• Dr. Patricia Cook

Preparing the digital classroom for students with disabilities

Updated: Mar 31

As Oklahoma transitions to a distance learning model for the remainder of the spring semester, many special education teachers in school districts around the state are asking the question, ”How do I take what I was doing in person and translate that to a virtual platform that my students will find meaningful? How do I adapt and modify for the individual needs of each student in a way that keeps them engaged? How do I set up a virtual classroom model where ALL students can be successful?” The answer to that is that good teaching strategies still apply whether it be face to face, in person, or through a Zoom or Google Hangout, but it is important to prepare your digital classroom in a way that understands the unique needs of this special population of students. Here are a few strategies for teaching students with disabilities that can help ensure that you create a safe space for learning, when working in a virtual setting.


Post class rules as the opening screen or social story for when students log into the online class. Many students with disabilities do best when they are given clear expectations of behavior while in class, as well as what will be expected of them. For students with more profound social/emotional or behavior needs, you may need to create a social story in a powerpoint presentation to model for them examples of positive behaviors you are looking for and those behaviors that will be discouraged (Ex: Raising your hand before you unmute, or expectations about having a camera turned on/off). By starting each class with a review of expectations, you can avoid many issues that come from students not understanding what they are supposed to do. This is no different than a classroom teacher posting class rules on the wall in their building. Keep it to less than four rules, and make sure that everyone understands what they are expected to do, and consequences/corrections that will be given if someone messes up. Digital citizenry also has to be taught; just as much as we teach kids to share, take turns talking, and can help prevent cyberbullying, violations of student privacy, as well as embarrassment for the student or the teacher from inappropriate behaviors in the digital classroom. Make sure everyone understands the rules before you start the learning process in an online class. A great resource for helping kids of all ability levels to understand the “hidden rules” of digital learning is: https://www.commonsense.org/education/digital-citizenship.



Review the agenda and the learning objectives at the start of the class with a visual schedule.

You will also want to return to this information at the end of the class, in order to determine whether or not your student understood the material you presented, or if they have any questions. By setting a purpose for learning, students with disabilities are able to focus on the task at hand, and not spend cognitive energies trying to resolve questions they may have that are not related to the lesson. Having an agenda, also let’s students who may have a hard time maintaining themselves to know when an activity is going to end, and when a new activity will start. This is especially important if you are working on a hard concept, and asking them to take academic risks. Sometimes kids are willing to do something unfamiliar for a short time, especially if they know a different activity they may enjoy will be coming next. Some additional information on visual schedules can be found here: https://www.pbisworld.com/tier-2/individual-visual-schedules/


Give wait time when asking questions and calling on students.

For students who have academic or social/emotional areas of weakness many times there is so much going on in their brains during learning tasks that they may need three to five additional seconds to process the question you asked, before they are able to switch gears and process the answer. This is especially true in a digital learning setting, where there are additional visual, auditory and tactile distractions. An additional strategy to use along with wait time can be providing the question visually in a chat bar or on a screen, in addition to presenting verbally. That way the student can hear, see and think about the question at the same time, before responding to you. Read more about this concept here: https://www.edutopia.org/article/extending-silence


Present materials in multiple modalities to hit all learning styles and ability levels.

This strategy makes online classes fun! Students today are so tech savvy and there is research saying that the latest generations respond to stimuli differently in their brains than previous generations. If you are going to really teach a standard to a student, use visual, auditory, tactile and verbal tools to reinforce concepts. Videos make great icebreaker activities, as well as online games and interactive learning platforms. However, don’t be afraid to try other tools such as having students illustrate concepts in Google suite tools, or even on paper and then share their products using their camera. The goal is to allow the student to interact with each concept using different parts of their brain, to help build connections! Some of the best online math classes with special education students involve writing concepts on a whiteboard or using a document camera, talking about them in a discussion group, playing a game, and then watching a video over the concept to close out. Websites like flocabulary.com and others allow students to put knowledge to a beat to create a rap about what they have learned in the Lyric Lab tool. By presenting the idea multiple times in multiple modalities, you create the opportunity for repetition, as well as enrichment and enjoyment.


Making a transition to a new learning platform can be a challenge for many students, but especially for those with disabilities who often cling to structure, and may be afraid to try new things. However, by creating a place and a time where your students understand the expectations and the schedule, and by working to create a learning environment where all students can learn and have fun, you can achieve the best outcomes, and enjoy the time you get to spend face to face with your students. Remember, all students can learn. It is our job as teachers to create the environment and setup for them to do that, so they can make growth towards their goals. Our kids are worth it!



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