Building Engagement with Distance Learning

Distance Learning Engagement: An Overview Framework -- Update!

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Building Engagement with Distance Learning provides a framework for supporting all students, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, to actively:

  • interact with others;
  • engage with classmates;
  • learn grade-level general education curriculum and other essential skills; and
  • participate in routines and transitions.

Think about distance learning for students with disabilities as happening in phases. The First Phase focused on getting something going for students, even if it was not perfect. The Second Phase is thinking more holistically about the students, how to embed learning opportunities in their home environments, moving forward with greater collaboration with team members, including parents and siblings, and using online tools to provide greater access and engagement. The Third Phase, which we are now entering, is when programs integrate the principles of quality inclusive practices and effective instruction into distance learning. And the Fourth Phase involves both considering strategies to support hybrid learning as well as ensuring that the knowledge, skills, and collaboration that were gained during distance learning transfer back into the classroom. The TIES Center is now focusing its work on the Third and Fourth Phases, particularly for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The specific DL articles, to date, that provide a detailed process for engaging in this work, with examples, are found in DL article 17.   

A Framework for Building Engagement with Distance Learning

EVERY student, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, currently has the same inclusive environment. It is called home. At the same time, they need to remain connected to their larger inclusive community at school. As we move forward now to what will likely be some type of hybrid learning arrangement, it is important to realize that learning opportunities are abundant and can be generalized across the day, whether in a school building or at home for all students. Focusing on IEP priorities within this new learning situation can be done successfully and inclusively.  DL article #17 provides a detailed process for instructional planning for school and distance learning for students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive environments.

Distance learning and inclusive school settings present a myriad of teachable moments that connect to the primary underpinnings of inclusive education - its emphasis on access to and engagement with grade-level standards-based academics; addressing student’s complex communication needs; relationships and belonging; and learning life-long essential skills in real places with real people. Capitalizing on the thousands of teachable opportunities that occur throughout a day can, in fact, reinforce the value of thinking about IEP priorities in terms of the whole child across the whole day. We know students are more than just learners for the 6-7 hours that they are typically in school. In this sense, considering distance learning in an inclusive way presents an exciting opportunity. We are able to structure learning and establish IEP goal areas within natural and inclusive contexts, instruction in school and home.

Looking at the learning opportunities that exist for all students across the day (Participating in Routines and Transitions, Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills, and Interacting with Others), we can prioritize learning opportunities for students with the most significant disabilities. All of these examples can be modified or expanded upon depending on the individual student's strengths and identified needs. It is important to remember that engagement begins with supporting a sense of community for all students, regardless of the location for teaching and learning.

Each learning component: Participating in Routines and Transitions, Engaging in Grade-Level Academics and Other Essential Skills, and Interacting with Others encompasses many activities and skills that can occur at school and in distance learning.   The examples below illustrate ways to think about the activities and skills during distance learning.

Participating in Routines and Transitions

  • When the class is meeting online, being responsible for finding a quiet spot in the home, collecting appropriate materials and setting up a workspace for themselves, turning on their computer/device, and logging into the virtual classroom on time with increasing levels of independence, with prompts as necessary. Imagine them sitting at the kitchen table; what skills could they be learning that are lifelong and essential to be online, with their class, more independently?
  • Following a schedule with increased independence (using high or low tech options such as online calendars and alerts, visuals, oven timers, handwritten list, or even post-it notes around the home) to plan, coordinate and engage in activities across the day.
  • Beginning, engaging in, and sustaining work (especially non-preferred activities) for increased amounts of time, and working toward needing varied or fewer prompts.

Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills

  • Engaging in universally designed academics to the greatest degree possible, with the assistance of graphic organizers, word banks, visuals, audio and speech to text options, project-based learning, and support from instructional team members including paraprofessionals, siblings, and parents.
  • Using technology in an increasingly independent fashion. Examples include using Google Classroom or Schoology, Google Suite or Microsoft Office apps, Zoom, emailing with teachers and peers about what they are learning or questions they have, turning in assignments and continuing the email conversation by checking in and responding.
  • Using Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) systems to participate during online class discussions (preparing beforehand if necessary) and during home routines. Examples include using a switch to show choice/preference and using various devices such as iPad, Chromebook, laptops, and watches.
  • Increasing self-advocacy skills through realizing they have an issue that requires assistance, identifying who they could ask for help (parents, teacher, peers, siblings), and then seeking assistance for the issue more independently across the day.
  • Using communication (verbal, AAC, or both) to express frustration, anger, or anxiety rather than less appropriate refusal or disengagement behaviors.

Interacting With Others

  • Participating in small and large group learning with peers online. Examples include morning meetings, meetups, class discussions, peer partner opportunities, and projects.
  • Learning how to use, and engaging in, age-appropriate means of staying in touch with peers and creating community with one another. Examples include texting, FaceTime, other social media options, e-pals, and recreation/leisure activities such as online gaming.
  • Using an AAC device to ask/answer questions during online discussions or classes, offer answers prepared in advance or in the moment, tell a joke of the day, or check in on people they care about.

Please check out all the articles in the DL series for practical illustrations. New articles will be added periodically.  We are also soliciting suggestions and questions via the TIES Facebook page .


Terri Vandercook

Gail Ghere

Jennifer Sommerness

Deborah Taub

Distance Learning Series: Overview, April 202o

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

  • Vandercook, T., Ghere, G., Sommerness, J., & Taub, D. (2020). Distance Learning Engagement: An Overview Framework -- Update! 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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