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How to Remotely Support Students Who Learn Differently

A valuable resource offers educators teaching strategies for effective distance learning.

While many children are returning to brick-and-mortar classrooms after 2020’s COVID-19 shutdowns, one in five U.S. school districts says it will also offer the option of online learning. Educators say remote learning can be a good choice for students who benefit from the individualized instruction a virtual classroom can provide.1

“For some kids, virtual learning has actually helped them learn better and engage differently,” says Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), in an article by Erik Ofgang for Tech & Learning. “Kids who maybe have processing challenges or attention challenges, or those who have social anxiety difficulties. For some kids with those kinds of challenges, the virtual learning space has actually provided them a more comfortable place to learn.”2

To help maximize the benefits of online education for children with learning differences, the NCLD and Understood, a nonprofit organization that supports the families of children who think and learn differently, have created the Distance Learning Toolkit: Key Practices to Support Students Who Learn Differently. “We felt like in the current context of COVID, there were new considerations we wanted to bring to light,” Whittaker says in the article.2

The toolkit is a classroom resource for students in Walden University’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) – Elementary Education degree program. In the article, excerpted below, Ofgang sums up key takeaways, which you may find useful if you’re earning an online teaching degree or are an educator interested in new teaching strategies:2

The toolkit builds on the lessons of a 2019 report, “Forward Together: Helping Educators Unlock the Power of Students Who Learn Differently.”3 The 2019 guidance identified three mindsets and eight practices that can help educators support all students.

The Three Mindsets
1. Positive Orientation Toward Inclusion

Teachers with this mindset believe students with disabilities should be included and taught in general education classes, according to the toolkit. It enables educators to “create a classroom environment where all students feel welcome and valued, making it easier for students to learn [and] take responsibility for teaching all of their students.”

2. Strong Sense of Self-Efficacy
This is an educator’s belief in their own ability to effectively teach all students, which is vital to creating an inclusive classroom.

3. Growth Mindset
Educators who have this mindset believe that they can improve their teaching practices and that all students can learn with effective instruction and practice, according to the report.

The Eight Practices

  • Explicit, systematic, and targeted instruction
  • Strategy instruction
  • Flexible group
  • Culturally and linguistically responsive teaching
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  • Positive behavior strategies
  • Collaboration with colleagues and families
  • Evidence-based literacy and math instruction

Applying Practices to Distance Learning

The new toolkit offers specific ways for educators to implement each of these practices and mindsets remotely. For example, Whittaker says that teachers with a strong sense of self-efficacy create a classroom environment in which students feel welcome and have the chance to learn.

“Teachers take responsibility for teaching all of their students as opposed to saying, ‘While I teach the students without disabilities, the ones who have IEPs, my special educator friends will work with those students.’ It's also important because this mindset leads to teachers using more flexible options to meet the students’ needs,” she says.

“In trying to apply this mindset to distance learning, we took the example of how technology actually gives you more flexible options to support a variety of student needs. This might include a mix of digital and printed worksheets depending on the student or giving students more ability to control the pace of their education with synchronous as well as asynchronous lessons.”

The toolkit also offers tips and strategies for ways that educators can boost their own confidence while teaching remotely.

“All the new demands of distance learning may leave you feeling that you’re not as effective a teacher as you were before,” it says in the toolkit. “Give yourself some credit—you’re learning new skills on the fly. Focus on what’s working well, how far you’ve come since distance learning started, and successes your students have had.”

Positives of Distance Learning

Whittaker says going back to the way things were before March 2020 would be a mistake even after the pandemic ends. “Teachers have really seen their ability to adapt. They’ve really kind of stretched themselves and accomplished more than we ever thought was possible,” she says. “… And so I hope that we are more flexible in the offerings of how and where students can learn going forward, because we've proven that more is possible than just sitting in a classroom.”

Become a Teacher Who Helps Students Thrive

Enrolling in a graduate program for teachers can help you replenish your toolkit and refresh your elementary school teaching strategies based on the latest educational research.

In Walden’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) — Elementary Education online degree program, you’ll learn the skills you need to serve students of all abilities. In this culturally responsive online degree program, you’ll engage in realistic virtual simulations and participate in student teaching. You’ll explore K–6 content areas and learn about effective planning, instruction, and assessment.

Walden offers other online education degrees designed to help you achieve your career goals. If your passion is to work with children with exceptionalities, you might choose to focus your studies in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) – Special Education online degree program. In Walden’s online BS in Elementary Education (Teacher Licensure) degree program, experienced faculty members will guide you on your journey to becoming an impactful and caring teaching professional.

Like all of Walden’s online degree programs, the MAT is designed for working professionals who want to advance their education while staying engaged in their careers and personal lives. The flexibility of Walden’s online learning platform, rolling start dates, and other key features can help you blaze a path to a degree in elementary education that can help transform your career and the lives of your students.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) — Elementary Education online degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,