One of the goals of the TLC blog at the Institute is to share a variety of perspectives on teaching, leading, and caring as we all adapt to new and different circumstances. In recent weeks, Lori Falchi posted about Collaborating with Families of Children with Disabilities and Cecilia Scott-Croff posted Grace in My Journey, a personal reflection about the experience of remote learning for her son who has autism. Today, Katy Hill and Elisa Lundy discuss providing Special Education Itinerant Services (SEIT) for preschool children with disabilities during the pandemic. Katy and Elisa are leaders at the Rivendell School, an inclusive preschool in Brooklyn that also provides itinerant preschool special education services.
Rivendell School Special Education Itinerant Teachers (SEITS) began engaging with their students as soon as guidance was issued from the NY State Education Department in April. They benefited from their already established relationships with children and families, but also faced challenges related to building on those relationships remotely.
Challenges to providing remote SEIT services include time conflicts for children with mandates for multiple services, time conflicts for parents with multiple work and child care responsibilities, attitudes toward ‘screen time,’ the efficacy of screen time for some young children, the challenge of maintaining relationships remotely, the challenge of modifying and developing teaching strategies that can help compensate for the problems remote learning presents and the particular need to re-imagine social emotional goals without the concrete benefit of classroom life and the influence of typically developing peers. In addition, developing remote curriculum components and creating materials in the absence of classroom work and supplies has proven to be a time-consuming responsibility.
Successful remote teaching strategies, as do face to face strategies, vary according the needs and learning styles of the children we serve. For some SEITs, ongoing interaction with classroom teachers who were also operating remotely maintained that sense of partnership that characterized the pre-COVID-19 school year. Planning together and modifying familiar, grounding routines and rhythms of the classroom (for example morning meetings that underscored a sense of togetherness and continued community building) was beneficial for many children. Modifying materials and ensuring that children and families have materials that contribute to and enhance work on IEP goals, continues to be essential. Some SEITs email materials for parents to print out. Some families have ‘homework’ that includes gathering the materials needed for remote lessons. All SEITs invest in time with parents to review IEP goals, plan for lessons that reflect those goals and discuss the efficacy of lessons in order to assess and plan ahead. Weekly meetings for SEITs with their supervisors and peers that offer ongoing opportunities to share problems, as well as helpful advice about how to approach those problems, has been invaluable.
SEIT service mandates range from three to twenty-five hours. Family schedules, student stamina and each child’s ability to establish and maintain meaningful remote relationships have affected the ability to meet mandates fully, although some SEITs and families have been able to partner around meeting large mandates. The collaboration between parents and SEITs has supported our ability to provide more service remotely than originally expected, although the percentage of service delivery has predictably decreased. Administratively, the fee for service reimbursement system for SEIT services, which does not cover actual program costs, has long been a financial challenge for us and the need to work remotely has certainly added to that challenge.
Despite these issues, there have been many positive outcomes since the transition to remote service. Although our experience underscores the fact that the needs of some children cannot be met through remote instruction, most children look forward to the time with their SEIT and have demonstrated that they can learn and progress via remote instruction. Interestingly, for some children, the absence of sensory distractions and social challenges typically found in classroom environments have promoted attention and engagement. Planning ahead for the re-introduction to the classroom where those challenges will be waiting will be critical for these and indeed all students. The need to partner with parents more intimately has certainly broadened our perspectives on what deeper home-school relationships can look like and what our students’ learning styles look like across environments. Although not without its significant drawbacks, the transition to remote teaching has offered us the opportunity to rise to the challenge, to be flexible in our thinking about children and the way we teach, to forge deeper partnerships with parents, to honor parents’ (and our) frustration, disappointment or fear, when, despite every effort, remote learning is not meaningful or productive for their children and to appreciate and honor the power of face to face interaction. These lessons learned will surely influence our work moving forward.
Katy Hill and Elisa Lundy are the Directors of Rivendell School in Brooklyn, NY.