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Teaching High School Students with Learning Disabilities Online

Whether you are a parent homeschooling your teenagers or a teacher who has transitioned to online learning, this guide helps you develop the best learning environment for high school students with a variety of learning disabilities.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, many teachers have made the switch to remote teaching and many parents have begun homeschooling their kids for the first time. While this has been a positive change for some, it also comes with significant challenges for students, teachers, and parents alike.

These challenges can be more pronounced for those working with students with learning disabilities, as mitigating the impacts of a disability in an online schooling environment can be a very different process from what educators are used to. This guide is designed to provide assistance to high school teachers and parents who are managing their child's online education from home, and it focuses on how to help high school students with learning disabilities thrive and learn in an online environment.

Some parents and teachers may also be looking for resources to help their students in their college career. Please reference this college and career guide for students with disabilities and guide to online college for students with learning disabilities for more information.

Types of Learning Disabilities

There are several kinds of learning disabilities that can impact students' performance in schools, such as:

  • Writing and language disorders
  • Speech disorders
  • Mathematical disorders
  • Social learning disorders
  • Attention disorders

The following is a brief explanation of the various kinds of learning disabilities that are likely to impact high school students. Getting through a school curriculum while managing learning disabilities can be challenging and may mean that students need extra support from teachers and parents, especially when school transitions to an online environment.


Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects the areas of the brain that process language. It causes difficulties in reading, associating speech sounds with written sounds, and decoding texts. It is very common, potentially affecting up to 20% of school-aged children and teenagers.


Students with dyslexia in high school may:

  • Read below their grade level
  • Struggle to notice differences between words
  • Struggle with spelling and grammar
  • Dislike or avoid reading-based tasks
  • Frequently mispronounce or misread words

Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a mathematics-based learning disability that results in significant struggles with mathematical learning. While many students struggle with mathematics as a subject, dyscalculia is a more pronounced. It is likely that high school students with dyscalculia will have struggled with mathematics throughout their lives and might be well aware of their difficulties. Dyscalculia may impact between 5-10% and ten percent of all people.


Symptoms of dyscalculia in high school students include:

  • Anxiety around mathematics lessons and tasks
  • Trouble with number-based activities like reading clocks
  • Trouble retaining mathematical concepts
  • Difficulties in learning new mathematics or building on prior knowledge
  • Significant and persistent frustration with mathematical tasks

Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is a learning disability in which students struggle with writing, resulting in disordered and unusual handwriting. To some extent, dysgraphia may be caused by motor control issues, but it is also a processing disorder. Students with dysgraphia tend to struggle with translating thought or sound into writing. They may have trouble with spelling and, at the high school level, may have learned to avoid written tasks whenever possible. Between 5 and 20%of students may have dysgraphia.


Students with dysgraphia may have:

  • Slow writing
  • Very messy or unusual handwriting
  • Anxiety around test-taking or timed essay writing
  • Unusually poor spelling

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

Unlike the other disabilities on this list, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) does not recognize non-verbal learning disabilities (NVLD) as specific disabilities. However, a growing number of medical professionals have begun discussing this disorder in detail. Students with NVLD tend to have normal or above-average verbal learning skills but struggle with non-verbal communication. They may have difficulties reading facial expressions or tone and may struggle socially as a result.


In a school environment, NVLD may manifest in the following ways:

  • Inappropriate responses to non-verbal cues
  • Unusual interpretations of events and instructions
  • Trouble with making and maintaining friendships
  • Trouble understanding spatial relationships

Oral/Written Language Disorder

Oral/Written Language Disorder is sometimes also called Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit. This disorder affects students' understanding of both spoken and written language. Unlike dyslexia, it does not involve difficulty decoding words, but it does involve difficulty in grasping their meaning and their place in a sentence.


Students with oral/written language disorder could show the following symptoms:

  • Semantic processing problems, or difficulties understanding the meaning of a sentence
  • Syntactic processing problems, or difficulties understanding the relationships between words
  • Trouble explaining the steps of a process
  • Trouble understanding and following verbal or written instructions

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a learning disability and neuroatypical presentation that can have a wide variety of symptoms. While not all of these symptoms directly impact learning ability, ADHD nearly always requires support in a classroom setting. Around 8% of students are thought to have ADHD, but this may be a low estimate (ADHD is under-diagnosed in girls and women).


