E-learning recommendations for teaching students with disabilities

COVID-19 disrupted educational systems around the world in attempts to contain the spread of the pandemic, countries announced widespread school closures (Van Lancker & Parolin, 2020). Educators, especially special education teachers, have struggled to offer distance learning and adapt to the unique challenges the pandemic posed. Teachers faced aggressive multifaceted challenges (Cross & Polk, 2018) to identify e-learning structures and strategies to address the needs of students with disabilities (SWD) and help them be successful in the online classroom.

The following framework and tips can help educators approach online teaching with more confidence to meet the needs of their students with individualized education plans (IEP).

Consider a mindset shift.

E-learning should be viewed as an opportunity for individualized learning and to meet IEP goals. Students with disabilities can find increased opportunity, flexibility and convenience through online learning (Wicks, 2010). E-learning can give students the ability to participate in their own learning when it is convenient for them to do so and at their own pace (Stone & Perumean Chaney, 2011).

The transition from in-person to e-learning was, undeniably, challenging. However, to be successful online, special education teachers — and their counterparts in career and technical education (CTE) — must recognize its benefits.

Recognize the four pillars of the online classroom.

Inspired by the national standards for quality online programs (Pape & Wicks, 2009) — and as a former special education teacher and current professor teaching fully online due to the pandemic — an awareness of these
four pillars seemed vital to teach SWD in an e-learning environment.

  • Organization: While there are many different ways to organize an online class, once a strategy is chosen, remain as consistent as possible. Consistency can provide seamless access to posted
    material and help students complete the assigned work.
  • Content: Design content based on desired learning outcomes, and think through
    what parts are critical to support student IEP goals and what parts are less critical. The content should provide sufficient information, explanation and demonstration, in both written and visual form, for students to reach the learning outcomes.
  • Communication: Online communication can be challenging for students with disabilities. It differs from in-person encounters because it often lacks non.verbal cues, such as facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. It is therefore important to establish proper communication channels from the outset.
  • Interaction: Interaction plays an extensive role in online teaching. Increasing the on-line teacher-student interaction can help students, especially those with special needs, learn faster and more efficiently.

Accommodate within each pillar of the online classroom.

Providing accommodations within each pillar of the online classroom is a favorable means to attain students’ IEP goals and keep them involved in the e-learning process.


  1. Make sure materials are easy to find. Post assignments and documents in the same folder, for example. Devise a system for naming documents; place the overview description or video on one page and then readings and resources on a subsequent page — consistently.
  2. Provide a calendar with due dates.
  3. Maximize the use of the student’s cell phone. Students have access to a variety of apps and platforms on their phones. Allowing students to adapt assignments, as long as they produce quality work that meets the learning outcome, prioritizes skill development while they also learn to be digitally responsible. Students might produce a video, make slides, use the calculator, record voice memos, set reminders, use the calendar, collaborate on an assignment or chat with peers.
  4. Provide visual schedules to help fami.lies organize the learning day.
  5. Offer suggestions for movement breaks.
  6. Repeat, review and summarize concepts for clarity. Summarizing is of extreme importance, especially for students with disabilities. Teachers should always lead a summary review before ending the session. Use summary concept maps, exit tickets, Q&A or any other tool to ensure students comprehend the material.


  1. Find and/or create content that is creative, interactive and engaging.
  2. Develop content based on existing reading, writing and math skills. Many SWD struggle with e-learning due to its demands for proficiency in reading and writing. Effective e-learning will identify and build upon students’ foundational knowledge and skills.
  3. Ask students to summarize what work was completed and what is expected for the next day.
  4. Scaffold content delivery, using the three phases of direct instruction: I do. We do. You do.
  5. Chunk your instruction.
  6. Select videos that provide closed captioning.


  1. Clearly outline expected behavior on-line. The online classroom is, in fact, a classroom. Certain behaviors are expected when communicating with peers and teachers.
  2. Share information for school-based tech.nical support systems. Students and their parents need to know who to contact and how to address technology concerns, what to do in case they missed a session, or in case they forgot their password.
  3. Send weekly announcements, including reminders about quizzes and due dates.
  4. Clearly state the time commitment for activities and assignments. This is of particular importance for SWD who might struggle with time management.
  5. Offer choice menus for working toward goals. Allow students to show what they know through a variety of formats, such as a poster presentation or a graphic organizer. Allow them to record their thoughts instead of writing them. Provide options for engaging with texts, such as text-to-speech or audiobooks. Universal Design for Learning principles suggest providing multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation and multiple means of action and expression.
  6. Communicate online availability and include clear contact information.


  1. Interact with students. Students want to interact with their teachers.
  2. Offer regular feedback.
  3. Consider dedicating class time for check-in stories. In times of physical distancing and remote education, students need to feel connected to a supportive communi.ty. Invite students to reflect and to share their experiences if they wish.
  4. Create short videos to enhance lessons and engage students.
  5. Provide regular opportunities for students to ask questions, share compliments or concerns, or give a suggestion. Listening will help teachers adjust their online lessons based on students’ needs.
  6. Help students connect with each other when possible by creating forum discussions and chat groups.


COVID-19 turned our world upside down. The transition to e-learning happened so fast, special education teachers did not have enough time to process and prepare them.selves and their students for the challenges of this new format. The proposed framework and tips provide a practical reference for teachers to be more successful in meeting the needs of their students with IEPs.

The full text of this article appears in Techniques’ February 2021 print issue.

Rasha ElSaheli-Elhage, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in educational evaluation and research from Wayne State University and a master’s in special education from Eastern Michigan University. She was a special education teacher for more than 16 years. ElSaheli-Elhage also worked as a consultant on school reform and international assessment for private and public schools and ministries in the Middle East. Recently, she has developed an interest in online teaching and learning, especially after the unprecedented switch to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Email her.