Teaching from Home, Part 2: Educating children with special needs

The McKittrick family poses for a photo: From left to right are: top row, Conner, Lanya, Todd and Cole; and bottom row, Hunter and Dalton. Photo by E. DuBois Photography

About the Series: Gov. Kate Brown has mandated that Oregonians stay home and that schools stay closed for the rest of the academic year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In response, the Oregon Department of Education has required school districts to quickly put distance learning plans in place. To help parents, educators and anyone who supports school-age kids power through to the end of the school year,Portland State University College of Education is running a six-part series, Teaching from Home. We began with general advice for those who are now doubling as a teacher and a parent and then started sharing specific tips for teaching children with special needs and students at different ages. 

Read the whole Teaching from Home series: Part 1: Parents teaching their own children

A learning plan will not only be different for each child, but will need adjusting for children with special needs.But how does one go about making the right adjustments for their child?

Two experts have a few ideas. Portland State University College of Education (COE) faculty member Amy Parker not only offered her own knowledge, but recruited nationally recognized educator Lanya McKittrick. McKittrick earned a Ph.D. in special education and is the founder of the Hear See Hope Foundation in Washington. The Foundation raises awareness and funding for research on Usher syndrome, which involves partial or total hearing and vision loss that gradually worsens.

McKittrick has four sons: Conner, who has Usher syndrome and is a junior at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York; Cole, a freshman at Gonzaga University in Washington; Hunter, a seventh-grader at Seattle Christian School; and Dalton a sixth-grader at Seattle Christian, who is considered deafblind (although his vision loss is progressive) and has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and sensory processing disorder.

Parker, Ed.D., an assistant professor and the coordinator of the Orientation and Mobility Program at the COE, has two children, a 14-year-old daughter who is neurotypical and a 17-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum.

Tips for teaching children with special needs:

Tip #1) Break up the day, the lessons and the projects.

“Take many sensory breaks during the day,” McKittrick said. “We purchased an independent trampoline for our sixth-grader to jump on; we take walks outside; all our kids use the treadmill. I chunk projects into smaller sections. Learning time is broken into small chunks (like 15-20 minutes).

Parker agreed with McKittrick’s take on sensory breaks.

“Building these into routines, along with plenty of access to healthy and crunchy foods helps us a great deal,” Parker said. “Also online learning still takes time and focus. Some people think it is easier than face-to-face, but it isn’t really. It takes self-management and having movement breaks. Taking notes and going outside is still vital to stay on track.”

Tip #2) Plan ahead for your day.

“We outline the plan the night before,” McKittrick said.

Tip #3) Seek verbal options instead of written ones.

“I am giving an accommodation where they can just tell me the answers orally to show mastery,” McKittrick said.

Tip #4) Ensure meaningful learning through partnerships.

“If something seems like busy work, I partner with the teacher to see if I can substitute something more engaging,” McKittrick said. “The key is to create a partnership with the teacher.”

Amy Parker, Ed.D.

Tip #5) Enjoy some face time.

“The kids want connection,” McKittrick. “Zoom meetings are really helpful. I’ve encouraged my kids to reach out to their teachers individually. Hunter is going to be doing a Zoom meeting with his science teacher to brainstorm how to do an enrichment project.”

Parker said that her son is beginning behavioral therapy using telehealth, but she had to be strong about asking for it.

“I had to advocate for this in the beginning of this crisis because there were no provisions for behavioral services to be delivered via telehealth, but I advocated, and the provider agreed,” Parker said.

Tip #6) Advocate for the use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) whenever possible.

UDL is a framework for improving teaching that involves flexible ways for students to access material. McKittrick has been talking with her younger sons’ school about how educators might incorporate more UDL into the distance learning plan.  

Tip #7) See the quarantine as an opportunity to learn what educators do daily. 

“We should not be trying to recreate the school day at home in the same way,” McKittrick. “It is my hope that we come out of this with more appreciation for our educators. And that it has helped us all think about education in different ways. I am learning so much about my sons’ learning styles and needs. I’ll use that new knowledge to better partner with the teachers when we return to school”

For a list of educational, technological, and psychological resources, please visit the Teaching from Home resource page

To share stories with the College of Education, email Jillian Daley at jillian@pdx.edu.

4 thoughts on “Teaching from Home, Part 2: Educating children with special needs

  1. Pingback: Teaching from Home, Part 3: Shepherding toddlers and Pre-K Students | College of Education

  2. Pingback: Teaching from Home, Part 4: Supporting K–5 Students | College of Education

  3. Pingback: Teaching from Home, Part V: Exploring hands-on learning and group work for 6–8 students | College of Education

  4. Pingback: Teaching from Home, Part 6: Emphasizing academics and social life for 9–12 students | College of Education

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