As a parent, what is my role, and what can I do to best support my child’s education?
Page 8: What If My Child Has a Disability?
As part of their individualized education, students with disabilities generally receive a range of services and supports provided by a variety of professionals. These often include instruction from both general and special education teachers, supports from related service providers (speech-language therapists, physical therapists), and more.
If your child has a disability, you probably have a lot of questions about the academic year. These might include:
- What will my child’s special education services look like?
- Is my child’s IEP still appropriate?
- If learning virtually, how will my child receive related services, like speech-language or physical therapies?
- How will my child keep up in general education classes?
- What can I do to support my child’s learning?
If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, trust us, you’re not alone. Many parents of kids with disabilities are asking similar ones right now. But how do you find out the answers? Let’s start with your child’s school.*
Stay in Touch with Your Child’s School
For Your Information
At the onset of the pandemic, most schools didn’t have much time to plan for at-home learning before they shut down. Since that time, school personnel have had to figure out ways to safely offer services and supports. Some of the options being implemented now include using technology to:
- Deliver online or virtual instruction
- Provide related services through teletherapy
- Hold virtual IEP meetings
The online delivery of various therapy services (e.g., speech, physical, counseling), usually through live videoconferencing.
Schools are trying to keep in touch with parents to keep everyone informed of the latest developments. As you can imagine, this can be tricky.
To stay prepared, you should get as much information as possible about your district’s back-to-school plan. Be aware, though, that these plans may change over time.
To keep up with the latest updates:
- Make sure the school has your current contact information and that you are on any school communication lists (automated phone calls, mailings, email).
- Let the teachers, paraprofessionals, related service providers, and others who deliver services or supports to your child know how you want to be contacted (phone call, email, text) and the best time to reach you (mornings, afternoons).
- Contact the teacher or school if you haven’t heard from them or if you have questions.
Discuss Special Education Services and Supports
Instead of typical in-person classroom instruction, many schools and districts are using distance learning. This includes:
- Online instruction — learning happens outside of school, on a computer and using the Internet
- Real-time learning (often called synchronous instruction) — A type of online instruction in which students are scheduled to be “together” virtually in class and engaged in the same activity at the same time
- Independent learning (often called asynchronous instruction) — A type of online instruction in which students are not “together” in real time but instead complete work on their own schedule
- Blended or hybrid — Some combination of online and in-person instruction. For example, a school might have roughly half its students attend in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other half attends virtually (e.g., via Zoom). Additionally, the school might have all students learn independently on Wednesdays while a deep cleaning takes place in the building. The students “swap places” on Thursdays and Fridays.
- Offline — Learning activities that do not require a computer or Internet access. For example, a school might mail packets of work to students’ homes.
For a child with a disability, these changes to her typical instruction will probably also affect special education services and supports. Some might require slight adjustments. Others might need to be changed entirely.
If you don’t already have a copy of your child’s IEP or 504 plan, request one from the school. Then, review it to identify areas that might need updating. Here are a few items to consider.
Present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLAAFP). Does your child’s current performance match the levels outlined in the plan? Your child may have regressed (lost skills) during the time that she or he was out of school.
IEP goals. If your child has experienced skill loss, the goals for those skills might need to be adjusted. Some goals might need to be changed completely. For example, maybe the IEP includes a goal of increasing certain desired behaviors in the classroom. If your child is learning virtually, those goals might not be necessary, at least for the time being. Instead, new goals for desired online behaviors might be needed.
Description of individualized services and supports. This might include details about how often services are provided, how much time per day or week is spent providing these services, or where the services will be provided. Much of this has likely changed for students receiving online or blended instruction. In addition to daily instruction, consider:
- Related services. Find out the options that your school or district can offer. For example, will the therapist work with the classroom teacher to provide these services? Or will services be provided through small-group or one-on-one sessions? Will these sessions be synchronous, asynchronous, or offline?
- Accommodations and modifications. These supports might need to be revisited to make sure that they meet your child’s needs in an online setting.
The extent to which your child will not be educated with nondisabled students in the general education setting. The concept of a classroom setting is very different in an online environment. How is the school addressing this issue to ensure that your child is included in daily activities and not excluded from peers?
During this time of distance learning, there might be a variety of reasons why an IEP meeting might need to be scheduled. You or your child’s IEP team might need to schedule a meeting to:
- Review your child’s progress over the past year
- Make changes because your child has different needs
Like many aspects of school nowadays, IEP meetings do not have to be in person. They can happen by telephone on a conference call or by using video conference technology.
For Your Information
The Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) is part of a nationwide network of centers that provide many types of supports for parents of children with disabilities. CPIR and five other national centers have developed a series of Virtual IEP Meeting Tip Sheets that include things like a sample agenda, technology tips, suggestions for participation, and more.
