As a former Special Education teacher, I understand the challenges of differentiating instruction for students during a regular school year. Transitioning to virtual learning adds additional challenges for students with IEPs, their families, and the teachers supporting them. So, how can we support students with IEPs in the virtual learning space?
When I consider what differentiation means, I think of Carol Ann Tomlinson’s book, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. In the book, Tomlinson talks about differentiating content, process, product, or affect/environment according to a student’s readiness, interests, and learning profile.
I will also add my own two cents in here that unless a student has an IEP that dictates they cannot be expected to learn the same content as other students (i.e., students who take alternative assessments), I have always maintained my students with IEPs should be expected to learn the same content and skills their peers are expected to learn. Where I come in, is in supporting how they learn or demonstrate learning (process and product).
With that in mind, let’s take the 4 things Tomlinson talks about differentiating, one at a time.
As I mentioned above, many students with IEPs are still expected to learn the same content as their peers, so it’s not helpful to overly simplify the content. (I made this mistake for years, and it hurt student learning rather than helped.) Instead, offer choice within the larger content that students can dive into.
If students need to understand animal adaptations, provide students a choice in which animals they can explore. This way, they have more ownership and motivation to learn about the content and they get to be the experts in their class on this animal. Choice and efficacy can be big contributors to student learning.
You can also offer opportunities for students to ask questions about a topic and encourage them to seek the answers, following a more inquiry-based model of teaching. Again, students will feel a greater sense of ownership of their learning if they are driving it. In a time when teaching and learning has had to radically shift and some schools are told not to hold students accountable for their work at this time, it’s a perfect opportunity to experiment with offering more student voice and choice than you might typically offer.
Students learn in different ways—we, as educators, know this. So, let’s consider how we may offer different ways for students to engage in learning activities in a virtual space. To reiterate an approach from the previous section, offering student choice is a great place to start. One example of this is using choice boards.
If you want a basic outline as a jumping off point, click the button below to get my free choice boards template.
For students who are non-verbal, make sure there are ways students can type responses (or select from pre-set response options if typing is also a struggle for your students).
For students who struggle with or are intimidated by writing, offer flexible ways to respond to open-ended questions, like Vocaroo (a voice recording site) or Flipgrid (a video discussion tool).
For students who need more processing time when taking in new information, offer video recordings either asynchronously (e.g., a pre-recorded video lecture) or send along a recording of a synchronous class lecture (e.g., via. Zoom) after it’s completed so students can pause and re-watch the lecture or replay instructions for a task as needed. If possible, use a software that automatically creates captions for the videos (Zoom does) to support students who may be new to the English language.
As I shared earlier, this is a time you may have more flexibility with how students demonstrate their learning. Get creative here!
If your typical go-to assessment is an essay or open-ended written response, offer an alternative, especially for students who have difficulty writing. (If you’re assessing writing, they need to write, but if you’re assessing content understanding, verbal products are just fine!)
We’ve already discussed ways students could participate in a virtual discussion (in writing, via microphone on a live class using video conferencing like Zoom or asynchronously via Flipgrid.
Teachers of younger students who need to assess reading fluency could have children use a tool like Vocaroo to record themselves reading.
To give students space to shine and put their own spin on the content, you could invite students to use a tool like Flipgrid to teach a mini-lesson to their peers. Students can see each other’s videos, and hearing a peer re-explain the content may help the students who didn’t understand the first time around. (You can also save the top videos and create a resource library students can use year after year to reteach the content.)
To assess higher-order thinking skills, students could synthesize evidence from diverse sources to make a short video with iMovie or Adobe Spark Video.
To support students socially and emotionally, provide opportunities to check-in with the whole class and with you 1:1. Support students by sharing self-regulation strategies (e.g., breathing exercises, movement and brain breaks) and encourage them to either track their self-regulation or journal or reflect in conversations with you on how they are able to use these strategies and which strategies are most effective.
Be flexible with expectations, as students have different circumstances at home that may limit technical access to online spaces but also may limit their ability to make time for school work if they are caring for younger children at home. With this flexibility, keep in mind the notion of balancing high expectations and high support, while recognizing this balance may look different now than it has during traditional schooling.
For students who are non-verbal, offer support via email or in the chat function during synchronous classes (with some platforms, like Zoom, you can privately message an individual student during a session). For students who prefer verbal communication, you could use a tool like Calendly to have students sign up for virtual 1:1 support meetings (via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.) during office hours you designate.
If possible, send pre-recorded videos or have 1:1 video chat sessions with family members who are able to offer support to their children with IEPs as they engage in learning activities from home. Share what you typically do to scaffold instruction and support students during class so family members can get an idea of where and how to support children and where and how to let them grapple with the work.
To be clear, all of these ideas for differentiation can absolutely be used with students who do not have IEPs. These supports are beneficial for all students, so use them as you see fit for as many students as you can.
To support students who are required to have questions or texts read aloud, you may want to record your voice (via Vocaroo) or screen record a video with the questions on the screen as you read (so students can see and read the question as you speak it). You could also hold a live video session for all students who have this accommodation and read aloud each question as they take the test on their devices.
To support students with extra time, I suggest offering asynchronous tasks that are not timed at all or offer the option for students to retake an assessment to get a higher score. Especially when many districts are not sure if they can even count assessments in report cards, give this a try. From my experience, students who retake tests, even if they saw the correct answers before the retake or are using their notes during the test, are still internalizing and remembering the content. I’m fine with that—that’s what we want, afterall.
You are expert educators, so you know what’s best for your students. I hope this just jogs your memory of things you likely already know to do, and I hope the tech tool suggestions can help you make this possible in your virtual learning space.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.