Students with ADHD may show:

  • Significant difficulties focusing on a task
  • Careless mistakes on school work
  • Trouble completing assignments on time
  • Poor time management and organizational skills
  • Trouble sitting still
  • Excessive talking
  • High distractibility (may appear to be daydreaming)

School Accommodations: Tips for Teachers

Teaching students online, especially for the first time, is a major shift for a lot of teachers. Tasks that were easy to accomplish in a classroom setting suddenly become overwhelming and trying to get students to focus is much more difficult than before. What's more, it may be challenging for you to provide the individual support and understanding that you were previously able to provide for students with learning disabilities. Students who needed support before probably need extra support now.

While online schooling is likely to have pitfalls that cannot be fully guarded against, there are things that you can do when teaching students with learning disabilities online that can make the process easier and more fruitful for you and your students.

Individual Education Plans

The first thing to consider is whether any current students were receiving accommodations prior to moving to online learning. If so, it is important for you to try and find ways to recreate those accommodations in an online environment to whatever extent possible. As you may know, an individual education plan, or IEP, is a document used to establish and maintain the specific educational accommodations for individual students.

If a student with a learning disability already has an IEP, you may want to discuss updating it for online learning. Consider scheduling a meeting to discuss potential changes to the document that can benefit the student and ensure consistency in educational practices across a variety of subjects.

If a student does not yet have an IEP but you think they would benefit from one, or if a parent or student has requested an IEP, make sure to cover the following areas in the plan:


  • Areas of difficulty like reading, spelling, and mathematics

  • Areas where students are thriving or might need an extra challenge

  • Social skills, motor skills, and other non-academic areas that may affect learning

  • Specific plans for adapting a student's education to an online environment

  • Guarantees for things like extensions and other accommodations

  • Clear communication about the roles of teachers, students, and parents


Once an IEP has been created and all parties agree to its terms, students can receive more individualized support in schools without as much guesswork on everyone's parts. Be aware that students who need IEPs may not have been formally diagnosed with a learning disability but may be displaying symptoms of one. IEPs are living documents that can and should be adjusted according to a student's needs and progress.

Extensions

Some students will need extra time to complete assignments, especially if they have a learning disability that impacts one or more school subjects. If a student seems to be struggling to complete work on time, it may be a good idea for you to provide optional extensions for assignments. Students who ask for extensions in a particular subject are likely struggling with their workload, with online schooling, with a learning disability, or a combination of all three.

The important thing is that students are able to learn and complete their work; completing it in a longer time frame may result in better work being produced and better understanding.

Students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia may benefit from having additional time to complete things like:

  • Timed tests and essays meant to be completed in an online setting
  • Assignments given during online class time
  • Homework to be done outside of class time

Communicate with students and parents about an individual's needs and try to be flexible about extensions when they are needed.

Note-Taking and More

Many learning disabilities can make effective note-taking challenging, if not downright impossible. This is especially true for students with learning disabilities that impact their language processing abilities. There are a few things that can be especially helpful for these students to make sure that they still have access to good notes that allow them to understand the material and review it while at home.

Consider the following:

Typing Notes: In a classroom environment, students generally do not have access to computers that they can use to type up notes during class. This can make writing notes challenging for students with dysgraphia. However, one of the advantages of online learning is that students are working at a computer. Make sure that your students, especially those with learning disabilities, know that they have permission to take notes on their computers instead of writing them out by hand. For some students, typing will result in more readable and more comprehensive notes at the end of the day.

Providing Notes: As a teacher, you have probably written up your lessons in a format similar to notes that students might take. You may want to consider providing your students with copies of your own notes (adapted for their needs) that let them see the contents of a lesson in a digital format. Students who struggle to take their own notes will have accurate and succinct information from which to study, and students who find that they have made mistakes in their own notes or who missed parts of a lesson (perhaps due to distractibility) will be able to better fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Student Note-Takers: Do you have any students who are excelling in a particular subject or who you know to be particularly organized? You may want to consider asking those students whether they would be willing to share their notes with others. Student note-takers are common in college and university settings where students are often able to earn money or extra credit for providing detailed and clear notes to classmates with disabilities. While financial compensation is not applicable in a high school classroom, extra credit could be. This can be a good way to reward students who are doing well while also helping students who are struggling.

Tutoring: Students with learning disabilities often need extra explanations of particular concepts or extra time to practice new skills. Tutoring can be a good way to give students the help that they need in a structured environment. If you think that a particular student might benefit from tutoring, consider recommending this to them and their parents. You may be able to liaise directly with tutors or have conversations with parents and tutors to specify exactly what a student's needs are and how best to assist them. Many tutoring organizations are currently providing their services online and it is often possible to find tutors who specialize in working with students with particular learning disabilities. Some tutoring services also provide a kind of supervisory kind of tutoring that gives students specialized support with homework or completing assignments rather than teaching new material.

