Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #17: Planning for Instruction both at School and Distance Learning: The 5C Process


Gail Ghere, Ph.D.

Jennifer Sommerness, Ed.S.

Terri Vandercook, Ph.D.

Introduction and Overview

States and local districts are planning for a multitude of scenarios regarding how school will be held in the fall. Will instruction happen in the school buildings? Will instruction continue with distance learning? Will there be a hybrid of the two? Will the location of instruction need to pivot during the year because of the impact of the pandemic? The key is to collaboratively and proactively plan for a hybrid model of education that is built on the foundation of continuous learning, whether instruction is at school or through distance learning. By doing so, the plan can reduce the stress of potential changes for students, families, and instructional teams. 

Despite the significant challenges caused by distance learning, instructional teams, students, and parents now are looking at teaching and learning through a different lens. Some instructional teams and families have struggled mightily with distance learning. They report persistent inequities, less connection and collaboration, and a great deal of frustration over the lack of effective support and instruction during the time of distance learning. Other instructional teams are reporting greater collaboration and connection with families than before. These teams are learning how to present the content in multiple ways, engaging students in the learning process through different means, and letting students show what they know in individual ways. These changes provide an opportunity for planning even more effective instruction across all general education environments and activities for students with significant cognitive disabilities, both at school and at home. 

Historically, IEPs are written for instruction at school. But, the context has changed and IEPs need to be applicable at school and during periods of distance learning. The 5C Process supports thinking about how IEP goals can be addressed in both the school and home environments. Part of planning for instruction for the coming school year is adhering to state and district guidelines for amending or modifying IEPs so that they can be implemented both at school and during distance learning. The 5C Process assumes this collaborative work of developing an IEP will need to happen. This process is especially useful in anticipating the changes required for thoughtful and thorough planning that supports smooth transitions.

The 5C Process is a five-step process focused on building continuity across lifelong learning priorities, the annual IEP goals, the inclusive environments (at school or at home), and instructional support for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The process outlines a plan for transitioning instruction between school and home during periods of distance learning. While the 5C Process was developed specifically for students with significant cognitive disabilities, we believe this process could be helpful in planning instruction for all students with disabilities. The accompanying infographic illustrates the 5C Process for planning and implementing teaching in both environments.​

The walls of the school do not define or confine where learning happens. The 5C Process applies whether instruction happens in inclusive environments at school (for example, the general education classroom) or at home. It is especially useful during distance learning, but it is based upon best practice no matter where the instruction occurs. A student's plan will be adjusted as they change. It will also change as new or different needs become evident at school and home, and instructional team members (inclusive of the family) share their insights about student learning. Whenever changes are made in a plan, it is important to scan the entirety of the other steps in the process to assure instructional coherency.

Principles of the 5C Process

There are two underlying principles of the 5C Process

1) A student’s learning priorities do not change just because the learning environment changes. Learning priorities are specific to the student. Learning priorities are tied to the long term vision and planning for each student. As part of their education, students must learn and practice skills related to each priority in multiple settings. For example, if a student has a learning priority of initiating communication with peers and adults in order to reach a long term vision of greater independence, then this priority would remain a constant regardless of where instruction happens. An annual IEP goal related to this learning priority would be developed. The IEP goal may or may not need to be modified during periods when instruction is happening at school versus home. What will need to be modified is how, when and where the instructional plan for this IEP goal will be taught and who will support student learning in each environment. To make this shift, it is important to think about space and time differently. Learning does not just happen when students are together in the same building or space at the same time. Learning occurs both in class times and non-class times throughout the whole day. 

2) An IEP is not the student’s curriculum. The general education curriculum and routines and the IEP comprise a student’s educational program. All students are general education students first. Special Education services are supplementary to the grade level, general education curriculum and routines so students can access and make progress in those areas of learning. Special education services also support other learning priorities in order to enhance a student’s independence or interdependence across school, home, and other typical community environments. Inherent in the 5C Process is the opportunity for teams to create IEPs that enhance and plan for meaningful, active, and engaging participation within the grade level content with peers while also addressing the individual needs of a student. 

5C Process: Instructional Planning for School & Distance Learning for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Environments


Begin with a vision for a student’s valued life outcomes at the center of planning every time annual IEP goals are determined, as well as how they are clustered within three major learning components. The three major learning components are (a) Participating in Routines and Transitions, (b) Engaging in Grade-Level Academics and Other Essential Skills, and (c) Interacting with Others. All students, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, have learning opportunities throughout the day related to these three learning components. All three components are important in the education of all students. (An overview of these learning components and examples of learning activities and opportunities within each area can be found in the Distance Learning Engagement: An Organizing Framework -- Update!) Clarifying the priorities related to each of the learning components helps to answer the question of "What are the important IEP goals that should be focused on this year?"

