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

Updated: Jun 25

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.