Distance Learning | Feature

Meeting the Needs of Special Needs Students Virtually

Students who interact with their peers during lessons are more motivated, more engaged with material, and more capable at learning language, communications, and listening skills. How do you retain that interaction for special needs students who might not have regular access--or any access--to a traditional classroom?

A student at A.J. West Elementary School in Aberdeen, WA did not speak. Ever. She was a selective mute, and no one in the area, located more than 100 miles from Seattle, knew how to treat a child who simply refused to talk. The school's technology coordinator suggested a video conference with professionals who had experience with selective mutes in order to collaborate on an individualized education plan (IEP).

As A.J. West Principal Bill O'Donnell explained to the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium: "We were just grasping at what to do. And when we sat down as a group to try and develop an IEP, we were just pooling our ignorance, and so this was a chance, and we just jumped at it."

Developing the IEP via video conferencing in conjunction with all interested parties was a success. "As the principal, after the conference was over, I felt very relieved," O'Donnell said. "I felt, 'Okay, I have a plan, and I know that it has been validated by professionals that have dealt with students before.' The special ed teacher felt the same way: 'Okay, here's what we're gonna be able to do. Here's how we can check to see that the student is learning even though they don't talk.' The classroom teacher felt relieved: 'Okay, now I know how to handle her. Now I know what I can and can't do, what I should and shouldn't do.' And the parents felt relief: '... Okay my child is different, but there are others who have done the same thing. Here's what will happen to him, here's how they will probably progress through this.'"

Teaching special needs students in the classroom is difficult; the child can be disruptive to other students, and the teacher often needs to spend time on that child at the expense of lesson delivery. Another challenge faced when helping special needs students is the amount of time they're removed from the classroom setting. A child with autism often misses hours of class time while in therapy.

Special needs students have long lived academic lives of various levels of isolation. Students who cannot or will not communicate with their peers and teachers, such as the selective mute, are isolated from those around them. Students too ill to attend school traditionally and taught by tutors have no interaction with their peers in an academic setting. Those with different learning or psychological disabilities are relegated to special education classes or specialized schools and spend time away from school and fellow students while attending treatment programs. Gifted students, too, can be similarly disenfranchised from the mainstream. Yet studies show students who interact with their peers during lessons are more motivated, more engaged with material, and more capable at learning language, communications, and listening skills.

Technology today is allowing students with special needs to receive specialized learning programs while retaining key peer interaction. Advanced or special needs students can take advantage of interactive distance learning opportunities that their schools may not be able to provide when those schools have insufficient staffing, funding, or expertise. Specifically, Web conferencing and videoconferencing are helping to bridge those gaps.

Connecting the Remote Student
Lecture capture, of course, is a great solution for remote students, but students unable to attend class either temporarily owing to illnesses or more permanently owing to motor disabilities, need the interaction with their peers in order to develop socially, to better enjoy the educational experience and to stave off the emotional consequences of isolation.

Connecting students from remote locations to the classroom is one of the most widely used practices and one of the better successes of videoconferencing for special needs students.

Broward County Public Schools in Florida, is one of the largest districts in the United States, with nearly 300,000 K-12 students. The county created its Hospital Homebound Program to provide access to education for students too ill to attend school for a month or longer. These special needs students dial a phone number to join the class along with other homebound students. For some classes, the teacher uses the voice conference in conjunction with Web collaboration. Students use an Internet-connected computer to launch the Web browser for classes like geometry that require visual presentation materials. The student can follow along as the teacher draws on a tablet that displays the images over the Web conference, and the experience is much like learning via whiteboard-assisted instruction.

Broward County also uses conferencing technology for its Expulsion Abeyance program. In this program, the school provides virtual classes for students who would ordinarily be expelled. This way, the expelled students can continue with their studies, and those who successfully participate in the program for one year can reenter regular classes.

The Texas Education Agency has been an advocate for conferencing for special needs students too, and among its programs is one providing conferencing services for children who attend the Texas School for the Deaf. Students at that school often must leave home to live on campus. The distance from their parents, and the parents' discomfort with their child being far away, is eased by video conferences that allow the children and their parents to talk face to face and see each other communicate via sign language, a method of communication that's often preferred over communication using telephones and interpreters.

