Working with Our Exceptional Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

In 1951, a short story appeared in a children’s magazine, Boys and Girls Page, called, “The Fun They Had.” It was written by an author named Isaac Asimov who would later become one of the most distinguished science fiction writers of the 20th century. The premise of the story was that by the year 2157, all schooling would be done in the homes by computerized teachers. The young protagonists of the story find a real book in their attic and begin to wonder about what it must have been like to attend school with other students. Almost seventy years later, the idea of schooling done at home through a computer has come to the forefront due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I write this to you during the first day of “lockdown” in Ohio. We have already seen our schools move to an online format. Many districts and almost all universities have already begun to announce that the semester will continue without further face-to-face classes. Other states, like Kansas, are moving towards this same online-teaching format for all schools. In speaking with educational leaders throughout the country, the conservative expectation is that over 80% of schooling during the 2019-2020 school year will be completed as such.

What does this mean for our exceptional students? It means that there is going to be a change in routine which may create some issues for them. The first thing to remember is that scheduling is very important in a student’s routine. It’s a good idea to take a look at the structure of their day and try to keep it as similar to their regular school day as possible. The second thing is to realize that services must continue for them in a differentiated format. The Office of Civil Rights put out a letter describing this mandate here: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/newsroom.html. On that page, they also have a link to the US Department of Education’s Information page regarding coronavirus here: https://www.ed.gov/coronavirus?src=feature. Please stay abreast of the fact that we must continue the education of our students and that this situation is dictating changes in our sharing of information with all students.

As many of you teachers are moving into online teaching, I understand you are not sure where to start.  Right now, I have seen everything from teachers sending notes and quizzes via email, to those who have taken advantage of products like Zoom, Skype, Google Classroom, and Blackboard to keep learning going in as close to a typical situation as possible.  For those of you who do not know where to start, Dr. Kelly Grillo from the Council for Exceptional Children conducted a fantastic webinar last Thursday. You can check it out here: https://www.cec.sped.org/Tools-and-Resources/Resources-for-Teaching-Remotely.  Please also check out their resource listing as they have the most up-to-date listings of resources, especially those which are at no cost now to you or the schools.

I have also done several things in order to best assist us through this transition.  First, if you are on Twitter, please feel free to follow me @DrSmartEd as I am reviewing and retweeting ideas and other resources as I find and review them. I am also creating a video series on “Working with Our Exceptional Individuals During the COVID-19 Pandemic” on the School Health YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1hxoeTdARrPewCfsKbJ2IpDU_OZYqd73. This video series discusses what we can be doing at home and during preparation. It highlights activities that can be done with household items as well as items which may either be lying around the school and accessible to parents or guardians in the home environment. I am discussing what others have shared with me and trying to give an overall view of how we can make this as effective as possible for all of our students. I am also going to be adding to my blog output which you have linked to here at: https://www.schoolhealth.com/blog/addressing-the-coronavirus-with-our-exceptional-individuals/.

Two things are of the utmost importance to remember when you are designing online lessons. First, communication is critical! You must be overly explicit in directions to the students and to the parents/guardians who are working with the students. This is important for two reasons. The first reason is what one might expect, clear communication will lead to the lesson or activity being done correctly the first time. It will be able to be completed without the need for continued questioning during any of the parts of the activity. The second reason is to create a structure around the lesson or activity, thereby creating a sense of security in the minds of both the student and the guide. We are all highly anxious and stressed right now. Explicit communication helps! If it is permitted by your district, phone calls or even video connections add another layer of psychological comfort to this situation.

Second, you want to be as understanding and caring as possible. Many of our exceptional students will be overly needy and seeking attention during this time. Many people are exuding feelings of stress and those feelings are not easily understood by those with exceptionalities. As we work with our exceptional individuals, it is important to be patient during this unique and difficult situation. The first person to be patient with is yourself! We are in uncharted territory here and there is no absolute right or wrong way of doing things. Have faith in your own teaching abilities and interact with your students how you believe it is best to interact with them, following the health guidelines designed by your state and educational guidelines set up by your district.

Use any and all resources at your disposal.  If you have questions, please reach out to me at rheipp@schoolhealth.com and I will respond. Don’t forget to check out the video series too.

We will get through this together and be even stronger in our educational ways!

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