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This mom says virtual learning is not working for her son with Down syndrome. She has some ideas on how to flip the system.

A boy sits alone.
A boy sits alone.

For most parents, the shift from having their children do in-person schooling to moving into virtual learning has been a major adjustment — a necessarily evil, if you will, considering the current situation with COVID-19.

While the adjustment has been hard for many, the mother of a boy who has Down syndrome said her son, along with other students with disabilities, have been left frustrated and even further behind.

Allison Wohl, in a Washington Post op-ed, said the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare deep inequities in our society, but particularly in access to quality education.

She explained that distance learning for her son Julian, who recently finished fourth grade at a public school in Maryland, was a disaster.

“It turned a happy, independent, and curious child into an anxious and withdrawn one, in large part because of the school’s failure to provide appropriate access to both academic and social-emotional learning or the necessary services and supports and modifications that are essential to his education,” she wrote.

At Julian’s school, he received the Individualized Education Program, which is federally mandated for students with special needs. Though Wohl said she didn’t expect the district to replicate Julian’s program, she did expect it would do better than to just create a schedule that met compliance metrics yet failed to provide meaningful instruction or access to the curriculum at the same time he was being isolated from his classmates.

“For Julian and many students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, meaningful access means providing services and support so that he can access (to) the general education curriculum and actively participate in the school’s community — a critical step to helping him build a life of belonging in this world,” Wohl said.

She suggests that it will take creativity to meet students’ needs, but that the shift in the way children are learning now is an opportunity to use technology to increase access to instruction or social-emotional learning.

Wohl believes schools simply trying to adapt the old educational model to an online model creates barriers, adding that technology can and should open doors.

“Consider the many accommodations developed for individuals with disabilities that benefit society as a whole: curb cuts, which were designed to remove a barrier for wheelchair users also benefit bikes, strollers, and anything with wheels,” Wohl said. “If done well, educational accommodations for students with disabilities using technology can have broad benefits for non-disabled students, as well as those students who are not able to access a traditional learning environment.”

Having said that, Wohl has three suggestions for educators to ensure all students have access to education:

1. Create a situation in which there is plenty of social interaction between students.

Wohl said the benefits here are immeasurable to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“For students like Julian, who are still building social and conversation skills, this type of interaction is the difference between inclusion and nearly total social isolation,” she said.

Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, she said, typically aren’t included in things like socially distanced play dates, FaceTime chats, birthday parties and Zoom, so the social engagement will help to reinforce their skills to participate in an informal and safe environment.

2. Technology can support independence.

Wohl suggests new distance learning is presenting an opportunity to shift norms to benefit students with disabilities, specifically those who have communication difficulties or are nonspeaking.

“Using tools like iMovie can help build dexterity and motor planning (not to mention, confidence), and can also make use of voice-overs and captioning for those without speech,” she wrote.

Creative tools can help students with disabilities with decision making, editing, sequencing, organization and self-determination, Wohl said, rather than leaving them frustrated or feeling excluded.

“These tools can bring students together and allow them to demonstrate their knowledge and their interests, instead of forcing them to rely on others to speak for them.”

3. Engage using small-group instruction.

In-person classrooms have grown to be rather large in recent years, but that can leave students with disabilities feeling overwhelmed.

Wohl suggests that smaller groups can give students better access to their curriculum at their own pace, as well as social inclusion.

“My son’s special education model is built on small-group instruction for reading and math, as well as physical, speech, and occupational therapy,” she said. “These groups can be facilitated by special educators or general education teachers.”

Run with the idea, Wohl suggests, that using technology to do this can help shift students’ thinking, and to use it as a practical and active means to meaningful access for students with disabilities.

Wohl said doing these things will require creativity, agility and flexibility, but that “we are in unprecedented times, which require an unprecedented response. The opportunities are too great, and the risks too catastrophic to fail to act.”


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