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Teaching Children with Disabilities during COVID-19

Teaching Children with Disabilities during COVID-19


By Caroline R. Gomez, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University

The coronavirus (COVID-19) arrived with a swell of uncertainty in early 2020 and created an instant need for distance learning for all children. This need was unprecedented.

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Adding to the educational challenge for instructors were the 7.1 million children requiring special education services (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2020). An immediate question surfaced regarding how special education teachers were going to use distance learning to meet requirements for children with disabilities.

Such children have mandated individualized education programs (IEPs). Also, they often require intervention techniques implemented by licensed special education teachers and/or specialized therapists (e.g., speech-language pathologists).

Kathryn Welby of Edutopia (2020) states, “Parents with children diagnosed with disabilities are an essential part of the IEP team, now more than ever” (para. 3). However, parents/caregivers were never intended to become interventionists, data collectors, or case managers.

In addition, special education teachers were never intended to hand off these tasks. Instructor Stephen Merrill (2020) described the panic of one educator, who stated, “This is all so overwhelming.”

Merrill added that “It was all one teacher managed to type before she stopped short, vexed into silence, perhaps by the sheer size of the problem. In the pregnant pause that followed, undoubtedly, every teacher…recognized the chasm they were all facing as well, and took a deep breath” (para. 1).

The Immense Challenges Behind the Online Teaching of Children with Disabilities

The challenges for teaching children with disabilities online are immense. Welby notes, “Distance learning isn’t easy for most students, but it is particularly difficult for those with learning differences that require individualized education programs (IEPs)” (2020, para. 1). Caregivers were asked to implement IEPs, requiring intervention techniques for which they were not trained.

The role of the special educator now includes supporting caregivers as they provide intervention to their children. While some children and families have done well with the challenge of online education, others struggle with how to replicate intervention by specialists that typically occurred in classrooms (Fleming, 2020).

Keep in mind that these children and their families are also coping with changes in their normal routines, a loss of connections to family and friends, and a possible fear of contracting COVID-19. Caregivers have been tasked with helping their children with disabilities to understand and adapt to these changes as well as process their related feelings. These children likely had additional challenges related to their disabilities (e.g., executive function, communication) and co-existing conditions (e.g., anxiety, depression).

Resources for Teaching Children with Disabilities Have Emerged

Over time, educators have been collaborating and sharing ideas for teaching children with disabilities. Resources are now readily available with a simple online search. For example, Welby (2020) lists strategies for caregiver-teacher engagement beginning with the initial remote individualized education program meeting.

After mutual understanding of the IEP is established, weekly caregiver-teacher meetings have become the norm with consideration given to student accommodations (e.g., offering frequent breaks, flexible seating, reduced distractions, and motor breaks). Other suggestions by Welby (2020) included mixing preferred and nonpreferred activities to increase student engagement and providing daily visual schedules to reduce anxiety.

In another example, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers (Hume et al., 2020) addressed support strategies for children with disabilities during this unprecedented time. The researchers provide strategies and ready-made materials for offering opportunities for expression, prioritizing coping and calming skills, maintaining routines, and building new routines.

While we continue to navigate educational challenges during this pandemic, Merrill (2020) states, “Start by being reasonable with yourself. It is, in fact, impossible to shift to distance learning overnight without lots of trial and error. Expect it, plan for it, and do your best to make peace with it” (para. 5). In addition, be sure to reach out to other educators for support and guidance.


Fleming, N. (2020, April 25). Why are some kids thriving during remote learning? https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-are-some-kids-thriving-during-distance-learning

Hume, K., Waters, V., Sam, A., Steinbrenner, J., Perkins, Y., Dees, B., Tomaszewski, B., Rentschler, L., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N., White, M., Nowell, S., & Odom, S. (2020). Supporting individuals with autism through uncertain times. Chapel Hill, NC: School of Education and Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/supporting-individuals-autism-through- uncertain-times

Merrill, S. (2020, March 19). Teaching through a pandemic? A mindset for this moment.https://www.edutopia.org/article/teaching-through-pandemic-mindset-moment

National Center for Education Statistics (May 2020). The condition of students with disabilities. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp.

Welby, K. (2020, June 29). How to improve distance learning for students with IEPs.

About the Author

Caroline Gomez, Ph.D., born in Miami, Florida, received her Ph.D. in Rehabilitation and Special Education with specialization in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from Auburn University in 2003, and has worked with the ASD community for over 35 years. In addition to being a part-time faculty member in the Teaching program at American Public University (APU), Dr. Gomez provides diagnostic, consultation, and training services to the ASD community. She serves on the first cohort of the Competency-Based Education Network’s (C-BEN) Quality Assurance Review Team, reviewing college and university special education programs.

During her tenure as Alabama’s first state autism coordinator, Dr. Gomez led the Alabama Interagency Autism Coordinating Council toward a statewide system of care for the ASD community. Caroline has facilitated the opening of and then directed the Autism Hope Center in Columbus Georgia and the Auburn University Autism Center in Auburn, Alabama; directed Emory University’s model autism program research replication site; and evaluated and taught children with ASD in the U.S. and Japan.

Dr. Gomez has published articles in Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, Young Exceptional Children Monographs, and Teaching Exceptional Children. In addition, she has been an invited speaker at a number of national and regional conferences including the National Autism Association Conference, the Bi-Annual Conference on Research Innovation in Early Intervention, and the Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Act Early. Learn the Signs Regional Summit.

Dr. Gomez currently serves as president on the Board of Directors for the Autism Society of Alabama. Her latest honors include Resolution Honoring Professional Achievement presented by the Alabama State Senate, President’s Award presented by the Autism Society of Alabama, and Alabama Today’s Woman of Influence.



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