We are living through a really horrid time. Period. The level of trauma — from death, illness, job loss, housing insecurity — is astounding. There is, amidst the wreck around us, a desperate thirst to return to normal. But normal didn’t work for everyone. I want safety. I want healing. I also want reimagining.
And one thing to re-imagine? Special education’s heavy use of physical prompting. When I hear blanket statements about how “virtual learning won’t work for my students with disabilities”, there is almost always a reference to a “need” for physical prompting. Students with disabilities are often at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, experiencing more severe illness, or even dying. Yet we are willing to place them at this higher risk because they “need” physical prompts.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s not our students that “need” these physical prompts. Maybe it’s us.
As I’ve written before, physical prompting has a lot of caveats and even more alternatives. We should be asking and waiting for clear consent from a student. We should remember that students can remove consent at any time. We should be exploring other options first and concurrently. But that’s not what is showing up in schools. Instead, we have embedded physical prompting into how we teach, made it foundational to special education. It is an easy way for adults to get students to complete a task — and to do it in the manner the adult wants, at the time the adult wants. It’s also a tool that has the consequence of teaching our students that their bodies are not their own. Their bodies are allowed to be manipulated and moved by others. It normalizes this for our students in a dangerous way, considering the horrific levels of abuse that the disabled community still face every day.
(Side note: Yes, we can adore our students. We can work hard for our students. We can be horrified by abuse towards our students. And we can still teach in ways that unintentionally reinforce systems of oppression. Being a good teacher for our students means open listening to the impacts of our teaching, even when they were unintentional. Being a good teacher means re-evaluating what we are doing and thinking of ways to do it better. We don’t have to stay in the defensiveness of “but that’s not what I mean when I physically prompt!!!” I get it. I get that’s not what you mean. But now we have a chance to do better.)
Within virtual learning, the same reliance on physical prompting is not available for those who maybe haven’t yet transformed their practice. But that means we now have the opportunity to re-imagine our teaching. How do we teach? How do we support engagement? Creatively! Here are some of the ways we’ve supported success with our students — without relying on physical prompts. These tools can be used virtually, but they also, importantly, can be used when we return to face-to-face instruction to significantly decrease or remove the need for physical prompting.
Model skills. I love this guideline from language modeling on communication devices — “model without expectation”. When we teach communication partners to model on devices, we teach them to immerse the student in modeling. They learn to model as a way of being, rather than as a prompt for doing. Students then have many opportunities throughout the day to see others communicating in a form that they may be more easily able to produce. We really stress taking the pressure off in this process, because communication is about sharing your own message — not about saying what someone else wants you to say. Well, learning is about the process of discovery and exploration and making meaning. It’s not about regurgitating an action when someone else wants you to do it. There are also many reasons that someone may not be able to imitate actions on demand — apraxia, anxiety, autonomy… Indeed, many autistic students show more strength with delayed imitation, showcasing the modeled skill when both context and supports align.
We also need to recognize our student strengths when modeling. Modeling isn’t just about in this moment — and it’s certainly not about being in person with each other. I’ve been able to use a lot more video modeling throughout virtual teaching, and my students have thrived with it. Each video is no more than 3 minutes in length — and often 1 minute. I quickly demonstrate a skill that we are learning, from the names of shapes to the way we form letters for names. I’ve sent videos of myself playing dinosaurs, reading books, and creating cakes with Play-Doh. Students can then watch these videos on their timing — when their body feels safe and ready to engage in learning. They can watch it one time, five times, ten times. They can watch it now and again in seven weeks.
Priming, chunking, and repetition — with variety. These three tools should be used way more often than physical prompting, yet I see them written into IEPs way less frequently. Priming is a preview of a skill or concept prior to when it may be taught in class. If tomorrow’s class is going to speak about the causes of the Revolutionary War, key terms could be reviewed or introduced prior to class, whether in a session with a teacher, through materials at home, or even through one of those video models! It helps prepare students to engage with the material more deeply by activating background knowledge — and decreasing anxiety! It can also be a preview of an expectation or an opportunity to respond. For example, a student who may require time to build a message on a communication device could be given their question for morning circle in advance (if they prefer to prepare their message in advance).
With chunking, we break larger concepts or skills into smaller, more manageable sections. Like we chunk telephone numbers into 3-4 digits at a time, we can chunk the information and activity into pieces more easily stored, manipulated, and mastered. I have started to prefer this term as “task analysis” tends to lend itself to an ABA approach, which is not what I’m advocating. But we call can get overwhelmed when given too much information at once, or when a task involves far too many challenging skills and not enough “just right” learning opportunities. With chunking, it could be breaking a 30 minute lecture into 2-3 minute video clips, with opportunities for practice in between. Or it could be a student practicing circles and stars in a sorting activity first, while an adult continues to take turns, where they model the other shapes for now. (Yes, I teach preschool.) The size of those chunks is really going to be dependent on the student in front of you, but ensuring that we are working within that “zone of proximal development” also ensures that we are staying in emotionally safe, ready to learn zone. Everyone wins.
