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How Are Supports for Diverse Learners Shifting in Distance Learning?

By Renea Bartlett Pope

The answers to the seemingly simple question posed in the title are as varied as our students themselves. Beyond the usual challenges involved in starting a new school year and the transition that typically brings, students now contend with complex home schedules, the emotional impact of prolonged social isolation and physical distance from peers, managing learning expectations that look quite different from those of physical school, and navigating all family members’ responses to extended periods of intense and varied stressors.

More than ever before, teachers are cognizant of both the powerful impact of their influence in students’ lives and the limitations. How are teachers refining their practices to increase that impact for diverse students’ needs in remote modalities? In speaking with colleagues around the world, three particular shifts have emerged that both benefit students now and will likely carry over into post-pandemic schooling: offering increased family support, prioritizing social-emotional needs, and providing direct instruction for executive function skill development.

Offering Increased Family Support

Providing direct services in online formats has proven to be particularly challenging. More than ever before, support services professionals are building bridges with parents to meet their children’s needs in virtual environments. Schools that could anticipate closures were able to send materials home with students, ranging from basic supplies to specific resources for tele-therapies. Almost every colleague I’ve spoken with noted that their school has added components to the schedule that allow for deeper parent support, from moving coffee talks online to including parents in office hours. Some shared specific series of events such as: sessions coaching parents on the importance of formative assessment; how to balance parent input and independence in asynchronous classwork; and how to identify anxiety and provide strategies for reducing it. In reflecting on these important responses to distance schooling, educators must ask themselves “How can we deepen this work with enhanced parent education now and in post-pandemic offerings?”

Prioritizing Social-Emotional Needs

The second shift has been a broad consensus on the importance of social-emotional well-being. While most colleagues I spoke with had a social-emotional learning curriculum in place prior to the pandemic, the demands of distance schooling forced us to pay closer attention to the needs of our students, faculty, and staff, as well as those of the larger community. A key shift was to create a schedule that prioritized well-being. A number of schools launched the new year with team-building activities and social engagement opportunities for students and the larger community before moving into the “academic” schedule. All colleagues I spoke with indicated that their school created time to intentionally focus on well-being, from choice lists of asynchronous activities to scheduling game nights to starting faculty and team meetings with mindful moments.

Additionally, teachers and families have had frequent discussions about the demands distance schooling has placed on students with diverse learning needs. In many cases, the well-intended efforts to provide additional support resulted in significant screen time and enhanced cognitive load for students, particularly those who receive learning support services. Specialist teachers and counselors have been guiding important conversations with families and within teams about prioritizing needs and narrowing individual goals in the distance learning and hybrid contexts. The most effective discussions have been those that included the families alongside the child to support in self-identifying needs and potential solutions to emotional overwhelm, screen fatigue, and frustration with work volume.

These last few months have pushed our collective thinking about the impact of emotional well-being and forced educators and families to ask important questions about the necessity of balancing emotional health and cognitive demands. Attention to student performance in this modality has broadened conversations about Tier 1 accommodations, pushing schools to define both what they are and who they’re for. Resulting solutions have included mapping over standard accommodations used in physical school to the virtual platform, to writing individualized plans for students whose challenges are unique to distance learning.

Providing Direct Instruction for Executive Function Skill Development

The third shift has been an enhanced awareness of the important role executive function skill development plays in successfully navigating distance learning. While executive function skills are variously grouped into between five and seven categories, depending on the researcher, executive function is best summarized as a set of processes to “guide making decisions, planning actions, and generating responses that are adaptive to environmental demands” (Strosnider & Sharpe 2019). Some teaching of strategies is embedded in the curriculum, however, it seems that much of our expectation in this area is implicit. We must ask ourselves how we begin to make the learning explicit and our expectations age-appropriate.

The challenges of a rapid switch to completely virtual learning highlighted weaknesses in areas such as organizing, prioritizing, switching attention, and cognitive flexibility. More than ever before, educators are identifying a need for intentionally including executive function skill development in the curriculum. In the immediate future, it will be interesting to see how colleagues around the world will be interweaving intentional teaching of executive function skills and strategies into their larger curriculum.

In reflecting on these three shifts for teaching students with diverse learning needs, I think we are seeing that all students have been impacted by the demands of distance learning and can benefit from accommodations historically reserved for diverse learners. How we respond to serving students within our support programs can offer us an opportunity to re-vision what all students need now and in our post-pandemic settings.

Renea Bartlett Pope is Director of Student Support Services at Asociación Escuelas Lincoln in Argentina.

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