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Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #11: Embedding Instruction at Home

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

Given our current reality with distance or crisis learning, there is a unique opportunity for educators and families to collaborate to ensure students maintain their progress. Another unique opportunity that exists is for students to rehearse the knowledge and skills that they were working on in school in more authentic ways and in a different context. In Reflections About Individualizing Supports for Children: Olivia’s Story, Olivia’s mother Jen makes several suggestions for educators. One of these is the idea that individualized goals be worked on in the context of daily routines and activities. For students with significant cognitive disabilities, these skills could be found in daily routines including meal preparation, household chores, engaging in an email or text chain with a friend, and even watching television. In practice, this is called embedded instruction, where instructional strategies are “embedded” into natural performance settings (in this case, the home or community) to give students authentic opportunities to work on their individualized goals.

Individualized goals linked to daily living or functional skills (i.e., goals related to daily living tasks such as community participation, food preparation, or employment) may seem easier to embed at home and in students' communities compared to academic goals. However, given some thought and collaboration, individualized goals linked to core content subjects like mathematics and reading can be easily applied in the home or community context, aside from paper and pencil worksheets and educational websites and apps. 

To facilitate this collaboration, teachers and parents can engage in honest communication about what is working and not working given the current distance learning reality and how it has worked so far for their student with a significant cognitive disability. Then, a discussion can follow regarding:

  1. Possible priority goal(s) for the student to continue to work on at home in an embedded fashion
  2. How that goal can be addressed in multiple ways across the course of the day within a home/community context
  3. How a team approach can be used to provide instruction

Example: The fifth grade general education class taught by Mr. Johnson is working on a state writing standard. Ms. Lee, the special education teacher, is discussing with Mr. Adams, the parent of Ava, about how distance learning is going for Ava. Ms. Lee and Mr. Adams decide that using embedded instruction at home may help facilitate increased engagement and generalization of academic skills to Ava’s every day activities.They discuss the three points and determine the following:

  1. They want Ava to continue to work on writing using a keyboard.
  2. Writing can be addressed at home through the following naturally-occurring opportunities at home: logging into a computer, writing letters or texting a friend, and making decorations for family celebrations (i.e. birthday banner). 
  3. To engage in a team approach, Ms. Lee is going to continue to provide individualized instruction on writing and instead of assigning writing tasks, builds in writing tasks a student engages in at home whether it be a written letter, a video of them typing into a computer, or a text conversation (given permission to share from the student). Ms. Lee will provide Ava with letter templates that align with the purposes of writing discussed in her general education class (to persuade, explain, inform, or entertain) she can use to fill in to write letters to her friends and family. She will also discuss the best supports to provide for Ava while she is engaging in these writing activities, including the use of modeling, a scribe, and speech-to-text software.

In another 7th grade general education class taught by Ms. Montgomery, the class was working on solving real world problems involving two and three-dimensional figures. Mr. Gaffney, the special education teacher, discussed this with Noah’s mother, Ms. Zavala, and they decided that instead of completing his work from the mathematics text, Noah could work on these skills in embedded activities at home.

  1. Given Noah’s familiarity with two-dimensional shapes, Mr. Gaffney and Ms. Zavala discussed Noah engaging in activities related to this standard using two-dimensional shapes. 
  2. Ms. Zavala identifies the following activities that can support his learning related to this standard: vacuuming the perimeter and area of a room (during his weekly chores), planning a family garden, and building structures with LEGOS (one of Noah’s hobbies). 
  3. To work together in providing instruction to Noah, Mr. Gaffney was going to continue to provide specialized instruction related to the content covered in the general education curriculum. Instead of requiring Noah to submit worksheets or online work, Noah is allowed to have video chats describing his LEGO structures, including their area, perimeter, and how many of each type of block could fit into different sizes. Mr. Gaffney also provided Noah with a template for planning the family garden for him to work with his family to fill out.

Many other skills can be applied in this way. Skills related to literacy and mathematics can be embedded into cooking (for example, using fractions when measuring for a recipe), cleaning (for example, reading instructions), ordering pizza (for example, calculating a tip), and even playing a family board game (for example, reading game rules, counting, number identification). Educators and parents both come to the table with unique knowledge and skills, and equip one another to provide more comprehensive instruction in even one priority area can ensure a student’s success and progress as distance learning continues and even after it ends. 

Consider the following questions as you think about how  students with significant cognitive disabilities are learning at home. 

  • Are there skills students are working on, or standards being covered in the general education class, that students with significant cognitive disabilities can work on through distance education? 
  • How are students with significant cognitive disabilities doing with learning the material through distance learning? What is working well? What is difficult? Families, describe how you know this learning is difficult, what are the signs?
  • How does this skill or standard connect to typical home routines? (Spend some time talking to families about their daily routines)
  • How can this skill or content be embedded into typical daily activities at home in a way that is manageable for the parent or family? How can it be embedded so that it builds on the student's strengths? (Spend some explaining to families what the skill progression can look like)
  • How will the student and family demonstrate that the student is working on this skill or content at home?

When parents and teachers can think creatively about how to engage in this process with each other, current and future impact on student outcomes will be enhanced, even after students are back in the classroom.

Distance Learning Series: DL #11, June 2020

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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