How to Succeed With Online Learning for Special Education Students

by Casey Ames February 04, 2021

How to Help a Special Needs Child Adapt to Online Learning

Are you finding the transition to online learning due to COVID-19 challenging?

Students with special needs already face significant issues involving their education and learning, including staying on top of individualized education plans (IEPs). Now, with the demands of remote learning added to parents’ responsibilities, it’s not uncommon for parents to feel overwhelmed. What was provided in their special education classes and assisted by school aides now falls on the parents as education facilitators.

And parents are not the only ones struggling with this new arrangement, so are their special needs children. Remote learning is particularly challenging for them because the individualized tools, strategies, and routines integral to their success are either unavailable now or look substantially different.

Over the next months, expect remote learning to continue as we endure recurring or ongoing school shutdowns, learn about vaccines, and experience unknowns we have yet to encounter.

Now is an ideal time to evaluate and use new approaches that help both you and your child get the most from an at-home learning environment.

Below are some tools and strategies to help both you and your special needs child succeed with remote learning.

Believe in Yourself

Before anything else, step back, take a deep breath, stay calm, and believe in yourself. Do not underestimate your ability to communicate and teach. You know your child better than anyone.

Reading this information shows that you strive to do your best for them, not just in your current role as caregivers but also in your new role as educational facilitators. Remind yourself of the new skills you are acquiring and imagine how proud you will feel in years to come, even though you may feel overwhelmed now.

Get Focused and Organized

Next, rather than addressing every little detail, start by thinking in broad terms about your child’s learning needs. If you have been doing remote schooling for a while during the pandemic, you will likely have some specific ideas of what needs improvement. An excellent place to start is by considering the basics.

All children, including those who require special education, need exercise, relaxation, creative expression, life skills, and to investigate their environment. Select five to seven broad categories, then identify learning activities that fit into them so your child can experience each one every school day. You will find that more formal academic learning works into these categories. For example, baking from scratch, an essential life skill, is a great way to introduce the concepts of measurement and fractions to your child.

Get into the Groove with Routines & Schedules

Online Learning

Special needs children often thrive on a predictable routine. A school day is a school day, whether in the classroom or the home. Keep your child’s schedule as it was before the pandemic. Getting up at a specific time, washing, brushing teeth, getting dressed, and eating breakfast helps everyone slip into the right frame of mind. Without a commute, you and your child should feel less rushed but resist the temptation to let routine slide just because you have some extra time.

One way to help children work within a schedule when learning, especially younger ones, is to create a picture schedule that depicts the order of various daily school activities, including scheduled breaks. Get creative on how you convey this schedule to your child. Picture cards depicting different learning activities, for example, are a great tool. You can even incorporate making these cards into your child’s art projects.

Create a Dedicated Space

Schools typically have separate spaces for different activities. Try to mimic this at home if possible and involve your child in making the space theirs for online learning. The goal is to make the area feel as much like a classroom as possible.

Designate one corner of a room for language arts and reading, another as a math center, and another space for art and creativity. Place the materials for each subject in a container in the designated area. For example, math items, such as a ruler and compass, go into the math bin. If you only have a small space available, make it appealing with lively visuals just like a real classroom and still create school subject bins, even if it means stacking them. Use magnetic boards for notes and chalk or marker boards for lists and doodling.

A dedicated learning area also helps maintain a sense of order and familiarity. Plus, it means that other home areas are clearly for resting, relaxing, eating, and having fun.

Making It Work for You and Your Student with Special Needs

Think of ways to make this time spent with your child productive, creative, and pleasant. Feel free to think outside the box. Jigsaw puzzles, for example, are fun and challenging. Besides traditional versions, online jigsaws can be absorbing for older children and a useful test of their eye and keyboard coordination.

Another example is creating a diary and a color block chart that fills in the details of your child’s daily education. Frequently, these are called visual schedules.

For instance, you can say, “Today we went for a walk and identified five trees.” Using the colorblock chart, color the time red and green for exercise and environment. If you made pudding together, color the time orange for life skills. If your child made a painting of your walk, color the chart yellow for art. You can also create visual and tactile versions of charts using simple items such as pebbles or leaves for environmental exploration, a pencil or Crayon for creativity, and some soft fabric for resting and reflecting.

Remember that scheduled break times are an essential component of daily life, including when at school. Move away from the dedicated teaching area to take a break and have some fun. Sometimes you can sneak in a little learning into the activity, such as casually counting out carrot sticks at snack time.

Utilize Special Education Resources

Knowing where to find constructive advice is essential, particularly if the current online option is not meeting your child’s needs. Positive support, ideas, and information from professionals who know what you are going through are just a mouse-click or a Zoom meeting away.

The Iris Center and the Council for Exceptional Children are two fantastic resources. Another useful source for information and support, Educating All Learners, offers practical ideas for tailoring online learning for children with special needs during COVID-19. Look for educational organizations affiliated with the COVID-19 Education Coalition Centering Equity for additional ideas and assistance. Remember to share the helpful tools and strategies you find with others, as you, too, are a resource.

Make Space and Time for Your Own Needs

It is easy to lose yourself when helping your children and family, but remember you also have needs. Make time for yourself and self-care. It is also essential to factor in time and resources for support. Wonderschool has put together some easy and enjoyable ways to create online communities to support one another here. It’s important to keep in touch with other parents and caregivers who look after children with special needs. You are not in this alone!

Benefits of Online Learning for Special Education Students

Finally, this is an excellent place to reflect on distance learning benefits, particularly for students with disabilities. Times of crisis often draw communities and families closer together, which has proved to be the case during this incredibly challenging time.

Online learning

It has been notable how people of all ages and backgrounds have come together via Zoom and other platforms to share, teach, and learn. Online communities provide support as well as consoling and cheering one another.

Many online teaching schedules will enable families to work independently, while others will have regular teaching sessions. It will most likely be a mixture of both, allowing parents and caregivers to have some flexibility over when to take breaks, go for a walk, or just factor in some downtime. Take every opportunity to let children work at their own speed if possible.

The main idea to take away is to enjoy this time together. Education is about more than academic success and achievements. Make the most of this time with your family, and use it to find out more about one another.


This is a guest post from Mia Pritts of Wonderschool. Mia is the Head of Early Care & Education at Wonderschool. She has spent her entire career in ECE and is proud to support the essential work of brain building.


Casey Ames
Casey Ames

Casey Ames founded Harkla in 2015 on the pursuit to create products and information that can help those with special needs live happy and healthy lives. This passion has lead Casey to help design some of the best products for those with special needs, as well as create The Harkla Blog to try and provide free information to families and caretakers.

When Casey isn't working, you can find him backpacking through the Pacific Northwest, reading, or playing soccer.

To learn more about Casey, the whole Harkla team, and how they work to change the lives of those with special needs, check out Harkla's About Us Page.

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