Student enrollment in K–12 blended learning classes, including students with disabilities, has steadily increased in the last decade and is likely to continue post-pandemic. As more students with disabilities are accessing blended learning opportunities, special education teachers have pivoted to support students with disabilities in this format. Blended learning courses combine traditional in-person face-to-face instruction with asynchronous instruction and learning activities.
We interviewed special education teachers from one comprehensive high school to learn how they utilized instructional strategies to support students with disabilities in blended learning classes, organize and design the virtual learning component of the class, and facilitate interactions with students in this course format. These findings can help district administrators better support special education teachers as they engage students with disabilities taking classes outside the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom.
6 Ways to Support Special Education Teachers
1. Helpful technology and software tools: Predesigned digital teaching activities made it more efficient for special education teachers to support their students. Programs like IXL and Reflex Math enabled teachers to provide students with disabilities with an alternative version of the regular education curriculum. Platforms like YouTube and Vimeo provided teachers with easily accessible supplementary resources that offered students content in video format.
2. Intermix and overlap instructional roles to meet students’ needs: Similar to their teaching assignments in the traditional face-to-face format, special education teachers in a blended learning environment served as co-teachers, consultative support teachers, pullout teachers, and case managers; each role came with different expectations and responsibilities.
However, the lines between the roles are often blurred. For example, despite the co-teaching label, special education and regular education teachers rarely shared an instructional role in the co-taught model. More often than not, to meet the needs of students, the regular education teacher assumed the primary teaching role in the co-teaching model, with the special education teacher acting more supportively.
To meet students’ needs, it was not uncommon for consultative support teachers to mirror the work of a pullout teacher and for pullout teachers to emulate the work traditionally done by case managers. To avoid such role confusion, school administrators should proactively schedule co-planning time between regular and special education teachers. These planning times can occur over the summer, during in-service days, or during the regular school day.
3. Direct instruction strategies are critical: Compared with traditional face-to-face classes, blended classes require students to work more independently and outside the conventional school day. Consequently, special education teachers find that direct instruction strategies are a critical component of blended classes. Direct instruction strategies include scaffolding assignments, providing rubrics for assignments, providing guided notes, using graphic organizers, and simplifying directions. When students are asked to complete work outside the presence of a teacher, prior direct instruction is necessary for student success.
4. Consistent organization in the school’s LMS: Although special education teachers report the potential benefits of co-designing courses, they often played no role in the organization and design of course materials posted in the school’s learning management system (LMS). The reasons articulated were the lack of time; schedule uncertainty; and the practicality of doing so, since special education teachers work with many different teachers, grade levels, and content areas.
As schools leverage flexible schedules for students, they must proactively schedule collaboration time for regular education and special education teachers to work together on organizing and designing course materials in the LMS. While a consistent LMS structure does not compensate for the lack of special education input in LMS design, consistency in LMS structures is critical if special education teachers are to monitor student progress in blended courses effectively. Without consistent LMS structures, special education teachers are left to blindly navigate the many courses they are assigned to support.
5. Rely on the in-person component to establish relationships: Blended learning allows teachers to leverage the virtual component of the class to provide opportunities for independent and group work and use the in-person component of the class to meet with students individually to establish relationships. Teachers can use the in-person component of the blended class to establish relationships, and then extend that effort and try to mirror those relationships in the virtual part of the class as well.
6. Communicate often with parents: As teacher presence is often reduced in blended learning compared with the traditional brick-and-mortar class, getting parents more involved in their child’s learning is essential. Simply including parents in email communications with students will likely increase parent involvement and encourage them to communicate actively with the teacher. Additionally, including parents on email correspondence can add a level of accountability to students.
We hope these six findings will help district administrators understand and better support special education teachers as they work with students taking classes outside the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. As the scope of the teaching profession continues to expand into virtual and blended formats, schools must become aware of the pressure and expectations placed on special education teachers. With these teachers often serving as co-teachers, consultative support teachers, pullout teachers, and case managers, it is easy to see how these overlapping and often-competing responsibilities make it difficult to provide adequate student support.
Schools considering implementing blended learning for their students, including those with disabilities, must clearly define the roles and responsibilities of special education teachers and promote more collaboration between regular and special education teachers. This collaboration must extend to the organization and design of course materials posted in the school’s LMS, as teachers are legally obligated to provide students with disabilities with the appropriate accommodations in blended classrooms as they would in traditional face-to-face classrooms.