As schools across the country are reckoning with learning gaps created by the pandemic, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: students with disabilities were hit hard. Parents were concerned about virtual instruction and not receiving the IEP instructional support their children needed to make adequate progress.
How did school closure impact students with disabilities?
The sad reality is that students with invisible disabilities that were not identified before schools closed struggled in silence. They did not have access to evaluations that would help identify their barriers. Some schools were closed for 18 months, and virtual learning was the only method to teach students. Students with invisible disabilities were at home feeling isolated, struggling to understand how to use technology, access the online curriculum and instruction. Quite often, there were challenges with accessing the online platforms used to deliver lessons. Parents and their children were frustrated and wondered why they had difficulty learning and what was happening in the world.
There are so many unknown variables when we think about school closure. When we think about the root cause-effect of learning loss during the pandemic; students with and without IEPs experienced unstructured and inconsistent school schedules that had a direct impact on their ability to learn. We would be remiss not to think about students with invisible disabilities in particular. What should we do right now to address their gaps in learning because of school closure?
“Approximately four million students with disabilities are enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Of these, 43 percent are students classified as learning disabled, 8 percent as emotionally disturbed, and 1 percent as other health impaired. These hidden disabilities often cannot be readily known without the administration of appropriate diagnostic tests.”
- U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights of Students with Hidden Disabilities Section 504
What is an invisible disability?
The Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) defines an invisible disability as “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, and can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” There are different types of invisible disabilities, and you may recognize some of the ones listed below:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Low Vision
- Poor Hearing
- Chronic Illness
School leaders and teachers know and understand how to include those who have been evaluated and it has been determined that the student has a learning disability. These students have IEPs that provide guidance about the academic or behavioral goals and the type of instructional support needed for the student to access grade-level content.
With the uptick in reports of students exhibiting signs of frustration, depression, anxiety, and in some cases, anger, educators are beginning to realize that there is a definite need for additional job-embedded professional development. Teachers will need to be equipped with research-proven strategies to address the needs of students who have invisible disabilities.
How important are early intervening services?
There is also the topic of early intervening services as an indicator to proactively provide specialized instruction services to children who are not meeting age-appropriate milestones. Pediatricians, parents, and educators agree that the earlier a child with any disability is identified and an Individual Family Support Plan (IFSP) is implemented, the better they tend to fare when entering kindergarten.
Unfortunately, school closures during the pandemic created some major obstacles. One of the problems is that the only way an evaluation such as a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) could be administered was through a virtual learning platform.
Consequently, teachers could not create a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) to address challenging behaviors. The virtual method presented the students, families, and schools with information that may not have been accurate because learning from home versus a traditional classroom environment is very different.
Resetting Classroom Expectations
Transitions can be challenging under normal circumstances, and we must admit that opening schools for the first time in 18 months has been challenging for everyone. Virtual instruction has been the norm for our students, and now that school is open, we must be prepared to reteach behavioral expectations. The school doors have reopened, yet we expect students to behave like its business as usual, even though schools have been closed for an extended period.
Educators must be patient with themselves and their students when establishing classroom expectations. Focus on the top five procedures and remember to introduce, teach, relearn, model, and practice behavioral expectations daily.
Examples of Classroom Expectations
- What are the expectations for students to enter the classroom and seamlessly transition to instruction?
- How do students transition from one activity to another or at the end of a class period?
- How do we use our inside voices to turn and talk or think/pair/share during small group instruction?
- What should students do if they are having difficulty with the content taught or an assignment?
- What should students do if they need to sharpen their pencils, request a brain break, or leave the classroom?
We must know and understand that students who do not have a classified disability may feel overwhelmed this school year. Creating a space to reset and relearn allows students to see that we are all in this together and we are going to work through the challenges.
Coping Strategies and Activities
Teaching coping strategies is crucial! COVID-19 may have directly impacted the lives of some students with the loss of loved ones, family members who may have been sick with the virus, income loss, and other forms of traumatic events. What may bubble up to the surface rather quickly for some students is anxiety about wearing face masks, the new school structure because of the CDC’s COVID-19 regulations, and, more importantly, in-person learning and social anxiety.
Teachers will need to assess and identify which students are experiencing trauma-related learning issues or whether it is a potential invisible learning disability. We know and understand that teachers may also need support to cope with the challenges of this ongoing crisis. It’s so important to spend time practicing coping strategies with your students.
Here are some examples of coping strategies that you can implement to support your students:
- Mindful Breathing – This 5-minute morning activity is an excellent way to start the day by centering your students into a quiet, calm, and structured classroom environment. The most beneficial coping skill that students can develop is recognizing when they are trying to manage challenging emotions and that it’s okay to inhale and exhale to balance their bodies and minds.
- Body Movement – Students with invisible disabilities should have built-in brain break activities throughout their day. When teachers incorporate 5-minute brain breaks, all students participate in activities such as stretching, running in place, or mindfulness yoga.
- Shared Reading – Select books that are relaxing and calming for students to relax and enjoy. At this time, students have an opportunity to interact with their feelings and emotions. Provide opportunities for students to share their thoughts about the book or the feelings and emotions that they may be experiencing.
- Music – Although music can be very soothing, relaxing, and calming for some students with invisible disabilities, this may not always be the case. Teachers should slowly introduce different types of music and carefully observe how students respond. Students will let you know whether this is working for them or not and specifically what types of music they enjoy.
- Journal – Students need to process their emotions, and writing is a healthy outlet to express themselves. Each week, allow students to write what’s on their minds and let them know that they can share this information or use it as their personal diary. There are also writing prompts that you can include for their mindful journal activities.
Rest Is Very Important
Kids need time to be kids. Their brains are working overtime, trying to readjust to the idea of participating in the world again. When a student has a disability, visible or invisible, they quite often experience different types of challenges that may be a barrier to their school success. It’s important to remember that academics are only one part of the puzzle.
The complexities of behavioral, social, and emotional issues can take a toll on a student’s self-confidence and willingness to take risks in school. Providing students the opportunity to relax and rest their brains helps them self-regulate, stay on task, and experience success in their classrooms.
The most important support that a teacher can give is just that: support. With the uncertainty that students, parents, and educators continue to experience, we must create school environments that are nurturing, supportive, and a place where everyone feels safe.