How to Remotely Support Students Who Learn Differently

all students
(Image credit: Pixabay)

The National Center for Learning Disabilities recently partnered with Understood to release a  distance learning toolkit for educators to support students who learn differently during the pandemic. 

The need for such a toolkit is clear. One in five students learn differently, and there is evidence that students who struggle academically or utilize individualized support in school are more likely to fall behind during distance learning. 

The toolkit builds on the lessons of a 2019 report Forward Together: Helping Educators Unlock the Power of Students Who Learn Differently

“We felt like in the current context of Covid, there were new considerations we wanted to bring to light,” says Meghan Whittaker, a contributor to the toolkit and the director of Policy & Advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. 

The 2019 guidance identified three mindsets and eight practices that can help educators support all students. Whittaker says there are many ways to apply these mindsets and practices to distance learning. 

The Three Mindsets  

Teacher Mindset 1: Positive orientation toward inclusion 

Teachers with this mindset believe students with disabilities should be included and taught in general education classes, according to the toolkit. It enables educators to “create a classroom environment where all students feel welcome and valued, making it easier for students to learn [and] take responsibility for teaching all of their students.” 

Teacher Mindset 2: Strong sense of self-efficacy 

This is an educator’s belief in their own ability to effectively teach all students, which is vital to creating an inclusive classroom. 

Teacher Mindset 3: Growth mindset

Educators who have this mindset believe that they can improve their teaching practices and that all students can learn with effective instruction and practice, according to the report. 

The Eight Practices  

  • Explicit, systematic, and targeted instruction
  • Strategy instruction 
  • Flexible group 
  • Culturally and linguistically responsive teaching 
  • Universal design for Learning (UDL)
  • Positive behavior strategies
  • Collaboration with colleagues and families 
  • Evidence-based literacy and math instruction

Applying Practices to Distance Learning 

The new toolkit offers specific ways for educators to implement each of these practices and mindsets remotely. For example, Whittaker says that teachers with a strong sense of self efficacy create a classroom environment in which students feel welcome and have the chance to learn. “Teachers take responsibility for teaching all of their students as opposed to saying, ‘While I teach the students without disabilities, the ones who have IEPs, my special educator friends will work with those students,’” she says. “It's also important because this mindset leads to teachers using more flexible options to meet the students’ needs.”

“In trying to apply this mindset to distance learning, we took the example of how technology actually gives you more flexible options to support a variety of student needs,” she says. This might include a mix of digital and printed worksheets depending on the student, or giving students more ability to control the pace of their education with synchronous as well as asynchronous lessons. 

The toolkit also offers tips and strategies for ways that educators can boost their own confidence while teaching remotely.

“All the new demands of distance learning may leave you feeling that you’re not as effective a teacher as you were before,” it says in the toolkit. “Give yourself some credit — you’re learning new skills on the fly. Focus on what’s working well, how far you’ve come since distance learning started, and successes your students have had.” 

Positives of Distance Learning  

Whittaker says going back to the way things were before March 2020 would be a mistake even after the pandemic ends. “Teachers have really seen their ability to adapt. They've really kind of stretched themselves and accomplished more than we ever thought was possible,” she says. “Virtual learning has certainly left some kids behind, right, we have to address the digital divide. But for many kids, they have really enjoyed school this year in a way that they haven't before. For some kids virtual learning has actually helped them learn better and engage differently. Kids who maybe have processing challenges or attention challenges, or those who have social anxiety difficulties. For some kids with those kinds of challenges, the virtual learning space has actually provided them a more comfortable place to learn. And so I hope that we are more flexible in the offerings of how and where students can learn going forward, because we've proven that more is possible than just sitting in a classroom.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.