6 Tips for Planning Virtual Lessons for Students in Special Education

by | Oct 22, 2020


Many students will encounter a learning curve as they navigate new hybrid or online-only learning models this school year, but students who are not proficient in reading or math and students with disabilities are especially at risk of falling behind. As a school leader, you can help prevent students with disabilities from developing gaps in learning by preparing ahead of time to use virtual learning platforms with differentiated support structures.

How does virtual learning impact students with disabilities?

Many school districts have decided to reopen schools for in-person learning while also providing an option for distance learning for students who are at an increased risk for contracting the COVID-19 virus. Students with underlying conditions may need to avoid in-person learning until COVID-19 rates decline further in your area.

Additionally, students with special needs may need extra support to successfully engage in virtual learning lessons or small group activities compared to other general education students. They may need additional accommodations or modifications and more support learning how to navigate virtual learning platforms.

Here are six tips for setting up virtual learning for students with disabilities:

  1. Help IEP teams get on the same page as your school reopens.

One of the most important ways you can support students with special needs is by preparing your IEP teams with a school reopening plan. In a recent interview with Teaching Tolerance, Dr. Judy Elliott, and Dr. George Batsche from the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence advise that you have each team “review a student’s IEP together to ensure that each educator understands which goals fall under their responsibility.”

Your IEP teams should have defined roles to help prevent responsibilities that are crucial to the academic and behavioral success of student with disabilities from falling through the cracks. Teams may need to coordinate services among various stakeholders, including each student’s caregivers, support staff, and outside providers. Take the time now to set up procedures to help your IEP teams stay on top of students’ individual needs.

For more help guiding your IEP teams, check out our recent article on How to Support Special Education Students During Your School’s Reopening.

  1. Develop a communications plan with students’ caregivers.

As your school implements a hybrid or online-only learning model, caregivers will likely need to offer extra support for students engaged in virtual learning. Even if your special education students are engaged in full-time, in-person learning right now, you must prepare caregivers for virtual learning ahead of time in case your school must pivot and is forced to close or send students into quarantine later on.

At first, caregivers may feel overwhelmed with the prospect of virtual learning and will need to know they can trust your team for support. Develop a communications plan with caregivers, including:

  • Information about the preferred communication channels for each person on the student’s IEP team, including caregivers
  • A schedule for group communications (For example, a weekly newsletter that will be mailed and posted on your website to all caregivers with general tips on supporting their students’ learning at home.)
  • A schedule for one-on-one communications between caregivers and teachers
  • Advice for caregivers to track their student’s virtual learning progress and pain points so they can bring these concerns up in an upcoming call


  1. Explore the accessibility features offered by your school or district’s virtual learning platform.

Many virtual learning platforms include special features and tools which can be used to differentiate learning and offer extra intervention supports for students. Examples could include:

  • Auditory tools (such as text-to-speech tools) which allow students to listen to lessons if they have reading difficulties
  • Captioning tools for students who have hearing loss
  • Voice-to-text tools for students who have difficulties writing or typing

Many virtual learning platforms come equipped with special accommodations, modifications and accessibility tools you can use to develop inclusive virtual lessons. School leaders should set aside time to watch webinars, read articles, and engage in other professional development opportunities to learn about their school’s platform’s options. Principals should then set up regular job-embedded professional development sessions with teachers who work with students with disabilities to help them learn to make their virtual lessons more accessible and inclusive.

Resources to help make your virtual lessons be more accessible for students with special needs:

  1. Prepare for students’ reteaching and “pre-teaching” needs.

Virtual learning comes with extra challenges, especially for students with special needs. For example, students may find it harder to focus while learning from home. They will probably also have to learn new skills to successfully navigate your school’s virtual learning platform before engaging in the prescribed curriculum and instructional strategies.

You may be able to make online learning easier for students by having teachers schedule “pre-teaching” calls before each new lesson plan. For example, teachers could schedule a call to work with students one-on-one to help them learn how to log in to the virtual learning platform, complete and submit assignments, and use other appropriate virtual learning tools such as mobile apps.

Here are some simple ways to make virtual lessons easy for students to navigate:

  • Have teachers record live streaming lessons so students can go back and reference the lessons later.
  • Instead of creating long video lessons, have teachers break up videos into bite-sized clips with a length of 5-10 minutes each. This way, students can rewatch shorter clips if they miss something and take breaks as needed.
  • Have teachers weave small interactive activities, such as reflective journal questions and online polls, throughout each lesson to help students regularly check in on their understanding of each concept.
  1. Use student feedback to meet their academic needs and social and emotional needs.

In their recent articleSupporting Students with Disabilities in K-12 Online and Blended Learning”, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute states, “Students who are affected by disabilities have an important perspective related to their own learning needs and abilities, and their voice needs to be heard.” School leaders and IEP teams must check in with students regularly to hear their perspectives about their learning needs.

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute continues, “To be active participants in this process, students must be self-aware of both their abilities and areas in which they struggle, be able to self-advocate and state their needs to the adults responsible for creating and providing the programs and services, and be able to provide feedback throughout their education so revisions can be made to the programs and supports as necessary.”

Teachers can help students self-reflect on their learning with open-ended questions, including these examples from Responsive Classroom:

  • What was a challenge you had today/this week? How did you try to overcome that challenge?
  • What are some ways you figured [this problem/lesson] out?
  • What [online learning] activities helped you learn the most?
  • What help did you want from the teacher?
  • The next time you get to do this activity, what would you do to improve your [learning]?
  1. Schedule a free call with the Center for Student Achievement Solutions.

One of the best ways you can improve your school’s overall performance is by promoting educational equity for all students. Through our work with schools, and districts around the country, we have learned that many school leaders need extra support with addressing gaps in learning for at-risk students, including students with special needs.  

We would love to learn how we can partner with your school leaders to support your students’ individual learning needs. At the Center for Student Achievement Solutions, we offer customized professional development solutions for every school. Schedule a free call with one of our expert consultants to talk about your school or district’s needs.