Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #4: Dealing with Uncertainty: A Plea for Thoughtful Plans and Patient Collaboration

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Everyone is doing their best to work within a system that changed basically overnight. This is not normally how change happens in complex organizations, like schools, that are impacted by federal and state law, the communities within which they work, and the students they teach. Most change in schools happens slowly and deliberately. Now families often are trying to juggle child care, work, and educational progress for their children. Teachers often are trying to juggle childcare, work, and educational progress for all of their students. And, administrators are trying to thread the needle of meeting federal and state law and teachers’ and students’ needs using a variety of strategies.

A group of 5 elementary aged kids who are brightly dressed and participating in an egg and spoon race.

Egg and Spoon Races 

The current situation brings to mind a short video of kids lined up for an egg and spoon race (where you put an egg on a spoon, and then try to race to the finish line without dropping the egg). The video begins with two front runners who are swift and stable, zooming along toward the finish line; others are moving along quickly and then one kid who is slowly and deliberately walking toward the left side of the race track while a family member films him. You can hear the family member trying to urge on the boy who is moving so slowly. “Run!” and then settling down to laugh quietly with those around him about how funny his kid is by being so slow and seemingly outside of the main race. Three-fourths of the way there, the fastest kid drops his egg. Halfway there, the other fast kid trips over his own feet, causing a three kid pile up. The field is down to one kid--- who has avoided the wreckage of bodies and has now almost made it to the finish line. Several of the kids who were caught in the pile-up are back on their feet and rushing toward the finish line. One drops his egg, and the other two do finally make it, but they have all been bested by the kid who was slow and deliberate. 

Go Slow to Go Fast

Typically, when effective systems change happens, it begins with a shared vision. From that vision, the leaders of the change build buy-in and provide learning opportunities and on-going training and reflection on data and process. The process is deliberately thought out and carefully implemented. Those who go fast tend to lose focus before the goal or get tripped up by insufficient planning, preparation, resources, capacity, or support from stakeholders. Those barriers are what are in place right now as school systems and families try to move to distance learning with no notice. So, how can administrators, educators, and families move deliberately in a time when everything seems to be happening at breakneck speed?


Whether at the state, district, or school level, carefully consider plans. Gather stakeholders to identify What do we want to see? What do we need to do to make that happen? Have we considered federal and state requirements, school system capacity, resources needed, fit with our population of educators and families, and the ability to implement the plan successfully?

  • Give the support needed. This may be in the form of technology, or it may be by providing time for IEP teams to work together to create a single message and focus for students.
  • Consider differences. Will every educator have an uninterrupted set of time during the “school day” to meet and communicate with all of their families? Will all families and students, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, have access to the same opportunities and blocks of time as their classmates and teacher? Is it reasonable to have all schools online at the same time?
  • Be the leader. While educators should be communicating with their families and students, it should not be their job to explain the entire process and vision. That information should come from the school, district, and state leaders. Educators should be able to focus on their students now more than ever. Take whatever you can off of their plates as they learn new skills and strategies. 
  • Allow for experimentation and expect many steps. Edison stated that he did not fail 999 times, but rather it took 1000 steps to invent the lightbulb.  It is going to take lots of steps to change how and why things are done. Celebrate attempts. Learn from the steps. Allow for creativity. 


  • Allow for experimentation and expect many steps. Change is a series of paradigm shifts in how you think and what you do. Allow for errors from you, your students, your colleagues, the families with whom you work, and your administrators.
  • Collaborate. Work with all members of the IEP and educational teams to support every student. Share communication strategies, successes, and lessons learned. Check-in with each other to see where you could work together (co-teach a class, embed IEP goals into general instruction, etc.).
  • Consider different settings. It is great to have students scour the house for examples of obtuse triangles during an online session, but are you sure that every household has that? Will students be able to do this work independently, or will they need a family member’s support? For students with significant cognitive disabilities, are there ways to use peer networks or supports, or siblings that reduce the need for an adult onsite?


  • Allow for experimentation and expect many steps. Glitches and barriers will happen, both at the schools and in your own homes. Be patient with everyone, including yourself. 
  • Collaborate. Reach out to educators and share what you have seen working and the lessons you have learned from your perspective. Communicate with other families in the class to identify opportunities for peer networking. 
  • Advocate. If your child is further isolated from, or by, some of these new practices, remind administrators and educators that inclusion matters for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities. If there is a change in the specially designed instruction your child needs, be clear about that, and explain why. 

Systems change is hard. Systems change from a dead stop to full tilt running across the finish line in 10 seconds flat with a raw egg on a spoon in your mouth is destined to end with egg on your face (You know I had to say it). Go slow to go fast and work together to accomplish effective inclusive instruction for all students that will grow, evolve, and improve as you support one another to do your collective best for all students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #4, April, 2020

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

  • Taub, D. (2020). Dealing with uncertainty: A plea for thoughtful plans and patient collaboration (DL #4). 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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