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Plan and deliver: Educating students with disabilities in remote settings

Midwest | April 22, 2020
Plan and deliver: Educating students with disabilities in remote settings

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is featuring a blog series on supporting specific student populations as schools shift to remote learning. In this blog post, we focus on the unique needs of students with disabilities. For more evidence-based resources and guidance on remote learning, see the REL Program’s COVID-19 resources.

Nationwide school closures have left educators and parents scrambling to figure out how best to deliver remote instruction to all students, including students with disabilities. Although many barriers exist, some of the most resilient educators are special educators—and some of the most resilient students are those with disabilities.

Read on for guidance on the legal requirements involved, how to think about accessibility for remote learning (perhaps in a new way), and how to plan and deliver remote instruction to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. Because research on remote learning for students with disabilities is limited (Clifford, 2018; Vasquez & Straub, 2012), the guidance provided here draws on evidence-based practices from traditional school settings and adapts them for remote and online environments. Free resources from the Technical Assistance and Dissemination Centers, which are funded by the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, are also provided when available.

Understand the law

Even in remote settings, students with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). In other words, if students have an individualized education program (IEP), schools that currently are providing remote instruction to general education students must also provide students with disabilities with remote instruction that enables them to make progress in the general curriculum and that does not incur a cost to families (34 CF.R. § 300.17).

This requirement may seem daunting in a remote learning environment. However, teachers can leverage the research and evidence to help ensure that students with disabilities continue to receive the instruction they need to be successful in school and in life.

Consider access more broadly

When thinking about accessibility and remote learning, the first thing that may come to mind is access to the Internet and computers or other devices. Access to technology is critical for all learners, especially when school buildings and libraries are closed. But when considering students with disabilities, it’s also important to think about student-level access beyond technology. Consider the following questions.

Do students have…

  • Reading needs (for example, fluency, comprehension)?
  • Physical or sensory needs (for example, motor, visual, hearing)?
  • Cognitive needs (for example, processing, problem-solving)?
  • Communication needs (for example, speech or language, verbal or nonverbal)?
  • Executive functioning needs [1,326 KB ] (for example, self-regulation, impulse control)?
  • Behavioral and/or social-emotional support needs?

Each of these areas—from reading levels to cognitive functioning—may affect students’ access to remote instruction, particularly when delivered online. For example, a student with motor-related needs may not be able to type responses into a chat box, and a student who is impulsive may repeatedly click on the “raise your hand” button despite not having a question. Included within IEPs is information about students’ strengths and weaknesses, essentially enabling educators to answer the above questions. Equipped with this information, teachers can plan and deliver remote and online instruction that meets the specific needs of students with disabilities.

Purposefully plan instruction

To address student-level access, educators may find the Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, framework particularly helpful. UDL allows educators to proactively and thoughtfully design units or lessons of study that are accessible to all students. With roots in architecture, UDL encourages educators to minimize barriers from the onset so that all learners can achieve the same outcome. Simply put, by minimizing barriers for some (say, by providing push buttons for someone in a wheelchair), educators can open doors for all. What began as a theory now has a substantial research base—that’s because the UDL framework embeds multiple evidence-based practices framed around three areas:

  • Multiple means of engagement to generate student interest and motivation for learning
  • Multiple means of representation to present information and content differently
  • Multiple means of action and expression to differentiate how students express what they know

UDL is best implemented through backward design, or by starting with the end in mind. From there, educators can identify potential barriers based on student needs and determine how to minimize those barriers by using different instructional materials, methods, or assessments.

Consider a quick example:

  • Learning outcome: Using a visual model, all students will show how fractions are equivalent, with attention to how the number and size of the parts differ even though the two fractions are the same size.
  • Potential barriers: Students do not know what equivalency means; students have only been exposed to one fraction model (for example, circle diagrams).
  • Minimize barriers: Provide a graphic organizer that cues students into the key term equivalency during the math lesson; send students a packet that includes cut-out manipulatives [252 KB ] (for example, fraction bars) to use while completing independent practice tasks.

