With Innovation and Empathy, Remote Learning Becomes Accessible for All...

Voices | Special Education

With Innovation and Empathy, Remote Learning Becomes Accessible for All Students

By Christina Cipriano and Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann     Jun 12, 2020

With Innovation and Empathy, Remote Learning Becomes Accessible for All Students

This article is part of the report: Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges.

This is the second of a three-part series looking at how social-emotional learning strategies can support teachers of students with learning differences during the pandemic. Read part one and part three.

The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted daily life for virtually every educator, parent, and student in the U.S. It has disabled our education system, creating challenges to educational access, barriers to student academic progress and strains on teachers’ and students’ physical and emotional well-being.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) can support us in reframing how we think about the challenges created by the pandemic and provide us with the tools we need to navigate those challenges effectively.

In an earlier essay, we discussed how teachers are leaning into SEL to adapt student services and unlock opportunities that, just months ago, may have seemed impossible. Another major hurdle that the pandemic has presented relates to accessibility and understanding how remote learning works—or doesn’t work—for many of our most vulnerable students, particularly those with learning differences.

The challenge: Remote learning is inaccessible for my students.

When our school buildings closed, districts and teachers were tasked with creating remote learning plans for their students. And we learned quickly that barriers to fruitful distance learning were greater for some students than others.

First, educators had to rethink infrastructure. Hardware, internet availability and connectivity, alongside learning materials to support instruction—from age-appropriate books to paper, pencils, glue and scissors—vary substantially from household to household, just as the capacity to provide and respond to these needs varies from one district to the next.

Simultaneously, educators needed to identify what content students needed, how to organize it and how to help students access it. Was it best for students to access material on a dashboard and, if so, should it be housed on one platform, such as Google Classroom, or spread across a few? Would it be easier to navigate if organized by subject or project? And most critically, are the materials appropriately differentiated for students who learn and think differently, and have they been universally designed with learner variability in mind?

And then there's the issue of physical and mental availability—whether students can carve out time to show up given their home routine, and maintain the cognitive capacity to engage in learning. Routines have been so disrupted that we are all experiencing scheduling obstacles and challenges to our executive functioning, which diminishes our ability to self-regulate and remain organized. What does this mean for students with existing executive function challenges?

At the household level, many families are continuing to navigate challenges with physical safety, health and food security. Parents and caregivers have varying levels of availability to support students depending on factors such as whether they are deemed “essential” workers or have had their health, income or employment directly affected by the pandemic. The ripples of exposure to the pandemic and awareness of challenging circumstances will likely be showing up in varied ways among learners.

But setting up the structure of remote learning wasn’t the finish line. There was also the challenge of offering digitally-mediated instruction: Can our students meaningfully engage in live remote instruction? Can our students, teachers and caregivers—especially those experiencing it for the first time—navigate web browsers and technology?

Let’s be frank. Attention feels more frayed and fragile during live video lessons for all of us. We’ve learned the past few months that Zoom fatigue is real—and we knew prior to the pandemic that screen time should have limits. That’s especially true for our learners who experience challenges to sustained attention when in the physical classroom.

And yet a common thread among these disparate challenges is that distance learning has raised issues of access for all students and teachers, regardless of context.

Reframing the challenge: Remote learning requires innovation to be accessible for all students (and teachers!)

Although these unusual circumstances made the challenge of access palpable for the entire education system, overcoming challenges to accessibility is familiar to the special education community. Educators, students, parents, and curriculum and technology developers have demonstrated time and again that the challenge of inaccessibility can be overcome when informed and invested people work together toward inclusive solutions. Persisting through difficulty to embrace challenges, collaborating with colleagues and leveraging our SEL skills can create a space ripe for innovation.

We can innovate.

To develop innovative solutions to accessibility challenges, we need to be motivated and energized to problem-solve. This is no small lift when so many educators feel exhausted, frustrated and confused about the path forward in teaching and learning.

How can we reframe our experiences to feel more hopeful and tenacious so we can solve the problems of accessibility facing our students and ourselves?

As a first step, we have to develop a sense of agency and control over our experience teaching and learning during this time of great uncertainty. While it is true that we cannot control the pandemic, we can have a causal positive impact on the lives of those around us through our work with students and families.

Aliza Strassman, a second-grade general education teacher, leveraged the educational technology specialist at her school and her knowledge of best practices under Universal Design for Learning (UDL, a framework for designing inclusive classrooms) to create a technology-based approach to creative writing, publishing and peer feedback.