Need a brief refresher in IEPs? This short article, “Understanding IEPs,” offers a parent-friendly summary of IEPs and the IEP process.
Support Your Child’s Individualized Learning Needs at Home
All of this might seem like a lot. Fortunately, as with any parent who has a child learning at home, there are things you can do.
- Get your child ready to learn. For information on getting your child ready to learn, see Page 2.
- Set routines and behavior expectations. For more information on how to do this, see Page 3.
- Find out what your child should be learning. For more about how to find out what your child should be learning, see Page 4.
- Balance learning with social and emotional needs. For more on how to support your child socially and emotionally, see Page 7.
Keep in Mind
You are not expected to replace your child’s teacher or therapists. Your role is to support your child’s learning. Do what you can and let the rest go!
As your child participates in distance learning, his or her disability may create some challenges. At school, your child has accommodations that are meant to address such challenges. Some of the same accommodations that support your child’s learning in the general education classroom will work at home. But how can you find out what they are? As we discussed above, one thing you can do is review your child’s IEP or 504 plan. Additionally, you can:
Ask the teacher(s). This includes both the special education and general education teachers.
Ask your child. He might be able to explain what the teacher does at school that is helpful.
Once you identify the accommodations your child uses at school, you can figure out which ones you need to use as learning supports at home. To learn more about virtual learning alternatives, view IEP Accommodations During Distance Learning.
Below, we’ll discuss some of the common challenges that your child with a disability might face while learning at home. Click on each one for examples of learning supports that might be helpful.
What Are Parents Saying?
In My 5 Parenting Rules for Letting Go and Getting Through the Coronavirus Crisis, a mother with two sons with learning and attention issues shares her experience with distance learning.
Many students, not just those with attention issues, are reporting that it is hard to pay attention while learning at home. To support your child, you can:
Eliminate distractions. Move him away from the window, turn off the TV, and clear the counter, table, or desk.
Break an assignment into smaller pieces. Ask her to read two or three paragraphs at a time instead of a complete chapter. Let her do four math problems then take a brief break before doing more.
Build in frequent breaks. Even a short 90-second break can help your child recharge and reset.
Adjust the length of time. Divide a long learning session into smaller pieces. If your child is supposed to read for 30 minutes, let him take a break every 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be completed all at once.
Change the schedule. During offline or asynchronous activities, adjust the schedule to meet your child’s individual needs. For example, if your child has more trouble focusing in the afternoon, schedule harder subjects in the morning and easier activities in the afternoon. Keep in mind that older kids might be able to focus better in the afternoon.
For Your Information
The links below are from the TIES Center’s Distance Learning Series. Developed for parents of children with disabilities, they offer step-by-step tips that can help with common challenges.
Getting “Unstuck:” Tips to Help Your Child if They Get Stuck with Their Remote Learning
Reading is a challenge for many children with disabilities. If your child struggles with reading, you can:
Ask a family member for help. You might be used to helping your child with her reading. If you are busy, other family members can read assignments, books, or instructions to your child. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
For online learning:
Turn on the accessibility features on your tablet, computer, or phone. Many devices have built-in text-to-speech. For most devices, you can turn these on in “Preferences” or “Settings.”
An accessibility option that converts digital text into spoken words.
Turn on the speech functions in the apps that your child uses. Some apps, like Microsoft Word, now have setting options to read highlighted text out loud.
Sign up for a Bookshare account. Bookshare provides free digital access to thousands of books in formats like audio, audio + highlighted text, braille, and large font. Bookshare is free for students with a qualifying reading barrier, including dyslexia, blindness, low vision, and cerebral palsy. Before signing up, check to see if your child already has an account through her school.
For Your Information
Use the links below to access more information on accessibility.
What Accessibility Settings On My Devices Can Help My Child With Special Needs? This short article provides information on accessibility features that could be helpful for children with different types of disabilities.
Android Accessibility Overview. This support site provides instructions on how to turn on various accessibility features to customize your Android devices.
Apple Accessibility Support. This site provides directions to select and access the various accessibility features available on Apple devices.
Google Accessibility. This site describes accessibility features for dozens of Google products and apps.
Microsoft Word Accessibility. This site explains how to turn on and use the accessibility features in Microsoft Word.
For Your Information
In 7 Tips to Help Kids Understand What They Read, you’ll find more ideas about how to help your child read.
Whether you’re reading with your child or she is working independently, there are some simple things you can do to help her make sense of what she’s read.
Connect to what she knows. Find ways to link her past experiences to what she’s reading about now. These connections will help her make sense of what she’s reading.
