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4 Best Practices for Distance Learning to Support Students Who Learn and Think Differently

Meet your students' diverse needs with these tips, tools, and strategies.

Trynia Kaufman | May 8, 2020

With distance learning, schools and teachers face a whole new set of challenges as they aim to make learning equitable in this new environment. As a classroom teacher, you might be wondering what you can do to meet the needs of students with learning and thinking differences, like dyslexia and ADHD.

You might be asking yourself, How can I support students who struggle with staying focused? How can I provide accommodations for students with special education needs? How can I help students who are falling behind?

Since this is a new learning environment, teachers have to rethink how to meet students' needs. You might notice some students who had been doing well are now falling behind. They might be struggling with social and emotional issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Or they might be struggling to adjust to distance learning. (You might also notice that some students who struggled in the classroom are thriving in a distance learning environment where they have more flexibility.)

Here are four tips to help you support the diverse needs of students during distance learning:

1. Help students develop new routines and strategies.

Many students who learn and think differently struggle with changes in routine and loss of structure. Help them use this time as an opportunity to develop new strategies to help with focus and learning.

Depending on the grade you teach, you might also help your students create new routines and schedules that match their strengths. You could even design a lesson around this as a research project or an essay.

Older students might want to come up with their own strategies to try. Younger students might need more help coming up with strategies and learning how to use them. Have students start by choosing two to three strategies to try. After a week or two, have them evaluate which ones helped and which strategies they want to try next. Possible strategies include:

  • Schedule work times and break times.
  • Set a timer and keep working until it goes off. 
  • Try different apps to help with focus.
  • Set a goal. For example: I will write one paragraph before I take a break.
  • Create a checklist.
  • Work on the hardest or easiest thing first (choose one).
  • Put your phone in a different room or in your backpack.
  • Find a quiet space or use headphones to block out noise.

2. Keep the easy part easy.

Think about the last time you forgot your password to an account and got locked out -- yet again. Or the last time you read complicated directions and couldn't figure out what you were supposed to do.

What might seem like a minor stressor to you can be the difference between whether a student finishes a lesson or not. Adults have more coping strategies than kids do to persist through challenges. Kids and teens are still developing this resiliency.

Students who learn and think differently have an added layer of difficulty. A student with dyslexia might struggle to understand complex directions. Students with ADHD or executive function issues might find it difficult to break assignments down into manageable chunks. These challenges can cause more frustration and stress that can interrupt the learning process.

You can help reduce these barriers to learning by using best practices for designing online assignments. Try these ideas for how to keep the easy part easy:

  • Teach students how to access class information.
  • Simplify directions.
  • Be consistent in how class materials are organized and presented.

3. Find new ways to meet students' needs.

Students with individualized education programs (IEPs) should still get the accommodations they need during distance learning. Their needs and accommodations might look different in this new learning environment, though.

For example, accommodations that help with focus in the classroom -- like being seated in the front of the class -- may need to be adjusted for distance learning. Work with students and their families to find creative solutions. Does the student need a daily check-in? Can the student learn how to use self-management strategies like a timer or a goal tracker?

For online classes, teachers also need to ensure their lessons are accessible. Make sure that materials can be read by a screen reader and that students who use text-to-speech technology know how to use it. Some video-streaming apps like Google Hangouts offer live captioning. Using best practices for online learning like these can help you make sure your lessons are accessible.

Is your school providing distance learning through printed packets? You may need to be even more creative in how you provide accommodations. For example, if you have a student with dyslexia who needs materials read out loud, you might consider scheduling a call with that student or providing a recording. Brainstorm ideas with your school, the student, and their family to figure out how to meet individual needs.

4. Keep up positive relationships with students and families.

Maintaining positive relationships with students and families is essential, especially during distance learning. Students who learn and think differently and their families will likely need more frequent check-ins. Use these check-ins to:

  • Make sure students understand lessons.
  • Find out whether students have what they need to do their classwork.
  • Help students develop learning strategies.
  • Talk about student accommodations and support.
  • Better understand students' social-emotional well-being.

Teachers will need to work with their school district and families to figure out the best platform and format for checking in. Keep in mind that families might have a lot going on right now and be unable to respond.

For students who are struggling, frequent check-ins can help you figure out why they're struggling and what might help. Remember, trauma or long-term stress can make it very difficult to focus on schoolwork. Your students are experiencing a variety of stressors right now that could affect their learning. Learn five tips for supporting students socially and emotionally during distance learning.

To find out about more ways to support students who learn and think differently, go to Understood.org.