Four Lessons We’ve Learned from Moving Online

Students with ADHD, executive function challenges, and anxiety can thrive in a virtual “schoolhouse”
Exterior of Commonwealth Academy
Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria, Virginia.

As the news began to emerge a few weeks ago that the world was rapidly and severely becoming affected by the spread of the novel coronavirus, schools grew increasingly concerned. When school closings became a likely outcome, school leaders began to reflect on how to continue delivering on their mission and promise to their students.

That was particularly true for schools, like the one I lead, whose mission is to serve students with learning differences. For students with ADHD, executive function challenges, anxiety, and learning differences, “doing school” can be stressful. Our students benefit from the stability, routines, safety, and connections that being together in one physical space allows for. A question started to emerge in conversations between peer-school leaders. Could the students do it?

Three weeks later, after all operations have been moved online, something is abundantly evident. Our students are thriving. They are creative thinkers who are impressively resilient, compassionate, and insightful. Not only did they transition well into a space where mainstream education didn’t think they could; they are an inspiration and an example to us all.

There are as many ways to approach a school’s shift of operations online as there are schools, systems, and school cultures. Here are four lessons we have learned moving to online teaching that have allowed us to do so smoothly.

1. Anticipate, plan, prepare, reflect, repeat

Even with the best risk management and pandemic plans in place, schools need to prepare for and evaluate how this “truly” will look and feel in real time. The fact is, no one really knows. For schools serving students with ADHD, executive function challenges, and anxiety, the potential perils of such a shift are multiplied. Change disrupts the predictability of routines from which students with learning differences benefit.

At Commonwealth Academy, we began contemplating the move to a virtual learning environment in mid-late February.  Our team re-examined many aspects of our educational and operational capabilities, including: asking our teachers to start thinking about how they would transition their classes to an online environment; taking an in-depth look at our technological capabilities to deliver an effective educational program remotely and developing step-by-step written and video Virtual Learning User Guides for our students and parents; creating daily schedules for each division; and reviewing and updating our risk management, business continuity, and operational documents. Most importantly, we communicated our evolving plans with our parent community, students, and faculty and staff early and often.

A couple of weeks into our program, we have found that the clear, thoughtful, developmentally appropriate virtual learning plans, structure, and scaffolding that we developed, along with an opportunity to practice while school was still open, were keys to a successful transition, even for our youngest students.

2. It’s still all about community and relationships.

We are all faced with a barrage of information about pandemic, infections, death tolls, risks, and confinements. To best cope with this, students with ADHD and anxiety need transparency, facts, processes, explanations, and compassion. As a parent in our community eloquently put it recently, they need “a steady hand and a warm heart”.

It is important to also keep in mind that this transition is traumatic for parents. Schools have the responsibility, in this unprecedented situation, to try to do everything they can to support them, too.

Students, parents, and faculty love their school communities and those whose schools are closed are grieving. They are grieving the loss of special events and gatherings, traditional rites of passage, connectedness, and memory making. They feel robbed. School communities need to lean into this and work on maintaining a sense of community together.

Our virtual learning program is intentionally inclusive of all members of our school community, and we are continually iterating on it to foster connectedness among all of our constituents. Teachers employ synchronous teaching and learning experiences as often as they can. Guidance counselors are available to students and to parents whenever possible. Learning specialists are scheduling mini “parent education series” sessions to help families better understand how to support their child at home. We’ve kept Spirit Week, and our school Mascot “visits” classes. I’m holding “coffees” with my colleagues and will soon be doing so with parents at various times of the day.

Continue doing your best to find ways to be together when apart. Bring the best of humanity and connect in this very disconnected world.

3. Differentiation is for everyone.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we have found that differentiation and individualization of instruction can very effectively happen, perhaps even more extensively so, remotely.

Students with ADHD have beautifully creative minds. The platforms used for remote learning allow them to more fully engage that side of their brain and explore the applicability of learned concepts. On the other hand, this new environment lends itself to a different approach to executive functioning skills teaching and learning. Consistency and predictability are key to lowering anxiety and to making students feel they have a sense of control and understanding. While some of the strategies have changed, it is important to preserve the routine, whenever possible. Strategies which are proving to be successful include: virtual academic support; Occupational and Speech and Language Therapy with both groups and individuals; and executive function guidance sessions.

Physical activity and the creative arts are particularly important to the wellbeing of students with ADHD and anxiety. They help the students self-regulate, channel their energy, and focus.  Our physical education teacher created virtual, personalized physical activity plans for our students and families, and our art teacher provides online art classes for any student or adult who wants to participate.

Ask your staff to guide families through this. You’ll be amazed.

4. Don’t forget to breathe

In this new world of virtual learning, educators effectively feel like first-year teachers again. All conversations and meetings suddenly need to be scheduled after hours to make up for face-time interactions, and soon days, evenings, weekdays, and weekends start blending together. Work/life balance is harder than ever before to achieve for teachers who, in addition to work demands, now simultaneously must care for their own children, also home during the day.

This new professional environment needs to make as many allowances for personal care, understanding, and flexibility as possible, so that faculty and staff members can have opportunities to catch their breath. We are finding ways to pair asynchronous learning with teacher planning, and we are being intentional about our dedication to wellbeing. We also, from day one, have had substitute teachers lined up, trained, and ready to take over classes for teachers who needed to take some personal time.

The world needs school to adapt to online learning for the sake of our children in our care. We owe it to them to rally, in community and partnership, and to give them our best. This situation has resulted in something no one expected: It has, in a much-needed way, helped shake some of the preconceived notions about students with ADHD, executive function challenges, anxiety, and learning differences.

These amazing students are proof positive that with compassion, thorough and responsive planning, thoughtful community engagement, and genuine care for all, what too many see as a deficit is, in fact, a great strength.

Anabelle C. Morgan is Head of School at Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria, Virginia.

Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.

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