5 Ways to Support Students with Diverse Needs During Virtual Learning


Educators scrambled to find the best ways to reach all students, especially those receiving special education services, when COVID-19 caused schools to close abruptly in spring of 2020. Now that the pandemic has shifted many schools to virtual learning, it has been a challenge to implement effective strategies to support learners with special needs. While educators are still working to determine best practices to support students, some strategies have emerged as effective because they are aligned to principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an approach ensuring all students are given opportunities to learn. Although all techniques have limitations in meeting individual student’s needs, here are five strategies that serve to remove barriers and create access for learners with disabilities in virtual classrooms.

1. Present information in multiple ways to engage students:  Seeing a screen full of blank squares with students’ names is disheartening for teachers. If that’s not difficult enough, consider instances in which teachers call on students to unmute, and the dreaded silence persists due to camera-shyness or disengagement. To combat these issues, teachers can create access for learners using features unique to online settings. Vondracek (2009) states, “Using a variety of methods allows the modality of instruction to be appropriately matched to the content being learned.” Selecting interactive platforms for writing, drawing, speaking, solving problems and other active learning tasks is an effective way to remove barriers for learners with special needs when presenting content virtually. It is best to build structure and consistency for students with diverse needs by selecting only a few platforms. One popular interactive tool to maintain student engagement is Nearpod. Some of its features for presenting content and engaging learners include quizzes, open-ended questions, games, and collaboration boards. Teachers can observe students working using the teacher view. Actively Learn is another tool that is designed for students to work while the teacher provides feedback in real-time. Teachers can also leverage the chat space to vary instruction, and to check for understanding. 


2. Provide students multiple ways to demonstrate learning: Offer several ways for students to show learning in simple and engaging ways. Some popular tools are interactive post-it boards such as Padlet, and video and audio tools such as Flipgrid and Seesaw.  There are many to choose from, so select judiciously those tools and apps that are most responsive to students’ needs. Edutopia provides a list of teacher-recommended apps that students can use to show learning.   


3. Check in with students: Small-group instruction and individual check-ins are two high-leverage strategies to meet the diverse needs of students who receive special education services.  In the words of Miller (2020), “While small group instruction is nothing new, it’s important to examine how we engage in it and consider new ideas for implementing it.” These more intimate interactions provide opportunities for targeted instruction, reinforcement, and extended learning. Best of all, small groups and individual check-ins provide time for personalized connections desperately needed by students with special needs and teachers during distance learning. Some applications like Zoom have breakout-room features to meet with students for small groups. Many schools have scheduled times during the instructional day for individual check-ins and small groups. 


4. Implement IEP accommodations creatively: There is no doubt that virtual learning has limitations for implementing accommodations listed on students’ IEP. With creativity and expert support, many accommodations can be implemented virtually. One effective way to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities is to design lessons with UDL principles.  Rappolt-Schlichtmann (2020) indicated that planning with UDL in mind is one of the best practices to remove barriers to learning. Providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression are all possible in online settings. Morin (n.d.) has provided strategies to transfer common accommodations online, and Goalbook lists UDL-aligned strategies. Moreover, some school districts have trained teachers in using assistive technology and services for this purpose. Microsoft has a suite of accessibility tools to help with implementation of IEP accommodations.  

Allowing for asynchronous learning is a great way to implement accommodations. Live instruction may be too fast-paced for some learners. A recorded lesson with explicit instructions can meet the needs of students who pace differently. Tools such as Khan Academy, IXL, and Brainpop are also useful ways for students to learn content outside of live instruction. 


5. Empower families as partners:  Some families lack the knowledge or the confidence to help their students with academic subjects.  Kekelis and Ottinger (n.d.) reveal the following: 

What holds many parents back is thinking they need to be an expert. Parents don’t need to know the answers. They can support their child by talking with them, asking questions, and searching for answers together — especially in response to their child’s interests. Activities like these are expressions of encouragement that build confidence and sustain interest. 

A major way families can support students having difficulty with concentrating is to create a quiet, distraction-free learning space.  Families can be empowered to be “the teacher’s eyes” while students are learning from home. Teaching families how to use the internet to search for tools to support their children is an additional step in the process of empowering families.

It is safe to say that in-person learning has unique benefits for students with disabilities that cannot be replaced. Nonetheless, COVID-19 has brought to light that virtual UDL-aligned educational practices can be implemented successfully in some online classrooms. By presenting information in multiple ways, providing multiple ways to show learning, checking in, exercising creativity in implementing IEP accommodations, and empowering families as partners, teachers can help support the needs of learners with disabilities in navigating online learning.

Ophelia Idemudia, M.ED.

Instructor, Moreland University

Additional Reading

All Teachers are Special Education Teachers

As educators, we have a responsibility to support and empower all students, including those with disabilities and diverse learning needs. Disability and neurodiversity are natural parts of the human experience, and inclusive education benefits everyone by promoting empathy, understanding, and...