Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #21: Distance Learning and Deafblindness: Learning From Parents

A new academic year is here and with it new opportunities to reflect on the triumphs and challenges with distance learning. What worked well? What didn’t? Who thrived and who struggled? At the same time, we are trying, as best we can, to plan for an uncertain school year. How do we provide inclusive high-quality instruction to all?

As we transition back into a new school year, now is the time to stop and think about the students and families who experienced the most barriers in distance learning. In this article, we will focus on one such group, learners with deafblindness. How can we best approach teaching students with deafblindness and supporting their parents? Answering this question now helps us to proactively design inclusive instruction for learners with a variety of high-intensity support needs. Even if you don’t think you will be teaching a student with deafblindness, please read on. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of these students and their parents. You might just find that designing instruction for learners with deafblindness opens your eyes to more equitable ways of providing distance learning.

Want to learn more about learners with deafblindness? Check out the National Center for Deafblindness to learn more about deafblindness.

What have we learned from parents of children with deafblindness?

Parents of children with deafblindness, like all parents, experienced different methods of distance learning during COVID. However, given that so much of distance learning was provided using technologies that require the use of vision and hearing to learn, what was it really like for these parents and their children? 

The National Center for Deafblindness, in partnership with the TIES Center, reached out to parents of children with deafblindness to learn more. What we learned was encouraging, frustrating, and packed with important lessons for anyone planning for inclusive and engaging distance learning in the fall. Here is what we found.

Let’s Celebrate the Small Victories!

Let’s celebrate the good news first! Many families of students with deafblindness reported that when distance learning began, they were excited and humbled by the work of teachers who helped to bring what worked in school into their homes during distance learning. Parents and caregivers relished these small victories:

Billy, a teenager with deafblindness, uses his assistive technology with refreshable braille display to engage in distance learning at home. He is smiling and seated at a desk with his laptop and smartphone nearby.

Billy, a teenager with deafblindness, uses his assistive technology with refreshable braille display to engage in distance learning at home.

  • Teachers who reached out to families just to say hello and share an understanding of how challenging the situation for everyone is right now. 
  • Teachers who were consistent in their communication respected how families best communicated (text, email, video consult) and would openly acknowledge the ways that distance learning lessons were not yet accessible for their children with deafblindness.
  • Caregivers and teachers who problem-solved how to integrate learning into existing family routines, whether these be household routines (such as dressing, mealtime, a daily family stroll) or academic routines at home (such as getting the family organized for their synchronous online learning sessions, aligning lessons of the learner with deafblindness to sibling lessons).
  • Teachers who provided materials that were extremely organized. For example, a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) who provided braille materials clearly labeled for sighted parents and organized by week.
  • Teachers who were allowed to drop off materials or resources to their doorstep, or provided safe places for parents to pick up resources and materials.
  • Parents and teachers who were creative and weren’t afraid to try new or unexpected things as the weeks of distance learning went on. For example, a parent reported that her child’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) teacher sent weekly lessons and materials in the mail that focused on fun, because that was the primary goal of the family, to have fun while learning.
  • Teachers who provided guilt-free options to opt-out or save a lesson for another day. For example, one parent remarked that her teachers fully supported her no-learn Wednesday. “Every Wednesday we did no school, it was the break we both needed to reset. We watched movies, cuddled in the morning, just took time to enjoy each other.  I wish I would've implemented this in our routine sooner. It really helped with her anxiety and change of routine.”

What Were the Biggest Barriers?

Not all went well for families of students with deafblindness. It was a challenging and unprecedented time for all. While some children and families were able to do the best they could with distance learning, it is important to also recognize that many families struggled. The quality of services provided to families varied greatly. Parents reported that the following instructional barriers:

Laci, a student with deafblindness, uses a touch computer screen, calculator, and worksheets to complete her distance learning assignment at home. Behind her computer screen is a black background that minimizes distractions and helps Luci to focus on her math assignment.

Laci, a student with deafblindness, uses a touch computer screen, calculator, and worksheets to complete her distance learning assignment at home. 

  • Administrators and teachers who wrongly assumed that distance learning meant that they were not required to teach children with deafblindness at all given the change in educational service delivery.
  • Professionals who required parents and students to show competency to get access to distance learning. For example, a therapist who unilaterally decided that a child wasn’t allowed to join a video call with peers because it was assumed she didn’t have enough vision and/or hearing to benefit from the experience.
  • Professionals who would not respond or provide specific feedback to family members (parents, siblings, extended family members) who struggled to know if they were implementing lessons “right.”
  • Instructional teams  who placed high demands on families for their time, paired with expectations that the family should “do it all.” For example, one parent remarked that she was willing to teach her child, but also wanted her daughter's instructional team to understand and acknowledge that she was a parent first, not her child’s new paraprofessional. 
  • Schools or districts who provided boxes of materials and lesson ideas without the specifics of how to implement these resources in their home. Parents reported that they wanted more video coaching or office hours they could call into with their questions.

How Do We Do Better?

In the spring, we were focused on continuity or keeping the learning going. Reflecting on our victories and barriers is an important step in planning for a new and uncertain academic year. There is much to learn from these families and their children with deafblindness. The diversity of experiences, supports, and approaches used to continue learning for students with deafblindness is especially important for all teachers because they broaden our understanding of learner variability, which can only serve to improve our planning for all.

Here are three takeaways that will empower your instructional planning and collaboration:

  • Aim for progress, not perfection. Providing high quality and rigorous educational experiences at school or at home for children with deafblindness requires a great deal of forethought, creativity, and iteration. No matter how hard we try, we will not be perfect and there may be times where we make mistakes. When this happens, think about how you can improve to find solutions. What is working that you can leverage?  How can you align the family’s daily activities and routines with the IEP and educational goals?  What are the barriers for families that you might help reduce? Make a list now with your colleagues and return to it when you get stuck in the fall.
  • Consider the needs of the entire family unit, and expect there to be great variation among families. Whereas teachers of children with deafblindness are encouraged to be child-focused, they must now also be family-focused. Each family’s experience of the pandemic and distance learning is unique. Some families might be experiencing extreme fatigue from being asked to teach and collaborate, while others might feel alone and adrift without support. Some families’ experiences will change drastically during the school year due to illness or unemployment. Think about what kind of information would help you better plan for the school year and begin reaching out to parents and caregivers to learn more about their needs and resources for distance learning. Some siblings seek ways to be involved in teaching and learning with their brother/sister with deaf-blindness. How can siblings be empowered in the educational process?
  • Collaboration and building relationships are critical. Anticipate that you will need additional time this upcoming academic year to meet, listen to, and work with parents and caregivers. Building and maintaining relationships that lead to a meaningful collaboration of high-intensity support needs takes time and energy. Acknowledge and prioritize collaborative practice. In instructional team meetings, share and celebrate the victories/ successes and challenge assumptions that active involvement and inclusion during distance learning of a student is not possible. A great first step is to advocate now for more time for collaboration with families and other professionals. Consider how you can improve your collaborative practice and coaching skills with parents PDF during distance learning.  

Distance Learning Series: DL #21, September, 2020

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

  • Hartmann, E., & Probst, K. (2020). Distance learning and deafblindness: Learning from parents (DL #21). 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 the 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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