Calm in the chaos: Distance learning creates different challenges for students with special needs |

Calm in the chaos: Distance learning creates different challenges for students with special needs

Terrell Lam, 12, works with Jessica Reagon, a sixth-grade special education teacher at Steamboat Springs Middle School via iPad.
Jessica Koppe/Courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When schools closed due to COVID-19, students’ schedules were completely rearranged, and kids of all ages had to redefine school.

For students in the special education program — many of whom rely on strict schedules to perform at their best — that adjustment to distance learning with less one-on-one time with their teachers and aides was far more difficult. 

That strain isn’t limited to the students but has also fallen on their parents and teachers as they try to keep their students on track through virtual education.

“I’m not a teacher. He keeps falling farther and farther behind like many other kids. Whether they are a special needs kid or typical, I know there are struggles on both ends,” parent Stephanie Silva said. “How do we get him the help? How do we make sure he’s getting checked in with his teachers, his resource teacher and that he’s still getting the services he needs and that everyone is following his IEP (individualized education program)? It’s a lot.”

Silva’s son Logan has autism and is finishing the eighth grade at Hayden Middle School. Logan, 14, requires constant one-on-one attention while attending classes and completing assignments. 

Typically, students with special needs are enrolled in general education classes but accompanied by an aide or special education teacher. Depending on what the student needs, special education teachers may walk the student through everything or simply be there for any support they request. 

“For special educators, the important part is meeting our students where they’re at and providing those scaffolds and supports to give them access to the general education program. It’s obviously a lot easier to do that in person,” said Alyssa Laliberte, a teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary School. “I think Google Classroom is extremely transparent, so we can see exactly what the teacher is doing. There’s an outline for every week. In some ways, that’s been really nice to have to see the plan and have access to everything, to click on the kid and see how they’re doing.”

With virtual education, special education teachers are given the agendas for the general classes, and through one-on-one or two-on-one Zoom calls, will help students through the work they were presented in class. Whatever they don’t get through together, the students must complete by themselves or with a parent. The rare few that aren’t able to complete assignments without the teacher are given alternative work to do that they are familiar with, like completing tasks on the app, i-Ready. 

Thankfully, special educators are already trained and skilled at providing information in unique ways to reach students who learn differently.

“The theme of special education is about differentiation, whether in the classroom or however services are provided. It’s kind of in our nature to try to do things differently,” said Jessica Reagon, a sixth-grade special education teacher at Steamboat Springs Middle School. “Our job is usually about trying to figure out how to deliver things in a different way. This has been an extra level of adventure.”

Adding to the adventure is a lack of socialization, which has been one of the biggest challenges expressed by both parents and teachers.

Jessica Koppe said her 12-year-old son Terrell Lam misses his teachers and aides more than anything else. Lam is on the autism spectrum and doesn’t socialize much but has strong bonds with his teachers, including Reagon.

Google Classrooms don’t allow for much peer interaction or small group work. No amount of Zoom meetings will ever make up for the socialization they experienced in school. Yampa Valley Autism Program offers weekly and monthly meetings for students on the spectrum, as well as their siblings. 

“It has been exponentially difficult for families with children with special needs in particular children with autism, because the structure has changed, the schedules have changed,” said YVAP Executive Director Lisa Lorenz. “People have a misconception that people with autism don’t socialize. They do socialize; they need social interaction. It’s very, very difficult when they don’t have the opportunity to socialize with their peers and to continue to learn and grow.”

Finding calmness in the chaos

The combination of a new environment, less interaction and a sense of stress in the household are causing kids to have far more meltdowns and large reactions to small problems. It doesn’t help there are fewer ways for kids to calm down.

A couple months ago, going to the playground across the street might have been an activity that helped calm a child with special needs if they were getting frustrated at home. Now, with playgrounds closed, that isn’t an option, so that sense of calm is harder to find. 

Diane Yazbeck, a licensed professional counselor at YVAP, has been teaching a class to parents called Calmness in the Chaos. She’s made calmness into an acronym and each week she addresses one letter and one tool. Typically, she teaches social thinking to people on the autism spectrum. When the schools closed, she converted her skills to teaching the parents. 

Through four weeks, she’s spoken about Clear communication, Appreciating the good, Loving gentleness and Meditation. 

“My goal is that the parents are teaching each other how to manage this with a kiddo on the spectrum,” Yazbeck said. “They really listen to each other. That’s my goal — to create this therapeutic environment. … The group is supporting each other through these vocabulary terms that we’re all learning through social thinking.”

In addition to providing tools to help manage stress in parents and kids, the class also has served as a reminder for parents that they are not alone and that they’re all going through the same things.

“Most of the parents are doing the same exact thing, and we’ve all got the same struggles whether they’re 5 or 19,” Silva said. “We try different tactics. Not all the tactics are going to work. If you think you have one that’s going to work, it might not work the next day or the next day, and you have to start from scratch. We just had some more ideas of ways to handle the chaos and meltdowns.”

A surge in communication has been one positive that’s emerged from virtual education. Not only between parents and parents, or parents and their children, but between parents and teachers as well. 

“Our teachers and parents are doing an excellent job. I think a silver lining here is we’ve never had this much communication with parents because we’re kind of a team now,” Laliberte said. “I love that that communication is building and those relationships are building. It really is a team effort.”

Are they regressing?

Regardless of whether a student is in the general or special education program, it’s likely most aren’t taking in as much information during vitual learning as they would at school. Everyone is falling a little bit behind, but for those who learn more slowly or need more individual help, that is amplified. 

For those with special needs, regression is a threat to not just academics but also behavior and social interactions. Yazbeck said some parents have reported seeing actions from their kids they haven’t seen in two or three years.

“Regression is something that happens even over a two-week holiday, like our winter break,” Yazbeck said. “We’ll see kiddos regress in some areas of following a schedule or social interaction. Time will only tell how much our kids regress, but it’s about providing the services that we can now.”

Despite acknowledging her child is probably not learning and improving at the rate he would be if he were still in school, Koppe said she’s happy with what the teachers have been doing for her son. Other than being back in a classroom, she’s not sure anything else could be done to improve his virtual educational experience. 

“This is such a strange time we’re in, and we’re all just trying to make it upstream without a paddle,” Koppe said. “We’re all just doing the best we can at this point.”

To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.

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