Strategies for Teaching Online Students With Learning Disabilities

Written by John Byrne

The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly introduced online learning to teaching, bringing numerous challenges. Providing accommodations in education requires knowledge of the applicable federal laws and experience with how to effectively teach while implementing accommodations for students with disabilities. Doing so in an online setting can be uncomfortable for even experienced teachers.

In addition to switching all of their material to be used in online learning, figuring out how to include the same accommodations in online teaching for students with disabilities can be frustrating as there may not be an obvious way to implement previously used accommodations. New teachers, or new to online teaching, may also have many questions about how to provide accommodations.

Once a teacher understands all of the federal regulations regarding special education services, then all they need to do is develop a strategy for implementing those services for their students with disabilities. The regulations are extensive for good reason, and they can be easily summarized. Also, a student's special education plan will tell a teacher everything they need to know, so long as they understand the teacher is legally obligated to implement the plan and provide all outlined services.

Learning Disabilities and IDEA

Learning disabilities are typically discovered when a student has difficulty displaying certain skills over time. It is important to note that they are not a direct result of audiovisual handicaps, intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbances, or environmental factors. Students with learning disabilities typically have average or above average intelligence. Unfortunately, learning disabilities cannot be cured; however, federal law requires schools to provide accommodations in education to allow students with learning disabilities to succeed.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines a specific learning disability as "a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations." The term "learning disability" is generally used in place of "specific learning disability," which is the official term used under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is the federal law that requires schools to provide special education services or accommodations for students identified with having a specific learning disability.

In the 2020-2021 school year, specific learning disabilities were the most common disability for students receiving special education services under IDEA. Examples of specific learning disabilities are listed in the table below.

Disability Description
Dyslexia When an individual has difficulty recognizing, decoding, and spelling words accurately.
Dyslexia impacts reading fluency because it impairs the ability to make connections between letters and letter combinations and their associated sound.
Dyscalculia When an individual has an impaired ability to understand fundamental math concepts and perform calculations.
Dyscalculia makes understanding and processing numbers without counting or a physical representation a challenge.
Dysgraphia When an individual has difficulty mentally storing and retrieving numerals and letters, making writing a challenge.
In addition to difficulties writing sentences or math problems, dysgraphia often impacts Executive Function skills as well.

IDEA is a federal law that mandates free and appropriate special education and similar services for public education students between the ages of 3 and 21. To qualify, a team of professionals must identify a disability that impairs a student's academic performance, justifying the need for special education services. Outside of learning disabilities, disabilities that qualify for special education services under IDEA include speech or language impairment, health impairments, autism, development delays, and intellectual disabilities.

Once a student has been identified with a disability under IDEA, the student and their parent(s) develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines what special education services their school is required to provide for them.

Accommodations and modifications are primarily how students with disabilities are offered special education services. Accommodations in education allow students with disabilities to complete the same work as students without disabilities, with the only exception being that they are guaranteed specific variations in the time, delivery, or quantity. IEP accommodations can include variations in the time the student is allowed for a certain assignment or instruction, the delivery of instruction or response to an assignment, and how much a student is expected to be taught or how much work is required to demonstrate content mastery. Modifications differ from accommodations in that they change the expectations for what content a student is expected to know. Accommodations change how a student is taught or demonstrates content mastery, whereas modifications change what a student is expected to be taught and understand.

Accommodations and modifications can vary greatly depending on what a student's needs are regarding their learning disability. It is crucial that parents, students, and teachers are vocal and advocate for what a student does or does not need to access the curriculum and make the most out of their education. After a student's needs are identified, the proper accommodations and modifications are outlined within a student's IEP.

Once accommodations and modifications are established within a student's IEP, it is a requirement under IDEA for the students to receive such services from that point forward. Also, IEP meetings are held regularly to ensure that a student's progress is documented and any necessary changes to the IEP can be made. The frequency of the IEP meetings is determined by the needs of the student regarding their learning disability.

What Are Learning Disabilities?

