Special education and online learning: What’s the verdict?

Over the past two years, there’s been a considerable amount of concern about the impact of remote and online learning on students’ academic and social-emotional development. But what about students with learning disabilities?

Online learning became a reality for millions of students and families across America in 2020. Inevitably, the shift divided opinions, and both positives and drawbacks became clear to most students and parents. It was impossible to truly replicate the social aspects of classroom learning and the school experience online, and some things, like physical education, really aren’t the same over Zoom. However, some did enjoy the flexibility and opportunity for additional one-to-one attention that in-person school never fully provided.

All of this invites crucial questions about an under-considered group: students with special needs. What’s the verdict? Did they benefit in the same ways, or is special education overall ill-suited to e-learning?

The best answer is: it depends. 

There is no question that COVID-era learning has added unique challenges to many students with learning differences and complex social-emotional needs. And even for those who seemed to benefit from distance learning, parents and educators could still see drawbacks when it came to providing them with the support they needed as outlined in the IEP.

For students in special education, are there strengths to online learning? 

It may seem surprising, but there are many students with special needs or learning differences who thrived in a distant, online setting. 

At Psyched Services, we noticed a number of commonalities where kids and parents were more likely to describe this method of learning as being beneficial. This included kids with severe social anxiety, those that had difficulty processing information orally, or those who were easily distracted by various triggers that tend to occur in the classroom setting. 

Many families found it beneficial for their child to be able to work at their own pace, stop and take breaks when things became overwhelming, or even access more one-on-one support than they could have in a larger, in-person classroom. 

What about the drawbacks?

None of the above subtracts from the challenges kids and parents did face – even among those who noticed the benefits.

Some students were not as suited for the largely self-directed nature of online learning activities, becoming as easily distracted or even frustrated as others would be in an in-person setting. More broadly, truly independent learning is difficult to do in a virtual environment, because supportive materials often take additional steps or layers to access. The experience of walking down to the library to find a source, or simply hanging around after class to get extra help, do not have direct parallels in the online classroom.

Despite the existence of online counseling, or telecounseling, it can be hard to fully carry out counseling goals identified in the IEP, like developing peer relationships, with in-person school out of the picture. For the aforementioned student with social anxiety, it becomes harder for them to expand their comfort zones without the ability to connect with other kids face-to-face. 

In reality, technological advances, significant as they are, will not be able to fully recreate the benefits of in-person school for students in a virtual environment. When the hybrid schooling model is needed for safety, it can and should be used, but the return to in person learning will arguably provide the strongest results for students in special education.

Our school psychologists, with extensive experience working in schools, can help you navigate any number of considerations for your child’s public school program. Schedule a call with us today to access our strength-based, supportive, and personalized services that meet your child’s unique needs.to access our strength-based, supportive, and personalized services that meet your child’s unique needs. 

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