Supporting Students with Significant Intellectual Disabilities During Distance Learning

As we support distance learning practices during the COVID-19 emergency, it is essential to implement highly effective instructional strategies to support learners with significant intellectual disabilities. Strategies include using the elements of Universal Design for Learning to develop learning plans; creating a consistent and collaborative schedule for ourselves, families, and students; and establishing student expectations; with flexibility. During distance learning, continued communication with colleagues, administrators, students, and families, is essential to keeping everyone connected and informed.

Utilizing the elements of Universal Design for Learning in planning and distance learning instruction is essential to minimize student and family barriers. This includes developing distance learning plans with multiple means of engagement, representation, expression, and action, for students with significant intellectual disabilities. It is important to identify a few strategies that are effective for students and leverage those strategies. Trying to do multiple new things without adequate planning and time can lead to frustration and ineffective outcomes.

Let’s break down what this could look like for learners with significant intellectual disabilities even further:

Multiple Means of Engagement: Using multiple means of engagement is the ability to tap into a learner’s interests and motivations. During distance learning, this might look like:

  • Providing student choice through choice boards, first/then boards, and/or checklists.
  • Giving prompt, specific, and corrective feedback through a video conference, phone call, or video tutorial.
  • Explaining why the activity and skills are relevant and important to both the family and student.
  • Focusing on student interest by finding fun and engaging activities aligned to student Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals. Incorporate websites, videos, presentations, worksheets, or interactive activities (e.g., a scavenger hunt). These are stressful times–be creative, and have some fun!
  • Utilizing Core Vocabulary as much as possible.
  • Aligning remote visuals, schedules, and engagement tools familiar to students in the past, keeping these elements as consistent as possible to a typical in-person school day.

Multiple Means of Representation: Using various ways to acquire information and knowledge. During distance learning, this might look like:

  • Creating a student task checklist.
  • Sharing visual cues with parents to use during instruction, and aligning those visuals throughout the lesson plan.
  • Recording a video example to teach key concepts of the lesson.
  • Using text-to-speech technology.
  • Utilizing Core Vocabulary as much as possible.
  • Creating and sharing short instructional videos of strategies with parents, such as “I Do, We Do, You Do,” or “Errorless Learning.” Check out Educator Anna Findley’s Errorless Learning Tutorial.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression: Students with significant intellectual disabilities differ in the ways they can navigate a distance learning environment and express what they know. Provide learners with alternatives for demonstrating what they know through:

  • Offering student choice in the ways they can respond.
  • Sequencing events with a cartoon.
  • Acting out and recording their responses using tools such as Flipgrid.
  • Using speech-to-text technology.
  • Drawing or taking pictures.
  • Creating drag-and-drop picture and/or word selections.

Consider using a Universal Lesson Guide template, such as the PATINS UDL Lesson Creator, or the Project SUCCESS Lesson Plan template, to capture the specific learning plan for each student. Share them with parents, and check in regularly to identify potential barriers to content, tools or resources, and address solutions promptly.

A few additional strategies to support learners with significant intellectual disabilities during distance learning include:

Creating a Daily Educator Schedule: Develop a daily schedule, and ensure that it is easily accessible to colleagues, families, paraprofessionals, and related service providers. When developing the daily schedule, it is important to consider the following:

  • Find the best times to schedule meetings with other staff and colleagues, including collaboration time with administrators, peer learning groups, related service providers, and general educators.
  • Assign time to develop lesson plans in partnership with general educators and related service providers.
  • Identify how often you need to model academic skills for both families and students. Be sure to allocate enough time to hold video conferences, make phone calls, or record an accessible mini lesson for students and families.
  • Create time in your schedule for Open Office Hours, to accommodate questions from families or students. Survey families to determine the best time to host Open Office Hours, and hold this time in your schedule consistently.
  • Design time within your schedule for self-care. Distance learning can have challenges. Be sure to take care of yourself and your loved ones.

Tip: To develop an easily accessible calendar, consider using shared calendars such as iCal or Google Calendar

Stay Connected to Colleagues: During distance learning, an increased emphasis on connection between professionals is essential for student outcomes, especially for educators supporting learners with significant intellectual disabilities. Leveraging both the modification expertise of special education colleagues and the content expertise of general educators allows for continued planning and equity for students with significant intellectual disabilities. It is important to remember the following to support learners with significant intellectual disabilities:

  • Connection and sharing of resources, ideas, and materials, is essential. Remember to collaborate not only with fellow special educators, but with general educators as well.
  • When planning lessons and activities, be sure that content is aligned with the general education content, and find ways for students to stay connected with their general education peers and educators.
  • Share lesson plan ideas, materials, and resources. Consider setting up a file sharing drive with your colleagues.
  • Set aside time to share with others the things that are going well with distance learning (including positive parent/family communication), and where there have been challenges.
  • Reach out to other special educators across grade levels, schools, or districts. Connection with professionals is essential for sharing instructional strategies, resources, and materials.

Communicate and Model Activities for Families: Distance learning has transformed parents and caregivers into instructors and deliverers of content, and educators into distance learning coaches. Therefore, educators need to demonstrate activities and lesson plans, and they need to model the use of resources with specific directives. It is important that we communicate with parents in ways that align with their needs during distance learning. These ways might include phone calls, newsletters (weekly or bi-weekly with a schedule through at least May 1st), recorded videos, video chats, or virtual office hours.

During distance learning, it is essential to express to parents the concept of presuming competence and having high expectations. Watch and share the webinar, The Case for Presuming Competence, or review the INSOURCE website to view our collaborative webinar, "Presuming Competence in Students with Significant Disabilities." Also, consider sharing the following article to provide background information: What They Don’t Know Will Hurt Them: Going Beyond Instructional Level for Students with Disabilities.

When modeling ideas and concepts for parents, it is important to remember to:

  • Share resources, lesson plans, and activities with parents/caretakers/guardians.
  • Use specific directives; avoid jargon and educationally heavy language; model how to complete an activity through pictures, video, or sharing your screen during a video conference.
  • Assist families with setting up a daily routine for students. Consider providing an example of the student’s visual schedule, checklist, first/then board, or choice board, for work completion.
  • When sharing an activity, explain the skill being targeted and/or purpose of the activity (the ‘why’). Keep resources and activities focused on the IEP goals and objectives. 

Set Clear Expectations for Students and Families: As parents adjust to distance learning, it is important to set clear expectations for students while building in flexibility. Be clear with your student expectations, but not rigid. Give yourself, your students, and parents/caregivers/guardians flexibility. The concept of distance learning is new for students, teachers, and parents. Everyone is learning as we go!

  • Recognize and communicate what you expect to be completed by the student, and when the assignment or activity is due.
  • Create a schedule, choice board, checklist, and/or visuals that reflect these expectations. Be sure that you are providing student choice in tasks, activities, and resources.
  • Be sure to break activities into smaller steps to encourage task completion. Consider using a first/then board.
  • Share and model the communication schedule with students and parents. Determine parents’ and students’ preferred mode of communication during distance learning (e.g., phone calls, video conferences, e-mail, etc.).
  • Be willing to think outside of the box, as parents/caregivers give you suggestions for their child’s work, schedule, and tasks.

Additional Supports for Teachers of Students with Significant Intellectual Disabilities:


About the Author:

Meredith Keedy-Merk is a Senior Associate and Special Education Subject Matter Expert at Public Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG). Meredith is also the Director of Indiana’s Project SUCCESS. Project SUCCESS is a resource center developed and managed by PCG in collaboration with the Indiana Department of Education, to support higher academic achievement for students with disabilities (

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