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10 Ways to Increase Participation for Students With Complex Support Needs During Virtual Learning

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of educators and learners across the United States and the world. But students with significant support needs and their families have taken a substantial hit to their learning and well-being.

Even though we are well into the 2019-2020 school year, educators are grasping for information on how to teach students who have complex needs. And for those students who are included in general education classrooms, the aspect of how to provide services through the lens of inclusive education has become a weighty task.

This is exactly why Amy Hanreddy (California State University Northridge) and some of her colleagues produced the webinar “Strategic Participation in Online Class Meetings for Students with Significant Support Needs.”

Students with significant support needs benefit from general education, and inclusive practices are still essential even during distance learning. They are most at risk of being excluded from general education settings and activities, so the concern is that exclusion may become more likely during this time of virtual learning.

In the video, Hanreddy and her co-presenters share 10 ways to increase the participation of students with complex needs during virtual learning.

1) Take Attendance

Adie Buchinsky (CHIME Charter School) explains what it might look like for a student with complex needs to take attendance and how it could align with the skills they are working on in their IEP. For instance, by using a hard copy laminated document with photos of classmates and their names, the students could work on the social skills of learning the names of the other students in their class.

2) Choosing “Brain Breaks”

Another example Buchinsky offers is for the target student to choose the “brain break” activity for the class using a picture card or selecting from several choices on a communication board. This activity could further reinforce the learning of a math goal like one-to-one correspondence or social skills goals like choosing a friend to read the break choice.

3) Priming for Participation

Buchinsky reminds us that “priming for participation” is a strategy that not only works when we are in face-to-face instruction but also during online learning. Preparing a student that you are going to call on provides them with a warning of what comes next. This makes it more likely that the student will be successful with their participation in the activity or content.

4) Embed Repeated Sentences or Big Ideas

Also included in the video, Samantha Toews (California State University Northridge) shares some curricular strategies to embed participation and learning of content within whole and small group meetings during online learning. For instance, Toews gives the example of using one big idea or a repeated sentence that summarizes an essential part of the curriculum or standard that is included in the presentation materials.

Slide Reads: Curricular Strategy: Embedding Repeated Sentence and/or Repeated Big Idea; What it looks like: introducing/summarizing the big idea, including summary sentence on multiple presentation slides or instructional materials to increase exposure/practice; Possible skills to target: identification of the main idea, repetitive reading practice, confidence reading/reading to a group; images include textbooks with repeated sentences, image of Samantha Toews

By using the curricular strategy of embedding a repeated sentence or big idea, students can easily know what is the essential part of the lesson, which helps support students with complex needs

5) Highlight and Bold Content

Toews explains another way to increase participation is by highlighting specific words or letter sounds that you want a student to read while you are engaged in a group activity. For instance, during a small group, the student may only read the highlighted words in yellow, or may only read the beginning, middle, or end letter sounds that are bolded. Plus, this doesn’t only have to be used in language arts, but can be used for math as well. The student can read the numbers of the equations, or even a students knowing what problem they need to complete on their own.

6) Whole Group Image Supports

Another way to increase participation is to provide whole group image supports, which Toews describes as a low time commitment with a high potential use strategy. This entails looking at the content for the day and creating a timeline of what is happening in that content with pictures. This can be used as whole group comprehension support, small group discussion activities, for projects or summarization, sequencing, or response options.

7) Reading a Question or Problem

Buchinsky suggests that having a student read a question or problem aloud to the class is a good way to increase participation. Students may find it too challenging to solve or answer a problem, but they can be the one who presents it to the class. Possible skills that this strategy might target are reading goals, language or articulation skills, and identifying numbers. Using this strategy, the student is participating in a meaningful way while also working on their IEP goals and objectives.

Slide Reads: Reading Question or Problem; What is looks like: student introduces the math problem, editing sentence, core concept in science, etc. by reading the material presented to the whole class by the teacher; Possible skills to target: reading goals, language/articulation skills, identifying numbers; images include examples of what a teacher can say to prompt a student to participate; image of Adie Buchinsky

Having a student read a problem or question is another great way to increase participation during digital learning.

8) Check-Off Schedule or Task Analysis

Much like the first suggestion of taking attendance, Buchinsky offers the idea of having the student check-off the schedule for the class or activity. This might be something the teacher provides to the student and caregiver before the lesson so that it is ready to use during digital learning. Possible skills that this strategy helps to address may be number identification, handwriting, reading skills, and sequential language.

9) Class Token Economy

Many classrooms use token economies to encourage participation and learning. Buchinsky suggests getting the student involved in the administration of the token economy as a way to increase their participation in digital learning. As the classroom staff is assigning points or dollars to groups or the whole class, the student with complex needs is keeping track. Addition, number writing, reading numbers, and fine motor skills are all areas that this strategy would target.

10) Digital Choice Board

Finally, Hanreddy makes the recommendation of using digital choice boards to increase participation for students with complex needs. There are so many resources that already exist to choose from, Hanreddy explains, that there is no need to “reinvent the wheel.” A digital choice board can be a slide (Google or PowerPoint) with various images or shapes, and when the student touches or clicks something on the board, then it links to something new (another web page or another slide). The board can also be used as visual communication supports for students who require support with language.

Slide Reads: Digital Choice Boards; What is looks like: students are provided with visual representation of choices. In Google slides, each choice links to a new slide with direction or next steps, choices can determine content for class ("should we use pizza, cookies, or cakes for our fraction example?", choices can be provided to all students as options for how to demonstrate knowledge (e.g. make a poster, write a paragraph, record a video, etc.).; Possible skills to target: communication and literacy (making a clear choice, participating at the right time), vocabulary (meaning represented by choices offered), comprehension (content-specific choice responses), self-determination (selecting how to complete an assignment); images include examples of digital choice board; image of Amy Hanreddy

Digital choice boards are an excellent way to increase participation for students with complex support needs.


Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.

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