Distance Learning For Kids With Special Needs Can Be Difficult

For Students With IEPs, Distance Learning Is Especially Challenging

April 9, 2020 Updated June 3, 2020

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When I learned that my kids would no longer be attending school and instead would be learning at home due to the COVID19 pandemic, I was initially excited. I already work from home and have a flexible schedule. I’m also a former homeschooler and college teacher. I assumed that guiding my four kids through their education while continuing to work wouldn’t be that difficult. After all, it’s not my first rodeo.

But I was wrong—very wrong.

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Instead of our distance learning looking like it was straight out of a scene from The Sound of Music (cue singing and frolicking through hillsides of flowers), we felt like we were at war. Not with COVID-19, but with one another. Two of my four children have unique learning needs, enough to warrant them having an individual education plan in place at school. This wasn’t going to be your run-of-the-mill (whatever that means these days) learning from home season. How in the world am I going to be a good enough to teacher to four kids, each with different learning styles and some with disabilities?

Distance learning, or learning at home, is hard enough for parents of typically developing children. But what about students who receive services like speech therapy, reading support, specialized math instruction, life skills classes, occupational therapy, social skills meetings, and more? What happens to them? Additionally, students with disabilities are entitled to accommodations which give them access to a free and appropriate public education (one equal to that of their typically functioning peers). These might include assistive technology (like a device to help them communicate), fidget and sensory tools (to help them stay focused), and behavioral systems (to help them progress academically and socially). How will students with special needs receive all of these now?

My kids aren’t alone—not even close. Just to put the problem into perspective for you, during the 2017-2018 academic school year, 7 million (or 14%) of all public school students received special education services. 34% of these students were indicated to have specific learning disabilities. Other categories include speech or language impairment, autism, OHI (other health impairment), and developmental delay. You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that 7 million is a big number.

Many, many American children are expected to distance-learn right now, without the appropriate support systems in place. Parents of children with special needs are justifiably freaking out. Many families do not have the skill set or means to provide the academic support their kids need. Their kids’ worlds have been turned inside out and upside down. This begs the question, now what?

Karrie Potter, Information Specialist at Family Matters Parent Training and Information Center in Illinois, offered Scary Mommy some insight. Not only is Potter working to help families during this tumultuous time, but she’s also a mother of a young woman with special needs. Her daughter has multiple diagnoses that impact her learning, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy, nonverbal learning disorder, and hydrocephalus. She graduated from high school last May.

Potter shared that parents are concerned about their kids with special needs falling behind during the school closures. They’re also worried about the extended time off school and how that will impact their children transitioning back into school once it resumes. Most importantly, parents are, understandably, overwhelmed because they feel unqualified to meet their child’s needs at home.

How are students with special needs going to be impacted by the current situation? Potter says that all students are going to be impacted. No student will be receiving the same education they received before the coronavirus pandemic. There’s no way to predict the extent to which students with special needs will be impacted, though there’s no doubt they will be. They already are, as I’ve witnessed with my own children with learning needs over the past several weeks of distance learning. Simply put, I’m not trained to conduct speech therapy sessions, modify or teach math, or provide occupational therapy.

Potter advises, as  far as academics go, parents need to reach out to their child’s educators and ask for help, including suggestions and resources. Some states have free centers like Potter’s, geared toward empowering parents to understand their child’s education plans.

For students who receive therapies—such as speech–and services from individuals like the school’s social worker, Potter says to reach out to them and ask for ideas on how to work with your child (and what to work on) in the home environment. Essentially, parents don’t have to go at this gig alone. She also advised that parents shouldn’t undermine the value of teaching children life skills. These include time management, learning to do chores, and teamwork (working alongside our kids on tasks that are new and difficult for our children).

Potter also reminds us of something simple, yet incredibly important. We need to avoid comparing ourselves to other parents when we are scrolling through social media. Children with special needs have their own unique path and their education plans are tailored to them. Instead of comparing, looking outward for affirmation, parents can acknowledge that they are doing the very best they can for their child. That’s what matters.

From my experience, I know that my family’s physical health and mental well-being is what matters the most. Without these two, learning doesn’t happen. When we choose to prioritize cuddling on the couch to read a book, rather than trying to force a worksheet being completed, the entire vibe in my house is so much better. This is a great time, now more than ever before, to practice connection over math facts and spelling words.

I have also come to realize that when I am emotionally stable (which means avoiding the news while practicing what we should: social isolation), I am better able to help my children, especially my children who have unique learning needs. I’m putting Potter’s advice into practice, working to be more confident in my new role and realizing that what matters most is that my children are OK.