Mental Health
In the Era of COVID-19: Special Education Services & Distance Learning

Tuesday, May 5 is National Teacher Appreciation Day. In the era of COVID-19, the demands on teachers are intense and pressing. While this post focuses on the role of Special Education teachers, our collective hats are off to all the teachers who have suddenly become experts on Zoom, Google Hangouts, and others. They have had to move their skill sets and their knowledge to platforms not created for this purpose and to address millions of American households stretched to a pandemic breaking point. Thank you for your service and devotion to our children. It is our particular honor to dedicate this post to the memory of Jackie Carnathan, a loving mother and devoted teacher of Special Education.

Distance learning challenges as a result of COVID-19 are bringing parents to their knees. It is difficult, as well, to overstate the social and emotional impact on children as a result of the abrupt transition from in-person to remote learning. For parents experiencing this transition, it is important to understand that teachers feel similarly. Give InKind spoke with several special education teachers who instruct at all levels — K-12. This article outlines some of the specific things teachers have shared with us. The total of our conversations makes clear that there is a way through this; but that this route depends upon effective and positive communication between parents and teachers on Team Your Child.

The takeaway:

At a moment of crisis, the most effective thing a parent can do to work with a teacher is to establish a relationship and decide to work collaboratively. When one considers the macro challenges of pandemic-based distance learning challenges parents can know that teachers do understand that prolonged school closure will impact students across the board and that accommodations will, therefore, be made in the long-term. So, while there will be a long-term impact on families, financial and otherwise, know that teachers want parents to put the mental health of their children first. 

While distance learning has served up challenges for many families, there are additional considerations for children who receive special education services. Public education provides services based upon individual needs in the form of Individualized Education Plans (IEP) or 504 programs. Children who qualify for these services in a public education setting have different learning styles that range from dyslexia to ADHD to Autism Spectrum Disorders and more.

Give InKind reached out to some teachers who embrace the challenge of teaching special education/inclusion classes. The teachers tasked with special education/inclusion classes acknowledge that they are also navigating a steep digital learning curve. One teacher shared that the first few weeks were reminiscent of her experience as a first-year teacher, a year many teachers remember as especially intense and often stressful experience. They report feelings of self-doubt and the internal confusion of teaching in a digital vacuum. It is hard to tell which format works best online; a once boisterous class, now quiet on Zoom. These teachers are committed to mastery, but patience is appreciated.

It is easy to understand the parent who may feel extremely panicked about a student back-sliding. If a child has a serious issue with executive functioning and a parent has a job, the potent stress begins at the moment a student, used to learning in school with assistance, is suddenly expected to work both independently and remotely. Parents may or may not be on-site or available to offer assistance; students may or may not be willing to accept assistance from parents.

Parents must understand the stress that teachers are feeling as they rapidly move the total of their entire skillset to unfamiliar digital platforms, while also finding ways to effectively communicate with, and provide the variable IEP services. The efficacy of digital has a lot to do with the age of a group. Any lower elementary school Zoom class is likely to be quite difficult to pull off. These teachers are invested in their students and want their success.

The unique pressure we all face necessitates that parents and the teachers responsible for scaffolding their child’s learning communicate in a spirit of positivity. Every element of the COVID-19 pandemic is massively disruptive and frustration is an understandable by-product. Here are a few tips to make this situation less fraught (I did not say ideal).

  • The oversight you provide your learner will depend upon their age, their ability, and your parenting style. When you engage the teacher, remember that they did not create this situation.
  • If a class is being held on Google, use the grid formation. This configuration maximizes the potential for visual contact.
  • Don’t go online all day. Instead, review the recorded lessons teachers post and work from those.
  • Teachers are providing office hours. Encourage your student to take advantage of this opportunity. It is easy to feel rapidly overwhelmed right now. This is a good time to stay in touch and prevent the crushing anxiety that avoidant behavior will produce.
  • Parents should communicate with their children to be certain that they are current in their work. Teachers report making multiple calls to parents who are surprised to learn that work for a quarter has not been submitted. Parents can check learning platforms to see all communications between students and teachers.
  • Teachers remind that they share the concern that parents have in regards to prioritizing the mental health of a student. Students with learning challenges often have comorbid diagnoses of anxiety and such. One teacher I spoke with reminded me that most schools have somewhat looser pandemic academic assessment standards. Although it was not explicitly stated, I inferred that if a true effort is made by a student (i.e. attends classes, attends office hours, contacts teacher) that it is quite likely standards will be met.
  • Parents should reach out to teachers before a crisis to avert one. Working as a team on behalf of a student is ideal in any circumstance, not just our current situation.
  • High School students should maintain a healthy sleep pattern. Staying up til 3 a.m. and getting up at 2 p.m. the next afternoon is not going to help with adolescent mental health.

Being the daughter of two teachers, one of which had a life-long career serving families and children with special needs, I know that it is not lost on these educators, the disruption this pandemic is causing to your child, their much-needed routine, and the progress that has been made over the course of the school year. These teachers are a very special breed, my mom being one of the most special of them all. They have made a commitment to your child — their student — to give them the best possible education. If my mom were still here, I can only imagine what lengths she would be going to be there for her students and their parents. I hope you can find solace knowing that these teachers have your child’s best interest at heart. Don’t give up, because they won’t give up on you or them.

Megan Davis

Teachers are trying to manage the reality that the students provided the most support are the ones hardest to distance-scaffold. Depending on the specific challenge, responses to remote learning will differ. Children who are on the autism spectrum disorder may manage academically but may have a more difficult time with a change in routine that can manifest in other ways. Children with executive functioning issues may be completely flummoxed by the blending of home and school (It would be difficult to imagine the white noise, the distraction if you were not in their head). Special education teachers remind parents that things can feel very bad at the kitchen table right at this historic moment, but a teacher/partner will meet you on the other side of this. 

This the eleventh in a series of articles to provide guidance as to navigating situations we continue to navigate during the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic. We recognize that life continues in all aspects, even the pandemic impacts all of us in profound ways. We are on your team now as well as post-pandemic – and beyond. We invite you to visit our library of situationally specific articles here.

Give InKind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We have an affiliate relationship with many of the advertisers on our site, and may receive a commission from any products purchased from links in this article. See Terms & Conditions.

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