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Helping Students Combat Zoom Fatigue

Zoom fatigue is an unfortunate yet all too familiar side effect of our current educational circumstances. Depending on grade level, students are logged into a video conferencing platform for classes up to six hours a day. Yet those six hours of class are just the beginning. That time doesn’t account for the additional screen time necessary to complete homework assignments, read and respond to emails, and review online course content. 

 

It is no wonder that students are experiencing high levels of burnout and exhaustion these days. Even more concerning is the domino effect that Zoom fatigue may be havingschool districts across the nation are reporting troublesome spikes in spotty attendance, prolonged absences, disengagement, lack of communication, and, of course, a noticeable drop in grades. Virtual learning is our present reality, and we have yet to know what the foreseeable future of this school year will look like. However, there are ways in which parents and teachers can assist now with Zoom fatigue.

 

  • Teachers should deliberately frame the lesson, as they typically would in the brick-and-mortar setting, but consider adding time estimates for each task. Having an idea of how long each topic, assignment, or activity will take helps students establish expectations and prioritize their mental stamina.
  • Beginning with an engaging, yet relevant, icebreaker goes a long way with student buy-in from the get go. If possible, incorporate movement into the opener. For example, ask students to take 30 seconds to find an object around them that represents an important memory. This allows students to get up and move. It also builds classroom community and allows students to share out about a personal anecdote. 
  • Establish “No Screen” blocks of time throughout the day and stick to them. Meal times and times in between classes and office hours should be strictly considered “screen free” times. This is the same idea behind brain breaks and movement breaks, which allow for a necessary mental reset for young learners. Teachers have limited time with face-to-face online instruction; however, it is crucial that students are getting small breaks during those instructional hours as well. Something as brief as a 5minute gap of time for students to walk away from the computer, grab a snack, or stretch can revitalize heavy eyes and foggy minds.
  • Encourage students to utilize office hours efficiently to reduce screen time during those non-instructional days. Office hours are certainly necessary. However, teachers can help reduce screen use by streamlining the process for office hours. For instance, tell students to login with specific questions in mind relating to the assignment or project. Keep the office hour fluid, meaning that, once students have asked their questions or gotten clarification, remind them that it’s okay to exit the Zoom early. If they have a quick question, consider an email instead of waiting to login for office hours.
  • Incorporate prerecorded asynchronous videos, demonstrations, presentations, etc. Of course, students need live instruction, but breaking up the session with these components can greatly help with Zoom fatigue. Incorporating small asynchronous components can also help make the lesson move quicker since students are working at their own pace.
  • If teachers have finished the lesson with a few minutes in the session to spare, don’t fill that time with extra instruction or busy work. It is okay to end the session and give students a bit more of a break between classes. Of course, offer to stay on Zoom until time has expired in case anyone has a question, but often, students prefer to logout early as a nice little treat.

Close all other unnecessary tabs while in a Zoom class. This may seem obvious, but many students use Zoom classes for multitaskingmeaning that they have countless tabs open, documents and assignments for other classes underway, and a cell phone within reach. All of these things only work against their ability to focus, thus creating more fatigue. As difficult as it may be, remind children to stay engaged with the class and task at hand, i.e., no multitasking unless it is related to that class in particular. Put the cell phone away, as well, since this is just one more screen that’ll distract them during class.

Formative Assessments for Virtual Learning

For educators, formative assessments are crucial data points that we utilize on a daily basis, or at least, we used to utilize them in the classroom before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that most of us are doing our instructing and learning in the virtual world in front of screens, formative assessments have become somewhat more difficult, but that much more important at the same time. Since we are no longer seeing our students in person, and many of us are only seeing classes a few times a week, it is even more crucial to consistently check-in on student progress and mastery. Formative assessments, even of the virtual type, help to ensure that students who are struggling or misunderstanding a concept are provided with interventions, supports, scaffolds, clarification, and opportunities for reteaching. Below you’ll find various methods for implementing formative assessments in the virtual realm. Nothing can replace the insight that educators get from in-person observations in the classroom; however, these activities help to make sure we’re getting as much information about how and what our students are learning from our online classes.

