Indiana teachers meet challenges for special needs students

As kids learn from home, Southern Indiana’s special education teachers are turning to new ways to meet the needs of their students.

Posted: May 4, 2020 9:37 AM

JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. (AP) — As kids learn from home, Southern Indiana’s special education teachers are turning to new ways to meet the needs of their students.

Online learning is posing challenges to kids, teachers and parents across the country, and it can be particularly challenging for those with special needs. The students are facing a major disruption to their usual routine, so teachers are working to keep them connected, collaborate with parents and continue their education.

Brooke Lannan, director of special populations for Greater Clark County Schools, said the district’s special education teachers have had to be creative in serving their students.

Special education teachers are using online platforms to provide virtual classes and video lessons, and speech therapists are offering teletherapy. Staying in touch with the parents has been one of the main focuses, she said.

“Our Greater Clark special education members are frequently communicating with parents constantly checking in on their progress and seeing if they have access to the material,” she said. “If the family is having a hard time staying in touch virtually, we’re making sure we’re delivering materials to the home or mailing them.”

They are also using the remote lessons and communications to help maintain some structure for their students, according to Lannan. Remote learning is also a major adjustment for parents, who are often trying to juggle their own jobs while caring for their kids.

“As humans, we depend on structure and routine, and that is just as true for students with disabilities,” she said.

They are also trying to plan ahead and address issues that might occur from the disruptions to the students’ routines, she said.

“Once we do return to school with a more regular routine back in place, we might have different concerns,” she said. “We recognize that students will probably regress a bit during this time, and we’re looking ahead and laying out different plans to address needs once they return.”

Mary Fanning, a special education teacher at Borden High School, has worked to deliver her classes using online platforms. It has been difficult without the usual interactions with students, but she provides one-on-one tutoring sessions using Google Meets, and they are using a platform called Schoology to learn and connect with each other.

It means a lot for them to have that interaction, she said.

Fanning has also set up video conferences so the students can simply connect with one another, including a video meeting on a student’s birthday. She is working to also meet their social and emotional needs, since they have experienced such a big disruption.

“A big part of the day was taken away from them,” she said. “It had to happen, but this is probably one of the biggest challenges some of them have faced in a while.”

The students’ bus drivers are also talking to them over the phone each week so they can maintain that connection, she said.

The lack of a usual school schedule can be difficult for her students, including those with autism, Fanning said.

“The parents know that already, and they’re making sure their kids have a routine,” she said. “It has to be adapted to what the parents are experiencing. The routines being changed is hard on some of the students, while some are like, ‘woohoo, summer started.’”

Besides academics like reading and math, Fanning is also encouraging them to share what life skills they have learned at home, whether it is doing yard work or painting the house.

“What we have to do in life, in whatever situation we’re in, is think, ‘what’s the good I’m going to get out of this?’” she said.

Stephanie Riggs, 20, is one of the kids with special needs in Fanning’s class. She has speech apraxia and mental disabilities, and it has been hard on her to be away from her teachers, according to her mom, Tracie Riggs.

“Being able to talk to her teachers — texting and video chatting with her teachers and aids — has really gotten her through this,” she said.

Brian Dailey’s son, Luke, is also a student in Fanning’s special education class. One of the biggest challenges is keeping him focused, balancing eLearning between his three kids and trying to keep Luke on a normal sleep schedule.

“You realize quick that teachers have to have a lot of patience,” he said. “Keeping kids focused can be really tough.”

Kasey Carlton, a special education teacher at Clarksville Community Schools, said the social aspect of school is important to maintain, even if it’s in a different form. He tries to keep up communication with students so they feel comfortable asking questions and reaching out with issues.

“We make contact so they know they’re not isolated and not alone,” he said. “There are people here and resources here.”

According to Brian Allred, principal at Renaissance Academy in Clarksville, alternative learning forms for special education include various video conferencing platforms, phone conferences and other online services, and they provide packets to those without full access to eLearning.

“It’s been challenging for some,” he said. “No one has been prepared for a total eLearning-type environment. We were not ready to instruct in that manner, and we were thrust into that. Teachers were not prepared or even thinking of that, and parents were not thinking of that. I think it’s been quite the learning curve for everyone. There are some feelings of angst and frustration with that from students.”

Jaime Cook, a special education teacher at Silver Creek Elementary, said one of the challenges is providing individualize learning plans for her students remotely — it takes all weekend to put together packets to deliver to her students, which have to fit their different learning levels. She has provided small reading groups for the kids through Zoom.

She gave her phone number to all parents, so they can call or text her with any questions. She is trying to relieve any stress the parents might be feeling, she said.

“We don’t want the school work to be the major stressor,” Cook said. “We keep everything very low stress but productive — we’re just telling them to do the best you can.”

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