
Despite the many struggles and the significant stress that this remote learning experiment has placed on teachers and students, it’s not all been bad. Though in many cases the benefits have only become apparent as the dust has settled a bit and more normal routines have been established.
“I said to my class, it’s okay, it’s just like practicing for college and you will all be technology wizards by the end of this. But that first week was tough. It was heartbreaking to hear the struggles the students were having from the parent emails and at times the students too. Their world was disrupted, and we had to work fast to provide them with the same structure, routine, and education that they were used to getting in school …from a distance.”
Since that first week, Cristi has seen some positives emerge:
“Some of them have taken to this no problem. Some are almost focused better. There are no distractions, they practice, they listen and they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to. And we have them do lots of things: quizzes on Google Forms, lessons on Flipgrid, content in Kami and reading ebooks … We just had them do poetry on Padlets, create Six-word video memoirs, and some of my students wrote the best things I’ve ever seen them write.”
Cristi has one stand out tale of a boy in her class who could just not sit still during any of her lessons.
“He is all over the place when he’s in my class. Trying out every type of chair and just couldn’t keep it together. Now [for remote learning] he sits at his one desk chair, wears his headphones and he’s the first one logged in and he’s the last one to leave—it’s just fantastic.”
The benefits are remarkable, but Cristi is also sure to point out that they are not represented across the board:
“Yes there have been benefits for some, but then there are others that we haven’t even heard from. Every once and a while we may get an assignment turned in, and they used to be A/B students, but now we just can’t get in touch with them.”
“Put it this way: there’s really no in-between. They are either totally tanking, potentially for personal reasons, not just remote learning, or they are maintaining or are even doing better. One thing remains, in special education the only thing constant is change. We will continue to adapt, change, and find ways to help all students reach their full potential. We are grateful for programs like Kami that have helped our students do just that during this global pandemic.”
👋 Learn more
At Kami we see it as our duty to support schools, teachers, and students during this tough shutdown period, and beyond. To learn more about how Kami could help you with remote learning check out our resources here.