Repetition with variety is a phrase I first heard from Linda Burkhart, and I fell in love. Repetition with variety means that we teach content and skills multiple times but with differences. It could be teaching letter sounds across transportation, farm, and zoo themes in preschool. It could be exploring new content vocabulary through picture, video, and hands-on materials. It means that our students get that repetition of the word or skill, but they get it from different angles and different examples. Special education is known for our love of repetition, but YIKES when we don’t include that same rich variety of content that all students access. First of all, it’s an educational and human rights issue. Our students have the right to access the general curriculum. They have the right to learn. They did not lose this right when they were found eligible for an IEP, and yet so many of our students access to repetition has robbed their access to the curriculum. Second, this is how our brains build connections. I love Burkhart’s example at the workshop I attended, which was around the concept of “shoe”. (But you can do this with any word or idea). When we think “shoe”, we don’t envision one or two or even five images that we were drilled repeatedly. We think about so much more — what it looks like, how many different kinds there are, what they feel like, when we wear them, where we get them… We have an entire schema built around “shoe” that cannot be taught with picture cards, nor can it be assessed through trials. We must include a variety of experiences in our curriculum so that our students can build ALL of those neural connections. Finally, it’s so much more interesting! I am autistic and I love familiarity. I love sameness. And I also still get bored out of my mind when something is the exact same way, over and over. Variety catches the brain’s attention and keeps us engaged.
Support emotional needs. Learning is hard. We will make mistakes. We will feel incompetent sometimes. Adults still avoid both of those things. For learning to happen, our students need to feel safe. They need to feel physically and emotionally safe. They need their accommodations to be respected and delivered, their sensory needs respected. They need encouragement. They need their teachers to respect fight-flight reactions, be present with them, and create the space to re-regulate (or co-regulate). They need to know that IT IS OKAY TO BE MAD, including BEING MAD AT US. It is okay to be frustrated. They also really, really need to know that you know they are competent, capable learners. (This also means not using baby voices that you wouldn’t use with other 13 year olds.) Each student’s individual needs may look different here. But it cannot be forgotten.
Multiple means of expression. When I model skills during a synchronous lesson, I am fully aware that in-the-moment imitation and response can be difficult for my students. And so I never, ever assume that students are not learning or do not have the knowledge because they cannot express it in a specific way at a specific time. I may model a concept through song, demonstration, or a game-like Google Slides activity during a synchronous lesson, with opportunities to respond via vocalization, gaze, or gesture. But that’s not the only way students can show their learning. Instead, we create multiple opportunities in multiple formats for students to showcase their knowledge during a unit. Students may make letters with Play-Doh, stamp letters on paper, or match letters in a See-Saw activity. Families can choose activities from BOOM, See-Saw, file folders… Art and toys…. All kinds of ways, all kinds of skills. We are all about finding best fits for students and their families.
We also look for that knowledge in different ways. Many of our students use their bodies to communicate more easily than they may use words. What are they telling us with their bodies? Do they move differently when one of the choices is stated? Do they look at a different part of the screen? Are they shifting the type of gaze? I am 100% over “need to generalize” being used as a stand-in for “need to show it on my assessment tool when I want”. Learning is our goal. And our students show it many ways. My daughter may turn her head, watch something from the corner of her eye, pause her music, or reach out during a lesson. Each of these actions tell me something about what she is learning, her response to the material, and what she is thinking. And none of them are inferior to saying or touching the answer on the screen.
Time. I’ve said this over and over again, but we need to make sure we are giving our students enough time. They need wait time in the moment. They need the time and space to show their learning in ways that work with their ways of thinking, communicating, moving, and being. Time is not something often found in our rapid pace, standardized testing world. But all — all, IEP or no IEP — students need it.
Blanket statements about how students with disabilities cannot learn in virtual settings ignores (1) the ableism inherent to these blanket “cannot” statements, (2) the responsibility of educators to adapt and accommodate, and (3) the very real problems inherent in physical prompting. I have seen students with complex communication needs and complex bodies be successful within virtual learning. I have seen and heard of autistic students, students with intellectual disabilities, students with learning disabilities be successful.
Is virtual learning during a worldwide pandemic ideal and sustainable and sunshine-rosy-perfect?
That is obviously not what I am saying. I am not ignoring the real challenges that educators, families, and students all face in our current world. I am not ignoring the stress that each parent feels as they wonder if they are doing enough, if they are being enough. (You’re doing awesome. I appreciate you. Thank you.)
I am saying that our students can learn. I am saying that we have the opportunity to gain teaching skills and techniques that will make us BETTER teachers when we are able to be safely together again. I am saying that we have the opportunity to imagine and create a better model of school, where physical prompting is a rarity, where students own their own bodies, where multiple ways of learning are recognized and celebrated.