Formally known as specific learning disabilities, learning disabilities are certain psychological disorders that inhibit a person's ability to listen, think, read, write, spell, or do math, impeding their academic success. The NCES reports that during the 2020-2021 school year, 15 percent of all public school students received special education services under IDEA, totaling over 7.2 million students. Specific learning disabilities were the most commonly registered disability category, accounting for 33 percent of the students. It also noted that 75 percent of students with learning disabilities spent over 80 percent of their school day in general education classes, as opposed to special education classes.

Learning disabilities are typically discovered after a consistent pattern of difficulty in a certain area of learning is identified. For some people, it can take years or go unnoticed into adulthood. Common identifiers for learning disabilities include difficulty recognizing patterns, sorting, understanding, following instructions, remembering, doing tasks with hands, and understanding the concept of time. Learning disabilities are often identified when students have trouble developing specific reading, writing, or math skills, such as reversing numbers or words after reaching the second grade. If a parent has a concern about their child's progress, they can make a written request to have them evaluated, and schools are required to determine if the child qualifies for special education services.

Different Types of Learning Disabilities

ADHD, disabilities related to executive functioning, nonverbal learning disabilities, and specific reading comprehension deficit are common learning disabilities that have a wide range of effects on student learning and achievement. Qualities of specific learning disabilities are often demonstrated on a spectrum and can be seen in seemingly unrelated disabilities. Teachers, students, and parents need to understand the full scope of what learning disabilities entail.

Disability Impact
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) ADHD makes paying attention more difficult for a student, disrupting their learning by limiting their engagement.
In addition to inattention, students with ADHD also experience hyperactivity and impulsivity, which can lead to behavioral problems and inhibit academic achievement.
Executive Functioning Executive functioning disabilities demonstrate improper attention to detail, planning, organizing, strategizing, and time management skills.
Executive functioning inefficiencies are common in individuals with ADHD and many other disabilities. It most commonly impacts a student's ability to be effective learners and efficient workers as it impairs their ability to utilize necessary skills.
Nonverbal Learning Disabilities Nonverbal learning disabilities are displayed when a student has difficulty interpreting nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language. It is estimated that up to five percent of people with learning disabilities also suffer from nonverbal learning disabilities.
Students with nonverbal learning disabilities often have good vocabulary and reading recognition skills but can struggle with audio or verbal learning as teachers often and naturally use nonverbal communication.
Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit causes impairment with semantic and syntactic processing.
Semantic processing refers to understanding the meaning of words and their various definitions, and syntactic processing refers to understanding how the order of words can change their meaning. For this reason, Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit causes difficulties with reading and writing, as students may not comprehend or demonstrate knowledge of the various nuances of the English language.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1975. IDEA guarantees that eligible children with disabilities will be provided free and appropriate special education services and related services through the public school system from age 3 to 21. It also guarantees that individuals under age two are provided early intervention services as deemed necessary per their disability.

In 2015, IDEA was amended through the Every Student Succeeds Act to include, "Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities."

The special education and related services students receive under IDEA are required to be provided by public schools to the extent their Individualized Education Plan outlines. IEPs are considered legal documents that bind schools to a plan agreed upon by the student, parents, and relevant professionals to ensure that students eligible under IDEA are provided the support necessary to receive an education with their identified disability.

Accommodations in Education for Students with Disabilities

Accommodations are often outlined in a student's Individualized Education Plan, but they do not have to be formally outlined for teachers to provide them. Accommodations differ from modifications in that accommodations alter how instruction is provided and modifications alter what instruction is provided. Accommodations can alter how classroom instruction is taught, as well as how classroom tests and standardized tests are given. Additionally, students with disabilities often receive accommodations in their physical education, music, art, and other elective classes. Accommodations in all settings are designed to allow a student to fairly receive the same quality of education and be fairly assessed while paying respect to how their disability can inhibit them from taking traditional assessments.

Accommodation Type How it Looks
Standardized Tests Accommodations for standardized tests are typically the most straightforward as the exact details of the test are known when they are created. They often are similar, if not the same, to accommodations for classroom tests and might come in the form of being allotted extra time or having questions read aloud.
Classroom Tests Classroom test accommodations differ from standardized tests because they are created with the understanding that tests are designed and assigned under the teacher's discretion. They ensure that the student can take an assessment without a disability from impeding performing unrelated skills.
Classroom Instruction Classroom instructional accommodations typically are more comprehensive as there is less of an opportunity for the accommodation to impede academic achievement. They are still geared towards allowing special education students to learn the same material but provide additional methods of doing so.

