Equity, Teaching, Well-being

“How Can This Be More Accessible?”

Helping students with exceptional learning needs on the path to self-advocacy through better communication

ADAPTABILITY HAS NEVER been a more important skill for educators than during the COVID-pandemic. From intermittent shifts between online and in-person learning environments to planning within restricted classroom working conditions, educators have been forced to hustle since the spring of 2020. As they continue to adapt and adjust to change, they must also consider how to prepare students for a labour market that is transforming before our very eyes. We are seeing significant shifts to remote work arrangements that appear to be both permanent and increasing (Castrillon, 2020; Lund et al., 2021). With so much change, pursuit of an enjoyable and valuable learning experience for any student can feel elusive or even unattainable – and this may be especially true for students with exceptional learning needs.

We know that students with exceptional learning needs were among the hardest hit during the pandemic. While many students faced abrupt discontinuations to specialized services such as speech and language therapy, others struggled to keep up with online lessons and expectations without the kind of direct support they’d been used to receiving in the classroom. In addition to losing supports, new “quadmester” formats see students learning fewer subjects at greater pace, leaving many feeling anxious, stressed, and burned out. With educators already doing everything they can to deal with changing and sub-par conditions, it is essential that students take on greater management of their own learning. Like adaptability for educators, self-regulated learning has become paramount for students. This is a skill that that students with many types of exceptional learning needs tend to struggle with (Nader-Grosbois, 2014; Schunk & Bursuck, 2013). 

During the pandemic and beyond, educators must focus their efforts in education on helping students with exceptional learning needs on their path to becoming self-advocates. Even better, through the lens of inclusion, this should be a universal endeavour within our classrooms to benefit all students.

For students with exceptional learning needs, self-regulated learning can involve consideration of what additional learning supports they will need and be provided with. At the elementary and secondary school levels this kind of planning is driven by educators and parents, but responsibility shifts dramatically to the students following their completion of K–12 education. Students need to understand their strengths and areas of needs, because accessing the accommodations that are necessary for success in post-secondary education is contingent on the student’s ability to request, negotiate, and implement those plans. That was true before the pandemic began, but understanding one’s own strengths and needs has become even more of a challenge during the pandemic. Educators must prepare these students for this shift, and it will take some reconsideration of how educators communicate with and about students with exceptional learning needs. In short, students with exceptional learning needs must become self-advocates. But what does this involve?

Change is constant: Know thyself

While the negative impact of the pandemic on our society cannot be overstated, one potential benefit of pandemic schooling may be that educators become nimbler in their efforts to provide supports for students. As students move through the education system, they too become used to change – in how learning happens at multiple levels, in what is expected of students, and in who is expected to be the greatest advocate for students with exceptional learning needs. While we cannot prepare ourselves entirely for the next environment we will find ourselves in, whether it be another pandemic, a post-secondary program, or a new career and workplace, we can focus on what we bring into that environment. We can work to understand our strengths and needs, and prepare to obtain the resources we will need to be successful. 

Test and colleagues (2005) constructed a conceptual model of what self-advocacy involves, and what it requires of us as educators. According to their model, becoming a self-advocate involves developing:

  • Knowledge of self (what are my specific needs?)
  • Knowledge of rights (what I am entitled to?)
  • Communication skills (how do I negotiate for support?)
  • Leadership (how do I advocate for others with similar needs?)

Students with exceptional learning needs who become self-advocates are positioned well for transitions (changes in environment). Like learning a language, researchers agree that developing self-advocacy skills is done best when students are young. During the pandemic and beyond, educators must focus their efforts in education on helping students with exceptional learning needs on their path to becoming self-advocates. Even better, through the lens of inclusion, this should be a universal endeavour within our classrooms to benefit all students. 

Steps to self-advocacy

Providing students with self-knowledge can involve distinguishing between what a student’s exceptionality actually means and what they might think it means. Educators should look to inform students about their specific learning challenges; we know that students who have the same label (e.g. learning disability) do not necessarily experience the same challenges. Experimentation is encouraged here – work with students to figure out what conditions are most and least ideal, and collaborate to generate ways to overcome the obstacles they face. The better they understand themselves, the better prepared they’ll be to seek what they need in whatever environment they find themselves in next. 

For students who are identified with exceptional learning needs, educators have a legal responsibility to provide the supports that they document on their individual education plan (the term varies by location in Canada). These students must be taught to recognize when their needs are not being met, and to understand what kinds of accommodations and supports they may expect. This kind of education sets students up well to learn their rights as individuals with disabilities entering a labour market that will almost certainly not include an individual who advocates for them in the way that educators do for their students. Advocacy skills should be transferred to students and Pearson and Gallagher (1983) famously provided us with a model of how to do this. Educators must model for students, collaborate with them, scaffold supports as needed, and work toward the students’ independence. 

Knowledge of self and rights are almost useless without the skills to communicate with others. Educators should focus on teaching students to seek what they require by being assertive and proactive, rather than aggressive and reactive. Often, students with exceptional learning needs will find themselves in situations where they cannot access the supports they need (e.g. prompting students to refocus during asynchronous learning). Here, educators should focus on helping these students learn to negotiate for support; the student and teacher/supervisor can consider the task demands, the environment and resources available, and find a way to compromise. 

