Supporting Students with Special Needs in Virtual Learning


Three Concrete Strategies for Special Educators in Online Settings

Teaching is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling professions. Educators are responsible for teaching future generations—there is no profession out there that would exist without educators guiding those going into it in some way or another. For that reason, educators work with students of all backgrounds, abilities, and needs. One area that offers a unique set of challenges within the field of education is special education, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when much of education is virtual or in hybrid. 

Special educators carry a hefty load. They teach and support some of the most amazing students with diverse talents and experiences. However, special educators are also responsible for ensuring compliance with state and federal laws, overseeing and providing required services, keeping in constant contact with caregivers, and creating classroom environments that are as safe and nurturing. The work of education specialists is a daily balancing act in a physical classroom, let alone in virtual or hybrid settings. The following post outlines helpful strategies for special educators who offer services in virtual environments.  

The year 2020 increased the challenge for special educators when teaching and learning shifted to virtual environments. Teachers who support students with special needs racked their brains trying to figure out how to provide the same level of service and support that they provided in person. By May of 2020, the impacts on special education were dire: The results of a survey by ParentsTogether Action, a parent-led organization with more than two million members, indicated that only 20% of students received services to which they were legally entitled, with more than 40% of students in special education not receiving any support from school. There were increased disparities in educational equity based on socioeconomic status, as well. Given these challenges, how can special educators provide highly effective educational services to some of the most vulnerable students? 

 Interviews with Education Specialists

As a special educator who guides and mentors educators around the world through Moreland University’s TEACH-NOW Teacher Preparation Certificate Program, I know that teachers have spent these 18 months hard at work learning and improving strategies to support students in special education in virtual and hybrid settings. I decided to ask some special educators and school leaders the single most important tip they would give other special educators regarding virtual learning. Here is what they had to say:   

Jared Collins, an assistant principal and special educator in West Virginia, underscored the importance that special educators remember that differentiation must occur in virtual learning environments. Students learn in various ways, especially when working remotely. To identify and respond to the varying ability levels of their students, special educators can allow students to have choice in how they access content as well as how they demonstrate knowledge. For instance, some students may prefer to share their knowledge in video form by creating Powtoon cartoons while others may prefer developing presentations with PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Prezi. Teachers can empower students to make important decisions about how they complete assignments as a means to increase engagement. 

Lisa Bolton is a Moreland University instructor and a special educator in Hawaii. She lovingly reminded teachers that, “…those angels still have learning disabilities even though we don’t see them as clearly when we teach online.  So be patient with yourself and be prepared for the reteaching you may need to do to help students learn. Remember to have fun doing it!” The key idea is to plan time into each lesson and unit for remediation and additional support in addressing prerequisite skills and concepts that may be lacking. Special educators are already flexible and accustomed to expecting the unexpected. In virtual learning, it is crucial that time be allotted for reteaching and providing additional support. (Remember also to extend grace to yourself in the process.)

In my own instructional practice, I believe it is important to be sure that we are not solely focused on academics with students. We are in the middle of a global pandemic and everyone’s lives have been affected. We may have students who have contracted COVID-19 and some who have lost loved ones as a result of the same. We must support students’ social-emotional wellbeing by conducting individual meetings at regular intervals and designing lessons focused on elements of social-emotional learning.  Special educators in particular can integrate social-emotional skills including perseverance, collaboration, and mindfulness to support learners with special needs. 

Final Thoughts

As a final thought, one impactful way to combine the best practices listed above—namely integrate differentiation online, leave time for remediation and teaching prerequisite skills and content, and support social-emotional learning—is through small-group instruction. Special educators should use small-group instruction to provide intimate and personalized learning environments based on shared student needs, interests, and abilities. In addition, small-group instruction increases student engagement by promoting collaboration and community-building. To learn more about small-group instruction, enroll in Moreland University’s no-cost professional development, “Strategies to Innovate Small-Group Instruction” on December 15th! 


Melissa C. Collins, M.A.      

Moreland University Instructor/Mentor 


Additional Reading