Distance Learning for Fall: Helping Students with Learning Differences


It seems like just yesterday parents across the country breathed aPepi Silverman huge sigh of relief that the challenges of remote learning were over and summer was finally here. Now, summer is winding down, the new school year peeks around the corner, and uncertainty seems like the only sure thing. Schools are preparing for a variety of scenarios as the fall semester is rapidly approaching and many are opting to start the school year the same way things ended in the spring - with remote learning. Some kids rocked distance learning and are excited to continue. Other families had a much different experience and now have countless questions about how to meet the needs of their kids, especially those that have 504 plans and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

I recently had the pleasure of connecting with Dr. Pepi Silverman, an educational advocate and Director of Bridge Educational Advocacy in Chicago. As a former district level school administrator, Dr. Silverman is well-versed in the rules and regulations that schools must follow in the provision of school-based services. She is also a university professor who teaches future educators. 

During our first meeting together, we shared stories about the struggles that so many families faced with remote learning. I quickly noticed how passionate Pepi was about wanting to be sure that all students will get what they need to be successful in the event that distance learning continues for this upcoming school year. I am excited to have had the opportunity to collaborate with her and share her expertise to help families be prepared for remote learning this fall.

In our conversation, I asked Dr. Silverman about some of the most pressing questions I've been hearing from other parents and compiled her answers for this article. Hopefully, her perspective will help prepare you to face the uncertainty of this new school year with a few more tools in your self-advocacy kit.

How can parents best prepare for their child’s remote learning needs this fall, especially if their child has an IEP or 504 plan?

Dr. Silverman: First and foremost, I would look at their current IEP and 504 plans, reflect on the spring semester, and determine what specifically about remote learning was challenging. Then, it's important to see how we can apply those insights to this year's remote learning and accommodations.

For IEPs specifically, I'd also recommend revisiting the accommodations to make sure that remote learning isn’t sacrificing the IEP. Just because remote learning is new doesn’t mean we should forget about the IEP and its importance. We have to merge the two concepts to ensure that each student’s needs are being met.

Unfortunately, far too many parents are unaware that they have the ability to question or adjust the IEP and accommodation options. As a result, many families accept whatever was presented because it was a response to a crisis.

To summarize, these are my four tips for these students to best prepare for the upcoming year. 

  • Call an IEP meeting
  • Collaborate with the teacher
  • Send an email to the principal, assistant principal, case manager, or school psychologist to share with teachers your concerns and what was problematic.
  • Make sure new teachers can implement the IEP in a way that's faithful to what was agreed upon.

How can my middle schooler effectively work on his social skills during distance learning?

Dr. Silverman: This is a tricky one, but making this time a social activity can be a great way to supplement the individual services your child is receiving from a social worker.

Here's one thing you can try - talk about emotions while sitting at the dinner table or while you're watching TV together, for instance. If you're watching a movie together, try pausing at various points and ask your child: “What do you think the character is feeling?” Share your own thoughts and observations so you can explore this together. Although this, of course, isn't a full replacement for real socializing, it does help train the part of the brain responsible for picking up on others feelings. 

Lastly, your child’s social worker may also have great video resources that you can watch together and discuss. For example, Social Thinking by Michelle Garcia Winner is an excellent resource. Regardless, most teams of social workers should be able to make recommendations based on a child’s specific needs.

My son has a 504 and really struggled with distance learning. What can we do?

Dr. Silverman: Distance learning will have to be different for your son because he struggled in the spring. When a student has a 504 plan or IEP, the supports in place should do no “harm” (i.e. failing classes, negatively affecting self-esteem). It’s ok to express how the current system is not working for your son so that you can ensure he is getting what he needs to be successful.

Here are two things that may be helpful to explore with your son’s teachers:

  • Look at different ways of measuring performance. Ask for project based assignments instead of worksheets. This will create an opportunity for him to be more actively involved to create a deeper connection to the material.
  • Sit down with your son and his teachers to create rubrics in advance. These will help him be more aware of how he will be graded. 

I think my son needs more help than I can give him in a remote learning environment. What can I do?