Learning Plans for Students with Disabilities

IEPs and 504 plans are the most common ways students with disabilities are given special education services. IEPs are learning plans for how a student will be provided special education services, and 504 plans outline how a student would receive support or how barriers would be removed regarding their disability. To be eligible for an IEP, a student must be diagnosed with at least one of the 13 disabilities listed under IDEA, and affect their ability to learn or perform academically. To be eligible for a 504 plan, a student can be diagnosed with any disability, and it must interfere with their academic performance.

Federal law requires that IEPs are created by an IEP team that must include at least one parent or guardian, one of the student's general education teachers, a special education teacher, a school psychologist or related professional, and a district representative. 504 plans do not have requirements for who participates in the drafting of the plan, but they typically include a similar combination of participants as who participates in the IEP meeting.

IEPs have strict requirements for what must be included when it is written, whereas 504 plans do not have requirements or even have to be in writing, although it still acts as an agreement on what services will be provided for the student. When an IEP is written, it must address and include the student's current academic performance, annual education goals, what services will be provided to achieve said goals, the extent to which the services are provided, and what accommodations and modifications will be made. 504 plans are typically developed to describe what services are provided, who will provide the services, and who will oversee that the services are provided properly.

Online Teaching & Students with Learning Disabilities

Online learning for students with students with disabilities adds another level to traditional special education services. After the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers must be prepared to provide special education services in a virtual setting, even if there is no plan for virtual instruction. Not only does online teaching pose its challenges to provide special education services, but most IEPs and 504 plans were not created with online learning in mind.

Strategies for Making Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Accommodations target disadvantages a student with a learning disability may have to engage in a traditional form of education and provide alternatives that are an equally accessible form of education without comprising its quality. Accommodations can be as simple as providing audiobooks as an alternative to reading a physical text for a student who has a disability that affects their ability to read. They can be specific to providing instruction, assessments, or both.

Specific learning disabilities have specific qualities that act as a barrier to a child's education. Common qualities can include difficulty reading, focusing, processing, or writing. Each accommodation created in an IEP and 504 plan must specifically address complications created by a disability so that they do not inhibit the student's education. It is also important to keep in mind that accommodations created in an IEP or 504 plan can be applied across a variety of teaching strategies and a variety of classroom types. For example, an accommodation can address seating arrangements so that they sit in the "front" of a classroom, but a teacher may provide presentations from all sides of the class, so the IEP should specify that the student should sit closer to where the teacher is presenting as opposed to being at the front of a room.

Accommodations generally address how a student engages in presentations, how a student completes assignments or tests, the classroom setting, the amount of time allotted for work or breaks, scheduling, and organization. Common accommodations include using audio recordings instead of reading, receiving lesson outlines, being allowed to respond to questions verbally as opposed to in writing, and being allowed extra time for work. It is important to note that accommodations do not have to be included in an IEP or 504 plan to be provided, and it is mutually advantageous for teachers to provide any accommodations they think may be effective.

Online Learning for Students with Learning Disabilities

Despite IEPs and 504 plans not having been historically created with online learning in mind, many of the accommodations can still be implemented without being changed. Some that may appear more difficult to implement only require the use of technology or even creative thinking. For example, a teacher may have a lesson that requires reading an online article asynchronously, but some students have accommodations that require texts are read aloud to them. A solution to this problem would be to deploy the use of a text-to-speech program that will read it for them without having to coordinate a time for someone to read the article to the student. There are a variety of options for programs depending on the needs of the teacher, such as programs that can read directly from a web page, or programs that read text copied and pasted into it.

There is a host of special education resources online that detail how accommodations can be provided and how they can be applied in online learning. The most important thing to keep in mind is to maintain the same type and level of support that the IEP or 504 plan would expect of the teacher in person.

When a teacher is creating lesson plans for online learning, they should keep in mind any accommodations or modifications that are outlined in a student's special education plan the same way they would do for an in-person class. Also, if a teacher is going to deploy the use of technology, then they should be sure to see if a student has all of the required programs or understand how to use any additional technology before it is used in class.

