Virtual learning is a difficult adjustment. It’s hard for teachers to adapt the curriculum and their own teaching methods to meet the current restrictions. It’s also hard for students to remain engaged and focused. On top of that, issues of digital connectivity, lack of compatibility with assistive technology,and socioeconomic disparity regularly plague these online meet-ups.
For parents of students on the spectrum, there is, of course, some additional fear. The students are accustomed to social skills groups, playdates, and activities where they can practice communicating with others. Occupational and speech therapy are a part of daily life. Highly trained professionals with immense knowledge of how the students process and engage with their surroundings are suddenly at a distance.
However, surprising everybody is the growing number of students who seem to be benefiting from this new style of education. Some students who do not always thrive in the traditional classroom setting are suddenly excelling. Other students are finding the more outside-the-box lessons more interesting and exciting. In addition, they continue to overcome obstacles through the additional supports available in a virtual setting.
Though the type of remote learning the country is experiencing now is temporary, what we are learning through the experience could impact the type of teaching done in the future. When done appropriately and taken seriously, virtual learning could have some unexpected benefits for your child on the spectrum.
Focus is on the Learning
Suddenly activities that traditionally fill up a student’s schedule–appointments, activities, sports–are nonexistent. Considering what to wear and how to act in order to impress peers can no longer be top priority. A rigorous, constant daily schedule has been replaced by a more relaxed construct. The result? Many students are reporting a tremendous decrease in anxiety, allowing the increased focus and risk-taking needed to succeed in a classroom.
Teachers of students on the spectrum in particular have been able to observe this. Those in social skills groups, usually unable to make eye contact with each other, have found it much more comfortable to do so through virtual chats. Students can choose when and how to take breaks when the work becomes overwhelming or distraction sets in. Parents and comfort items are easily accessible. All of this alleviation of anxiety has allowed some students on the spectrum to be more tuned into instruction and open to communication.
Engaging Lessons that Promote Strong Bonds
Though there are a fair amount of limits when restricted to teaching through a screen, many educators have taken this time to get creative, which has resulted in being able to continue delivering engaging lessons for the students. In a time where flexibility is necessary, teachers have made it so virtual learning is a period of increased growth–academically, behaviorally, and socially. At Gersh Academy, the staff started hosting virtual playdates for students to practice social skills. Many students have been paired with a teacher to serve as a mentor for the time being, building important one-to-one relationships with someone who will be there when the school reopens.
One teacher from our own West Hills Academy, whose student is a high schooler with a stressful and heavy course load, has added an additional half hour of yoga to help the student better manage stress. Another West Hills teacher has done her best to replace the students’ regular on-campus greenhouse time by sharing her own garden virtually. Student and teacher relationships are improving as, more than ever, lessons are catered to the childrens’ interests. Songs on guitar and regular dance parties are now simply a part of the school day. These types of lessons are personal and therefore memorable for students, and establishes a bond that builds trust with the students.
Students Set the Pace
An ongoing debate in education has been whether or not to push the school day to a later time in order to work more in line with the adolescent internal clock. For the time being, a lot of older students are enjoying the more self-created schedule available with virtual learning. That very early alarm clock is no longer ringing, resulting in more well-rested and therefore more successful students. Students have more freedom to choose when their own minds work best, and choose the practices that suit them as individuals.
Students with anxiety over a daily strict bell schedule or the constant pressure to keep up with the pace of their classmates has also been suddenly alleviated. In a full classroom, a student might feel the need to feign understanding as not to stick out. However, many students are reporting because virtual learning is inherently built to follow the student’s individual pace and learning process. There is not as much pressure to “follow the pack”.
Of course, in a classroom, there is time to build face-to-face connections and, when struggling, to ask the people you have connected with for assistance. With the one-on-one chats with teachers at Gersh Academy and West Hills Academy, however, students can still get the help they are accustomed to receiving.
Tips to Set Up Your Child for Virtual Learning Success
Of course, even with all of these benefits, it is difficult to replicate the in-school environment your child on the spectrum has grown accustomed to. It is important as parents, then, to do our best to set up a learning space that prepares our children to reap these benefits. Students on the spectrum always thrive with a routine in place. Though the fast-paced schedule and early morning rises aren’t mandatory anymore, a set start and end time to the “school day” makes the day more predictable and, therefore, safe. Including the breaks your child is used to–both physical and mental–will tell your child that though much has changed, the day’s activities are still relatively familiar.
Because so many students on the spectrum struggle with executive functioning skills, they often have a harder time focusing on the task at hand. For this reason, teachers tend to create distraction-free classrooms or parts of their classrooms for these students. When learning at home, try to set up a consistent, distraction-free space with all of your child’s materials. Consider including headphones to block out external noise and calming objects or fidgets if your child usually has one at school. A bouncy chair or something less rigid than a traditional wooden chair might lessen the breaks your child needs.
Though this time is immensely difficult as a parent, especially one of a student on the spectrum often in regular communication with teachers and counselors, we can choose to look at this as yet another challenge from which we can reap rewards. Trust the invaluable lessons you have learned as a parent of your specific child and know you have the insight to make remote learning successful for your child. With a thoughtful environment in place and the unique opportunities offered virtually, students have a chance to thrive in this new mode of education.