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By Danielle McKinney, B.Ed
Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #8: Back to School, Back to Life). Click here to download the full magazine.
Making the switch to online learning for students with Down syndrome was daunting! Where should we start? What new tech do we have to learn about? How do we prepare?
As therapists and teachers, we all had a collection of go-to lessons and no-fail games and activities that we could pull from at a moment’s notice. Visual supports were printed, laminated and Velcro-ed. We could control the environment to reduce distractions. We knew how our students learned best in the clinic setting. And then, suddenly, we were faced with SO MANY unknowns.
What we did know was that the principles we believe essential for optimal learner engagement would hold true, even in an online setting. Things were going to look different, and we would have to make some changes, but following those guiding principles was a start!
An Individualized Approach
For students with Down syndrome, focussed and individualized planning is essential. We worried that teleservice would not work for all our students. What we learned was that we COULD support our students via teleservice, but what that looked like would differ from student to student.
We found that some students thrived in a direct instruction model. They were engaged, excited, and learning! Other students benefitted from a more indirect service delivery model. We continued to have weekly sessions, but instead of leading much of the session, we supported families in carrying out learning and therapy activities with their child. Still other families opted for a consultative approach. Based on what they told us, we made suggestions and provided materials for them to use with their child, and followed up with routine check-ins to answer questions, problem-solve and provide direction. The way we deliver services to meet the needs of all our students is one thing we will bring back to in-person teaching and therapy.
Setting Up for Success
The way we set up the learning environment and activities affects engagement. Providing structure and routines can take away some of the barriers to learning that students may experience and set them up for success.
Teaching online convinced us that if it was possible to manage two environments - the student’s space at home and the virtual learning space created over Zoom - it was definitely something we could be sure to do when we got back to in-person learning. In the virtual learning space, consideration of how many things the student needed to attend to was key. It was often tempting to use all the fun, motivating features that this new form of teaching provided; however, the student already had to get used to this new mode of delivery, learning in a different environment, and being supported by a parent or caregiver. So, it was beneficial to introduce one or two new things each session, and re-use activities with which the student was already familiar. It was also beneficial to use familiar materials with multiple uses, so that there was only one change to learn for each activity.
As for the content of the lesson, targeting or focusing on one piece of information at a time was also beneficial. Considering the demands of the task is just as important for in-person learning, and having this highlighted through our experiences with teleservice served as a good reminder.
As with other things, communication looked different. How information was presented during teleservice sessions could be a challenge. This can also be true during in-person lessons, though often not as obvious. Visuals were much more in the hands of the teacher, with the need for screen sharing and multiple files to be open, meaning they were not always accessible to the student. This was a good reminder that, even in-person, we need to be aware of where we place our visuals, what size visuals we use, and what symbols or pictures we put on those visuals so that they are accessible to the student.
Sound quality and positioning could be problematic over Zoom. The need to use short, direct instructions, be animated, enhance non-verbal cues, speak slowly, and emphasize key words was even more important in this environment. For our AAC users, having greenscreen backgrounds of their AAC system for modeling and making sure their device volume was loud enough for us to hear were key considerations.
Providing appropriate ways to respond is always important, and teleservice meant that we had to get creative with this. Without careful planning, we were left with verbal communication as the default; the ability to provide physical prompts or allow students to respond by pointing or picking up objects was taken away. Having caregivers support or asking a yes or no question to confirm their response when we could not see what they were pointing to on the screen was useful. Using distinguishing features like colours, numbers or highlighting pictures as part of the activity provided a way for students to respond when they couldn’t point or verbalize their response accurately. We were reminded that, in any setting, we must make interactions as easy to access and engage in as possible.
For any student – and especially for students with Down syndrome – motivation is key. Motivation is influenced by many things, but a few of the factors we have seen at play include providing the student with choice, predictability, confidence, purpose, enjoyment, and social interactions.
Giving students choice allows them to be in control of some part of the experience. This was more difficult online, because activities often required materials to be sent ahead of time or prepped by the caregiver. Finding ways to provide choice in online sessions reinforced the notion that providing even small choices can be very powerful. Choice of which colour marker was used to annotate on screen, the order in which we did the activities, or what activity the student would like for a break were some of the go-to ways that small choices were offered throughout the session.
Nothing was predictable when teleservice began, but we could incorporate aspects of the in-person sessions with which they were familiar to help them make the transition. As with any unfamiliar situation, visuals were a helpful support in online sessions. A visual schedule presented at the beginning of the session let the student know what to expect and offered a chance for us to provide them with choices.
This also increased their confidence. They knew they had seen these activities before and how to perform them, so they could be successful.
While the purpose of the learning activity was one factor that did not change from in-person to online, the activities may have looked a little different, so it was often necessary to thoroughly explain what to expect within this new context.
Finally, teleservice re-affirmed the importance of enjoyment in learning. Passively staring at a screen was difficult and it was often possible to watch the student’s attention fade before our eyes! Surprises, attention getters, and brain breaks were even more necessary with teleservice. The need for new learning materials, strategies, and delivery methods brought out the creativity in all of us, and the response from our students inspired us to continue to think outside the box, switch things up, and make learning activities fresh and fun. We were reminded that enthusiasm is contagious!
The online learning environment created opportunities for social interactions that were not always present in the clinic setting. Parents, siblings and even pets joined in on sessions, allowing for more varied communication and encouraging us to include other participants in our in-person sessions more often.
Some things were much easier to do online! Images, GIFs, and videos are great tools for learning new vocabulary and enhancing comprehension, so they are sure to make more frequent appearances in our in-person sessions going forward. Incorporating interests was so easy to do ‘big’ online. Green screen backgrounds, PowerPoints with favourite characters and online games had such an impact in many learning activities, and made choosing a preferred activity for a break or end of session reward so simple. Customizing learning materials for each student by changing the colours, themes or characters used was also easier. Observing the success of using these strategies reinforced the value in using them in-person, even if it was a little harder!
The unfamiliar territory that was teleservice meant that as much as we tried to establish the perfect conditions for learning, we also had to be prepared to pivot. Having readily available back-up activities allowed us to follow the student’s lead, to switch things up when necessary, and to realize and adjust when our plans were not being executed, well, as planned! This is as important in-person as it was online. It is sometimes easier to try to convince the student to continue with the plan when we are in-person, but I think it is wise to take guidance from our experience this past year and recognize that what we had planned may not be the best plan for the moment.
A Team Effort
Another unexpected bonus of this year of teleservice was that we got to see our students’ support teams in action! The benefits that come from working with a collaborative team were highlighted as we got the opportunity to work more closely with teachers, education assistants and parents. As we move away from teleservice for the majority of our students, we will continue to connect through occasional Zoom sessions with school teams, using recorded sessions or activities as examples and providing coaching to team members and families.
One final and important take away from this experience is a reminder that we are all learners. We were reminded that it can be uncomfortable to be in a place of uncertainty, as was felt at the start of this endeavour. But lessons were learned, opportunities arose, skills developed, and we all came out on the other side better for being a part of it.