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How Remote Learning Is Affecting Kids With Special Needs

Virtual Learning Is Putting a Serious Strain on Teachers and Parents of Children With Special Needs


For Jamie Croshaw, remote learning has been incredibly difficult. As a mom to a 6-year-old daughter, Emma, and a 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Jackson, who has cerebral palsy, autism, as well as other medical needs, Jamie initially thought she could handle stepping up as her children's teacher. But now that she's seven weeks into social distancing, Jamie is at her wit's end.

"When we received notice that school was going to be doing remote learning, we thought how hard can it be?!" Jamie told POPSUGAR. "Boy, were we wrong. Suddenly overnight, I had to become a kindergarten teacher, a special needs preschool teacher, and a physical, occupational, and speech therapist. Plus, I had the regular duties of being a stay-at-home-mom and wife."

For Jamie, the struggle of homeschooling two kids set in immediately. Although she was hoping to get the hang of distance learning as time went on, her frustration only grew. And she's certainly not alone. In the US, 1 in 5 children have learning disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia, and 7 million kids have individualized education programs (IEPs), a document that's developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education.

"The first two weeks of remote learning was done by packets that came home from the school. They were completely overwhelming — just tons of papers with no instructions — and I didn't even know where to start," she shared. "By the third week, they started doing Google Meets with the kids — this was when the stress really set in. Trying to explain to two children that this was the new way of learning and why they were seeing their teachers and friends on the computer instead of face-to-face was complicated to say the least."

Jackson, in particular, had difficulty with all the changes. "Trying to explain to a toddler with special needs who relies on structure and a schedule was impossible," she said. "He became very aggressive when it was time to do his therapies. He'd start hitting and punching me, screaming, and getting upset to the point where he was hyperventilating."

Understandably, seeing her son struggle took an emotional toll on Jamie. With no clear end in sight to social-distancing orders, she dreaded what the next day would hold.

"Every night, I'd dread going to sleep, despite being exhausted, because I knew that would bring morning, and we'd have to start all over again."

"Every night I'd dread going to sleep, despite being exhausted, because I knew that would bring morning, and we'd have to start all over again," she explained. "Jackson wasn't benefiting at all from the therapy because his sessions were nothing more than me fighting with him to attempt to do anything. I started getting very depressed, and I felt like I was failing my kids. Many nights I would cry off and on for hours because of it. I was sick over it."

Faced with a tough decision, Jamie spoke with Jackson's teacher and case manager on the child study team at school. Although she knows Jackson's teachers and specialists are doing everything they can to help, she opted to discontinue Jackson's treatment for the time being.

"It just wasn't worth the stress it was causing all of us," she said. "At this moment, Jackson isn't receiving any services. We try to implement things throughout the day when we can. I worry what September will bring when school is hopefully back in session. How much will he have regressed? He has a lot of challenges socially, and not being able to be around any other kids except his sister is really going to set him back."

Mom of three Jasmine Zinser-Craddock has had a similar experience with her 7-year-old son, who has ADHD and Asperger's syndrome. As a psychotherapist, Jasmine has been juggling her client's appointments with homeschooling. Although her husband has also been working from home in entertainment advertising, he's been unable to step away from his desk to help with the children.

"It's completely overwhelming," she told POPSUGAR. "My 9-year-old daughter is essentially left to her own devices throughout the day. I also have a 17-month-old daughter, so I primarily can only help my son when the baby is napping."

Like Jamie, Jasmine is also struggling to help her son adjust to the new circumstances. And because Jasmine didn't have the support of her son's team with her, it's made making substantial progress extremely difficult.

"Initially, the expectations by the school felt impossible. Even if I could take the whole day to just sit with him to do the work, I was dealing with major meltdowns and tantrums," she explained. "He was so difficult and resistant. My son has a one-on-one paraprofessional who sits with him all day long in school. I can't possibly re-create that at home while also trying to do all the other things that need to happen."

"Preserving my relationship with him and our collective mental health is more important than the first-grade curriculum."

Although Jasmine points out that the expectations have recently become more reasonable in her son's school district, she's resigned herself to the fact she simply can't accomplish everything. "Some days, we just won't get to maths, or he won't do all the reading," she explained. "He has speech therapy once a week as well as other auxiliary programming, like occupational therapy. His therapists send work for us to do with him, but I'm not really doing any of it. There just aren't enough hours in the day."

For Jasmine, mental health needs to take a front seat, despite her fear of her son falling behind. "Preserving my relationship with him and our collective mental health is more important than the first-grade curriculum," she said. "But I do fear that because of his more specialised needs that he will fall further and further behind the other 'typical' kids."

