Physical prompting is excessive.

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.

Virtual Learning Tool: See-Saw

image of three screenshots from "Wheels on the Bus" songs
picture choice board posted on See-Saw of photos

I use See-Saw for both in person teaching and virtual learning. Here are some of the ideas and ways that I’ve used See-Saw.It worked well last year. We will see how it goes this year 🙂 Hopefully there’s some inspiration here.

Daily Announcements / News

Each morning, I post the link to our meetings, our learning goals, and a “to do list” of available activities. It helps when things could otherwise feel overwhelming or get buried. I post this by “post student work – note”, but you could also do it through a photo or video. 

Student Work (Photo / Video)

During the school year, I share photos and videos of students from their time at school. It’s such a nice way for families to see their students’ learning in action in a way that IEP goals just cannot always capture. It also helps us all be on the same page. I do this by “post student work – upload”. Parents oftenl send me photos in the message center, but they can also post them to student journals in the See-Saw Class app. 

Parent Support (Photo / Video)

I also share 2-5 minute videos about different strategies that we are using at school. Families can send photo or video of something they are trying or want assistance with. It’s a great tool for asynchronous sharing of multimedia. 

Parent Communication

The message center is amazing. I set it up for push notifications, so I know when someone has messaged me. We can message back and forth, similar to text messaging. But you can also send photos, videos, links, etc, just like real text messages. It keeps the whole history of conversation so you can scroll back as needed. 

image of colorful blocks with text describing actions to do (let's make 1... model making 1... pause and let your child make the number)
See-Saw activity for counting and creating sets of different blocks & items

Student Activities: Hands-On

See-Saw is also a tool for asynchronous virtual learning. You can create assignments that allow for students to submit photos, video, notes, etc… This frees you to move away from the screen, which is a concern with many families and teachers. How do we engage around play? Communication? I have an assignment to practice rolling balls with Play-Doh. Students can then send me pictures! We’ve done sink or float experiments, stacking blocks, practicing requesting water (drink or play), and so much more. I love to also post a video fo myself modeling the activity. Rather than needing Flipgrid, it can be completed right there in the same app. 

Student Activities with Screens

You can also create activities that you complete inside See-Saw, similar to Google Slides, drawing, etc… Again, it’s a great way to do a variety of activities without having to change apps. You can create or search activities for drawing / coloring, drag & drop, video, photo, etc… We’ve sorted types of animals, traced letters from our name, added photos from our homes for big / little, and counted out loud while the microphone recorded. Providing FeedbackYou can give feedback to students and families through commenting on any post — or even sending a video to students talking about what worked well!
Some useful things to know:

  • Folders will help you organize your life. Teachers and parents can pull up just one folder, so it’s easy to scroll back through newsletters, links, etc… The two most common ways I’ve organized are either by type of resource or by subject area. 
  • When you tag multiple students in one post, then every tagged student and parent will be able to see each other’s comments. This can be great when you want to encourage connection, but something to be mindful of for more private notes.
  • I set my account so that all posts and comments have to be approved by me. This makes it so I can read parents comments but not post them if they are personal. 
  • Are you still learning the See-Saw Activities Center? Search the community! There are so many activities that you can copy to your library, edit, and play around with to learn how to write directions, create templates, etc…

Preschool Distance Learning

image of a woman in silhouette holding a talker up to model on webcam

Let me start with this: distance learning is made possible for our families because I run a preschool classroom, not a discrete trial instruction classroom. My focus is creating access to the rich literacy, math, and play-based experiences that are the foundation for a life-long love of learning. Is distance learning perfect? No. I would much rather have my students in my classroom every day, laughing and making memories together. Is it possible? Yes-ish, or at least as best we can, given the circumstances that we’re in.

Yes-ish: Because distance learning is inequitable. The end. Some families have easy access to internet and multiple devices. Some do not. Some families have time or a stay-at-home parent. Some do not. Some are more worried about health, job security, and food on the table. Understandable. Some students are able to sit and work for a little while. Others need direct adult support for every activity. Some know many words on their device, while others are very emergent communicators. A good classroom for our students is a classroom where universal design and accommodations create access. And not all of the elements needed transfer easily to distance learning.

Yes-ish: Because to try is better than not to try. When possible, I’ve done what I can to make distance learning more equitable. I use a platform that I know all of my families are able to access. I assist them to fill out the information needed to get technology support through the county. I use a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, a combination of hands-on and sit-down activities, so that each family is able to flex learning around their needs. But it’s not perfect. And any conversation about distance learning has to acknowledge that. It’s doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been given.