This is a graphic of the three overarching Learning Components which are 

  • Participating in Routines and Transitions
  • Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills
  • Interacting with Others. 

The image depicts an icon of a student above the three learning components linking the components to the student.


Collaborate with families to determine how, when, where, and to what extent each learning priority will be meaningfully embedded into the day at school and home. This may mean developing or modifying IEPs to meaningfully address the IEP goals across school and home environments. The IEP could be written to examine where the environments are similar and different, as well as describe access to the instructional tools and strategies that are available in each environment. Collaboration with families creates the opportunity to learn about their typical day, traditions, culture, and language, as well as stressors, so modifying an IEP goal and/or planning IEP implementation are mindfully and respectfully developed. If the IEP is being updated, then goals may be proactively written to allow flexibility and individualization across home and school.

This graphic shows the key questions that families and teams discuss to determine how IEP goals will be implemented at school and home. The key questions are:

  • How? 
  • Where? 
  • When?

Families and teams asking these questions when considering how to incorporate the three overarching learning components into an IEP. The three overarching learning components are:

  • Participating in Routines and Transitions
  • Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills
  • Interacting with Others


Continuity is one key to successfully transitioning between instruction at school and home. As much as possible, it is important to maintain continuity in the tools and strategies that are used in both settings to support learning. By doing this, teachers, families and the students do not need to learn new ways of providing instruction for each setting. Continuity is achieved by strategically determining what combination of tools (for example, no-tech, low-tech, high-tech) and strategies will be taught to the student at school. Then, to the greatest extent possible, these same supports are used at home. This builds continuity for the learner, enhances engagement and increases the flexibility to make adjustments for distance learning.

This graphic shows the importance of the continuity between school and home for how the three learning components are implemented and the instructional tools and strategies used in each setting.


Collect meaningful data both at school and at home during distance learning. Doing so helps to assure that a student is progressing in gaining knowledge and skills regardless of where instruction happens. Data collection at school will include formative and summative data that is being collected for all students within the general education curriculum, as well as data that will be specific to a student’s IEP. By collecting data on the same or modified IEP goals, information is gained both about the student’s skill levels and how they are generalizing across both environments, which is an important consideration for documenting meaningful learning. It is expected that the data collection plan will look different between school and home with the home plan being simplified and streamlined so it fits into family routines and practices. 

This graphic illustrates how the data collected for the IEP goals that relate to the three Learning Components will look different between school and home. Data collected at school is broader in scope and frequency. Data collected on the same goals at home is streamlined and less complex.


Capacity building is for all instructional team members, inclusive of the family and the student. When all members of a team focus on building common knowledge and understanding about the plan, it ensures that everyone understands how the three learning components and the IEP goals enhance grade level participation and move students towards their valued life outcomes. Second, it ensures that everyone knows the instructional plan schedule, who is doing what, how to use the instructional tools and strategies, and the data collection plan. This level of proactive planning provides the foundation for problem-solving issues as the year progresses and makes pivoting between school and home smoother if and when that occurs.

This graphic shows three adults discussing questions about the student’s learning priorities, the IEP goals for school and home, data collection and the instructional tools that will be used. This information becomes the basis for determining capacity building for individual team members and the student.

Do all team members, including the family, know -

  • the student's learning priorities?
  • the plan for teaching the goals at school and home?
  • the plan for collecting data?
  • how to use the no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech instructional tools and strategies?

Roles and Responsibilities

The 5C Process provides a path for teams (special educators, general educators, related service providers, paraeducators, families and students) to design instructional plans for students with significant cognitive disabilities whether at school or home. Often, but not exclusively, the special education IEP manager takes the lead on organizing the 5C Process planning meeting. Both general and special educators are responsible for bringing their expertise about curriculum, instruction, use of universal design principles, how the classes are organized, and school-wide routines to the discussion. After a collaborative planning discussion about the long term vision and IEP goals have been determined or modified, the family may share information about their schedules, routines, and preferences for how and when to integrate the IEP goals at home. They may also share who is available at what times to provide assistance for the instruction. (Refer to The Learning Matrix Tool for more detail.) ​The effectiveness of this discussion is based on the family’s comfort level with the team and most feasible when trusting relationships have been established. In addition, all teachers, related service providers, and the family are responsible for sharing about students’ needs in different environments related to learning priorities and IEP goals. They should also share the student’s ways of communicating, ways of interacting with peers, and specific needs for adaptations or modifications. Students should share their voice, choices, needs and preferences for what and how to learn to the greatest extent possible and with support to do so, as needed. 

More indepth coverage of each of the five steps in the 5C Process are delineated in the accompanying companion descriptions

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #17, July, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Ghere, G., Sommerness, J., & Vandercook, T. (2020).  Planning for instruction both at school and distance learning: The 5C Process (DL #17). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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