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Helping special needs students adjust to online learning

By Henry Skirbst, White Township School science teacher

Many students are struggling with the current school closures.  Perhaps none more than those with special needs.  The lack of routine and regular help from teachers can result in setbacks to their progress.

So how can we minimize losses, or better yet; how can we make the most of this opportunity to help them make gains?

As a middle-school science teacher, I’ve always taught students with special needs.  Every day, I address various challenges including significant hearing and vision impairments, cognitive and processing deficits, and emotional and behavioral concerns.  I am now finding that meeting those needs is making the transition to distance learning smoother for everyone in my class.

Here are just a few examples:

Years ago, I had a student with hearing loss and I became fascinated with sign language.  I soon discovered the benefits of kinesthetic learning for all students and created hand movements to teach concepts.  During this season of remote learning, I challenge my students each morning to learn the Sign Language Flag Salute.  It’s a great exercise for the body and the brain!

Vision impairments vary greatly.  From needing glasses to being color-blind to having almost complete vision loss, I’ve had students with each.  One way I’ve addressed these needs is creating a science web site which allows them to view content on screens to improve contrast or increase size as needed, wherever they are.

For students who struggle with cognition, I wrote a series of books which provide prompted-response for note-taking and tips for understanding difficult concepts.  These books provide everything the student needs to succeed in science class.  Since then, I have made them available for all students, in print and online versions, so they are never without it.

Many students just need a little more time to process material.  Although this may sometimes be difficult in class without holding up other students, it’s easier when a student can “replay” a lesson or lab and pause when needed.  Creating my own You Tube Channel enabled me to provide this opportunity.  They all love watching it now.

Some students have behavioral or emotional conditions that make it difficult for them to perform in a large-group setting.  They may grasp concepts but have difficulty expressing them or taking quizzes.  I took advantage of a site called QUIA to create review games and practice quizzes so they can complete them at other times.  Now all students take advantage of them.

When they need help, students with IEPs are often limited in school by scheduling constraints.  They may not have time to meet with a teacher for explanations.  During this time of remote learning, however, students and teachers have great flexibility to schedule time “together.”  For our school, it can be through virtual chat times convenient for all.

Over the years, I have used various methods to meet the special needs of my students.  Many of these involve the use of technology.  Today, using devices to go online is very natural for all students.  The things I have put into place (website, online book, YouTube Channel, etc.) have been familiar places to visit for all my students, including those with special needs.  I am happy to know that those students have a familiar place to go, even when they are now at home.

Henry Skirbst is a science teacher at White Township School in Belvidere, NJ. He may be contacted at