This example, which allows students to use graphic organizers and manipulatives, demonstrates alignment with the UDL principle related to providing multiple means of representation. In addition, it may help educators think through how to deliver accommodations or supplemental aids identified in a student’s IEP (for example, having a parent use a hand-over-hand technique to support a child with cutting out the manipulatives in the packet). Not all areas (engagement, representation, action, and expression) must be incorporated into every lesson.

For more information, see CAST’s About UDL Page and UDL Guidelines. For accessible educational materials (AEM), see the National Center on AEM or Bookshare.

Deliver explicit instruction in IEP goal areas

Using the UDL framework when planning provides a strong foundation from which educators can effectively deliver remote instruction. What we know about students with disabilities is that, in their deficit areas—where IEP goals are focused—they require more frequent practice opportunities than their general education peers—up to 30 times more practice (Gersten et al., 2009). This level of practice cannot be achieved by having students complete only online, self-directed instructional tasks. Students with disabilities need to practice—and receive affirmative and corrective feedback—to learn.

Explicit instruction is a high-leverage practice with a strong evidence base that can help educators structure learning through an “I do,” “We do,” “You do” sequence that incorporates modeling, guided practice, and independent practice (Archer & Hughes, 2010; Riccomini, Morano, & Hughes, 2017). These steps can be completed in remote settings, although it may take some teacher creativity, depending on your students’ access to devices, technology, and the Internet. Strategies for carrying out each explicit instructional phase (modeling, guided practice, and independent practice) include using prerecorded videos, videophone apps, or live sessions through a videoconferencing platform.

And within your instruction, don’t forget to leverage the materials you identified during planning to address student barriers—bring out those cut-out manipulatives to model fraction equivalency, for example. While you’re delivering your lesson, have students complete sections of the graphic organizer to define the term equivalency to help solidify their understanding.

For information on explicit instruction, browse the course content from the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII). For materials to support the delivery of remote explicit instruction, explore NCII’s sample lessons for literacy, mathematics, and behavior.

Final thoughts

Teachers, students, and families have been thrown into remote learning—and everyone faces a huge learning curve. As such, the best thing educators can do is to be transparent. Did a lesson not go the way you intended? Send an email to talk about what you might do differently next time. Need some help getting student participation? Call the parent or family and ask them what challenges they are seeing at home and what’s worked. Parents and families are your allies—bring them into the conversation, but do so with understanding and compassion. Like educators, they are balancing multiple roles and challenges during a time of heightened stress, fear, and uncertainty.

And go easy on yourself. Nothing is perfect the first, or second, or third time around. Just like students, educators need multiple practice opportunities to learn new things!

For more information

REL Midwest is one of 10 RELs that serve designated regions of the country and work with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs are providing evidence-based resources on remote teaching and learning. Browse the collection.

To explore the effectiveness of virtual/online programs in special education settings, see REL Midwest’s related Ask A REL reference desk response, which provides citations for research on this topic.


Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2010). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York, NY: Guilford Press. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from Available from

Clifford, S. E. (2018). The implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in a virtual public charter school. University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations 2449. Retrieved from

Free appropriate public education, 34 C.F.R. § 300.17.

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., & Tilly, W. D. (2009). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and multi-tier intervention in the primary grades (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Riccomini, P. J., Morano, S., & Hughes, C. A. (2017). Big ideas in special education: Specially designed instruction, high-leverage practices, explicit instruction, and intensive instruction. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 50(1), 20–27.

U.S. Department of Education. (2020, March). Questions and answers on providing services to children with disabilities during the coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak. Individuals With Disabilities Education Act Website.

Vasquez, E., III, & Straub, C. (2012). Online instruction for K–12 special education: A review of the empirical literature. Journal of Special Education Technology, 27(3), 31–40.


Teri Marx

Teri Marx

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