 

Journaling

Journaling as a daily warm-up is often considered as an “English-only” writing activity for obvious reasons. However, students’ journal responses can be valuable pieces of diagnostic information for any content area, so long as the prompts or questions are designed to elicit certain feedback or responses. For example, math and science classes can use journaling as a method for checking for understanding after a new concept, property, or formula is introduced in class. Teachers may choose to ask students to write about a scenario involving a time when the physical property of a substance might change. Perhaps a math teacher may ask students to write about a real-life scenario in which their knowledge of exponents might come in handy. The point is to make sure that the journal prompt is specific enough that it provides the teacher with information about who understands the content from the last class and who needs more instruction.

 

Entry/Exit Tickets

Teachers can use a Google form, a quick response assignment in Canvas, or even the chat function on Zoom to elicit formative responses about what students remember about the day’s lesson. At the end of a Zoom session, ask students to think about their class discussion, materials, slides, practices, etc. and have each student provide one sentence about the most significant point or takeaway from today’s class. If students are consistently confused or missing the mark, it should be a sign that some reteaching or scaffolds are necessary before the whole class progresses. If only a few students struggle to pinpoint the main takeaway, then perhaps a small group or breakout room would allow for more direct instruction while the others continue on with the material. Frame the exit tickets not as “got ya” moment tied to points or grades, but more as a “how well did I teach you today?” type of activity.

 

Summaries

To assess students’ knowledge of a text, whether the reading be related to math, science, art, music, history/government, or an actual novel for English class, consider having students summarize the text as a means of formatively assessing their understanding of the content. For younger students, it may be helpful to introduce the 5W’s (who, what, when, where, why) to help them to begin their summaries. The key in assessing a one-sentence student summary is to look for the main points or “big ideas” that you’d hoped students would grasp from the reading. If many students are falling short of finding the big ideas, it’s probably a good idea to go back and complete a whole group close reading of certain paragraphs, lines, or vocab terms.

 

Connections

If students are able to make connections between new content and prior knowledge, chances are good that they’ve at least begun to understand the new material. Therefore, another great method for formatively assessing students in the virtual classroom is to ask them to relate the new topic, idea, content, or material to something that they’ve seen, heard about, or learned before. For example, if students are learning about colonialism, ask them to make a list of things that they think are related to or that remind them of colonialism. These lists can take the form of a word web, a collaborative Google slide, or a padlet response. The point is for students to articulate their understanding of colonialism as it applies to things that they’ve already learned about.

Student Data in the Time of Covid

The sudden switch to virtual learning last spring threw us all for a loop. Students were perplexed, parents were stressed, teachers were overwhelmed, and schools were ill-prepared to roll out an entirely new structure for online learning. However, as time passed, we’ve become somewhat more accustomed to our new normal. Virtual learning is not as personal, effective, or sustainable as the beloved in-person classroom instruction that we didn’t know we’d miss until it was gone.

With the commencement of quarter one, it has become even more apparent that virtual learning is not only leaving much to be desired, but it’s also leaving much more to be learned. Recently reported data suggests that, across the board, students are not thriving. Worse, the achievement gap is widening, meaning that students who were statistically already hindered by certain disparities are feeling the negative effects of virtual learning even more. Math scores have dropped. Literacy scores have dropped. Enrollment is down, as is the rate of students currently passing their classes.

However, behind every data point is a story—a story that emphasizes the human component, for which standardized tests can simply not account. For instance, some secondary students are working part-time jobs to help with bills while a parent or guardian is sick or unemployed, meaning that attendance and participation may be spotty. Some students are experiencing food insecurities due to the fact that families are financially struggling during business and hospitality closures. Some students are experiencing social-emotional stressors and psychological impacts that they may be unfamiliar with or ill-equipped to deal with on their own. The scenarios could go on and on, but the point is this: data is open to interpretation, especially during these unique circumstances.

Here is what we can do:

  • Teachers should utilize office hours to check-in with struggling students about more than their missing work. Yes, it is important that their work be submitted. However, it is arguably more important to ask why a certain student is struggling to compete or submit assignments. Are they caring for younger siblings? Working outside of school? Caring for an ill family member? Having issues with technology, wifi, or connectivity? Are they used to in-person accommodations? Teachers know when students are struggling by looking at the grades and quality of work, but a more significant data point indicates reasons for their struggles—this is worth investigating.
  • Parents and teachers should utilize school counselors and other support services for struggling students. Data simply points to areas of need, but it doesn’t provide suggested interventions or recommendations for additional support. The counselors can be invaluable when it comes to providing insight into a student’s individual circumstances and needs.
  • Teachers should consider creating their own surveys and check-in forms to ask students how they think they’re doing and what they’d like to work on. Yes, Map scores and other standardized tests may indicate standards in which students are underperforming, but student voice surveys are able to tell us a lot more. Ask students about their study habits, their reading interests, learning styles, collaborative preferences, parent involvement, etc. This information can help teachers adjust and modify their instruction and assignments to account for student choice and ability level—all of which help to demonstrate important data regarding student achievement.
  • Schools or individual teachers should consider sending out a separate survey for parents or guardians to complete. Ask parents about their child’s study habits, individual strengths and needs, extracurricular activities and/or obligations outside of schoolwork, experience with technology, organizational weaknesses, procrastination habits, scheduling difficulties, etc. All of this information will help to inform educators about each student’s unique circumstances, which is inherently tied to his or her performance data.