Why are students with special needs particularly struggling?

Although many children throughout the US are struggling with the transition to remote learning, kids with special needs are at an even greater disadvantage. Talia Haim Campbell, the director of special education at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in New York, says that several factors may make distance learning especially challenging for kids with special needs.

"One of the facets to unlocking confusion for students with disabilities is multimodal learning," Talia explained. "Not all students access information in the same way: some need to see it, some need to touch it, some need to sing it or chant it. Although that's oversimplifying multiple modalities, we're essentially forcing students to learn exclusively in one way — with technology."

Talia also explains that for children with special needs, the thought of doing something hard can be incredibly overwhelming, especially if they're not in the proper setting.

"We avoid the things that are challenging for us because it doesn't feel good. That's natural," she explained. "For a student with a special need in reading, they must choose the challenge of independent reading over far more exciting things at their very fingertips, like video games or whatever may be in the refrigerator."

"Families likely have their own tools to support their child with frustrations, but those frustrations may manifest themselves differently when the child is given academic work."

In a classroom setting, however, these distractions are tamped down. "Schools and classrooms are built to eliminate those distractions: we put all the exciting things in the front of the classroom, we gain proximity when a student seems distracted, cell phones are put away, and students are seated away from their best friend, worst enemy, or otherwise distracting student," she said. "The classroom is a vastly different learning environment; plus that student with a reading disability has at least one — sometimes even three or more — teachers there to personally engage them when they start looking around for something more appealing."

Lastly, Talia points to the added emotional component that comes with virtual learning, which can be difficult for students with moderate to severe disabilities, who are used to having more support.

"Families may not have adequate training to support their child with frustrations like a school does," she explained. "In school, we have a toolkit we've developed for children and their needs. For example, my classroom may have a sensory corner where an overwhelmed student can curl up in a fort and choose from their choice board — whether they'd like to chew beads, touch a weighted bean bag, or use a brush to help soothe them."

She continued: "Families likely have their own tools to support their child with frustrations, but those frustrations may manifest themselves differently when the child is given academic work," she said. "This additional challenge is compiled with the fact that the family may also be working from home and may not be able to dedicate the one-on-one attention that the child needs."

What does distance learning look like for special needs teachers right now?

Rest assured, teachers are just as concerned about their students with special needs as parents are. They too have been struggling with the transition to home-based learning. Joanne, a special needs kindergarten teacher from Pennsylvania, has always considered herself a hands-on educator, especially when it comes to giving children extra support and when it comes to developing IEPs for students.

"In a traditional classroom setting, I go into general education classes to help modify the curriculum. I also pinpoint any students who are struggling but haven't been identified as needing formal services," Joanne told POPSUGAR. "With online learning on most days, I participate in two 30-minute morning meeting Zoom sessions in homerooms that my caseload students are in and rotate classes each day."

"I cried for the first two weeks of online learning. I was overwhelmed and really missed my students, colleagues, and established routines."

Additionally, Joanne has been working with the school's physical, speech, and occupational therapists to give children with special needs small group instruction once a week. "To address academic IEP goals, I email an individual matrix of activities to each student's parents to complete each week," she explained. "I list each IEP goal and an activity for each day of the week to support each goal and update each matrix weekly. For example, if a student has 10 IEP goals on their sheet, they have to complete 50 activities that week."

Examples of the weekly goals include things like watching educational YouTube videos and completing picture-sorting activities. If this seems like a tall order, that's because it is. Although Joanne says that most of her parents are doing their best to complete the weekly matrixes, having a child with special needs complete 50 weekly activities can be incredibly difficult.

This requires parents to update Joanne on their child's progress, whether it's through texts, a phone call, or a Zoom meeting. So far, the system has been working out well, as many parents have preferred matrix-style learning to the three hours of live or videotaped lessons created by general education teachers. However, Joanne can sense the parents' overwhelming frustration most days.

"I am working harder now than ever before. I cried for the first two weeks of online learning. I was overwhelmed and really missed my students, colleagues, and established routines. Overall, my job is 10 times harder online. Parents are stressed beyond belief because many of them are trying to work from home as well as help their children," she explained. "The parents cry some days because their children refuse to do anything. I also FaceTime students whose parents are really struggling due to intense behaviour needs."

"Parents and teachers have truly been asked to do the impossible."

Recently, Joanne went as far as to help a family rid some distractions from their house. "I drove to a kid's house, honked my horn, and the mom brought out a scooter, a baseball, and a bat," she said. "I drove away with this student's possessions. His mom will give me the green light to bring his things back when the student is more cooperative."