Ask questions about what she read. Vary the types of questions you ask:
- Factual. “What was the dog barking at?”
- Make connections between events or information. “Why was Beth the only sister who got sick?”
- Make predictions. “The two countries could not agree to peace terms. What do you think will happen next?”
Try a reading activity. There are several very good activities listed on Page 4 that can help your child improve her understanding.
Some kids might have trouble following directions because they can’t remember what they’ve been asked to do. There might be too many steps for them to remember. Others have difficulty following written instructions. Maybe they have trouble making sense of what they just heard because they process information slowly. Here are some things you can do to help.
For Your Information
To learn more about kids who have trouble following directions, read:
Why Some Kids Have Trouble Following Directions
For written directions. Ask your child to:
- Read the directions and tell you what they mean.
- Identify important words in the directions.
- Make a checklist of what to do.
For real-time virtual classes. Show your child how to:
- Unmute the microphone and ask the teacher to repeat instructions she might not have understood the first time.
- Use the “chat” feature to type a question to the teacher.
- “Chat” with a classmate for help. Before the class, ask the teacher whether this is OK and also ask a classmate so that he or she is ready to help.
- Record the lesson and play it back later.
For pre-recorded classes or video lessons. Your child can:
- Rewind and play back the instructions as many times as needed.
- Hit “pause” and write down the instructions.
Though most school districts are aware of the problem and have had time to address it, online accessibility nevertheless remains an issue, particularly for children with disabilities. Fortunately, there are steps you can to head off potential challenges.
The accommodations that some children receive at school can be changed a bit and used for learning at home. Consider a child who has an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. As long as she can see her interpreter in a virtual environment, this accommodation can still work just fine. The teacher, family, and interpreter should plan and test ahead of time to work out any problems that might occur.
Sometimes you might need to use a different accommodation. In the case of the child in the example above, she might need captions when a live video feed is not an option.
If your child’s school is using accessibility features that are not working for your child, let the school know. Be specific. Explain why the feature is not working and how it could be improved. If something doesn’t work, don’t give up. Sometimes it only takes a small change to get things on the right track. Other times you might need to try something else.
The centers below are funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. These centers all have new resources to support the learning of children with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic that might be helpful:
- National Center on Accessible Educational Materials
- National Center on Deaf-Blindness
- National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. Note: Although the center focuses on the transition from high school to life beyond, it has many resources that are also relevant for younger students learning at home.
Make changes as needed. At the end of each week, think about what worked and what didn’t. Ask your child whether things are working. If something didn’t work, it’s OK to try something else. It may take several tries to figure everything out. That’s normal.
Dig deeper into some of the topics discussed on this page by visiting the Websites for the organizations and agencies below.
Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR). This center offers many types of supports in addition to the resources listed above for the parents of children with disabilities. Of particular note is an archived Webinar, “Vaccinations, Return to In-Person Learning, and What All Parents Need To Know.”
Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). This center has a wealth of information to help you encourage and support your child’s positive behavior. Of particular relevance right now are:
- 4 Resources to Support Students During the Pandemic
- Supporting Families With PBIS At Home, developed in collaboration with CPIR (see above)
National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL). If your child has a literacy-related disability, this center is a good source of information. It offers all kinds of tips and short videos that show you how to help your child with reading, writing, and more.
National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII). This center has lesson plans that can be used to provide struggling learners with additional practice, as well as video illustrations of how the lessons can be implemented.
- Tips for Parents
- Implementation of Reading Lesson: Parent Example
- Implementation of Mathematics Lesson: Grandparent Example
Understood. This organization’s mission is to support parents of children who learn and think differently. It has lots of resources related to the current COVID-19 crisis, including:
U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) Information and Resources for Schools and School Personnel. This site has information from the Centers for Disease Control and suggestions for at-home activities from various federal agencies. It also contains guidance documents like:
- Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Outbreak
- Supplemental Fact Sheet Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities
Office of Special Education Program’s Continuity of Learning During COVID-19. The information provided on this site is specific to the education of children with disabilities. It contains links to additional lists of resources:
- Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA) COVID-19 Resources and Information Webpage
- National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI): COVID-19 Resource Hub for Supporting Students With Disabilities
- Practices and Resources to Support Parents and Families
Transition Coalition. Though this center focuses on secondary transition, it nevertheless offers some helpful resources for learning during COVID. In particular, you might want to check out this archived Webinar on “Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, & Beyond: Social Media for Peer2Peer Engagement.”
*At this time there are many, yet unanswered policy and legal questions related to the provision of services (Free Appropriate Public Education) for children with disabilities during school closures. It is beyond the scope of this resources to attempt to answer these questions and the information contained within does not provide legal advice. As relevant answers emerge, this resource will be updated.