Distance learning is hard for everyone. We had some additional challenges that eventually led our family to quit distance learning.
It’s strange to think that the global pandemic had silver linings. With many people facing severe illness and death and many struggling with unemployment, it feels a little wrong to acknowledge the blessings.
But here we are.
Our daughter Molly was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at four-and-half years old. She has a primary placement in a special education classroom but spends most of her days in general education without an aide.
Last March, within a week of working with my first-grade daughter Molly during distance learning, I came to a surprising conclusion. I remember climbing the stairs to our bedroom where my husband, Kyle, was working remotely.
“Kyle, I think Molly has a learning disability.”
That revelation eventually led our family to quit distance learning.
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Our Problems with Distance Learning
I need to start with a disclaimer.
Obviously, this is my website, my experience, and my perspective. I fully believe teachers are being asked to do something difficult.
School districts could have adapted much better to support both students and teachers. There is a disappointing lack of innovation and imagination among superintendents and curriculum specialists that placed teachers in a terrible position.
But, I taught for 11 years and I mentored student teachers, new teachers, and some veteran teachers, too. I can tell the difference between good teachers who struggle with tech and new workload and poor performing teachers who really don’t understand the big picture.
So, if you’re a teacher and can’t emotionally separate yourself from this post, for your well-being, I suggest you skip it.
This is a time with two things can be true: I can be empathetic for the vast majority of good teachers and I can be furious about how poor teaching failed my child with special needs.
This is our story about how our family quit distance learning.
Typical Challenges with Distance Learning
We experienced the typical problems with distance learning. Many of you struggle with this, too:
It’s not developmentally appropriate
Little children should not do school work exclusively on screens. They need to be writing, coloring, cutting and gluing. They need to be standing and moving a lot.
They need math manipulatives and they need daily direct instruction and practice with handwriting. These things are completely possible with distance learning, and many teachers and districts around the country are doing them.
Way too much screen time
Children absolutely should not be on screens for four to six hours a day. Neuroscience supports this and it’s plain crazy that school districts want children to do this.
Schools could absolutely purchase workbook textbooks or send home weekly worksheet packets to reduce time on screens. Again, many districts and schools around the country are doing this.
Passive rather than interactive
Good early elementary teachers understand that the basics of good classroom teaching can translate to online learning:
Children need some focused yet brief direct instruction based on a learning target, guided practice, and independent practice with feedback on the learning target.
The expectation that students are going to sit and just pay attention to a teacher talking on a screen for 30 minutes blows my mind.
The average 6-year-old attention span is 6-18 minutes in real life (not on a computer screen). Add in being on Zoom with little to no interaction – and that time frame rapidly diminishes.
Our Distance Learning Story
We had a pretty decent experience in the spring. My daughter had a general education teacher who worked really hard to learn the tech and be creative even before the district required it.
She was willing to dance, be silly, and use full-body interactive learning to get children to engage. She sent home learning packets without any prompting from the district and employed a lot of strategies to get participation.
I emailed her in late March to check in on her. She thanked me for asking and said it was really hard. Like so many, she was balancing parenting with teaching.
My daughter had a long-term sub for special education who did an astonishingly good job, too.
She used her thirty minutes of one-on-one teaching time with my daughter to actually teach interactively. When my daughter had whole group time in special education, it was positive, upbeat, and engaging.
This fall was awful. We should have quit much earlier than we did. Kyle and I discussed homeschooling the first week back to school.
We had meeting, after meeting, after meeting.
We weren’t demanding in-person learning or asking for a full-time aide. We just wanted actual teaching via Zoom that was effective and appropriate to Molly’s learning level.
I could see the obvious learning strategies as a former general education teacher. I kept thinking I could teach the school how to teach my daughter but it was pointless.
Ultimately, there were tons of red flags all along that demonstrated it was not just distance learning – the district condones sub-standard academics for students with disabilities.
These were our concerns that lead our family to quit distance learning.
Focused on Compliance Rather than Learning
Distance learning was more focused on compliance rather than any outcomes related to academic achievement.
There was a reliance on oral directions. This is Teaching 101 – write the direction on the board for children, especially children with receptive language disabilities.
This can be done on Google slides or a physical whiteboard or piece of paper the teacher holds to the screen. It’s not hard or complicated.
Later, we’d receive messages my daughter hadn’t followed directions with no feedback on the actual academic content of her work.
Similarly, the school-based IEP team wrote a goal around Whole Body Listening which the autism community describes as ableist and harmful. It places the burden on the disabled to appear to be paying attention rather than on the neurotypical adults to teach the way a child will engage and learn.
I asked for a goal instead where my daughter would need to demonstrate she understood the lesson by drawing a picture or writing a sentence about what she learned.
Seems reasonable, right? Instead of looking at an observable behavior, look for an outcome.
I got a lot of push back. They cared more about my daughter appearing to listen than actual evidence that she’d learned something.
The last straw was when they sent home a Chromebook for my daughter to use for Zoom classes. We already had a school iPad for SeeSaw and used our own Chromebook for Zoom.
My husband told the school we didn’t want or need it – they said they needed it so they could control my daughter’s screen during lessons. This wasn’t even a concern for my child.
She wasn’t opening other browsers – she simply would stop paying attention because they were unengaging.
Plus, instead of actually teaching in an interactive way or problem-solving if she was unfocused (i.e. taking a leadership role as the adult), they wanted to control her behavior.
Teaching needs to be driven by assessments rather than a teacher’s desire for students to just follow instructions and “behave.” This is even more important for students with disabilities.
Ineffective and Inappropriate Assignments
My daughter with normal-high intelligence was assigned preschool worksheets on SeeSaw. Like literally, this is a screenshot of a preschool patterning worksheets from Totschooling.net that was assigned to her.