Our Distance Learning Plan

AAC System Support – We started a video-based parent training on AAC earlier this year, and finished out the training modules as schools went into closures. Every two weeks, I will send an activity template that encourages modeling and creating communication opportunities at a specific activity or routine. I also post a video explaining or modeling how to do this, pulling from videos I have of their own students when possible.

Sample Schedule – I sent a sample morning schedule home to families who may be struggling to figure out how to structure their day. I was torn about this, because I don’t want to put pressure or stress on families. But several families asked specifically for some guidance around this. The schedule alternates a more structured activity (e.g., reading a book together) with child-directed play. For example, breakfast – movement activity – literacy choice – play – snack – movement activity – math choice – play.

Activity Menus – This is my favorite. It’s my favorite because 1) it requires no technology or computer, 2) there’s built-in flexibility, and 3) this is where I can list ideas for hands-on activities. I am creating an activity menu every two weeks for families. There are five activity ideas each for literacy, math, sensory, and outside play. Yes, that means that half the menu is movement-oriented. It was a deliberate decision. Activity menus allow me to encourage and describe the more hands-on ways of learning that we love in early childhood in a way that isn’t otherwise easy to capture in a “packet”. All activities have been done previously at school. They typically range from 3-10 minutes in duration. They also can be repeated frequently.

Daily Prompt – Every day I post 1-2 prompts to See-Saw for a quick daily check-in with families. Some days, I connect it to the Activity Menu. For example, I shared pictures of home obstacle courses for inspiration on Friday. I’ve also connected it to communication, such as asking students to share what their favorite snack is using the picture communication board or their talkers. Finally, I’ve sent videos of read-alouds, modeling AAC while singing a favorite song on YouTube, and puppets practicing articulation. All quick and easy. The goal here is not to overwhelm families with a jam-packed schedule, but to provide a variety of opportunities. I want families to be able to design their day. Do they only have time for their child to watch video read-aloud while they fold clothes? Great, done. Do they need more things to fill their day, or are they worried about a specific academic skill? Great, we are building a whole library of prompts that you can go back and revisit anytime you want.

Manipulatives – Guys, if you could see the backpacks. When we first closed, I crammed everything I could. Puzzles. Bingo Dotters. Watercolor sets. Paintbrushes. In an ideal world, I would love to make a little “distance learning kit” that I could drop off at homes. Bubbles. Shaving cream. Water beads. Play-Doh. I would fill it with so much sensory. Preschoolers benefit so much from that sort of hands-on, get messy play. Rich sensory experiences provide communication opportunities, language development, science exploration, build math concepts, and strengthen motor skills — and fun. I’m not sure our society gets this, with how much we have to fight for developmentally appropriate practice. It’s something I am trying to stress with my “everything is optional” and “play is central” and “look, so much movement” activity boards. Because it’s true. Play is the work of childhood.

Office Hours – I’ve set virtual up office hours twice a week where I am available for parents to come, ask questions, share experiences, etc. I am pretty available on See-Saw via messaging, but wanted another option. I think sometimes families are afraid to bother me with requesting an appointment or time to talk, so I am hoping this eases their mind. I have them set up once for the morning and once for the evening so that families can choose the time that works best for them.

Virtual Circle Time – We have circle time twice a week right now. It’s filled with music, singing, and dancing — and, of course, lots of modeling on talkers. Even our stories are video stories. I wanted to make it super enticing and enchanting. I really didn’t want my families to have to spend time fighting their child to attend. I don’t even do that in real life… We use sensory regulation, children’s interests, and choice-making to entice children to circle. It’s just that there’s a lot less opportunity for hands-on action in virtual circle time. So we’re focusing on embedding literacy and counting concepts in our favorite songs and stories as we come together each week.

Visual Supports – I’ve offered home picture schedules, first/then boards, and other visual supports to families via digital access or mail.

image of a school bus outline with instructions below it: color your bus, match the letters, and add pictures of yourself or your family

Optional Activities – Finally, for families who want more, I am posting additional — but very optional — activities on See-Saw. I post a teaser each Monday on activities that are available, and students / families can choose to log-in to complete them or not. These tend to be more structured activities, but still short. There’s currently an activity for matching letters and one for creating your own school bus (including adding pictures of yourself or your family). They can be completed one per day, all in one day, randomly throughout the week. Some families have asked for the code to log-in. Some have not. It’s all good.

Throw in a ton of “this is optional” and “do what you need” and “I’m here for you” reminders… Then that basically sums up our current distance learning plan. I hope it sparks some imagination for you if you’ve been struggling with how to reach your littlest friends or your students with higher support needs. May you find the right combination of magic to support your families, whether they wish for a lot or a little.