Although Joanne is doing everything in her power to help her students, making true progress given the circumstances sometime seems insurmountable. "I have ups and downs emotionally," she explained. "When I see a student doing well and parents provide me with evidence, I feel OK. When parents are stressed, I feel it, too! It just doesn't seem fair. It is much easier to pull this off with older and more independent kids. Parents and teachers have truly been asked to do the impossible."

How concerned should parents be about their children's regression?

Understandably, parents in the special-needs community are concerned about their children regressing. Talia says that this anxiety is valid, as children with special needs typically need more reinforcement to retain important concepts.

"Some days I have to talk parents off the regression ledge, assuring them that ALL of the students might regress."

"For students with special needs, learning and holding on to new information is paramount. Students with disabilities need even more time to regain what they've lost over school breaks, compared to their peers," she explained. "This lapse of targeted instruction will absolutely lead to significant gaps. Students that are performing below grade level have to learn more than a year's worth of knowledge to begin closing that gap. When that gap becomes too wide, they may reach a level of frustration that is too much for a child to manage. These regressions, depending how vast, have the potential to lead to students requiring more restrictive environments, such as a smaller class or a specialised school."

Liz understands this frustration well and has often caught herself wondering just how much catching up her son will have to do. "I was just thinking, 'Oh my gosh, he's going to fall behind. He's already behind in reading and writing,' and then the pandemic happened," she explained. "I'm going to just keep on reading and writing with him in small spurts," she said.

Although the thought of regression is scary, Joanne is encourageing parents to take it day by day, rather than considering holding their child back for a full academic year just yet.

"Some days, I have to talk parents off the regression ledge, assuring them that all of the students might regress," she explained. "Another year of kindergarten may not 'fix' their kid. All of our staff members assure parents that teachers will meet students where they are upon our return to school. This is especially true for kids in special-education classes. They have IEP goals that are worked on. If they didn't master certain goals, they might continue to do so in the new year or the goals will be revised. We are all experts in differentiation."

Are there any silver linings parents should focus on?

For some parents, there is a silver lining if their kids have social or anxiety disorders. Although children with behavioural and academic challenges may be struggling with remote learning, some students who face social challenges have adapted to the home-based model.

"Kids who have anxiety about academics or social interaction with their peers are benefiting from homeschooling," said mom of three Liz Nissim Matheis, who's also a psychologist and founder of Psychological & Educational Consulting of New Jersey, in Livingston, NJ. "Those kids are doing great because that pressure is actually gone. Kids don't have to worry about getting to school on time, staying in their seats for a class period, listening to a teacher as part of the class, or asking for help. They also no longer have to navigate unstructured times on the playground or during lunchtime."

"You can sleep in. You can stay up. You can take breaks. You can have all the snacks you want."

For Liz, who has a 7-year-old son herself, having a more lax schedule benefits some children with special needs. "The work is harder in that now, you have a mom or dad who's providing the academic instruction, but you're not waking up early," she explained. "You can sleep in. You can stay up. You can take breaks. You can have all the snacks you want. For a lot of anxious kids, this has been a very nice reset for them."

Jessie Dello Russo, a director at SEARCH Learning Group in Warren, NJ, agrees that having parents be more involved in their child's day-to-day may have its benefits in the long run.

"Research shows that having parents involved as part of a child's clinical team helps to achieve the best possible outcome," she explained. "Traditionally, our students are with us 30 hours per week. When they go home, we want them generalizing all the good stuff they're learning and doing with us at the centre with their parents and caregivers. Now, parents are working with kids toward their goals full-time. Empathy has also played a key role here — for our staff, families, and ourselves — because we truly need to understand each other's circumstances to provide the best services and really rely on each other to get to the other side of this."

"When else would we ever have this opportunity to connect with our kids as much as we are now?"

As a mom of two children with special needs, Liz agrees, saying that although the overall situation has been extremely challenging, she's learned a lot about her kids academically because of virtual learning. "When else would we ever have this opportunity to connect with our kids as much as we are now? I had never known how much my child can and can't do academically as I do right now," she said. "I'm really in tune with what their struggles are, and I'm not just hearing about it from their teachers. I know it. I get it."

For parents of special needs children who are just trying to get through each day, know that you're not in this alone. "The whole situation is very stressful," explained Jamie. "We're all doing the best we can to get through this. I have a new appreciation for the teachers and therapists. They have been amazing through it all, they are very dedicated to the students, and truly understand how challenging these times are."

Image Source: Getty / Maskot
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