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Our current climate is ever-changing, which means students are moving through unexpected, unfamiliar changes at home and in their schooling. For those with learning difficulties or disabilities, an unstructured, remote classroom can be an overwhelming and less-than-ideal environment for learning. 

As educators gather materials and prepare their curricula and lessons online, it is essential to keep in mind that, just like in a physical classroom, students with learning differences and disabilities benefit from thoughtful accommodations in order to find success. Enabling closed-captioning on your videos, using a larger font or a different colored background than white in emails and online communication, as well as employing and describing visuals in your lessons, all help with accessibility even before the lessons have begun.

And while differentiating instruction right now seems nearly impossible for teachers who have been hurled into an unconventional digital world, here are three efforts you can make in order to support learning differences in the classroom. 

Rules, Guidelines, and Expectations

The best and most effective step you can take in supporting students with learning differences is creating a sense of structure from the get-go. Students on the spectrum benefit from a schedule that allows them to prepare for what is coming; structure and routine can often help individuals on the spectrum build flexibility. In fact, schedules also benefit other learners too, as it keeps anxiety low, therefore supporting learning outcomes and mitigating misconduct.

As best as you can, establish rules for your virtual classroom similar to those in your physical classroom. The start and end time; how participants share their thoughts; familiar phrases that you used in your physical classroom, all help to support students who may already be feeling flustered upon login. Perhaps you even write out your online course expectations with images associated with each rule, then review them before each class--better yet, email/mail them to every student, so everyone has a physical reminder of what they can expect. 

And while these expectations may need to shift as the semester progresses, at least the students who need structure the most have a foundation upon which to pivot. 

Direct Messages and Personal Shout-Outs

Let’s face it: there is a slim chance that students will be receiving individualized instruction, catered to their very specific educational needs, during this tumultuous time. Everyone is feeling overwhelmed, from the parents who are juggling work-from-home and home-schooling expectations to the educators who have just been thrown into the world of Zoom and online learning. 

There are, however, opportunities for you to reach out directly to students, especially those in need of that personalized support. For younger students, you can write them a letter or call them on the phone, just to say hi or more formally to share a “Glow and Grow”: one learning success and one learning goal. For secondary or higher education students, you can send a direct email outside of your course communications to see how they are faring, then ask how you can better support their learning or offer additional resources on how they can stay organized at home. Even a private shout-out within the chat window of a Zoom video call can give a student who is feeling left-behind or left-out, a meaningful boost. 

Reaching out directly to the families of students with learning differences may offer a more clear picture of how at-home schooling is going for them. A quick conversation allows you to ascertain if you can ask the families to offer additional 1:1 help at home or if the families themselves are in need of your guidance to get their students to a better place. Either way, syncing with the families of these students throughout the online semester, puts everyone on the same page. 

Flexibility, Flexibility, and Flexibility

This tip may feel directly at odds with tip #1 (structure! expectations!), but the two are actually compatible. Once you’ve set a routine for your online class, shared and clarified your expectations, and even offered a student (or many students!), a personal check-in, you’ve set yourself up with room to flex. 

Students with learning differences who typically require extra time in class to take an exam or who need a concept explained several different ways before full comprehension are going to need even more space and time to complete their work in a digital setting. You can do that in a few ways: one idea is to offer a “menu” of assessment options from which students can choose; perhaps they illustrate mastery of a concept by writing an essay, recording a song, or building a website that reflects the story arc of the main character in a novel. 

You can also preview work with students who might require lead time in order to participate, which may be an email the night before that offers an example problem or includes a few talking points related to the next day’s discussion topic. Another idea is to have several due dates, where students can send in a rough draft, receive feedback, then utilize a few extra days to revise and turn in their best work. The option for unlimited submissions through Turnitin Feedback Studio is a great way for all types of learners to take ownership of their learning at their own pace, iterating and reiterating before a final draft. 

Upholding rules, setting aside time for personalization, and maintaining flexibility are all going to take extra effort and a lot of strength from educators in the coming months. All students, especially those with learning differences, are looking to you to help shepherd them through these uncertain times. And even if it’s just for the 60 minutes that you’re on the call, offering them a consistent smile and relied-upon calm energy, will get them (and you!) through another day. 

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