Virtual Learning with Special Needs (Tips and Tricks)

Tips and Tricks for Virtual Learning

First, and foremost, I want to share this document. It was posted in September of 2020 by the federal government.  It supports the fact that children with special needs have legal rights to a free and appropriate education, even in a pandemic.  I'm not a lawyer and I won't offer advice or opinions on how you might utilize this, but as a's important to have.  


In our household, we have 4 virtual learners.  Some have ADHD, one has ADHD and autism.  

Our household knows first hand how difficult the virtual learning setting can be for certain children.  I won't get into my opinion on appropriateness or effectiveness of IEP service delivery in this manner, as some of us truly don't have a choice.  Instead, I'm going to offer some tips and tricks to things that I have found to help us within our home.  

Our son is normally in a self contained classroom with 3 teachers and up to 10 children.  They have been virtual since March.  The spring was a real struggle as the sessions were not live.  In the fall, we experience a "Honeymoon" phase where he was excited and engaged. The sessions became live and he could see his teachers and friends. Each week, we expected a call from the district saying he would be going back face to face, for therapy at the least.  After months of this not happening (even having him fully prepared to go the following day...having been told he was going...they called it off), he regressed more and more. He lost writing skills, math skills, got frustrated, smashed his head on the table when he was told to mute himself, cried, hid in his shirt, etc. 

So, I thought about ways that I might be able to help him and scrambled to find or create tools to make this a better experience.   I'm not saying I like or agree with the position we are in, but none of this is Lucas's fault.  I thought I had a fairly decent setup.  We are blessed with the space to put work stations in place, but it really wasn't going well.  


(the colorful bins came from target online- they have been helpful for sorting work by child)

Starting Place: I started thinking like a professional. Sure, for speech...that's not so hard.  I'm an SLP, after all...but there is something about being able to separate yourself from your own child that makes this truly challenging.  I needed to think like his SLP (instead of his Mom), an OT (which I am not), and a special education teacher (which- again, I am not....but thankfully I put myself through TEACCH classroom training, so I decided to focus on that).  I'm a list maker, so I started there.  I suggest other parents, teachers, and therapists consider this for their students too.

          1. What is working?   
    • live sessions with one particular teacher
    • reading tasks
    • boom cards
    • having a visual schedule in place
    • times when he knows what he is supposed to be doing
    • printed packets from spring- materials ready to go
    • routines
    • visuals
    • maintaining good bedtime routine and schedule
          2. What is not working? 
    • the table is way too big- he's sitting crisscross and his shoulders are scrunched up
    • we don't have printed packets 
    • we don't have appropriate paper for writing
    • we don't have appropriate pencils
    • he no longer has access to a slant board
    • free time- he doesn't know what he's supposed to be doing, which causes anxiety, scripting, wandering, asking
    • he is a technological wiz and can disable microsoft teams in a heartbeat, make himself the presenter, mute teachers, and shut the whole thing down while saying "let's shut this down" 
    • I don't have time to print special paper, make packets, etc. 
    • our internet is failing on his device 
    • some of the online tasks are not appropriate because they aren't functional (ex. spelling the month, but not knowing what month it is)
    • I'm not an OT.  I'm not a special education teacher.  Virtual versions of these are not ideal (for our family and situation).

           3. How can I improve this?  

    • create a smaller first-then schedule with appropriate virtual learning icons
    • find a tiny desk
    • order paper
    • change one of our cell phones to an ipad so we don't lose our signal
    • find better pencils
    • pull out chewies for anxiety
    • rearrange the environment to create natural barriers
    • lock the ipad into guided access and lock the screen orientationan
    • make sure we are doing things for him and not to him (the whole team...even if this means creating uncomfortable conversations- as his advocate) 
    • learn how to teach him myself, if necessary
    • go outside- get off the screen!

Resources: (what to try, where to find, where to buy/make)

  •        Pencils: I found these on amazon. They are chunkier, heavier, and smaller

  •  Calendars: We've tried a couple of different things. The first is a larger calendar like you might see in a pre-k, kindergarten, or special education classroom.   This sucker is big. It worked well for my Pre-K student...and I tried to use it for Lucas (to make his virtual circle time functional), but he bent the cards. 



    • This one is made by Mrs D's Corner.  It does require ability to print, cut, laminate, put together, etc.  It may be more functional for you...and the binder comes with a whole set of morning work that is functional.  I want to make sure (as a parent) that what we are doing has a purpose.  Sure, we can spell Monday, but do we know it is Monday today?  Do we know what Monday means?
  • Schedules: These are just plain helpful for ALL of us.  Most of us typically have some sort of  schedule that we use to keep us on task.  We needed this in place for virtual learning and it didn't   really quite exist until recently. Here are some options that may help you.

-Home Learning Freebie by Panda Speech (requires printing and assembly

-Therapist-geared Freebie from Type B SLP (when you join her newsletter)

 - Home Virtual Learning Task Box Size (included in Big Box of Special Ed or  Ultimate visual Schedule Set).  This one is one I has icons for virtual learning or hybrid and was designed with parents in mind. 
-Editable Book Version: this is the best one I've seen from both a parent and SLP perspective, if you have the time to create, print, cut, sort, and assemble.  It does best with a book binder, but it really is nice if you have the time and resources to make it.  

For purchase: these versions on amazon have great general icons and are good if you don't have time to make print/laminate.  You could make and print virtual learning icons to go with them if needed. 

Desk: I found this one on amazon and it has been great.  Lucas is very tiny for his age and we really        needed something functional that would allow him to sit and write at an appropriate angle at home.  

Before (way too tall of a chair and table, scrunched position, frustrated kiddo)

After (I wound up lowering the chair and the desk a little further, but there was already a huge improvement). 

You could also use a tiny table.  Here, Lucas is standing to work (which is perfectly fine), working with a partner (his sister), and his materials are contained with boxes and working from left to right (with a finished box on the floor). This helps him to stay on task, to know what to do, and to reduce anxiety/throwing/destroying materials.   

For older students, kids with ADHD, or in a situation where you simply can't get an appropriate sized desk or chair, consider putting a bungee cord on the bottom of the chair.  This allows for movement, more appropriate alignment, and potentially increased focus. 

  • Social Stories: 

    •  Autism Little Learners- she has lots of freebies and resources for purchase that are designed to help families navigate these strange times.

  • Other Tips and Tricks:

  • Self Care: 
Lastly, I just want to point out that most teachers, therapists, and especially parents are experiencing tremendous burnout.  This is exhausting.  Go easy on yourself.  Teachers and therapists, parents are depressed, anxious, and may be, too.  Please, please don't give up on us or our children.  Even when we are cranky or angry...know that it's because we love our children and we are just plain exhausted.  Don't give up on us or the amazing job you do.  

  • We may need to let some things go for survival.
  • We need to find some self care in whatever way possible.
  • We need to get our smiles back (all of us).

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