Making Connections and Building Engagement

Whether students are going to school 100% virtually or participating in a hybrid model, one thing is for certain—the need for building community, making personal connections, and boosting engagement is more important than ever before. Education certainly looks different right now, and many teachers would argue that distance learning is just not cutting it academically or socially for our students. Regardless of how and when schools will resume in-person learning, teachers have to get creative in the meantime to ensure that students’ needs are met on a holistic level. We cannot solely focus on providing virtual instruction during these trying times.

Journaling
It is difficult to connect to students through a camera lens. It’s even more difficult to build relationships with learners you’ve perhaps never met in person or if you haven’t even heard their voices. It can be just as uncomfortable, if not moreso, for students to engage with a new, unfamiliar adult over the computer during live instruction. To ease the unfamiliarity, some teachers are turning to a tried and true writer’s workshop activity—journal time. Journaling as a warm-up activity lends itself especially well to an English course, but other content areas can capitalize on journal writing as well.

Teachers should consider starting with open-ended prompts that allow students to express themselves on a personal level. To encourage students to write freely, explain to them that their journal responses will not be evaluated or read by peers. They should understand that journaling is purely intended to share experiences and spur conversation. This also prompts students to speak candidly so that you can begin to get to know them on a more personal level—this is essential since we are no longer teaching in person. Keep the prompts light and provide options to start the routine. I always like to ask my high schoolers to tell me what their favorite and/or least favorite thing about being a teenager is. These responses give really good insight into students’ lives and what they may be dealing with outside of school. I also like to keep these samples and refer back to them later in the school year to show students how much growth they’ve shown in their personal writing.

Identity Collage
Creating an identity collage is another useful and engaging way to get students to share a little more about themselves in a visual art form. Ask students to create a Google slide as a self-portrait. They can use an actual photo of themselves or get artistic and sketch or draw themselves. Once they’ve added the photo, which shows the world how they appear on the outside, ask students to cover half of their face on the slide with images, words/phrases, or other symbols that represent their underlying or deeper identity. Encourage them to think about what their peers might not know about them just by looking at them. Once students have submitted their slides, teachers can combine all of the dual external/internal self-portraits into a class “yearbook” of sorts. This way, even though we aren’t physically learning in the same space, students can get to know a little bit more about their peers on a more personal level.

“All emotions” Playlist
Music tends to be a topic or area of discussion that spurs great participation, no matter your student’s age or grade level. Music is also something that can unify groups of people on an emotional level, since people often view music as therapeutic. If studying language, history, psychology, or perhaps music, kids will greatly appreciate this engaging project. Ask students to compile a list of go-to songs that they would play as clear representations of a mood or emotion. For instance, what is your go-to song to listen to when you’re frustrated, or melancholy, or excited, or feeling silly? Students will then make a playlist of their 3-5 songs and briefly explain how the song helps to alleviate their frustration or sadness. They’ll need to answer questions like, What about this one song excites you or makes you laugh? What about this song helps you to release anger/frustration? What line or lyric from this song resonates with you when you’re feeling sad?

Get Spontaneous on Zoom
Zooming all day can become draining, to say the least. Shake things up for kids by utilizing short breaks that serve a specific purpose and keep kids engaged and wanting to come back to the discussion. For example, if giving students a quick 5-minute break during your Zoom class, challenge them to come back to the session holding something orange. Ask them to come back with a hat on. Prompt them to grab their pet or favorite stuffed animal when rejoining the session. Tell them to grab their favorite snack or something that they absolutely can’t live without. Take it a step further and ask students to bring a family heirloom or or family photo to the next Zoom class so students can pair-share in breakout rooms as a family-based show and tell.

