Guiding Special Education Students for Success in Hybrid Classrooms

Holly D. Elmore
Holly D. Elmore
Elementary school principal; M.A.Ed. in Educational Leadership, M.A. in Special Education
Young boy with special needs smiling and using a tablet.

What are Some Challenges Special Education Students Face?

As trained special education educators will tell you, humans crave routine, especially students with special needs. Lack of repetition decreases self-confidence and skill acquisition. Students with special needs already tend to struggle with organization, mentally and physically, so maintaining two learning environments with different expectations can be difficult to navigate.

Creating an ideal learning environment in a home with siblings creates distractions. Even without other human interactions, there are video games, televisions, cell phones, and a plethora of other interruptions that prove to be a barrier for all learners. Time management is an executive functioning skill that is typically underdeveloped in students with learning disabilities.

Lack of social skill development and the complexity of building relationships with trusted adults has potential to impact the quality of the educational experience for students with disabilities. As a result of all of these factors, for many students with disabilities, a hybrid schedule has the potential to hinder student achievement; however, there are strategies to implement to limit the anxiety that can accompany instability and level the playing field for all students.

Hybrid Classroom Strategies for Special Education Students

Set Aside Time for Personal Connections

When a student has a personal connection with an adult, something magical happens in their mind. They have a safety net and their mind is free to focus on learning instead of basic needs because they can trust those needs will be met and they do not have to worry about it.

When conditions do not allow for students to consistently be in person, adults must be intentional about forming relationships with students. Students have less time to know you care, there are huge gaps between the times a teacher is seen, and the home life may be less than desirable, so students may not be sure when that relief is coming, and there is the opposite occurring where there is separation anxiety from not being with the parent when they are used to large portions of time with their custodian; therefore, purposefully scheduling activities that help students connect with teachers is pivotal for a hybrid schedule.

Utilize Non-Verbal Communication

For students with special needs, transitions can be the times where students are less confident and struggle with moving from one given task to another. If there are processing deficiencies, students may not understand the purpose behind a hybrid schedule and adapting to such may cause an emotional overload.

In order to better communicate feelings, teachers may utilize non-verbal communication strategies to help students with disabilities communicate when their world has become too much to process. Providing a picture schedule so students can anticipate what happens next without having to seek reassurance from their teacher can support student success.

Providing that schedule for school and home will give parents the option to remove the transition barrier from school to home. When students have been at home and out of school routines, most likely restroom breaks, snack time, and learning interruptions occur more frequently than during a structured school day.

Being mindful of that for students with special needs, creating signals to allow students to communicate their basic needs might be beneficial. Within school structures, there are times student requests cannot be accommodated and providing a visual of a clock or countdown to scheduled breaks may help the child stay focused and teachable.

Create Expectations as a Class

Student ownership creates a culture of learning for all students. Collective agreement on norms for students during school and home-based instruction will provide a framework for students that can assist them in being successful in a hybrid schedule.

Example Expectations

  • Everyone will participate in online instruction with their cameras on. Students will set up and be mindful of their background.
  • Students will complete asynchronous assignments prior to class meetings and prepare for the day’s lesson in order to contribute to the learning environment.
  • Students will show up to in-person learning ready to learn.
  • Teacher will provide a time for assistance at school with hybrid work in the instance a student has questions or needs clarification.
  • Everyone will be flexible and have an open mind.
  • We will be mindful of our words and encourage one another.
  • School rules and dress code apply in person and at home.

Provide Material Kits and Instructional Resources for Home that are the Same in the Classroom

If students thrive from consistency, then providing as many resources that reflect the classroom as possible can decrease the struggle of transition that hybrid brings front and center. During math instruction, if students utilize a white board, eraser, and marker, the student should have something similar in their at-home resources.

An alternative to a whiteboard might be a page protector with a white piece of paper, a dry-erase marker, and a tissue as an eraser, all of which can easily be stored inside the page protector. The predictability of these are the tools I can use to solve math problems eliminates the stress of finding paper and a pencil with an eraser at home, students can easily show teachers their work, and teachers can identify misconceptions.

If a student uses a platform at home to turn in homework assignments, for instance Google Classroom, then the teacher should consider students submit assignments in class in the same manner. Streamlining processes and procedures for students so they do not have to learn and adapt to two different sets of expectations will increase the success of students with and without disabilities.

Provide a Culture of Flexibility

As a principal and parent, knowing the hybrid expectations for my students at school and home has been profoundly difficult. Navigating uncharted territories and guiding humans through the treacherous waters that come with a pandemic and revamping the entire educational system as you go causes more frustration and insecurity than anything else I have ever experienced.

The one characteristic of special education teachers, most of which are equipped with ample knowledge, skills, and experience, I have appreciated the most is flexibility. There are missed deadlines, poor performances on assessments, a skipped Zoom, and a plethora of other faulty decisions; however, I can take a deep breath when a teacher has created a culture of flexibility and teamwork. Giving permission to students and parents to make mistakes and work through it together on this insane journey is the greatest gift a teacher can extend. Giving grace and flexibility for yourself, as a teacher, is equally as important. We can make it through these times, if we help each other along.

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