By Karen Houston
What does meaningful participation in online school look like for your child with a disability these days? Perhaps you have a child that can attend to video calls with their teacher and then complete worksheets and other assignments with your guidance. You may be more like my child, who struggled with participation in a brick and mortar setting with one-on-one assistance and now is expected to complete school online. Maybe your story lies somewhere in between. Wherever you fall along the spectrum of online learning, for kids with a disability, the one thing we parents all do have in common is that we have suddenly become the one and only teacher for our child. My son has ten adults on his IEP team at school. TEN. At home, with my husband working, it is just me; one person. I have become the SLP, OT, behavior specialist, general education teacher and learning specialist, just to name a few. How do I wear all these hats and make sure my child is meaningfully participating in online school alongside his peers? Well, I will tell you my secret.
I simply can’t. I stepped away from my job at FACT Oregon during these unprecedented times to focus on my children and make sure they are safe, fed, healthy and yes, educated. I am lucky to be able to take this time with them. My daughter just logs on to her Google classroom and does her assignments and manages her own time. My son takes every second of every day and everything I’ve got. I had to decide early on how to manage all the video calls and emails and tele-therapies that were coming flying at me from every direction. Everyone wanted to help. Everyone wanted to make sure he wasn’t left behind. My heart swelled with all the thought and care people were pouring into my son and my family, but my head felt like it was going to explode.
So, I read the emails, we attend his online classroom meeting each day and then we just kinda do our own thing. He listens to books and I read to him every day, some days that is 10 minutes total and on a good day an hour. We type on his adapted keyboard when he’s in a good space. I have no idea how to approach math in a meaningful way. We follow a visual schedule, on hard days we follow it loosely. I am not hard on myself about him not meaningfully participating in online school because I am too busy celebrating the other things we are working on that have nothing to do with school.
One example is neighborhood walks. Pre-COVID-19, whenever my son would go out our front door he just wanted to load up into the car and go somewhere. If you tried to go for a walk around the neighborhood he would scream and fall to the ground. When the stay at home orders came through I knew that we’d both need to get out of the house, even just for a walk around the block, if we were going to maintain our sanity. The first two walks were not pretty, but by the third walk he was having fun. We work on him carrying his AAC device, stopping and looking before crossing the street and saying hi to neighbors (from 6 feet away). We are also learning how to do chores, get dressed and brush teeth independently, use and carry his AAC device all day and ride a bike. Our family started an AAC only dinner time where everyone has to use his program on a device to communicate, no talking! So many things we have always just done for him because we were in a rush and had no time. Now all we have is time.
Having a child with significant communication and sensory needs makes online school extremely difficult. However, the stay at home conditions we currently find ourselves in also gives us opportunities we have never had before. We are doing our best to participate in online school in a meaningful way, but I’m much more excited about his meaningful participation in our family.