5 ways to remotely engage families of students in special education

Students in special education programs can thrive during remote learning if families feel supported and prepared

First things first: educators, you deserve a standing ovation for switching your classrooms to remote learning almost overnight this past spring. While you continue to have significant challenges facing you as remote learning continues in many districts, I have no doubt that you will all rise to the challenge and work to create amazing virtual special education learning environments. As you conceptualize your “return from break” plan, I encourage you to explore the power of supporting families in order to better reach all students.

As an educator (and perhaps as a parent yourself), you most likely have insight into one of the hard truths about remote learning right now: caregivers are NOT all right. Families of students in special education are especially concerned by how much their students have to lose due to schools moving online. Many of our students require hands-on learning, take months or even years to learn certain concepts and routines, and can quickly lose skills without in-person school interactions. Repetition, social skills, and behavior plans are all part of our daily special education routines and everything changed when schools went virtual last spring.

Caregivers are concerned that their student is regressing and losing skills they fought hard to obtain, perpetuating the ever-increasing gap between general education and special education. They also may not have any assistance with their children who have significant behavior and health challenges. Caregivers feel tired and overwhelmed. They care deeply about their children and their education but find remote learning a challenge.

Educators need immediate collaboration with caregivers in order to reach all of our students remotely. We can rewrite IEP goals to reflect changes stemming from school closures, create the most engaging, exciting online lessons, and try our best to connect with each student, but this does not help us if caregivers never log on or set their student up for learning at home. By supporting caregivers, there will be a trickle-down effect for students, and we will see more work completion, increase learning growth, and help more students reach their IEP goals.
Speaking with family, friends, and former colleagues these past few months, I have heard the same themes from caregivers with school-age children: they struggle to find time to work with their child and access materials, are confused by the amount and/or content of material, cannot get their student to do independent work, and feel like they are teaching alone. To help address these concerns, below is a framework to better support your students’ caregiver when in-person learning is not available.

1. Prioritize family connection

As a teacher, I must admit that while I have made meaningful connections with almost all of my students in one way or another, I can count on two hands the families with whom I truly created a significant relationship. There are a lot of caregivers I only saw at IEPs and conferences. We can change our mindset to first connect with caregivers, as they are the gatekeepers of their children’s at-home learning and an integral part of the remote special education team. Empower caregivers with the idea that while challenging, remote learning is a tremendous way for them to have input in their child’s education. Through frequent virtual caregiver contact, we can discern technology realities, help with problem-solving, and create meaningful instruction together.

2. Help families create an at-home learning environment and routine

Assist families with creating a physical space for doing schoolwork. We must be sensitive to our students’ home environments and cultures in order to create the best work space for the individual student. This article discusses the basics of creating schedules for children with disabilities. It would be a helpful resource to share and then you could brainstorm together how to create appropriate home learning schedules for their child.

Note: Please keep in mind that creating the schedule should be an inclusive effort between the special education staff, the student, and the family. You can share what works for the student at school, the family can share what works for the student at home, and the student can give preferences and insight into preferred activities. Then, the case manager should create at least the first schedule before teaching families how to continue.

3. Offer education for families

Families can love their child more than anything in the world and yet not have the skills of a special education team. Once you have created a positive relationship with a caregiver, you can determine what kind of information they need to be more successful with learning at home. This type of information can be overwhelming for families who are juggling many things and feel they do not have time to learn something new, so it can be helpful to create learning materials they can explore on their own time. By learning a few specific special education classroom tips and techniques, caregivers will see more on-task behavior and happier students.

4. Encourage tips for independent work

As educators, we know how hard it is for some students to work independently even with a multitude of supports in our special education classrooms. Some of our students with high support needs may not be able to access work at all independently right now, but it can still be our end goal. Below are ideas to translate some classroom special education supports to the home environment:

• Remind parents that students may need very short independent work sessions followed by rewards or preferred activities, shown in their written or visual schedule.
• Prioritize teaching organizational skills, such as writing assignments in an agenda.
• Make sure students have access to assistive technology they use at school to be more independent, such as iPads with communication applications or simple visual communication boards.

5. Facilitate connections between families of students with disabilities

The pandemic has made it difficult or impossible for many families to participate in their community like before and has isolated many in their homes. Social connection is important for everyone’s mental health. Reassure families that remote learning is hard and lonely for other families as well. It may help families if they connect with others through local or state groups for caregivers of students with specific disabilities or special needs in general. It can also help families connect with community mental health and disability resources or outside agencies that can sometimes provide assistance.

While remote learning cannot replace our special education classrooms, supporting families will help our students learn and grow. The difficult part of implementing these ideas will be continuing to consistently connect with families in order to see what is working and what is not. We understand how flexible we need to be with our classrooms and make a million small changes daily; now we must help caregivers to make these changes at home.

eSchool Media Contributors