How to support learners with unique needs during distance learning

For Parents Oct 30, 2020

Distance learning presents challenges that parents and teachers are unfamiliar with. For learners with unique needs, these challenges can be even greater.

During Outschool’s recent Back to Outschool Live event, Outschool Class Quality Specialists Serena Loccisano and David Stoler shared their tips on how learners with unique learning needs can be successful during distance learning. David and Serena shared six common learning barriers and offered tips on how to overcome them.

Ultimately, all learners have unique learning needs, and parents and teachers can find solutions that work for everyone. Let’s dive into common challenges and ways to tackle them, so you can support your unique learner as they learn online.

Keeping Attention

Learners with an attention barrier have trouble focusing on a task and/or completing tasks in their entirety. This can cause learners to shut down, which can be seen as lazy. The reality is that some learners struggle to focus when they are overstimulated. This presents challenges with taking turns, preparing for classes, or focusing for long periods.

How to support learners with attention challenges:

  • Incorporate movement into lessons
  • Make learning fun and interactive whenever possible
  • Break large tasks into chunks
  • Take breaks and embrace flexible scheduling

Social interaction

Some learners may prefer distance learning because it can provide relief for social anxiety that they experience. These learners feel more comfortable learning from home.

Other learners still face challenges with social interaction during distance learning. In these cases, it’s important to allow learners to take one step at a time, gradually interacting with others more and more. Start with one-on-one interaction, make sure they're comfortable, and then move to groups of two and three.

Practice and prompting are also helpful solutions. Rehearsing scenarios of what might happen and how learners can respond can reduce anxiety.

How to support learners with social interaction challenges:

  • Begin by practicing 1 to 1 interactions
  • Rehearse social responses to specific situations
  • Implement non-verbal alternatives

Resources for Supporting Learners with Unique Needs

Emotional control

Strong emotional responses can sometimes impede learners. These responses can be exacerbated when learners are working to absorb new information. Learners can get easily frustrated, defiant, shut down, and develop poor relationships because it’s difficult for others to be around them.

A great way to help overcome this is to create positive reinforcements. Work towards their reward instead of taking things away, which can trigger negative emotions. You can also create plans for their behavior and how they can respond.

“Remember, the heart is connected to the brain, so when the emotions are off balance, the brain isn’t going to work in the way we need it to”  - Serena Loccisano

How to support learners with emotional control challenges:

  • Show positive reinforcement
  • Create a written behavior plan
  • Implement choice boards
  • Model and practice self-regulation

Verbal expression

If your learner has trouble expressing themselves verbally, it may show up as inability to use precise language, inability to form sentences or original ideas, and below average vocabulary. In distance learning, the learner will not engage in discussions, they may repeat what the previous speaker said, and they may not participate in activities as they are not sure what is expected of them.

How to support learners with verbal expression challenges:

  • Pre-teach vocabulary so learners are familiar with them before class
  • Use sentence stems to prompt learners to develop their thoughts
  • Repeat important vocabulary words often
  • Teach note taking skills
  • Practice conversation skills

Auditory processing

Auditory processing is how the information you hear gets into your brain. When learners struggle with auditory processing, there's a disconnect between what they’re told and how their brain registers the info. A teacher may say a word, and the learner hears something similar but wrong, making their response out of context.

In these instances, the learner may be truly listening, but but they process it incorrectly. Because distance learning occurs largely over Zoom, listening is the primary way of obtaining information. Over video chat, learners may miss verbal cues, causing them to be uncomfortable expressing their ideas.

How to support learners with auditory processing challenges:

  • Provide a quiet space work
  • Provide written notes and instructions
  • Speak slowly
  • Ask learners to repeat directions to check for understanding

Task initiation

Learners who struggle with task initiation don’t know how to get started on activities. They're overwhelmed with what they're supposed to do, which causes them to give up. Again, this can look like laziness, but it’s really just a challenge with beginning a task.

How to support learners with task initiation challenges:

  • Check-in on learners frequently
  • Provide step-by-step instructions
  • Provide examples of assignments
  • Encourage the use of graphic organizers

Overall, many of the challenges and obstacles faced by learners during distance learning can be overcome with the right clarifications, supports, and structures. By getting learners involved and providing them options, teachers and parents can keep learners happy and motivated during distance learning.

Watch David & Serena's full presentation here:

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is a teacher, parent and writer for Outschool.