Remote learning poses added challenge for students with special needs


While remote learning can be challenging for families of students of all ages, that pressure is magnified for children with learning disabilities such as autism, dyslexia and ADHD. And with most of California’s public schools remaining closed as the new school year begins in the coming weeks, concerns are elevated about the effect of continued online learning for students with special needs.

The impact of not being in a classroom “could be pretty devastating” for these students, says Catherine Lord, PhD, a clinical psychologist and George Tarjan Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Depending on the individual child, the difficulties presented by distance learning can be manifold. “For a child who has difficulty with social communication, for example, interacting with someone on a screen removes many of the cues — how someone holds or moves their body or their hands or increases the volume of their voice or rate of speech or changes their facial expressions — that can make a huge difference for that child as he or she tries to understand and respond,” Dr. Lord says.

And for many children with special needs, it is difficult to sit still or attend to a task for an extended period, she says. Breaking activities down into three-to-five-minute segments to be done over Zoom is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. In addition, families may not have the materials that are available in a special-needs classroom for children who need active engagement to perform various hands-on activities.

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When coupled with the need for sufficient quiet space for a child to sit and watch a screen and the fact that remote learning for children with special needs requires an adult to sit with them to support and redirect them if their attention wanders, “this may well be impossible,” Dr. Lord says.

It is an issue to which school districts need to pay particular attention when structuring their programs for children with special needs, Dr. Lord says. Federal funding likely would be necessary to support effective strategies, which might include outdoor learning so that students with special needs are not isolated at home.

It is still unclear what alternative services will be available to students with special needs in the new school year. In a survey of more than 125 parents of students with special needs in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) by Speak Up United Parents, fewer than half said their children received services during the three-month closure this spring and more than 60 percent said instructional services were not offered in a manner that was suitable to their children’s specific needs. As of July 30, LAUSD and the union United Teachers of Los Angeles still were negotiating the nature and schedule of online learning.

Outside of school, some families of children with special needs may access ADA or behavioral services through their insurance. The Westside Regional Center continues to offer mostly free services and programs to children who meet eligibility requirements. And some private companies work with children outdoors, for example in their backyards or in small learning pods, for a fee.

Where does this leave parents of children with special needs? Dr. Lord suggests taking a practical approach and not feeling guilty that they can’t simultaneously work and teach their children full time. “Try to choose ways that you can move forward within this [situation]. Pick some goals that actually are achievable. What is a strength you want to build up? The world won’t come to an end if your child misses the unit on California missions, but if he or she isn’t reading, isn’t doing some kind of math and isn’t thinking, that’s a problem.”

“Try to have the child go outdoors and do as much exercise as possible,” she adds. “And try to make sure that at least a couple of times a day your child does something that is meaningful, whether it’s cooking, playing a game, doing crafts — anything that’s interactive, has a goal, and that the child enjoys.”

Resources for Parents

UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment: COVID-19 Resources

LAUSD Division of EducationResources for Parents of Students with Disabilities

Understood: “Coronavirus: Latest Updates and Tips”

Westside Family Resource and Empowerment Center: “COVID-19 Information and Resources for Families”