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Help! My child with special needs can't learn online!

I hear from many families I work with that their children have trouble with online lessons. Some parents can't even get their children to sit down in front of the computer. Some children have trouble participating in or staying engaged in lessons. They can get frustrated or simply get distracted and move away from screens to do something else. Some children get overwhelmed by the format. It is not familiar. There are a lot of faces and eyes on the screen, which can be hard to take. Some children have trouble figuring out the rules and expectations of the online classroom. What can we do to help?


A lot will depend on the child's profile, but here are some general suggestions:

  • Understand that this is an expected issue to have. This is not your child's fault. So far, online instruction has not been used in public schools. Everyone is just learning how to do it. Adjusting online instruction to various needs of children with disabilities is an additional layer that educators are trying to figure out on a fly. Your child has never done this before. Between the imperfect online teaching techniques and your child's lack of familiarity, this is bound to be difficult.

  • Have a daily visual schedule for your child that includes all lessons, teacher check-ins, meetings, and therapy sessions. This schedule should always be available for your child to see. Preview this schedule with your child in advance, maybe once in the evening the day before, and once in the morning.

  • Your child should have breaks, transition times, and time for sensory input on their schedule.

  • Explicitly explain to your child how the online classroom works. Point out the teacher and the students. Explain the basic rules, like staying muted, raising your hand, and any other rules your teacher(s) might have. Special education staff working with your child can help put together a social story or another type of visuals.

  • Think about your child's reaction to the screen. Is your child getting overwhelmed by all the faces and the flickering of images? Is it better that your child sits in such a way as not to see the screen? Would it be helpful for your child to only see the teacher at all times?

  • Can your child sit comfortably for the duration of the class? If not, is there a supportive seating option that is available at home, for example, a chair with arm support and a crossbar for feet? Can your child stand or move around during class?

  • Is your child capable of paying attention for the entire duration of the class? If not, perhaps your child needs shorter individualized instruction times that might be available through special education staff. Or maybe your child can be allowed to take breaks during the class and then come back to the instruction.

  • Think about your child's ability to process information. Does the teacher need to slow down the rate of instruction? Does your child need a review before and after class? A review would familiarize your child with the content. A post-class check-in would allow you to find out how much information your child has retained. Your child's teacher can help by sending follow up questions you can ask your child, with answers that you can use.

  • If your child can't figure out the rules of the online classroom, talk to the teacher(s) about accommodating this challenge. It is hard for many neurodiverse individuals to figure out when it is OK to speak in group situations on online platforms, how to get attention, and how not to interrupt another person. Perhaps the teacher can provide clear cues for when the students need to listen and be muted, and when there is a time to participate. If your child has a difficult time getting the teacher's attention, you can arrange in advance for the teacher can call on them directly.

  • Right away, reach out to your child's teacher(s) and other team members to brainstorm. Some possibilities involve providing the content of lessons for your child in advance to preview. The teacher could provide your child with a few questions to prepare answers to and then call on your child when those questions are asked in class. You could submit your child's answers for the teacher to read in class as your child's contribution. If it is not possible for your child to engage online, the teacher can provide packets and worksheets for your child. If you have an idea for what your child's needs, suggest it. The bottom line is, working collaboratively and pro-actively with your child's school team is paramount.

  • Your team members should be following the federal, state and district guidance on providing Free and Appropriate Public Education to children with disabilities during COVID-19 school closures. Read the guidelines so that you can ask for all the help your child is entitled to.

  • Some children can participate in lessons and therapies independently. Others might need adult support. If you or another family member needs to help, be realistic about how much time is available and how what you can do without getting stressed out.

  • Think about your child's day as a whole. Is your child getting overwhelmed with multiple schedule items and many transitions? Does your child get enough time to rest and engage in activities they love? It is important to find a good balance, or your child will struggle.

  • Make sure to document how many lessons your child was able to attend, and for how long, and how well your child was able to engage. Also, document any work your child has or has not been able to do. Document any loss of skills you are seeing. This documentation can be kept in a log/journal format. You will use it when the schools re-open to discuss with your team the supports and services your child needs to catch up on anything lost and to continue to make progress.

This is a challenging time for sure. As you are dealing with this situation and trying to help your child, keep in mind that your child's and your mental health is a priority. If online learning and therapies remain stressful and cannot be adjusted to be reasonably accessible, consider declining some of those opportunities and finding other ways for your child to grow and learn. Stay safe and healthy!



US Department of State materials:

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