As the saying goes, the country is truly building the distance learning plane as we fly it. The change to distance learning has been very challenging for many students, families, and instructional teams. While schools and families did not have much notice, if any, to plan for distance learning, instructional teams have the opportunity and the responsibility to plan for successfully transitioning students with significant cognitive disabilities back into school. States are discussing what returning to school might look like and the possible timeframes. We don’t know exactly when that will be or what form it will take, but there are steps that we can take now to plan for that time so it goes as smoothly as possible for as many students as possible.
The relationships with students from before and during distance learning are the foundation for transitioning students back into school. Relationships between students and teachers, students and peers, and teachers and parents/families are foundational for effectively implementing distance learning and for having discussions about transitioning back into school. During distance learning, a team’s communication with their students and families should let them know that they matter and that their voices are heard. It shows that teachers care about them, how they are doing, and how they are weathering this dramatic change in their lives.
All of the efforts during distance learning to build and sustain relationships with students and families by sending emails, dropping off materials, creating short videos, and using online platforms create the on-ramp for having important discussions about transitioning back to school. Staying connected is the basis for the mutual trust that will support communication and problem solving about how to re-engage the student with classes, friends, teachers, schedules, and rituals and routines.
The stronger the communication web during distance learning, the stronger the available connections for planning a student’s transition back to school. The communication web includes communicating with:
Presuming competence is foundational for all planning. Move forward by presuming that students understand that something is changing...again...and that it will mean changes in how school looks for all students. This is particularly important for students who have receptive and expressive communication challenges. Provide students with information about the forthcoming changes through multiple means of representation. For example, teachers can write social stories that can be read to students. Educators and families can also add new vocabulary for emotions (e.g., excited, worried, happy, nervous) and for actions (e.g, social distancing, washing hands, wearing a mask) to low-tech or high-tech AAC devices to facilitate a means for them to express themselves. Provide them with the opportunity and appropriate support to express their questions and concerns. Assist them to work through any excitement or anxiety that emerges. Be particularly cognizant of students expressing their emotions about the change through new or expanded behaviors and collaborate with the families to support the children to use other ways to express themselves.
When the time is near for the change to being back in buildings to occur, re-engage with previously used visuals to talk about taking a bus again, school schedules, new teachers, a different locker, their peers, and activities. Add new visuals and teach about following safe procedures at school, such as washing hands, social distancing, changes to schedules, etc.
Similar to the importance of parent/family voice in navigating and individualizing distance learning, including the student's voice will be critical for smoothly transitioning back to school. Incorporate students in making meaningful choices about what their day will look like. Depending on the individual student’s needs, there will also be specific questions and concerns to problem-solve:
Also, consider that everything learned from this transition provides insights should a temporary change in how education is provided happen again in the future.
A series of reflective questions “What? So What? Now What?” provides a way for framing the available data and using them to guide transition planning and decision making.
The plans for reopening school, whether fully, gradually, or with modified schedules, will look different across the states. Teachers will need to take their state and district plans and translate them into supporting individual students. Regardless of the specifics, the key components of the relationships, communication, and data will be foundational for all planning.
Looking for more resources on how to plan and collaborate during COVID? Check out our DL post on Dealing with Uncertainty.
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.
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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