However, not all accommodations are simply implemented in a virtual environment, such as seating arrangements. It is required by federal law that students receive all accommodations outlined in their IEP plan. If a teacher is unsure that they are adequately providing accommodations, they should speak with their respective special education coordinator or administrator to remedy the issue.

Special Education Resources

General education teachers often work and meet with special education staff regularly. They should be the first point of contact regarding how support is being provided to students with disabilities , especially since they are going to be most familiar with the needs of the students and the expectations outlined in a student's special education plan. Each school is required to have a member of the special education staff that hosted the special education plan meeting with the respective student, their parents, teachers, and psychology professionals. They would have the most comprehensive understanding of the needs of the student and what was discussed when creating their special education plan.

For new teachers, or new to online teaching, it can be overwhelming to understand how to follow all of the regulations regarding special education laws in addition to providing adequate support to students with learning disabilities. However, special education plans, IEPs and 504 plans, outline everything a teacher is supposed to know about a special education student and what they need to provide to the student. Beyond that, each school's special education team should be able to provide any further clarification or resources necessary on how to provide special education services.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the 7 main types of learning disabilities?

    The seven main types of learning disabilities are dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, nonverbal learning disabilities, auditory processing disorder, visual or perceptual motor disorder, and language processing disorder.

  • What is defined as a learning disability?

    A learning disability is a psychological, cognitive, or physical condition that inhibits an individual's ability to learn or engage in academia.

  • What are the best online teaching methods?

    The best online teaching methods are those that specifically address how a student's disability faces barriers to access an equal education.

  • What are the four types of accommodations?

    The four types of accommodations include those that involve how a student learns from a presentation, engages in a response, the setting they are learning or working in, and those related to timing.

  • What is the purpose of accommodation?

    The purpose of an accommodation is to eliminate any barriers imposed by a learning disability so a student can receive an equal education.

  • What do accommodations do for students?

    Accommodations change how a student receives instruction or provides feedback to remove any barriers imposed by a learning disability or otherwise.

Expert Answers to Common Questions about students with disabilities

  • In what ways can new teachers find support during their first year of teaching?
  • What classroom management or instructional strategies may be helpful for prospective and new teachers to learn more about?
  • What guidance can you give prospective teachers on determining what age group, subject, and type of school would be a fit for them?
  • What is one piece of advice you wish you had when you were working to become a teacher?

You can read their biographies and answers below:

  • Expert contributor image

    Dr. Lauren Bruno

    Assistant Professor of Special Education

    Dr. Bruno is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Washington State University. Her research focuses on improving transition outcome for youth with disabilities. More specifically, Dr. Bruno focuses on the preparation and development of pre-service and in-service educators to implement and utilize evidence-based transition practices. In addition, she focuses on the use of Universal Design for Learning and the Universal Design for Transition frameworks to improve post school outcomes for students with disabilities. She is also passionate about researching and supporting postsecondary educational opportunities for youth with intellectual and development disability.

    • In what ways can new teachers find support during their first year of teaching?

      Find a mentor who you trust and feel comfortable with. It may not be who was assigned to you and it may not be in your content area, but rely on people you feel comfortable with and set up regular meetings to chat with them and ask for support.

    • What classroom management or instructional strategies may be helpful for prospective and new teachers to learn more about?

      It may need to change! What you went in with may not be what you use, be flexible in your methods and adapt to your classes. Build relationships with your students and be someone they want to come to and trust.

    • What guidance can you give prospective teachers on determining what age group, subject, and type of school would be a fit for them?

      Get experiences across a variety of areas and settings. Advocate for places you want to try and challenge yourself to go to areas you may not have thought you would have liked. When in placements, ask to observe and familiarize yourself with standards at various levels. It never hurts to ask, the word they can say is no.

    • What is one piece of advice you wish you had when you were working to become a teacher?

      Follow your passion and read the research! Find ways to connect with other professionals in the field and get involved in national organizations. These help you discover your potential as a teacher and realize the path you want to follow.

All Teacher Certification Exams