Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #18: Preparing for the First Week of School


Deborah Taub, Ph.D.

Elizabeth Reyes, Ph.D.

Jessica Bowman, Ph.D.

As teachers and parents plan to return to school this fall, many face a myriad of options. Students with significant cognitive disabilities enrolled in inclusive settings, either in a hybrid or online educational platform, need intentional planning to ensure the value of their inclusive programming. Remember one of the principles of the 5C Process: A student’s learning priorities do not change because the learning environment changes. Learning priorities are specific to the student, not the environment. Here are some ideas, tools, and scripts to help build continuity for your inclusive classroom before the school year begins.

Back to School Checklist

General education teachers, special education teachers, related service providers, and paraprofessionals:

  • Become familiar with the district-wide learning platforms and resources 
  • Make a plan for supporting family and student use of learning platforms
  • Getting yourself ready
  • Make a plan to work collaboratively with families 
  • Make a plan to work collaboratively with colleagues
  • Get to know your students

Become Familiar with District-Wide Learning Platforms

Before school begins you should know:

  • How to set up and operate a course
  • How to create and use small groups
  • The built-in accessibility tools that are available
  • What supports and tools families need to support the work at home?
  • How will you communicate with students who do not have reliable (or any) internet? Possible ideas
    • Telephone
    • Text
    • Snail mail
    • All materials and instructions in a bag
    • Internet hotspots
    • Recordings on a small MP3 player or on a DVD
  • Options for student participation
    • Telephone tree
    • Letters
    • Recording themselves and sending them to you
    • Pictures of their work
    • Individual phone calls
  • How to share assignments and have clear step-by-step directions for students to “turn-in” assignments

If you do not know one of these things, contact your school IT person immediately to see what training is available. 

Make a Plan for Supporting Family and Student Access to Learning


  • What accommodations are available for students who do not have access or a computer, smartphone, or internet at home?
  • What lending libraries and options are available for families who need assistive technology for their child to access learning platforms?
  • How do you use a district or school required communication platform (i.e, What family information can be shared with others? Can students communicate with each other through the learning platform?) if there is one? 
  • Who is the point person on the instructional team who will be communicating with families?
  • Do you need a language interpreter to support communication? How to access this support from the school/district?

Your principal and special education supervisors should have the answers to most of these questions. However, the point person for communicating with families could be an IEP team decision. A single point person works best with ongoing communication and collaboration across the IEP team. 

Getting Yourself Ready

  • Have a plan if you are unable to teach online or need to be absent for any reason. Consider recording a few lessons to post as “sub day” activities. 
  • Make a syllabus or written plan (like an annotated schedule) for students to know when, where, and how (synchronous or asynchronous) classes will be held, how to turn in assignments, and when assignments are due.
  • Make a list of self-care practices for stress relief that you can maintain throughout the school year as you navigate your new work-life balance (e.g., daily walks, mindfulness, starting a hobby, or any activity that helps you feel good). 

Communication & Collaboration

Even before school begins, set up communication and collaborative practices for your classroom families, students, and colleagues. One of the key practices for ensuring continuity of learning is collaboration. The move to distance delivery has highlighted the many opportunities to build inclusive practices to set the stage for academic learning. 

Work Collaboratively with Families

Work Collaboratively with Colleagues 

In a time where people are physically far apart, good communication among team members can make everyone feel close and help students accomplish their goals in a distance learning school year. Co-planning, co-teaching, and co-assessing are vital for creating inclusive classes. We know it is often difficult to find the time, so here are some tools to get you started. 

  • Advocate for collaborative planning time with your administrator. 
  • Use the Learning Matrix Tool to support clear, concise communication for education teams. 

Get to Know Your Students

Even before school begins you can start building relationships with your students and as a class. This fun and flexible idea from the Smithsonian Science for Global Goals program is a great way to get the school year started using UDL strategies that are easily accessible for all students, whether you are in-person, online or a hybrid of both. It is great for all students, including those who have an intellectual disability, complex bodies, are English learners, etc. 

Here is a template for getting started, feel free to change any part of it to make it fit your class.

Create an Identity Map 

Hello Class! I am excited for our class! I can’t wait to meet you. 

We are going to create an Identity Map. Find an object at home to answer each question. 

  1. Who is in your family?
  2. What do you like to do for fun?
  3. What do you like best about yourself?
  4. What is your favorite color?
  5. What are you nervous about for school this year?
  6. What are you excited about for school this year? 

Next, put together your objects in a way that tells a story about you.

Some ideas include:

timeline graphic

Create a timeline of your story

bubble map graphic. one center circle surrounded by 6 outer circles.

A wheel with spokes: each object radiating out from the center

mini collection depicted by four separated boxes arranged in a square. Each box can be used to group different kinds of items

Mini collection: group items together by location, type, etc...

question mark graphic

Any other way you want!

To share your map:

  1. You may share your map any way you want. Some ideas:
    1. Take a photo, and record a few sentences explaining why you chose those objects.
    2. Make a video (no more than 1 minute) telling about your map.
  2. Post it (on your LMS, Padlet, Flipgrid, etc.)
  3. Now meet your friends! Look and listen to their maps!


Planning ahead for successful strategies that easily move between distance and hybrid learning can ensure that everyone is on the same page. By engaging ahead of time with families, colleagues, and students, you can collaboratively lay a foundation for the school year that enables all students to learn.

Check out the next step: The First Days of School.

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 #18, August, 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., Reyes, E., & Bowman, J. (2020). Preparing for the first week of school (DL #18). 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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