An essential component of self-advocacy is peer support. Students needs to look out for one another because, whether they are learning remotely or in the classroom with restrictions, educators may not as easily notice when students are struggling. It benefits everyone to encourage all students to consider how their peers are doing through regular check-ins, and to speak up when someone is having difficulty. Whether a student has exceptional learning needs or not, all students can advocate for their peers when additional support is required. Developing a culture that values this team-first approach begins with the teacher. 

Discoveries within the pandemic

Sudden shifts to online learning required educators to think quickly about how they were going to create a new learning environment. The use of online platforms, a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and flexibility were all common features across the country. Many students with exceptional learning needs experienced obstacles with these new forms of learning and instruction, but these experiences also point to some tremendous lessons that we can take forward. Ultimately, the pandemic has been (and should be) a reminder that educators must develop a reflex of asking “can this be more accessible?” While educators should be asking themselves if learning can be more accessible for their students, there is a great opportunity to involve students with exceptional learning needs in this conversation to share their perspectives and insights from what they have experienced. In addition to focusing on the development of self-advocacy skills for our students with exceptional learning needs, several findings from pandemic research are worth considering. 

We must also consider how, based on their experiences during school closures, educators might create more active opportunities for parents of students with exceptional learning needs to inform what happens in the classroom. Whitley and colleagues (in press a) identified that parents of children with exceptional learning needs generally did not feel confident in their ability to support their child’s learning needs during the pandemic-related school closures and remote learning. In a lot of cases, parents and caregivers were required to assume, to some degree, the role of “teacher” for their child. This was especially necessary for many parents of children with significant exceptional learning needs who were not able to access remote learning in the same ways as many of their peers. However, these researchers (Whitley, in press b) also identified that parents who felt they had greater social-emotional support from the school (e.g. supports for the child’s emotional well-being) felt more confident in their ability to support their child. In the same research study, some parents were able to identify new approaches, based on the knowledge they gained about their child’s exceptional learning needs during their focused time together. 

Together, the results of this research highlight the opportunity we have in education to foster stronger parent/teacher relationships. While parents and caregivers have always been the experts on their children, many now have new insights about the exceptional learning needs of their children, and how learning happens best for them. As we move forward in education with uncertainty, we can be certain that students with exceptional learning needs can benefit when school and home collaborate to generate ideas about how learning can be more accessible. While this sort of collaboration may be often limited to annual meetings to review the child’s individual education plan, Whitley and colleagues (in press B) have documented that parents and caregivers can provide ideas for consideration about how teaching and learning happen. 

IT DOES NO GOOD to dwell on what we cannot change. Despite the challenges and tragedies that the pandemic has brought, we should rather dwell on the opportunities it has given us to reconsider how we can give students a great learning experience, and how we can prepare them for an uncertain future. Pandemic-related research on children with exceptional learning needs not only highlights the challenges these students face regardless of the learning environment, but also reveals the anxiety and stress that these children and their families experience in dealing with these challenges. Communication among educators, parents, and students with exceptional learning needs is paramount to provide them with the support they need to succeed now, and the knowledge they need to thrive in whatever lies ahead for them.  

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

This is part of the first edition of Education Canada, powered by voicEd radio, a cross-platform professional learning experience.


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Castrillon, C. (2020, December 27). This is the future of remote work in 2021. Forbes. www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/12/27/this-is-the-future-of-remote-work-in-2021/?sh=14a485721e1d 

Lund, S., Madgavkar, A., et al. (2021). The future of work after COVID-19. McKinsey Global Institute. www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/the-future-of-work-after-covid-19

Nader-Grosbois N. (2014). Self-perception, self-regulation and metacognition in adolescents with intellectual disability. Research in developmental disabilities35(6), 1334–1348. doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2014.03.033

Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3), 317–344. doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(83)90019-X

Schunk, D. H., & Bursuck, W. D. (2013). Self-regulation and disability. In M. L. Wehmeyer (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of positive psychology and disability (pp. 265–278). Oxford University Press.

Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Wood, et al. (2005). A Conceptual Framework of Self-Advocacy for Students with Disabilities. Remedial and Special Education26(1), 43–54. doi.org/10.1177/07419325050260010601

Whitley, J., Matheson, I., et al. (in press a). Perspectives of parents of children with special education needs: Self-efficacy and school supports during COVID-19 school closures. Exceptionality Education International. 

Whitley, J., Specht, J., et al. (in press b). Holes, patches and multiple hats: The experiences of parents of students with special education needs navigating at-home learning during COVID-19. In R. Turok-Squite (Ed.), COVID-19 and education in the Global North: Storytelling as alternative pedagogies. Palgrave.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Ian Matheson 

Assistant Professor of Special Education, Queen's University

Ian A. Matheson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Special Education at Queen's University. His research focuses on the intersection of supporting students with exceptional learning needs and educational psychology.

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Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack

Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Inclusion, University of Lethbridge

Jeffrey MacCormack, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology and Inclusion at the University of Lethbridge, Faculty of Education. Dr. MacCormack's research on after-school programs, executive functions, social competence, and play-based learning is also informed by ten years of experience teaching elementary students and many years of teaching post-secondary adult learners.

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