Successfully Reaching Kids with Autism Through Distance Learning
BY GUEST WRITER: HEIDI PITLOR, INTERVENTION SPECIALIST AND COORDINATOR FOR DISTANCE LEARNING
My family room, normally an orderly oasis, is taken over by a folding table, laptop, secondary screen, ring light, and bins upon bins of materials for students. This is my makeshift office, a new and cluttered reality to try to entertain, distract, attract, calm, and energize my students.
As shutdown orders were announced, classroom life seemed surreal. We had three days to convert everything we knew to an online format. As I walked out in March for what I dreaded might be the entire year, I asked myself, “How in the world am I going to do this? How will I teach these kids?” I spent hours combing the internet for materials that would be perfect for this novel situation. I was exhausted and hoped my life would return to the normal I once lamented.
As I take a sip of coffee and reflect upon all that has led to this moment, I feel very fortunate for the knowledge this time has afforded me. We have made strides in our resources within education, and these new skills will be beneficial long after the pandemic is over. I am happy to be in a position now where I can share with colleagues how to make distance learning possible. You can do it, and this is how:
This is the key to success. Every member of your interdisciplinary team has to be on the same page. Every single teammate, including the parents, plays an integral part. Success requires consistency from everyone, from school to home.
During virtual learning, it is imperative to duplicate classroom visuals for utilization within the home environment. It is important to create macro schedules to help parents organize their days and micro schedules for both synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Most importantly, you must provide video modeling to demonstrate to parents how to access and implement your asynchronous instruction.
In the classroom, materials are always within arm’s length to engage and motivate students. While it may be more challenging to come up with similar fun and exciting virtual motivators, it certainly is possible. We are living in a time where places around the world are opening their doors virtually and allowing for distanced access. Identify what your students are most interested in and incorporate them into your sessions.
I am fortunate to work with some of the most amazing, dedicated families you could ever meet. I remember pulling them all together one night and explaining that we are all going to have to work together to make this work. The partnership you have with your families will increase the success of virtual learning. My families were willing to do whatever was necessary to make virtual learning succeed. This may mean customizing plans to each individual family; everyone must be flexible to make this work. It is also crucial for students to still engage in social opportunities in a virtual format. There are many social moments we take for granted each day in the classroom. Creating opportunities for classmates to be together and have time to practice greetings and turn-taking are just as important as academics. Have a lunch bunch, let each kid describe and show their friends their favorite place in their house; let them have the opportunity to be kids.
It is important to provide guided movement breaks and relaxation activities throughout sessions to help students maintain their sense of calm. These can be led by you within the session or provided for parents to use on their own time. You should also encourage student use of regulation tools (i.e: fidgets, deep breaths, and break areas). Work with your families to help set up quiet spaces within their homes so the students can have a safe place to self-calm.
Start with mastered tasks. If your student cannot complete a mastered task during a virtual session, you must evaluate what supports are needed to generalize skills to an online format. Once that is accomplished, you can start introducing new skills. Review micro schedules throughout the session. Utilize timers to help students understand when activities will be completed. Break tasks down into smaller parts to reduce frustration. Maintain a similar lesson structure that was used in the classroom to promote consistent instruction online. Identify a platform you can use to generate lessons and collect data.
VizZle has been my saving grace during virtual learning. Thankfully, because we used it daily in the classroom to assess, teach, and generalize, my students were already accustomed to VizZle. I can create personalized lessons and take data for their IEP goals. Within the first weekend of the shutdown, I loaded over 45 lessons into each student’s account based on their IEP goals. I can easily assign lessons and check data anytime to see how students are progressing. I receive emails informing me when students have mastered topics. Each student’s team can collaborate to add new lessons, which means there is only one place where parents need to log in.
While it is sometimes easier to lament about the challenges we have faced during the pandemic, it is important to remember our successes. As I reflect on the past 9 months, I can see how far my students have come. In the beginning, I had students who refused to attend virtual sessions, experienced numerous meltdowns, threw their materials, and lost focus after 5 seconds. Now, my students can participate in daily virtual sessions. They can independently start meetings, share their screens, and show the work they have completed.
Although there may be times when distance learning is difficult, with patience and persistence, what seems impossible can become possible. As Temple Grandin has said, “My advice is: You always have to keep persevering.”
ABOUT OUR GUEST WRITER
Heidi Pitlor is an Intervention Specialist and Coordinator for Distance Learning at Monarch Center for Autism in Shaker Heights, Ohio. A graduate of The Ohio State University, she has worked in Special Education for over 20 years and is in her 12th year at Monarch. Heidi has taught students from grades Kindergarten through Twelve. Heidi believes in the importance of working together as a team to provide the best possible outcome for students. She works tirelessly to create and implement meaningful programming to help each child reach their full potential. In her new role as Coordinator for Distance Learning, Heidi quickly brought families and staff together utilizing an online format. Within weeks, staff and families were embracing and thriving in their new environment. Heidi believes in the importance of collaboration with all disciplinary team members to ensure student success. Heidi has been a presenter at Milestones National Autism Conference, hosted a webinar on EdWeb, and is a true believer that every child can learn and achieve.