Pivot to In-Person Instruction

Pivot to In-Person Instruction: An Overview Framework

TIES Center: Pivot to in-person instruction, overview.

A Framework for Pivoting to In-Person Instruction

The TIES Distance Learning Series provides multiple strategies for supporting students with significant cognitive disabilities during distance and hybrid learning. The Pivot to In-Person Instruction Series applies the same principles, as most students are returning to in-person instruction. However, we expect that some schools will need to pivot between the various instruction models given the changing nature of the COVID virus. The current challenge is how to support students whenever they need to transition back to in-person instruction or to distance learning. The great news is that the strategies are similar regardless of where instruction happens. It is the “how” that varies.    

As we move forward, after a unique year of education, many students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, will likely experience both in-person and distance instruction arrangements. It is important to realize that learning opportunities are abundant and can continue to be generalized across the day, whether in a school building or at home. The 5C Process (DL #17) provides a detailed process for instructional planning for school and distance learning for students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive environments. We mention it here to assist teams to proactively plan with consistency and collaboration in mind given the ever changing pandemic considerations for students who may need to be receiving instruction through distance learning due to any number of considerations.

Distance learning and in-person inclusive school settings present a myriad of teachable moments that connect to the primary underpinnings of inclusive education. These include: (a) an emphasis on access to, and engagement with, grade-level standards-based academics; (b) addressing students’ complex communication needs; (c) the importance of relationships and belonging, and; (d) the learning of life-long essential skills in real places with real people. Capitalizing on the thousands of teachable opportunities that occur throughout a day reinforces the value of thinking about IEP priorities in terms of the whole child across the whole day. We know students are more than just learners for the 6-7 hours that they are in school. In this sense, considering what was learned during distance learning in an inclusive way presents an exciting opportunity. We are able to structure learning and establish IEP goal areas within natural and inclusive contexts both for instruction in school and at home. We are also able to learn from what families know about their child due to the time spent supporting them at home during distance learning. This is a very real opportunity for educators to listen and collaborate with families in a brand new way.

Looking at the learning opportunities that exist for all students across the day (participating in routines and transitions, engaging in grade level academics and other essential skills, and interacting with others), we can prioritize learning opportunities for students with the most significant disabilities. All of these examples can be modified or expanded upon depending on the individual student's strengths and identified needs. It is important to remember that engagement begins with supporting a sense of community for all students, regardless of the location for teaching and learning.

Each of the identified learning components encompasses many activities and skills that can occur at school and at home. The examples below illustrate ways to think about the activities and skills regardless of where the child is receiving instruction.

Participating in Routines and Transitions

  • Being responsible for finding their workspace or desk, collecting appropriate materials for a learning activity, turning on their computer/device on time with increasing levels of independence, with prompts as necessary. Imagine the student sitting at the kitchen table doing homework. What skills could they be learning that are lifelong and essential?
  • Following a schedule with increased independence (using high or low tech options such as online calendars and alerts, visuals, oven timers, handwritten list, or even post-it notes around the home and school) to plan, coordinate and engage in activities across the day.
  • Beginning, engaging in, and sustaining work (especially non-preferred activities) for increased amounts of time, and working toward needing varied or fewer prompts.

Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills

  • Engaging in universally designed academics to the greatest degree possible, with the assistance of graphic organizers, word banks, visuals, audio and speech to text options, project-based learning, and support from instructional team members including paraprofessionals, siblings, and parents.
  • Using technology in an increasingly independent fashion. Examples include using Google Classroom or Schoology, Google Suite or Microsoft Office apps, Zoom, emailing with teachers and peers about what they are learning or questions they have, turning in assignments and continuing the email conversation by checking in and responding.
  • Using Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) systems to participate during in-person and online class discussions (preparing beforehand if necessary) and during home routines. Examples include using a switch to show choice/preference and using various devices such as iPad, Chromebook, laptops, and watches across the day.
  • Increasing self-advocacy skills through realizing a need for assistance, identifying who to ask for help (parents, teacher, peers, siblings), and then seeking assistance for the issue more independently across the day.
  • Using communication (verbal, AAC, or both) to express frustration, anger, or anxiety rather than less appropriate refusal or disengagement behaviors.

Interacting With Others

  • Participating in small and large group learning with peers in-person and online. Examples include morning meetings, meetups, class discussions, peer partner opportunities, and projects.
  • Learning how to use, and engaging in, age-appropriate means of staying in touch with peers and creating community with one another. Examples include texting, FaceTime, other social media options, e-pals, and recreation/leisure activities such as online gaming.
  • Using an AAC device to ask/answer questions during in-person classes or online discussions, to offer answers prepared in advance or in the moment, to tell a joke of the day, or to check in on people a student cares about.

Please check out all the articles in the In-Person Instruction and Distance Learning series for practical illustrations. 


Terri Vandercook, Ph.D.

Gail Ghere, Ph.D.

Jennifer Sommerness, Ed.S.

Deb Taub, Ph.D.

Pivot to In-Person Instruction Series: An Overview Framework 

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

  • Vandercook, T., Ghere, G., Sommerness, J., & Taub, D. (2021). Pivot to In-Person Instruction: An Overview Framework. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

This overview was posted previously as a part of the Distance Learning Series,  Distance Learning Engagement: An Overview Framework -- Update! Content has been adapted by the author(s) for application to in-person instruction as well as distance learning.

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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