Dr. Silverman: For this particular instance, I would recommend the following steps:

  1. Write down your areas of concern in your own words, based on your own observation. You have good insight on where the struggles are. The goal is to match the intervention to the struggles.
  2. Write a letter or email requesting a case study evaluation for consideration of eligibility for services.
  3. All schools have processes to provide appropriate interventions to support students. Ask the team: What can we do now while data is being gathered so that my son can be successful? For example, if he struggles with attention, teachers can break a 40 minute lesson into two 20 minute lessons to help him sustain his attention.
  4. To help foster independence, see if there can there be some kind of reinforcement of instruction from a teacher to build self-management skills and form a system of accountability.
  5. If he does his work but forgets to turn assignments in, perhaps there can be a checkout system. He can touch base with someone to stay on top of due dates and manage a checklist of assignments to be sure they are submitted. If he doesn’t know how to submit things electronically, the checkout process can make sure he knows where the “submit” button is.

My 8 year old is diagnosed with social pragmatic communication issues and has an IEP. How do I know that he will get the social emotional help he needs?

Dr. Silverman: First, you can go back to the IEP and reference what was provided last spring. You might have more information to share based on your experience with remote learning. If you feel that something is not working, you can request a review of the services being provided under the current IEP and make adjustments. Clear, consistent communication is key to the entire process. You’ll want to share examples with your child’s team to ensure that he’s getting what he needs.

Also, a shared Google Doc can be very helpful to gather information. Everyone can have an open, free flowing modality for communication so that you are all on the same page. Since remote learning does not always allow for real time feedback, you can also take videos of your child trying to work independently and send it to the team as they gather more data.

How can I best prepare for a positive and productive team meeting with my child’s teachers?

Dr. Silverman: Start by making a list of educational needs based on performance issues from the onset of spring 2020’s online instruction. To do this effectively, review all progress updates and report card data and compare it to student performance before the start of remote learning.

Next, consider the difficulties demonstrated by your child and include the necessary school personnel who could support any new additional support services.Then, prepare a parent concern statement, with feedback from your child, if appropriate, about the challenges experienced during remote learning.

Lastly, once a new plan is proposed, establish a timeline to reconvene the school team to assess the efficacy of any new services to ensure that a measurement process is incorporated into all future educational considerations

What if I'm worried that my child will be starting this year behind and isn’t ready to advance to the next grade?

Dr. Silverman: Many parents are anxious about how schools will assess a students’ readiness for this upcoming school year. Ask for concrete information about your child’s academic performance to help alleviate some of that anxiety. Some questions you can ask include:

  • How can we ensure readiness and fill gaps in knowledge?
  • How will mastery of material be measured?
  • How will assessments be administered?
  • How will results be shared?

My daughter’s school is doing a hybrid of remote and in person learning, but I’m not sure this will be the best for her. How do I decide?

Dr. Silverman: If you are weighing your options between remote learning, in-person instruction, or a hybrid model, consider the following:

  • How does my student handle transitions?
  • What is my child’s tolerance for change?
  • Is it in my child’s best interest to have one type of instruction for a quarter, a semester, or the entire year?

If your child does not do well with changes and transitions, it might be more difficult for them to switch back and forth between in-person and remote learning. No matter which option you choose, developing routines and schedules will help with consistency and accountability. Create routines that separate their school life from their home life. Some ideas include:

  • Have a designated place for school work
  • Have a consistent morning routine and bedtime routine
  • Create a schedule for school work, eating, and breaks
  • Use a calendar to stay on track and make use of visual reminders

Any final thoughts for parents?

Dr. Silverman: No matter what situation your family finds itself in this coming fall, it's important to custom build your own process to properly accommodate your child's unique needs. Ongoing communication will be key to supporting student success, but also remember that learning is a dynamic activity; the more your child collaborates with you and others, the more they'll learn. With proper preparation and planning, you may even find that this fall semester can be a success for all. If parents have any other questions, please feel free to email me at pepi@beadvocacy.com.

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About the Author

Angela Molloy

Angela Molloy, MA, is an Outreach Coordinator and coach with Beyond BookSmart. Angela meets with professionals throughout the greater Chicagoland area. She has expertise in supporting students with diverse executive function challenges, as well as a deep understanding of the evidence-based methodology of behavior change. Angela is also a licensed professional educator and school counselor in Illinois. She earned her Master’s degree in school counseling from Roosevelt University and her undergraduate degree in psychology and communication studies from Elmhurst College. Angela believes that all students are capable of achieving success and individual differences should be welcomed for the strengths they bring to a student’s education.

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