Under the UDL framework, we consider student variability and diversity as the norm, and the burden of adaptation is placed on the curriculum. When curriculum is narrow, inflexible or designed to meet the needs of the average student, it fails to address the reality of learner variability for all learners who do not meet the illusive criteria for “average.” Accounting for the widest range of learners with different abilities, backgrounds and motivations is the only way to provide all individuals with fair and equal opportunities to learn.

As she shifted to remote instruction, Strassman knew she’d have to pivot her lesson plans to engage her students from afar. While delivering a series of remote writing lessons focused on the editing process, particularly peer review, she noticed a substantial change in the independence of her students. When teaching these lessons face-to-face, she typically directed students to manually cover portions of their story to revise and request peer feedback from another second-grade class. In her virtual lesson, she taught students how to use a digital book creation tool, modeling the entire process in small chunks, and had them provide feedback to their peers through a Google form. She attributes her students’ increased independence to her explicit teaching and chunking the lesson into pieces.

While the pivot required a new kind of planning on her end, Strassman says her students were more independent than they’d been in the past during face-to-face instruction. She added that when she returns to face-to-face teaching, she will be leveraging strategies like explicit teaching and chunking the material into bite-sized components to continue to promote all of her students’ motivation and independence. These innovations can have enduring impacts on the promotion of inclusion for the future of teaching and learning.

We can empathize.

Empathy is the ability to understand with compassion how another person is feeling and what is contributing to their emotions—it’s the basis of prosocial behavior, meaning the actions people take to benefit others.

As educators, we can use empathy as a tool to support decision-making about the design of remote learning experiences for our students and their families. This process begins by taking an inquiry stance, embracing curiosity and considering how you, your students and their families are feeling.

Empathy might just be your best formative assessment. When students are under-resourced or over-challenged and feeling frustrated or anxious, their feelings provide us with in-the-moment information about how they are doing in the learning environment. With knowledge of their feelings, we are better informed and able to enter into conversations about what is working well and what we might change to improve our students' learning experiences and outcomes. This was the case before the pandemic, but has become particularly salient as a lever for overcoming the challenge of accessibility during this time.

Special educator Kareem Neal uses empathy as a tool to improve communication and connection with the students in his self-contained classroom and their families.

When he transitioned his high school classroom in Phoenix to distance learning, Neal was already using ClassDojo as a way to track positive behaviors. But in the early days of distance learning, when he was trying to call students’ parents and guardians—to no avail—to let them know about laptop pickups and the timing of online academic sessions, he decided to use the education app to get in touch with families.

For Neal, who teaches many students with Spanish-speaking parents, the app was a boon: Not only is it an effective communication tool, it also auto-translates from English to Spanish.

With the help of three paraprofessionals, Neal guided his students’ parents and guardians through the setup of ClassDojo and let them know about the new way his class would be using it. And the results exceeded his expectations. ClassDojo helped them communicate better, but it also created new opportunities for him and his staff to connect with parents on a daily basis, opening up pathways for building relationships that were previously out of reach.

Neal’s students and their families were also encouraged to post short videos to the class news feed—something they have since taken up with enthusiasm.

The substance of these newfound connections enriched Neal’s understanding of the experience and conditions of at-home learning with each family. Neal and his colleagues found that they were more informed and able to meet students’ needs using this approach, even more so than when they were face-to-face pre-COVID-19. The family connection has changed the way he thinks about distance learning, Neal says, and when his school resumes in-person instruction, it will change the way he thinks about his “classroom community.” It’s a lot bigger now.

As Neal’s story demonstrates, creating opportunities for frequent, informal connection can greatly improve a student's sense of belonging and the exchange of critical information that can inform instructional decision-making.

This kind of check-in won’t happen by chance during remote learning. We must intentionally plan to connect and use empathy as a tool:

  • Consider adding a check-in at the end of every assignment in the form of an exit ticket to take the pulse of your students and classroom, or ending Zoom instruction early to allow time to connect with each student.
  • Ask students how they are feeling about assignments or specific strategies and why they are feeling that way.
  • Invite students and their families to brainstorm with you about strategies to improve their experience. You can create these opportunities for one-to-one and small-group connection throughout the learning day.

The pandemic has no doubt created unforeseen challenges, especially for educators who work with students who learn and think differently. But with SEL as our foundation, and creativity and innovation, we can better serve all learners—now and after COVID-19.

Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is a Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at the Yale School of Medicine. Follow her @drchriscip.

Gabbie Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.D., is Executive Director and Chief Scientist at EdTogether and an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow her @g_schlichtmann.

Their research was funded by a grant from The OAK Foundation (OCAY-19-407).

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