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ABA and the Virtual Classroom

ABA in Virtual ClassroomWhile some schools have already gone back to face-to-face learning, some are postponing that option. Still other school districts have even decided to stay digital until 2021. Between March and May, all parents were thrown into the fire of online learning—whether they liked it or not. Depending on the occupation of the students’ parents, many of them stayed home to work remotely as their children worked on their coursework. 

However, virtual learning can look very different for those students who are in Special Education and on the spectrum. Despite the many challenges students with autism face during virtual learning, those versed in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) can assist parents in creating individualized online learning experiences for them. 

SPED students, in particular, would benefit more from physically being back in a classroom versus participating in virtual learning; unfortunately, this still isn’t reality in many school districts. Some populations of students are digressing behaviorally and academically without receiving the type of learning they need to be successful. 

Take this scenario as an example: 

A student with ADHD, ASD, and underlying medical needs cannot sit at home in front of a computer screen all day with little supervision (if any at all), and especially with a teacher who is not tech-savvy enough to deliver engaging, collaborative, and on-level material in a digital manner. (Of course, there are teachers out there who are genius with this…but it’s not appropriate for every student.)

Yet how can we expect this same student to sit in one seat all day long in a self-contained setting with COVID-type restrictions, without physical breaks, without using therapeutic supports like a sensory room, without swinging on the swings outside, without having actual PE class, while wearing a mask that s/he cannot take off, and keeping an appropriate distance between peers and adults? What about students who have extensive toileting needs and require physical prompting?

It almost seems impossible to keep everyone safe and healthy. This is the situation many students, parents, teachers are in.

What about the students who are still at home learning in front of a computer? 

How can ABA strategies help students and parents during virtual learning? 

While this pandemic has caused swift changes in the world, ABA professionals are all about change. Their proven strategies can help students with autism and their parents during this difficult time. 

The first thing to remember is that each child with autism is different and each lives in a unique environment (family, physical space, distractions, etc.). An ABA therapist will want to go to the home or at least video conference the parent to see what kind of space the student will be working in, what materials they have/need, what exactly the student will be working on academically, and ask about what strategies have already been tried to help the student be successful. 

Here are some questions the ABA therapist may ask the parent:

  • What technology and platform will be used for virtual learning?
  • What are seating/standing options? 
  • What rules and expectations have already been put in place?
  • Is there a visual schedule of some sort?
  • What accommodations or modifications does the child have in his/her IEP? 
  • What do breaks look like?
  • Is there a reinforcement schedule in place?
  • How available/involved will the parent be during the school day?
  • Does the student use assistive technology?
  • What have been obstacles to learning so far? 
  • How is the teacher meeting/not meeting the needs of the child?

After interviewing the parent and observing the child, it will become more clear as to how the ABA therapist can help bring success to virtual learning. 

Professionals at the Autism Training and Technical Assistance Project list various strategies to take in order to help students with autism during this unique time.

1. Support understanding through the use of a social narrative. 

“Use a social narrative, a story that describes social situations by providing relevant cues, explanations of the feelings and thoughts of others, and descriptions of appropriate behavior. Individuals on the autism spectrum benefit from receiving information in multiple formats, as they often have receptive language deficits.”

Learn how to write your own social story from Vanderbilt. 

 2. Offer opportunities for expressive communication. 

“This can be done by using visuals and choice boards to promote social communication and personal independence.”

3. Establish a daily schedule and create routines. 

“It is helpful for all children and adults to establish a new routine with a defined schedule and structure for the day. A daily schedule organizes the child’s environment and creates predictability. For individuals with ASD, change, transitions, and new routines might be hard. Creating a schedule will allow the individual to see what is coming next throughout the day and may help to lessen some challenging behaviors that may emerge due to a lack of routine.”

4. Identify a location for remote learning.

“Design specific areas where activities and remote learning will take place. This will help define what activities take place in which location. It might be helpful to label the area and materials so there is an understanding of what activities will occur in each location. Labeling provides another way to add structure and routine to the area. Set aside parts of your living space where academics can occur and a different space for recreation activities.”

5. Support behavior.

“Provide positive reinforcement, respond calmly if challenging behavior occurs, select a strategy that can help prevent challenging behavior, and help the child understand their emotions and teach them to self-calm.” 

Reinforcement is huge when it comes to learning and supporting behavior. So is creating specific rules and expectations. Allow the student to visually see what they are working toward and how they will get there. Post rules and expectations in a way they can understand and somewhere they can see all day long. 

6. Socialize remotely.

“Individuals with ASD are more susceptible to social isolation and loneliness, and this may be worsened by shelter-in conditions. Positive social support is important for everyone during this period, and individuals with autism may need more explicit facilitation to ensure that social connections continue. Caregivers may need to check in to help identify who close friends are and help develop a plan about how to connect.”

Thankfully, there is a plethora of information out there on how to help students with special needs, especially with autism, be successful while learning online. If a parent believes their child’s teacher is not meeting his/her needs virtually and a conference has already been held, it would be best to contact administration to see what can be done. Oftentimes, the school district has ABA professionals who can assess the situation and offer recommendations; otherwise, parents are absolutely allowed to bring in their own ABA therapist to offer support. 

Parents: you are not alone during this time, and this won’t last forever! Seek out the support that you need for your child. Do research yourselves on how to help your child with special needs to be successful while learning virtually. There is so much out there. Remember—we are all in this together! 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

September 2020

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