Adelle Purdham wants her daughter to learn in the same classroom as everyone else, a desire that didn’t begin with the coronavirus pandemic.
Purdham’s daughter Elyse has Down syndrome, and she’s accustomed to an educational plan that provides her with direct learning that often requires an instructor speaking directly to her using clear language and short sentences.
Elyse can function in a general education classroom and complete a modified version of the work her classmates do.
“The key is to break down activities into small steps and build on what your child can already do,” Purdham said. “You have to personalize what you are teaching. For example, If your child likes minions, then draw minions for counting. Provide an example first, every time you try something new.”
In the wake of widespread school closings, districts are wrestling with how to comply with federal special education laws in a digital learning environment, while parents of special needs students are concerned about the potential effects of them missing months of needed in-person education and services.
Since schools began online learning, it’s not been so easy for Elyse while her mother serves as her primary instructor. For Elyse, and students like her, virtual programs don’t easily replace the in-person lessons at brick-and-mortar schools.
As a former teacher, Purdham is aware of the challenges the pandemic has brought to personalized special education.
“My experience has been that the disruption to my daughter’s daily routines, including school routines, has been upsetting for my daughter on a certain level,” Purdham said. “On the one hand, she is enjoying more family time. My husband has been working from home, and as I already work from home, we are now all together.
“On the other hand, trying to parent [and] educate three kids at different levels while trying to work has been challenging, and kids pick up on their parents’ stress,” she said.
Although the coursework may not always be hard, simply navigating through the multiple menus of the online platform, finding assignments, uploading completed work, and submitting items through an app can be quite exasperating, said Lisa Collum, CEO of Top Score Writing, an online learning system that makes teaching writing easier, accelerates student learning and increases writing test scores on average.
“For many of our students, especially those with learning exceptionalities, their need for one-on-one learning still exists,” Collum said. “There are various online resources available for teachers to use that can help provide this one-on-one experience for the students who need it.”
Jason Kahn, a child development expert, co-founded Mightier, which is dedicated to helping children with special needs develop social and emotional skills.
“It is true that the most vulnerable children have been hit disproportionately hard by school closures,” Khan said. “Students often have an array of special and general education supports and are often in inclusive environments where they can count on not only the supports of highly-trained adults but also their peers.”
Some solutions Khan offers parents are recognizing that children are going to mirror adults emotionally, and that right now is a particularly challenging time.
“Parents should not take on extra stress to try to make a perfect environment for their child, as that could backfire,” Khan said. “Rather, families need to prioritize what works in their household.”
It’s also essential to understand the supports that schools have put in place, and it’s vital to give children space to ask questions, he added.
“Everyone is processing the pandemic and shutdowns in different ways,” Khan said. “By giving your child a space to talk about it and letting them know it’s OK to talk about it, you’ll learn what is important to your child and how they are approaching the situation.”
For Purdham, each day has proven a chance for more learning. She and Elyse even created a video on Facebook Live to introduce beginner-level French to her peers.
“My daughter appreciated the individual attention and was, therefore, more onboard with participating,” Purdham said. “Every day is a new chance for more learning, so don’t beat yourself up if a day goes by and you get nothing accomplished. We are all doing the best we can.”