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The challenge for special education teachers is to make appropriate accommodations and modifications based on each student’s needs and abilities. Now that teachers are instructing their students remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, additional interventions must be considered.

Meeting Students’ Needs and Addressing Their IEPs

One of the main considerations for teaching special education online is how to meet the requirements of each student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a federally mandated, customized plan designed for the student’s learning and related needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established and defines the IEP.

According to education policy journalist, Nora Fleming, the Federal Department of Education regulations will allow flexibility in addressing IEP requirements during the pandemic, citing guidance on providing services for special education students during the pandemic. But, while the Education Department allows more flexibility during the pandemic to meet IEP objectives, schools “should work to the best of their ability to provide what services they can — even if they are digital — recognizing these services may not be the same as what a student receives in school.”

For special education teachers, this means adjusting to every student’s unique circumstances. Before getting down to mapping out lesson plans and activities, a home learning environment must be established. In addition, teachers must determine which of the student’s IEP goals can be addressed in that learning environment.

Establishing a Remote Learning Environment

It is important to maintain open and frequent communication with students and families. Some important questions to ask are:

  • Will the parents/guardians be at home all day, away from home a substantial amount of the day or working while at home?
  • Is there an internet connection in the home and an internet-connected device the student can use?
  • Is there space in the home for gross motor or sensory activities?

Emphasizing Structure

Special education professionals emphasize that students thrive in structured environments. And, while a living or dining room cannot always replicate the ideal classroom, experts recommend that students have a routine similar to the one they would follow at school.

Simple, teacher-made schedule boards with visuals that prompt students what to do, and when, are effective for special education students who respond well to visual cues. Then, when the learning environment is available and plans to address the student’s IEP have been decided, the teachers may design, create and deliver learning materials.

Addressing Goals With Available Technology Resources

When enough information is available to evaluate the student’s environment, the teacher can determine what activities are possible with the resources available at the student’s home and align those activities to specific IEP goals.

Teachers must also work closely with parents and guardians to set a reasonable schedule, broken down into student-sized learning chunks that lead to meeting benchmarks and, eventually, goal achievement. The necessary information and plans should be made available in the formats and platforms that will make it easy for parents and guardians to keep track of their student’s progress.

Using tools and technologies familiar to both students and staff will enable everyone to get up to speed quickly, when making a transition from classroom attendance to e-school learning. Schools or districts may recommend or provide a learning management system (LMS), a HIPAA-compliant conferencing platform, and other applications and services.

Engaging Parents and Guardians Proactively

Keeping in touch with parents and guardians will contribute to the success of learning at home. Parents feel supported when teachers check in frequently, whether by phone, email, online video, chat or text. In addition, teachers must be available to meet the needs of families by providing contact information, responding in a timely matter to parent concerns, and remaining flexible to accommodate parents with irregular or unusual schedules.

If parents or guardians of a student are not English-speaking, a translation service such as a three-way interpreter will assist teachers as they communicate with the family.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused teachers at every level and subject area to create innovative ways to reach students and maintain high levels of learning. Experienced general and special education teachers are rising to the challenge and meeting the needs of their students in creative and novel ways. While it is uncertain what public education will look like in the future, well-prepared educators will find ways to support their students in innovative ways to achieve continued academic success.

Learn more about Mississippi College’s online Master of Education in Special Education program.


IDEA: Definition of Individualized Education Program

Edutopia: New Strategies in Special Education as Kids Learn from Home

U.S. Department of Education: Supplemental Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children With Disabilities

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