Teacher Communication: The teacher-student relationship tends to be more successful when there is a clear and open line of communication. Understanding any extra limitations that students may be dealing with (in addition to learning disabilities) like a noisy work environment at home or a patchy internet connection can help you work out plans of action and can mitigate frustration on all sides.

You may also want to consider communicating with current and former teachers of your students with learning disabilities. They may have helpful strategies for assisting students or may have found methods that clicked for individual learners.

Assistive Technologies for Online Learning

One of the major advantages of online learning is that it is in many ways easier for students to make use of assistive devices and technologies. Living with a learning disability does not have to mean that school is a nightmare; there are ways that students can adapt their learning environment to suit their needs. There are a number of technologies available that you can make use of while teaching online or recommend to your students.

Of course, as teachers, there may be times when some assistive technologies are not appropriate for use in all school environments. However, most of the technologies listed here can be used as needed by students who are dealing with learning disabilities, whether they have been formally diagnosed or not. Make sure your students understand when the use of technologies is acceptable and when it might compromise their academic integrity


Text to Speech Technology

Text to speech technology, also called TTS, is a kind of technology that will read text out loud. Students with dyslexia or oral/written language disorder who find it difficult to parse written text might benefit from having text read out loud to them. If you are giving an assignment that has a lot of written instructions that some students might find confusing, TTS can make it easier for them to parse what exactly they need to know. There are many kinds of TTS software out there, some of which are already embedded in many personal computers and devices. Some TTS technology is free while others cost money.


Here are just a few of the options out there:

  • NaturalReader offers free and paid versions of TTS software. It highlights text as the text is read out loud and is specifically designed for students and dyslexic readers.
  • iSpeech also has free and paid services that can turn text into various different audio formats. It can also be embedded into the Chrome browser to let users employ text-to-speech in a variety of online formats.
  • Audiobook Maker is a completely free TTS software that has adjustable speech parameters and several languages included.

Proofreading Software

Learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD can make editing writing, especially things like informative essays, particularly challenging. However, when students can hand in writing that has minimal errors, that can make your job of providing feedback much easier.


Some options include:

  • Grammarly is a writing assistant that has a free version and a premium subscription. It can provide corrections in real-time to writing and can be added to Chrome as a plugin.
  • Ginger is a proofreading software that also includes a text-to-speech function, allowing students to hear their writing out loud. There is a free version and a paid version.
  • OnlineCorrection is free software that provides help with spelling and grammar. It is easy to use and gives clear advice, even marking up text with different colors for ease of understanding.

Mathematics Simulations

Dyscalculia can make understanding new mathematical concepts very challenging. If you have a student with a learning disability who you see is struggling in this way, there are several ways that technology can help combat this. First, there are pieces of software that help students visualize what they are doing when they do math, including aiding them with concepts like graphs, equations, and mathematical operations.


Finally, there are engaging math games that can help solidify math lessons in students' minds. Here are just a few examples:

  • Geometry Pad is a free application that allows students to draw and visualize geometry problems in a digital format. The app can make it a lot easier for students to draw out and understand what they are doing in a given problem with the help of visuals.
  • Maple has student-specific software designed to help students at any level understand mathematics concepts with clear instruction and interactive problems. There is a free trial version of the software, but the full version is paid.
  • Mental Math Practice lets students practice solving math problems in their heads. Improving and practicing mental math skills is one of the best ways of managing the effects of dyscalculia. The app is free and is available for Apple and Android.

Social Skills Help

Students with NVLD and ADHD may struggle to read social cues and function in social environments. Working in an online environment where non-verbal cues are less obvious can make this even more challenging.


These apps can help students learn emotional resilience, social skills, and more:

  • SuperBetter is an app that can be played as a game but actually helps improve emotional resilience and mental wellbeing. It also has the potential to be played with others as a social activity.
  • SmilingMind promotes mindfulness and has specific resources for teenagers. Students whose learning disabilities and online schooling have caused social or emotional difficulties may benefit from this software.
  • ConversationBuilder Teen is an app that is great for students who have difficulties understanding and responding to social cues. It lets teenagers practice social conversations and get a better grasp of their own communication styles.

Productivity Software

Students with ADHD and other learning disabilities are likely to experience some difficulties when trying to remain productive and complete tasks. Overcoming this kind of executive dysfunction is a challenge that cannot be wholly rectified with the use of assistive technology. However, technology can certainly make a difference.