Early Diagnoses and Access to Therapy
Telemedicine, or the use of video conferencing for diagnosing and specifying treatments for illnesses or disorders, is growing quickly. An important driver of this market growth is the shortage of health care workers and in particular, specialists.

Of those specialties, telepractice, for delivering therapies such as speech and language, and teletherapy and telepsychiatry, are presenting some of the strongest qualitative results of effective treatment via video conferencing.

The success of these treatment methods is good news for schools that can provide these services. Telemedicine removes the barriers to treatment that parents would otherwise have to overcome, such as distance and provider shortage. Telemedicine can address emotional, behavioral, and developmental needs of children and widen diagnosis and treatment options for underserved populations, both rural and urban.

As has been the case with those at A.J. West Elementary School in Aberdeen, WA, teachers, school counselors, and parents can assemble at the school and use video conferencing to meet with specialists when they suspect a child has a disorder. The specialist on the other end of the conference is often able to diagnose the child's condition remotely, and subsequently determine and deliver treatment. Case studies are showing positive results for children treated for conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder, for example, and in cases when interventions are needed, too, such as during family conflicts.

Teleconferencing with professionals becomes more valuable when diagnosis is important to optimum treatment. Delivering speech pathology treatment to autistic children is best done as early as possible, and some psychiatrists have asserted that early intervention with ADHD leads to improved outcomes. Access to specialists in a timely manner can help with these early diagnostics and treatments.

There was a study conducted to measure the results of using video conferencing to treat depressed children. According to the researchers, suicide is the third leading cause of child and adolescent death, so early intervention is critical. Distance and access to care are again barriers. When it comes to seeking psychological counseling, stigma becomes yet another barrier. Teletherapy for depressed children gives quicker convenient access to the specialist, and removes some of the stigma, since the family participating in a conference at school need not fear being spied entering a psychiatrist's office. The treatment method was no issue, either, said the study, since children are accustomed to technology and it was not intimidating. If anything, it made some children feel special.

Opening Up Experiences
The Kentucky School for the Deaf had only five children in their Kindergarten class. Teachers said they thought it was important for these students to be able to have experiences outside the four walls of the classroom.

Their first connection was with peers at the New Mexico School for the Deaf. Video conferencing was so successful that the students have since connected with a number of other venues, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario.

Furthermore, students and faculty participated in the first MegaDEAFConference, a 3-and-a-half hour videoconference that brings together all deaf schools at the same time to view student-designed and student-conducted presentations and activities focused on both academic and cultural issues. This is a project designed to give DEAF students in elementary and secondary schools around the world the opportunity to communicate, collaborate, and contribute (in ASL) to each other's learning in real time, using multi-point videoconferencing technology. This year, the conference grew to 60 schools and more than 2,000 viewers.

Keeping Gifted Students Engaged
As a subset of special needs, gifted students have similar challenges. Del Siegle, associate professor in educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, said gifted students feel as isolated as any other special needs students, especially in rural areas. Siegle, past president and current board member of the National Association for Gifted Children, said videoconferencing with similar-ability students around the country, or even the world, can help them understand that there are other students like themselves. "It not only helps them appreciate their own unique talents better, it also helps them appreciate the talents and gifts of others," he said. "Gifted students can collaborate on projects with each other through video conferencing. Classes of students can interact with each other through activities such as debates on topics that are relevant to the students or book talks about books of common interest."

One of the challenges of meeting the needs of gifted students is quenching their thirst for knowledge on particular subjects. "One common characteristic of gifted students in having a extreme passion for some area or topic," said Siegle. "This might be a general area, such as mathematics, or a specific area, such as lemurs. Gifted students often spend inordinate amounts of time learning about these interest areas. Videoconferencing provides a perfect opportunity for students with passion areas to interact with adults who share their passion. These can be experts on the topic or simply individuals with a similar interest."

Virginia's Commonwealth Governor's School uses videoconferencing in a four-year high school program that accommodates gifted students from King George, Spotsylvania, and Stafford school divisions. The structure of the program is based a school-within-a-school model. Students from participating high schools spend half their day at their home-based school and the other half at one of the five CGS sites.