STEM/STEAM Activities for Distance Learning

STEM and STEAM Day is observed in the month of November. STEM is the acronym assigned to an approach to learning that utilizes science, technology, engineering, and math skills as gateways to inquiry-based learning. STEAM is STEM + the arts. One of the wonderful aspects of a STEM/STEAM educational approach is the fact that, using a child’s personal interests combined with hands-on activities, learners simultaneously develop critical skills, such as problem-solving, collaborative teamwork, creativity, cooperative communication, and critical thinking/analysis. Virtual learning doesn’t have to mean that STEM/STEAM activities are left by the wayside. Although many schools address STEM/STEAM learning through extra curricular activities and clubs within the school, educators and parents can still integrate STEM-related activities to motivate young learners at home.

Simulated Oil Spill
This activity allows students to see real-world implications of pollution in the oceans by using a few household ingredients. Parents and educators can examine the cause/effect relationships and frontload the activity at the same time by providing images of oil spills. Prompt students to think about how an oil spill impacts not only the immediate area, but also everywhere else. Spur discussion by showing videos of the clean-up process; then tell them that they will be simulating this process with their own “oil spills.”

In a shallow dish or pan filled with water, prompt kids to “spill” some vegetable or olive oil into the pan. Then, dip feathers into the oil spill to simulate the impact on wildlife, specifically birds. Ask children to use materials such as sponges, spoons, coffee filters, etc., to remove as much of the oil as they can from the water.

The project encourages kids to put on their “problem-solving hats” by brainstorming how to minimize the impact on the environment when oil gets into our oceans. This activity also requires children to hypothesize by asking questions like, How much of the oil do you think you can remove with a spoon? Do you think a sponge will work better? Can a paper towel help to remove any of the oil? Do you think you’ll be able to fully clean the feathers? What do you think we use oil for on a daily basis? Discuss the importance of taking precautions to avoid oil spills and how we can help protect our environment by relying on less oil.

Rube Goldberg Machine
Covid-19 quarantine times have certainly brought out the creative bug in many of us, so how about putting an educational spin on your in-home challenges? Rube Goldberg machines are great for keeping kids’ hands busy while teaching them about chain reactions, cause and effect, and how to utilize certain mechanisms to accomplish a goal. The great thing about this activity is that you can do it anywhere and use practically anything around the house.

Begin by asking children what type of task they wish to accomplish with their machine. Perhaps you want to unroll the toilet paper, propel a racecar from inside to outside, move a dog treat from the table onto the floor, etc. Extend the activity by asking children to sketch or draw their proposed machine. Help them consider the most useful materials for achieving this goal and how the order of operations is also a considerable facet of this “invention.” You can even turn it into a challenge—who can come up with the most complex or involved Rube Goldberg machine?

Color Fun
A great way to blend math and art is to utilize paint or food coloring! Depending on age, some students may benefit from simply looking at how primary colors can combine to create secondary colors. Have kids make predictions about what might happen when a drop of red is added to blue food coloring. How many drops of red would it take to change the color from dark indigo to magenta? How can you make lime green or light orange? Provide children with small paper cups and Q-tips for blending—then, watch them go!

For older learners, use this same basic activity to discuss proportions and/or ratios. By bringing math into the color blending, students get to see how ratios of a certain component can greatly change the overall product or outcome.

Paper Airplane Origami
Finally, making paper planes may seem old-school, but the educational value can stretch from symmetry and fine motor control, to aerodynamics and properties of physics. Using computer printer paper or construction paper, model how to make a basic paper airplane. Discuss the importance of a nice, solid crease and how to ensure that the wings of the plane are symmetrical. Ask children to make predictions about how far their first plane will fly; perhaps raise the stakes and turn this into a competition! Continue making various planes using different folding techniques and talk about how certain properties can create a more aerodynamic design. Show photos of real airplanes and draw comparisons between those and the paper forms.

Executive Functioning and Distance Learning: Part II

Distance learning has been hard on everyone, but even more so for families dealing with the challenges associated with executive dysfunction. In part one, we discussed the basic background of executive functioning skills, the effects of having executive dysfunction, and the way in which educators can implement strategies even during hybrid or distance learning. Now it is time to look at executive dysfunction from the parent perspective. What does it look like at home, outside of the classroom or separate from academic tasks? What are some strategies and methods parents can implement at home to help children who struggle with executive functioning?