Here are some options for productivity software that you can recommend to your students:

  • ADHD Tracker is an app that helps students and their parents track ADHD symptoms to create efficient treatment plans for ADHD. This is best for those who have already received formal diagnoses.
  • Due allows users to easily keep track of every task they need to complete. The app will continue reminding users of tasks until those tasks are completed, making it difficult to forget things.
  • Forest is an app that lets users plant a tree at the beginning of a study session. If users check their phone before the session is up, the tree dies. Continuing to work means that the tree continues to grow. The app also plants real trees based on user engagement.

Dictation Software

Dictation software can be good for students with dysgraphia, oral/written language disorder, and ADHD. This kind of software allows students to turn their speech into text without having to type it out. You should remind your students, however, that dictation software is not appropriate for writing essays. It can be great for taking notes, creating reminders, and writing informal assignments.


Here are some kinds of dictation software that might be helpful:

  • Dragon Dictation lets users dictate emails, notes, and more. Students who struggle with writing or who need to take notes quickly before getting distracted might benefit from this app.
  • Microsoft Learning Tools has text-to-speech, dictation, proofreading, and more. It is free for Windows users and can make a big difference to students with language disabilities.
  • Premier Reader Chrome Toolbar also includes text-to-speech and dictation software. It is compatible with Chrome browsers and can be used in a variety of different contexts.

Learning from Home: Tips for Parents

If you are a parent of a child with a learning disability, you might have learned that online schooling poses a significant challenge and an unusually unfriendly learning environment for your child. You might also be coping for the first time with the daily challenges of helping your child through their school work, looking for a way to do this efficiently and relatively painlessly. Fortunately, there are many things that you can do to create a more positive environment for your high schooler.

Below are some helpful tips for how you can help your child thrive while learning online from home.

Scheduling

Almost all high school students hate waking up early for school and usually tire out by the late afternoon. When a learning disability is a factor, the typical high school schedule might exacerbate symptoms or act as a roadblock to getting school work done. But there are ways that you can manage your high schooler's schedule that includes maximizing the times when they are at their best, working around your own schedule, and also allowing for breaks.

Here are some other scheduling tips that you might want to implement:

Consistency Is Key: No matter whether schooling is online or in-person, many students are likely to do best if a daily schedule is maintained, even if that schedule does not look like a typical school day. This is especially true for kids who need to build in extra time for work on subjects that they struggle with. For example, a student with a writing disorder like dysgraphia might need dedicated time each day to work on written assignments.

Choose Your Productivity Times: Work with your teenagers to understand what hours are the most productive for them and what their ideal school schedules would look like. Some kids might prefer to begin the day with an academically easy course while they are still waking up, while others might want to buckle down and get the hardest things over with first. For kids who know that they are going to struggle with one or more subjects due to a learning disability, having some say in when those subjects are going to come is helpful.

Break Time: Build in short breaks throughout the day if that works best for your teenagers and create blocks of time for focusing in a structured environment. Teenagers with ADHD, in particular, may benefit from breaks throughout the day that can help them maximize focus.

Emphasize Outdoor Time: Staying in the house all day can make teenagers' academic abilities and psychological state decline, especially if a learning disability is already making school a challenge. Consider setting aside time for walks, sports, and other outdoor activities. Some kids may even want to spend time learning outside or reviewing notes while going for a walk around the neighborhood.

Homework and Help Time: Create specific times when your teenagers can complete homework and ideally ask you for help. Those who are struggling with a particular subject due to a learning disability are likely to need extra time to complete assignments in that subject.

Sensory Environment

Learning from home feels, smells, sounds, and looks different from sitting in a classroom all day. Creating a sensory environment that best suits your child's needs can be a huge help. Students with learning disabilities, particularly ADHD or NVLD, may benefit from a familiar environment in which they know how to function rather than an environment where they feel they need to learn a new set of rules. Of course, creating the perfect environment is a challenge for many families, especially if space in your household is in short supply or multiple people are at home during the day.

Here are a few things you can do to create a learning environment conducive to learning:

Working Outside of the Bedroom: Creating a workspace that is separate from a sleeping space can make a big difference psychologically to your child's ability to focus on school during specific hours of the day. If working in a different room is not possible, creating a desk space is a good alternative. Your child should not complete work from bed.

Sensory Sensitivities: Many children and teenagers with learning disabilities, especially ADHD, may have specific sensory processing problems that can make ordinary-seeming stimuli particularly difficult to deal with. Whenever possible, your child should be able to wear comfortable clothing, sit in a chair that does not cause muscle pain, and work with materials that are conducive to a good sensory experience. If they need to wear headphones, they may need specific kinds of headphones that are comfortable for long-term wear and may need access to noise cancellation or other technologies when possible.

