A student holds his head in his hands while listening to class on his laptop.

Meeting the Needs of Students with Disabilities in Online Classrooms

Author: Samantha Goldman; Sean Smith

There are many advantages to learning in the online classroom. In the November CIDDL/CEEDAR Affinity Group - Preparing Teacher Candidates for Online/ Hybrid Instruction, participants highlighted online learning could provide (1) personalized, competency-based learning experiences, (2) access to a wide range of digital content, (3) flexible engagement in activities, and (4) the fact that they are data-driven experiences with embed regular and ongoing progress monitoring tools. Questions remain: How do we meet the needs of students with disabilities (SWDs) in online settings? What is currently being done to support SWDs? How is this different from traditional classrooms?

Two online teachers (Mrs. Riggins - Elementary & Mrs. Elkins - Secondary) shared a number of issues related to the knowledge and skills needed for teaching fully online versus in the face-to-face classroom. While all preK-12 teachers must consider the different types of learners, the online learning environment and various digital tools require a further understanding of the students and their needs on the part of teachers. Online teachers, for instance, have to consider captioning and be sensitive to screen time, especially for students who suffer from migraines or similar physical conditions. Though teachers need to plan and adapt for all students in the face-to-face setting, in the online setting, they need to dig even deeper and find alternate resources.

Beyond adapting lessons, teachers in the online environment also have to know how to provide interventions to those who may be struggling and determine when to refer for an assessment. At the elementary level, Mrs. Riggins shared they have learning conferences, small group instruction, and intervention groups. At the secondary level, Mrs. Elkins shared that because of the influx of students who have been homeschooled from K-8, she often is involved with determining special education eligibility at the secondary level. This is quite different from the traditional face-to-face model where it is more likely SWDs will be identified, and an Individual Education Program (IEP) will be in place by the time they reach secondary education. In addition to the initial eligibility, Mrs. Elkins, along with her other online peers (e.g., general and special education teachers, specialists), would attend weekly virtual meetings to discuss the individual needs of students and plan for needed interventions.

Both Mrs. Riggins and Elkins shared that with the pandemic, a number of students (and their parents) realized that the fully online classroom was preferred to the face-to-face classroom and thus, chose to remain in this learning environment. Mrs. Riggins shared that some students with more complex learning needs (e.g., students taking the state alternate assessment) determined fully online instruction met their needs best. As a result, not only are they thriving in the online classroom, but they are interacting and establishing relationships with their neuro-typical peers.

Thinking about SWD in the online classroom, what are the implications for teacher preparation programs? How are you preparing future teachers and service providers? What preparation do you feel future teachers and service providers need in order to best serve SWD in the online classroom? Share your thoughts in our Community Group, Teacher Preparation for Online/ Hybrid Learning!