By Jenny Gamache MA, M.Ed., Special Education Teacher
In these unprecedented times, many of us feel overwhelmed with the idea of suddenly having to be “teachers” to our children, while still trying to be parents, employees, partners, and individuals. Teaching is a craft that takes years to master- and even the best teachers will struggle as we move our practice online. Add to that a child with any kind of learning difference or special need, and you might not feel like you can support your child at home. Not to worry. You can and you will. You are the expert on your child, and while you might not be used to being the teacher, you are used to giving your child exactly what they need. That experience can help make teaching less daunting. Here are some basic tips to help you start teaching your child who might have special learning needs. These are tried and true practices from my years in the classroom. Please remember that the key to success is consistency.
11 Tips for Educating Students with Special Needs
(let’s be honest…these are good for all kids!)
Follow a routine
Students thrive on routine and predictability. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be done at precisely the same time each day. Generally, though, the expectations should be the same—work time, playtime, chore time, mealtime and bedtime.
Create a “TO DO” list
Every day make a “TO DO” list with your child. You can co-create the list with your child, so they have input into the structure of each day. If children have a sense of control (especially now when our lives feel so out of control), they will have more intrinsic buy in. Make sure your child checks off tasks as they complete them. Your TO DO list should include items for physical and mental health.
Respect the time
Direct instruction should be quick. Teach a new skill and allow the student to practice it. Set a timer. Saying “work until you are done” will result in slower production and more reminders. Instead, encourage your child to “do your best for 12 minutes” and set a timer. When the timer goes off, allow for a movement break.
Find a way to reinforce your child for completing hard work. Some people feel like this is bribery, but I look at it this way: I love my job. Every day I am excited for work. There are things about my job that I don’t love (paperwork!) but I have to do. Beyond the personal satisfaction, I receive a paycheck, which is additional incentive. We live in a world of reinforcement. You can give a reward after each task is completed, or at the end of a successful day. Rewards might come through stickers, a treat, or desired activities. You can make a reinforcement choice board for your child to use when they earn it. Set clear expectations about what it takes to earn a reinforcer and stick with it.
Use multiple modalities
Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Our school system is set up for auditory and visual learners and online learning even more so. Help your child find learning activities which allow them to not only listen, but also touch and feel. For example, writing letter sounds in shaving cream, acting out a scene from a book, or demonstrating math problems with manipulatives are great examples of ways to help engage in learning.
Check for understanding
Students often are tuned into the first or last thing you say, and don’t necessarily focus on the exact direction you are giving. Don’t assume your child knows what you expect just because you have repeated it three times. Give a direction, and then ask your child to repeat the direction back to you.
Try fidget toys
Many students with special needs need to fidget. Accommodating this need will help them engage more and leave you less frustrated. Give them something to fidget with while they listen to instruction. It can be anything – a rubber band on the wrist, a clump of wax, or playdoh, as just some examples. They might look like they aren’t listening, but they are.
Turn on Closed-Captioning
There will be times—plenty of times—that you can’t engage the way you want or think you should. You might have to work too, or you need to work with another child, or you are just exhausted. No worries. When your child is watching TV or videos, turn on the closed-captioning and mute the sound. They will read along if they want to know what is going on. To help struggling readers, leave the sound on.
Many kids get distracted when reading print, or struggle with decoding enough that they don’t stay engaged in reading. Audible is providing free audio books for kids. If you can, get a paper copy of the book too and have your child “read along” while listening to the audio book. Required daily reading time (very important!) can be listening to audio books.
Writing is one of the biggest struggles for kids with learning disabilities. Open-ended writing can be daunting for both teacher and students. Use graphic organizers (there are many online) to get ideas out and plan writing. If students need to produce written work, use the dictation software on your phone or accessible through Microsoft.
Work on a Whiteboard
Many students struggle with completing work because they fear making mistakes, and mistakes feel permanent when you put ink to paper. You can use a white board for math, spelling, writing, planning or anything else your child chooses—and when mistakes happen your child can erase and correct them. If you don’t have a white board, find another smooth surface and use a dry erase marker. Make cleaning it up be a part of the routine. If you want a permanent record of the work, take a picture.
As you embark on distance/crisis learning with your child, remember that the most important thing you can do is to provide consistency – in expectations, routines, and love. Use the tools you already have in raising a very special child, add a couple of tricks, and you and your child will make it through this with newfound skills, strength, and a joint sense of accomplishment.