 

Executive dysfunction in the everyday

Deficits in executive functioning are sometimes more subtle when children are at home or not engaged in a learning task. This is why executive dysfunction is easier to spot from an educational or clinical perspective. For parents, it may seem like your child is constantly interrupting you or trying to talk over others. This might not indicate a lack of manners. It could, in fact, be associated with a lack of executive functioning skills. Impulse control, thinking before acting, and processing someone else’s words before responding are all skills attributed to executive functioning.

 

Similarly, if you notice that your child has difficulty retaining one or two instructions at a time, or if she cannot follow directions that she has just heard or read, then she may be experiencing some form of executive dysfunction. What seems like a disregard for rules or instructions could actually be an attentive issue and/or an issue involving working memory, both of which are associated with executive functioning.

 

A child may also struggle with following processes, even after repetition or reminders. Furthermore, metacognitive skills, such as learning how to study, learning how to take notes, and knowing how to synthesize new information with prior knowledge, can also be a struggle for children with executive dysfunction. However, there are methods that parents can use at home to help strengthen these necessary skills.

 

Strategies to use at home

Model certain processes for your child and provide him with visual reminders. For example, if you are encouraging your middle schooler to start doing his/her own laundry, help him/her through the process by doing it together the first few times. Talk and walk them through the steps very specifically and consider using labeled and categorized sorting bins to remind them to separate whites from darks. Put a sticker or little post-in note in the laundry room as a reference for how to set the machine for certain loads. Use specific, ordered language when walking them through the process, such as “first, next, finally or last.” Any process, whether it’s laundry, getting ready for bed, or getting dressed in the morning should be modeled, specific, and consistent.

 

The level of support that you need to provide to your child with the above-mentioned processes should be tapered over time. You may need to actually do the laundry while they watch, initially. Then, slowly withdraw your level of support as they get comfortable completing the task independently. 

 

When your child makes a mistake, use it as a teachable moment. Without scolding, talk through their thought process—or lack thereof—and ask them specifically how they could have gone about things differently. Consider providing your own example of a time you did something similar and how you fixed the problem. Children with executive dysfunction should see that everyone struggles and faces challenges, but that growth involves using those errors as learning experiences. Ask metacognitive questions like: What made you do that? What did you think was going to happen? Why did you react that way? How could you have done it or reacted differently? What did you learn or realize from this? Give him time to process and ponder these questions.

Inject some fun into the challenge of developing or strengthening executive functioning by incorporating age-appropriate games, activities, or challenges. Matching games are great for developing working memory. Other card games help children practice impulse control, rule following, strategizing, organizing, and quick-response. Parents can also use music to help foster executive functioning skills. Use songs that have repetitive sections or songs that can be sung in rounds to practice coordination on a more complex level. Singing in rounds also prompts children to practice listening and using working memory. I Spy and word searches help children work on selective attention and practice reducing visual distractions.

Executive Functioning & Distance Learning: Part I

As educators and mental health professionals, helping students manage their executive functioning is a critical aspect of building the foundation for academic, social, and emotional success. For neuroatypical students, particularly those with ASD and ADHD, addressing executive functioning skills within the classroom setting is already challenging enough. However, with current hybrid models and distance learning, these students are struggling even more to adapt. 

 

Background info for educators 

Executive functioning is often thought of as the “management center of the brain” or the control center of thinking. Our executive functioning assists with many different cognitive skills, which is why it not only impacts students academically, but also socially, emotionally, and physically. Some skills associated with executive functioning include: attentiveness, self-monitoring and regulating, emotional/impulse control, organizational skills, ability to prioritize, perspective taking, and planning/chunking larger tasks into smaller pieces. Many of these skills help us to perform tasks throughout our entire lives. Therefore, executive dysfunction can have a lifelong impact on students beyond their capabilities in the classroom.  

 

What does executive dysfunction look like?