Classrooms: For some teenagers, mimicking the environment of a classroom may be helpful. This could include making a corner of a room into a miniature classroom with appropriate decorations, digital backgrounds, and more. Those who find the switch to at-home learning jarring or anxiety-inducing may benefit from an environment that feels more familiar.

Managing Focus

Focusing during online school can be different and more challenging than focusing in a classroom. This is particularly true of teenagers who have learning disabilities that impact their ability to concentrate on a single task or for kids who need to concentrate extra on subjects that they struggle with.

Here are a few options for managing focus:

A Clean Slate: Your child might work better when distractions are minimized. Focusing on online classes can be challenging enough without extra sounds, sights, and leisure activities entering a student's workspace. Making sure kids have a quiet place to work and the ability to clear away distractions is a good way to help maintain focus, especially for those who are already struggling with school.

Food: You already know that your teenager needs a lot of food to function. Not only do they need to fuel their growth spurts, but they must fuel cognitive changes that are energy-intensive. You should make sure that your high schooler has plenty of good, healthy snacks available throughout the day. Have a set breakfast and lunchtime can also provide a sense of stability. Trying to work while hungry, especially on a subject that kids struggle with because of a learning disability, is likely to be counterproductive.

Fidgeting: It is widely known that students with ADHD struggle to focus on tasks. One thing that can be very helpful to these kids is having the ability to fidget. While this may seem counterintuitive to some parents, giving your child access to simple things like fidget spinners or scrap paper to draw on can actually improve focus.

Music: As with fidgeting during class, some teenagers benefit from low-level stimulus when completing assignments. Listening to music is a great example: it can give kids (especially distractible kids) something to keep their minds occupied during homework, essay-writing, and other tasks.

Communication

Some of the above suggestions for students are contradictory and not all will work for all kids. That is why the most important thing that you can do as a parent of a child with learning disabilities is to have open and clear communication about your child's needs.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Talk About the Challenges of Online Schooling Openly: Understanding what elements of online school or homeschooling are particularly frustrating or challenging is a great start for helping your teenagers manage schooling and their emotions. If your child's learning disabilities are a more recent discovery, you may need to spend extra time working out how to help them cope. Yet, whether it is a learning disability that is new or has been there for a while, online school is a whole new world. Start by asking what has worked or not worked for your child in the past and what you can improve on. Make sure that your kids know that they can receive help and support from you during this time.

Talk About Family Issues: You will also need to communicate about the needs of other family members. Are there certain hours when you need silence in the house for work reasons? Are there some places where your teenagers should keep their school work or places that are off-limits for studying? Setting these boundaries and making sure that everyone agrees to them is a good way to create a harmonious environment where everyone's needs are met. Particularly for teenagers who are already dealing with learning disabilities and the challenges of online school, having a clear understanding of boundaries and rules and a clear and open line of communication with family members can make a big difference.

Sleep

As you probably know, teenagers need a lot of sleep. Teenagers are often tempted to stay up late, and this may be an involuntary response to a shifting circadian rhythm. However, making sure that your teenagers sleep and wake up at appropriate times for their school work is essential. Establishing leisure time before bed can reduce the likelihood of teenagers staying up late to have time to themselves Making sure that your child gets adequate sleep each night can help them succeed in school, especially if school is particularly challenging at the moment.

Sleep Helps Mitigate Anxiety and Depression: Learning disabilities can cause symptoms of anxiety and depression in students, especially in cases of social isolation. A regular and sufficient sleep cycle is the base treatment for all mood disorders and can go a long way to helping teenagers regulate their emotions.

Sleep Helps Teenagers Focus: Sleep also improves focus during the day and helps teenagers be more alert in class. It aids in memory retention, which all help your child succeed. Students who are well-rested are likely to feel less frustrated by school and may have more energy to put into their education.

Medication

Not all learning disabilities require or respond to medication, but some can. ADHD can be effectively treated with stimulants. Dyslexia and other disabilities, on the other hand, are not treated with medication. If your child is living with ADHD and has been clinically diagnosed, you may want to discuss the possibility of medication with them and have them discuss it with a doctor or psychiatrist. Stimulant medication can improve teenagers' ability to focus and complete tasks and may make a big difference to the quality of learning that students are able to experience through online schooling or homeschooling.

Keep in mind that not all people with ADHD want to be medicated and it should always be an individual's personal choice whether or not to pursue medication. Medication should never be attempted without a doctor's prescription. Even with medication, those with ADHD are likely to experience some symptoms and may still need accommodations to their learning environment.