My daughter’s one-on-one writing lessons were used for directed drawings rather than the spelling and handwriting interventions that were in her IEP.
Instead of teaching spelling, the IEP team wrote a goal that my daughter should just “Guess and go.”
Research supports that children need explicit, systematic, direct instruction to learn the rules of spelling. They absolutely should not be taught that spelling is just a guessing game.
Plus, there was so much implicit bias about her skills that it is worth a different blog post.
The most disturbing thing is they dismissed her challenges as behavioral (“she doesn’t want to do it because it’s hard”) rather than using assessments to make sure she had the academic skills.
Research supports the single most important school-based factor for student achievement is the quality of the instruction (teaching). Within the first week, we knew the instruction was so poor, it would completely fail my daughter.
Locked Out of Zoom Class
Molly was locked out of Zoom classes at least half a dozen times. She’d sit in front of the screen and wait to be let in with her neurotypical peers for 10-15 minutes and eventually give up.
There was miscommunication or lack of communication between general education teachers and special education teachers about changes in the schedule. Ultimately, those mistakes denied Molly access to class and her right to education.
One week, her schedule wasn’t available for her in SeeSaw. It turns out it was posted in the wrong place – it was in the Journal instead of to Student Activities.
Some members of the team suggested my daughter accidentally turned it in early. This was impossible since we kept the school iPad out of reach (hello – we have a preschooler who is not trustworthy with electronics). Plus, SeeSaw has a Done tab where you can see student-submitted work – it wasn’t there.
In one of our last IEP meeting, Kyle said there was a lack of due professional care. I tried to let the team save face and said SeeSaw is just glitchy.
There was a lack of communication between the teachers and simple mistakes with the tech that denied my daughter access to her legally guaranteed education.
Zoom Lessons were Usually Stressful for the Family
I would spend the Zoom classes worried about my preschooler being quiet (or wearing pants) when he ran in front of my daughter’s Zoom calls. So he was constantly being corrected instead of getting to be involved in his own learning.
My day was scheduled around my daughter’s Zoom calls rather than what made sense for our family. Not only was she not learning a darn thing, but I also could not take care of my work or other responsibilities.
My daughter was super successful during the speech Zoom calls and leaving her awesome speech teacher at the elementary school was a hard choice.
But we also have private speech therapy for my daughter covered by health insurance. The speech therapist doesn’t mind when Andrew Zoom-bombs – she likes seeing him. Plus, we don’t have to worry about interrupting other children.
Zoom calls caused us tons of stress with little academic benefits.
We Stopped Caring about the Special Education Placement
The main reason we stayed with distance learning was to keep my daughter in the specific school which required a specific placement. In this school district, they devote almost all their resources to special classrooms rather than inclusion for children with disabilities in typical classrooms.
Molly felt very strongly that she was a student at this particular school, and we didn’t want to remove that identity from her.
But then the school district denied a thorough learning disability evaluation, so we paid for a private evaluation. Frankly, we didn’t want to waste valuable time getting a laywer to make the district do their legally obligated job. I wanted her to actually start learning.
$3000 later and we found she has dyslexia and dysgraphia in addition to autism as I suspected.
She scored in the 4th percentile for phonological awareness (the understanding and ability to manipulate sounds and thus, SPELL) and 0.4th percentile (yes less than 1st percentile) for written expression.
After reviewing the scores with us, the psychologist looked at my daughter’s IEP and said,
“What have they being doing for the last two years?”
I can’t remember her exact words but the tone was clear: they had no idea how to teach my child.
Besides implicit bias preventing them from teaching my daughter well, we could tell the district would not ever provide her with appropriate academic instruction. Once we no longer cared about keeping her placement, it was an easy choice for our family to quit distance learning.
Who Can Teach My Child the Best?
After meeting with the psychologist, Kyle asked me, “Is there anyone who can teach Molly effectively?”
And I said, “Me.”
There is no one else who understood (or cared) about her learning as much as me. I can teach 2nd grade in my sleep and I had training for Slingerland Method, a literacy approach for dyslexics.
During various IEP meetings, I heard no conviction from the school-based team that they believed my daughter should perform on grade level. However, I knew I could get my daughter to grade level in reading and math and make significant progress in writing.
So I talked to the psychologist, and our private occupational and speech therapists and they all agreed: I should homeschool her.
So our family quit distance learning and now we’re homeschooling. And we all have our joy back.
The Good News
There are many good things that happened when our family quit distance learning.
My daughter’s general education second teacher came by our home before Christmas and gave Molly a care package. She loved the children and had Molly been in person, I’m sure it would have been a more positive year.
Molly’s principal, speech teacher, and librarian reached out to say how much they’d miss her. We loved the principal and if she had the authority to make the necessary changes, I know she would have.
We were able to cut ties with other people whose implicit bias was holding my daughter back emotionally and academically.
Molly is learning so much from me. Last March, she couldn’t even spell “pet” in isolation, and just this week, she’s finally mastered the difference between “back” and “bake.”
Just today, we did a writing assignment about Martin Luther King, Jr. Her writing is now on first-grade level rather than kindergarten. I know the best way to teach her (and it’s really how I taught my neurotypical second-graders!).
And the best news: we believe we’ve found a private school for Molly for third grade.
We had a Zoom meeting with the principal and teachers last weekend. For the first time in her educational career, we listened to teachers articulate Molly’s learning needs even more clearly than I can.
Distance learning is hard for everyone. But we ultimately figured out that at least 50% of why Molly struggles with public schooling had nothing to do with autism. And that was a blessing.
We rescued her self-worth from being given messages that she just needed to pay attention better rather than be taught in the way she can learn.
When our family quit distance learning, Molly got her joy back. And so did we.
How has your experience with distance learning been? Please share in the comments.