Difficulties concerning executive functioning vary from person to person and also differ in severity. Common examples of ways in which students exhibit executive dysfunction include:

  • Avoiding tasks or struggling to initiate an assignment 
  • Procrastinating; trouble with managing time
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks or steps in a process
  • Misplacing things
  • Struggling to put thoughts on paper; difficulty explaining oneself
  • Difficulty transitioning between tasks or moving from one activity to another
  • May struggle to follow directions or to complete steps in chronological order
  • May exhibit a preoccupation with a small detail of the task; i.e. missing the big picture
  • Difficulty with working memory; they may forget what they heard or read
  • May struggle when schedules, rules, procedures, or expectations change; i.e. exhibit a level of inflexibility when they’ve become used to a certain routine

 

Providing assistance with these struggles in the classroom is much easier; educators are physically there in person to alleviate issues and help students to troubleshoot their individual challenges. In the classroom, we have the ability to personally connect with students and provide them with necessary supports and accommodations, like check-ins, checklists, organizers, etc. Now, with distance learning, students with executive dysfunctions are not necessarily getting the same level of support and attention. We can fix this, however, with a little creativityand a lot of patience!

 

Strategies for teachers during distance learning  

Here are a few tips for supporting students with executive functioning issues:

  • Assess: Take inventory of your students’ needs and tendencies. I began the school year by asking every student which part of the writing process he/she hates the most. Do they struggle to begin writing? Drafting? Organizing a cohesive argument/essay? Revising? Getting thoughts down on paper? For students who said that they find it difficult to get started, I provided several supports.

 

  • Model: Firstly, every writing task that I ask students to do, I also complete and spend one class period reading my draft and discussing my writing process. Seeing an example of what the final task should look like is beneficial for all students, but especially those who struggle to initiate writing and to see the big picture. During this “modeled writing session,” I ask students to tell me what they notice about the sample. Their answers provide me with insight into how they interpret the assignment, which allows me to see who really needs greater scaffolds and who does not. 

 

  • Specify: Secondly, when students disclose that getting ideas onto paper is their greatest challenge, I provide them with very specific, thoroughly broken down organizers with sentence starters. This removes the “getting started” barrier and gives them a jumpstart to initiate the task with some momentum. 

 

  • Organize: Finally, for my students who struggle to piece together their writing (organize and revise), I find it helpful to color-coordinate the different aspects of the essay or paragraph. For example, I may highlight students’ thesis statements in red, transition words in blue, evidence/quotes in green, and analysis in orange. When reading through a student’s draft, I can easily direct them to certain sections with specific instructions to add more orange, for instance. This tells them immediately that their paper is lacking sufficient analysis. It also tells them where that analysis or orange should be placed so that the guesswork is gone.

 

  • Check-in: Another best practice that we regularly use in the classroom is to chunk larger assignments and include check-ins throughout the project or essay. With distance learning, I’ve found that breakout rooms in Zoom allow for me to specifically check in with each student during a writing work session. The platform allows students to share their screen with me 1:1 so that I can check their progress individually. This practice also allows me to see who is far behind in terms of completion. The check-ins prompt students to set small goals while working, but they also allow enough time for me to intervene if a task looks like it’s falling to the wayside.

Parents as Advocates: Tackling Dyslexia

October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month—31 days dedicated to building community awareness about learning disabilities in an effort to provide supports for all children. As important as awareness is, however, parents whose children suffer from dyslexia are plenty aware of the struggles their children face on a day-to-day basis. That is why another “A” word can be even more powerful for families—advocacy.

 

No one knows your child better than you do. Keep this in mind when advocating for your child’s needs. In parents’ efforts not to come across as a “helicopter parent,” they sometimes assume it is in their child’s best interest to follow the expert’s lead, avoid making waves, and be passively agreeable. They do not want to be the bulldog. These fears are common, but that doesn’t make them true.

 

You are your child’s greatest advocate, and here’s how to accomplish that:

 

  • Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, our nation’s special education law, children and their parents or guardians are guaranteed certain protections and rights. Once identified as having a qualifying disability, schools are legally required to provide special education services to your child. Also under IDEA, the law provides parents with something called procedural safeguards, which are put in place so that parents are aware of and have a voice in every aspect of their child’s special education evaluation and IEP process. As part of the process, the school must provide you with documentation and explanation of your rights—STUDY UP ON THESE DOCUMENTS. It is commonplace for IEP meetings to move quickly, with a “sign here if you don’t have any questions” style of rapid wrap-up. It is your job to closely review these documents and to seek clarification before signing anything.
  • Another best practice for advocacy that goes hand in hand with knowing your child’s legal rights is to stay organized. Keep a binder of all necessary documentation regarding your child’s diagnosis and any other evaluative documents that you accumulate as you work through the process. Items such as test results, doctor’s notes and recommendations, educator’s observations, report cards, writing samples, and any data concerning your child’s academic skills should be kept for future reference. The binder keeps essential documents organized and acts as a paper trail of progress and correspondence among your child’s team.
  • It is also essential for parents to be fully prepared for special education meetings. Because of this, the binder’s benefits are two-fold: paper trail and parent playbook [or however you want to define the two benefits]. Of all members of your child’s academic team, you are the person that knows him best, so your seat at the table matters most. Advocating for your child means preparing questions ahead of time and speaking up if they aren’t answered clearly. Meetings tend to move quickly, so request an additional meeting if you haven’t gotten clear answers. Do not assume that the team will automatically clarify for you, so be prepared to ask follow-up questions if needed.
  • The binder is also a great resource for you to use for note taking during IEP or 504 meetings. Not only will you have your own notes to refer back to after the meeting, but the process of taking notes shows that you are actively listening and invested in your child’s special education services. When parents demonstrate this level of involvement and support, it’s the child who benefits.
  • Another helpful advocacy move is to email a summary of the main discussion points that you took away from the meeting afterwards. This keeps everyone on the same page regarding the decisions that were discussed and allows you to share your own perception of how the meeting went. If anything is unclear, your email will start that conversation and provide clarification. In that email, ask about a follow-up meeting so that dates can be arranged and any other necessary steps can be taken.
  • Speak to teachers about your expectations, your child’s expectations, and the school’s expectations. This will prevent any miscommunication and unfortunate surprises. When setting expectations for your child’s success, it is important to be honest, positive, and realistic about the growth that you’d like to see. It will be difficult, but as much as possible, remain unemotional and unbiased about the feedback that you get from your child’s teachers and other professionals—cool heads prevail.

High Leverage Practices for Special Education: Collaborative Methods at Home

In part one, we discussed the four different categories of high leverage practices (HLP) and how educators utilize these practices to drive instruction and learning. Whether in a physical classroom or not, the goal of HLPs is to ensure that young learners are engaged, supported, and challenged. Now that we’re all in the throes of virtual learning, where much of our schooling is happening at home, it’s helpful for families to be able to adopt and modify various high leverage practices for their own use.

 

Collaboration is key, especially since much of the learning is currently happening outside of the classroom. Students are no longer experiencing a fully monitored, structured school day, which makes collaboration and open communication all that much more important.

 

  • Goal statement: Since the aim of collaborative HLPs is to ensure that all members of the child’s support system are on the same page, working towards the same goals, parents should use a goal statement as a starting point when reaching out to teachers. Whether in person, on the phone, or via email, parents should make a point to advocate for their child’s learning goals and reiterate them as needed to provide teachers with reminders about where they’d like their child’s learning to be headed.
  • Check-in: Yes, students receiving special education services already have formal documentation concerning learning goals, but it never hurts to remind the team of those goals along the way. Teachers can easily become overwhelmed throughout the quarter with IEPs, 504s, and numerous other learning plans for individual students. And while teachers are legally obligated to offer modifications and accommodations, the learning goals may receive less attention. This is why parents should make a point to check in regularly with their child’s teachers to ensure that everyone is aware of and working towards the child’s learning goals.
  • Reevaluation: These check-ins also allow for data updates, recent observations, and discussions about reevaluating or resetting goals if necessary. Be sure to ask for quantifiable updates, such as Lexile level, Map scores, attendance and participation, writing samples, etc.
  • Point person: To simplify the task of reaching out, especially with middle or high school students who have multiple teachers, parents can plan to send a weekly or biweekly email to their child’s counselor or special education case manager. This person will act as the point of contact and will be sure to disseminate all vital information to the teachers, while keeping you in the loop about all of the replies.
  • Student accountability: Bring your child into the collaborative effort by asking him to help track his own progress towards the goals set at the beginning of the year or quarter. It’s much more probable for a student to strive for success when he’s been part of the goal setting process. Involving your child in these discussions ensures that he’s taking ownership and feels invested in the effort he’s putting forth.
  • Positive reinforcementConsider small benchmarks or checkpoints along the way and make a point to acknowledge when goals are achieved. No matter your child’s age, kids benefit from positive reinforcement and thrive on recognition for a job well done.
  • Open communication: Another high leverage form of helpful collaboration is to connect your child’s teachers with any other “key player” on your child’s educational team. Teachers must have parental permission to correspond with pediatricians, therapists, psychologists, tutors, and even older siblings regarding a student. Therefore, if you want certain professionals to cooperate, you must first provide permission and then facilitate that correspondence. Remember, it takes a village, but you have to put all of the villagers in contact with one another, first.
  • Support groups: Another collaborative HLP that parents can modify for use at home is to facilitate a small virtual study group or neighborhood support group for certain ages, subjects, or classes. Reach out to neighbors about how their child is fairing with virtual learning. Ask if they are using any specific programs, tools, or methods that they find particularly helpful. During these times, many parents are finding that distance or virtual learning is all about trial and error. So why not collaborate with other parents in your neighborhood to help carry the load?

