There is hardly an area of our lives that is unaffected by the pandemic. It has brought uncertainty, anxiety and isolation. For students even under normal circumstances, sitting and learning can be difficult. With the pandemic, the potential roadblocks to education are that much harder to break through.
As ATT teachers launch this unusual school year, we are offering several professional development sessions to support them. Sarah Steinberg, MS, BCBA of Steinberg Behavior Solutions and Jill Hollederer, MA, BCBA met with teachers over Zoom to provide tools for transitioning to learning in-person.
Although we are fortunate to have programs such as Zoom and Google Classroom, learning remotely presents many added challenges to students. In the physical classroom, there are distractions, but the energy of having a teacher and other students often helps students focus and stay accountable.
It’s also important to approach education with a balance in striving for meaningful learning during the pandemic as well as emphasizing emotional support for students. Fortunately, there are tools and techniques to help students adjust back to in-classroom learning and thrive in this unusual school year.
Set goals and expectations
The first step in helping students acclimate back to learning in the classroom is for teachers to identify the specific needs of their students. Teachers will then be able to offer personalized support throughout the transition.
Teachers can ask students to reflect on both the challenges and benefits of remote learning. Teachers may find that students prefer certain elements of the remote learning experience, and they can work towards implementing those strategies. This also has the potential of addressing some of the emotions students might be feeling and can be a helpful way for them to cope.
Setting clear classroom expectations will provide students with knowledge and understanding to reduce uncertainty. This increases the students’ willingness to comply with new behaviors.
Here are some helpful tips on how to set solid expectations for in-person learning in 2020:
- Present what students can do rather than what they can’t do
Stating rules and expectations in the positive encourages students’ compliance and also makes it easier for the teacher to enforce. Rather than telling a student what not to do over and over again, reframing a command in the positive creates a more nurturing environment and better promotes meaningful learning.
For example, instead of writing a class rule stating, “Don’t get out of your seat without permission,” write, “Please remain in your seat until you are given permission.” It’s a slight change that makes a big difference. Another example of a class rule in the positive is “We are respectful.” Under the rule, you can elaborate on the practical applications such as, “Listen to the teacher and your peers, speak kindly and respect personal space.”
- Offer choices
Many students respond better when offered a choice between different options. This gives them responsibility and some level of control. Teachers can give the students an option to use hand sanitizer or wash their hands, to choose the schedule of activities or actually help create the guidelines for the class (with some guidance, of course.)
There are many areas that teachers and students are not able to be flexible in the classroom, but finding an area with flexibility and offering choices to students will help encourage participation and even excitement in regard to classroom activities.
- Use reinforcement charts and praise students
Now that the guidelines are in place, reward students for following them through some form of reinforcement. Teachers can use a sticker chart, participation dollars or another creative option as a reward. Teachers can ask students what reward is best for both short-term and long-term reinforcements to help motivate them.
- Clearly and visibly display the expectations
Create an appealing poster or graphic to display the expected behaviors to earn the reinforcer, how the teacher will check, what the reward will be and when it will be given. Try to only present what is relevant for the students today in the short-term. The long-term plan for fading out the reinforcement will come gradually as students are more adjusted back to in-person learning.
Look out for behavioral concerns
Students often display troubling behavior when going through a challenging time, so it’s important to identify what these possible behavior challenges are and how to best work through them.
Some examples of COVID-19 related behavioral concerns might include:
- Struggling to wear a mask especially for long periods of time
- Washing hands frequently or overusing hand sanitizer
- Difficulty focusing
- Aversion to certain fabrics
For a student who is exhibiting challenging behaviors, try offering choices, offering extra assistance and allowing additional time for them to complete tasks. This will help with students who need to build up skills potentially lost from the lack of in-classroom learning which may be a factor in their acting out. To limit the over-use of hand sanitizer or handwashing, make sure to plan frequent times for both so the students can expect when they will be able to eliminate germs.
Allowing the use of noise-canceling headphones, separating workspaces or having students work in small groups are all helpful ways to channel both hyperactivity and difficulty focusing. Making sure to use reinforcement rewards and specific verbal praise will also motivate students in the classroom.
When the expectations and reinforcements are at the forefront of the students’ minds throughout the day, they will be more likely to exhibit positive behaviors. Reminding students before recess or social activities can help encourage positive interactions between students and their peers. As the teacher models following the rules and expectations, great emphasis should be placed on praising students who are serving as role models for their peers.
Be mindful of sensory issues related to COVID-19
Sensory issues related to COVID-19 might be anything that affects the senses such as touch, sound, taste, smell and sight. A recommended technique to help students cope with this challenge is systematic desensitization. This will vary depending on the sensory need, but examples include gradually increasing the duration, offer choices, provide scents in their masks and to encourage frequent breaks in the bathroom or plexiglass corner.
Students who may be slightly more sensory can have a hard time wearing masks, especially those made out of certain fabrics. Work with the parents to find a mask that may be more comfortable and manageable.
The four main motivations behind behavior are:
- Sensory challenges
- Escape or avoidance
- Attention seeking
- Tangible (to get something a student wants)
By taking the time to really listen to what the students are going through and what they could benefit from, teachers can work towards more meaningful, effective and engaging learning in the classroom.