College Preparations for Juniors and Seniors during COVID

Though virtual learning is in full swing, and all questions regarding next steps in the world of education are currently up in the air, one thing holds true—time stops for no one. For current high schoolers, especially the juniors and seniors, it may feel as though college preparations and post-secondary plans are hanging in limbo, so to speak. Compounding the issue is that many school-run programs, those designed specifically to help students mull through their options and arrange post-graduation plans, have been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. Yet now more than ever students need to be proactive about planning for the future, regardless of what that future may be.

 

Questions to consider 

This pseudo-school year has likely caused some students to feel more inclined to simply coast on through—and it makes perfect sense. The “Senioritus” season will undoubtedly hit earlier due to virtual classes, lenient grading expectations, flexible time frames for assignments, etc. We can’t necessarily blame students for feeling a little bit more lax about their schoolwork right now. We can, however, make sure that they are using this “downtime” to their advantage by asking important questions and offering suggestions if their answers come up short.

 

What have you done to prepare for college?

If nothing rings a bell, these suggestions could help. Beyond the typical college visits and entrance exams, consider these recommendations:

  • Develop a personal note-taking system and practice it regularly during your Zoom classes. Students may think, “What is the point? All lessons are recorded and posted, so why waste time with notes?” Well, the likelihood of having recorded lectures to view at leisure from their dorm rooms is not guaranteed. Therefore, note taking, as has always been the case, will be a crucial skill for college and career readiness. Their personal note taking process, whatever it may look like, is something that they can develop and hone right now while virtual learning is occurring. It’s about being able to actively listen, decipher and record new information, make connections to prior knowledge, and synthesize material all at the same time—critical skills for life-long learning.
  • Do some real soul searching about what students may want to study after high school. Beyond desired salaries, childhood dreams, and suggestions from others, what types of things do they enjoy reading about, learning about, exploring? Use those ideas as starting points for looking into potential college majors and plans of study.
  • Similarly, be sure to have an array of thoughts about what they may want to study—it is important to keep options open, fluid, and flexible to ensure that students are not pigeonholing themselves, only to realize that they’ve wasted a semester on courses that don’t lead them in their desired direction.
  • Broaden the repertoire of leadership skills—this not only makes students’ applications more appealing to admissions boards, but it also gives them a leg up in learning cohorts and in the workplace. Contrary to what many students think, getting into their desired school is not the hard part—they must also be prepared to “earn their stay.” Leadership experience undoubtedly boosts an application and resume, but more importantly, these skills are functional—they facilitate the ability to take charge, vocalize opinions, ask questions, and investigate opportunities, all of which contribute to college success.
  • Need more leadership experience? Think outside the box and don’t let virtual learning be an excuse. There are numerous opportunities for students to get involved within their own homes.
    • Reach out to their religious organization about creating and leading a youth group.
    • Look into volunteer options to provide online homework help, reading assistance to elementary students, tutoring programs, etc.
    • Join their school’s or community’s newspaper or magazine publication; ask about editorial opportunities or freelance fact-checking for the school’s newspaper club.
    • If working a part-time job, talk to the manager or boss about boosting hours or opportunities for advancement, specifically any roles that involve leadership/managerial skills.
    • If involved in a volunteer program, seek out opportunities to assist with planning their events, helping to coordinate a benefit or fundraiser, chair or co-chair a meeting, etc.
  • Students need to be able to speak about how they have been using their downtime during the pandemic. Are there new skills or hobbies that they have picked up during quarantine? Have they set any specific goals to work toward while they’ve been limited to staying home? Consider things like studying a new language/culture, tracing the family’s ancestry, taking any online courses or classes, following or helping out on a local political campaign, creating and selling goods online, starting a blog or Instagram about one of their interests, learning sign language, etc. The real purpose of this is to be able show not only what interests them, but also how they choose to manage their time as a life-long learner.