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Clinical and Special Education

5 Considerations for Returning to In-Person Special Education Classrooms: Part 2

Rachael Storey
Written By Rachael Storey
On Mar 11, 2021
8 minute read

This is a continuation of a two-part series focused on the 5 considerations helping you prepare for the return in-person learning in special education classrooms. Part 1 recommends that you:

  1. Make sure you have updated assessment data—it will affect student outcomes.
  2. Create an assessment plan with your special education team (including general education teachers) that reaches struggling learners.

Now, we will talk about… (part 3-5)


3. Continue to partner with student families, welcoming them to your in-person classroom.


Earlier this school year I wrote about how creating relationships with student families was more important than ever before when teaching in a virtual environment. Hopefully you were able to create caregiver connections in order to better reach your students, and now you can focus on transferring these relationships to the actual classroom. Continue to make time for these relationships as you return to in-person learning, as you will need caregiver information to have accurate data for IEP goals, know what practices worked well for students at home, and foresee challenges for your students once they are back. While you may not be able to invite families in to your classroom due to current health and safety guidelines, we can make families feel they are still an important part of the team. If you work together with families, students will have a better transition overall.


Ideas for partnering with caregivers to help ease the transition back to school:

  • Upload a virtual tour of the school classroom to help parents and students feel more comfortable and know what to expect from the environment.
  • Provide caregivers with social stories about returning to the classroom that they can share with their student before returning to school. These work best when individualized. Topics could include wearing a mask, hygiene, riding the bus, social distancing even with friends, etc.
  • Create a survey to email caregivers about what worked for their students at home and what did not.
  • Give caregivers a calendar schedule of when you will contact them regularly in order to keep communication lines open.
  • Encourage families to work on skills such as wearing a mask and hand washing at home so students feel more prepared for what to expect in the classroom.


4. Reconnect with students for a fresh start.

While you may have been able to create connections with students virtually, it will be important to also build relationships in-person. It is good practice to do a mid-year check-in with students to see how they are doing not only academically but emotionally, and this big change could create mixed feelings for many.


Creating and maintaining positive relationships with students is worthy of a whole other article, however, here are a few quick ideas I would incorporate if I were working on transferring my classroom back to in-person learning:

  • Help students set academic and personal goals for the rest of the year and truly listen to what they want to achieve. For example, students could write goals about making friends or joining a sport. I also found it beneficial to hold casual student conferences about IEP goals and their progress. Students should not be surprised by the goals they are working towards when they attend their IEP once a year, but should be invested in their own success.
  • Perhaps you incorporated writing journals during virtual learning; you could continue these or start fresh with journals now. The time it takes to read and respond is worth the benefit of showing students you really care about what they have to say.
  • Simply sit and talk with students in the morning before school starts or when work is done. An easy greeting of “I’m so happy you are here today,” goes a long way. I had one high school student with oppositional defiant disorder who told me every day for about half a year that he didn’t believe me that I was happy to see him each school day. I kept at it and one day mid-year I heard the golden words, “Yeah, I guess I’m happy to be here too,” with an eye roll and a little smile. This led to more on-task behavior and the student realizing that he actually enjoyed math, which led to academic results.
  • If you are like me, you might have become a teacher because you love working with young people; sometimes this can be forgotten when we are rushing to do everything we need to every day. Joke around! What I miss about seeing students every day is how funny they are. Find joy in the silliness of your students and let yourself remember what it was like to be a child. Your students will be happy to be back and to see you smiling.
  • Include time to work on peer social interactions in your day, utilizing conversation card prompts, free time for students to just talk with each other, and play socially-distanced class games, like hangman or charades. Students may need many prompts and open invitations to interact with peers after being isolated for so many months. I have found when students feel supported in their classroom community by their peers they are more willing to follow expectations.
  • Treat this time of transition as a fresh start for students. Perhaps you had a difficult time with certain students during remote instruction. Do not hold this against them and come to in-person instruction without preconceived ideas about how students will behave. There may be enough changes that students will respond differently.
  • Last, be cognizant of student emotions regarding being back at school and look for warning signs of severe distress. If you did emotional check-ins remotely, continue the practice in person or start now.

5. Explicitly teach expectations, routines, and school hygiene practices.

This is a huge school environment transition and for better or for worse, students probably are used to school at home. While some students may have hated virtual school, some may have loved it or at least become comfortable in a different routine. They have had a different schedule and perhaps have had more freedom in some ways than they will have once they return to school. Students will have new and different behavior expectations, be away from their families, and suddenly be around their peers. I suggest you act as though the first week back is similar to the first week of school at the start of the fall semester, and focus on teaching things like expectations, routines, schedules, and behavior guidelines, with an added emphasis on COVID-19 hygiene.


As a former teacher myself, I always liked to have immediate action items I could implement in my classroom, so here are teaching strategies (and freebies!) to help ease the transition back to your buildings.


Regarding expectations, routines, and schedules:

  • Create new in-person expectations and clearly teach rules. To do this I would use my system of creating student-led classroom expectations formerly discussed here. Explain why things are different in-person vs online.
  • Incorporate student-created brainstorms, sort cards, and anchor charts to ensure understanding of expectations via visual organization. Check out these templates for your use:

Brainstorm: How can we stay healthy in our classroom?

T-chart: Creating Good Hygiene Habits

  • Spend time focusing on new routines and schedules, and do not assume students will adapt quickly. While many students will need tactile schedules with them throughout the day, students with different needs may want a schedule in their locker, on the inside of their agenda or notebook, or a small version on their desk.
  • Be ready for different student behaviors due to all the environmental changes. You can help students stay on task with clear routines, self-regulation SEL tools, and positive rewards for things like wearing masks and social distancing, both on an individual and whole class level.


Students may have different coping mechanisms for being back at school, such as needing time to participate in their special interests, and these activities or the motives behind them should be explored instead of immediately shut down. For example, don’t force a child to do breathing exercises if they would rather have a break on their iPad in order to regulate their own body. Choice boards of coping skills are helpful!


Regarding teaching COVID-19 hygiene measures:

  • Take time to explicitly teach hand washing hygiene, using task analysis and visual supports if needed. Younger students may love one of the many songs on YouTube to sing while washing their hands—my daughter enjoys this song Elmo sings about washing his hands and this Daniel Tiger song about germs. You could even have your students create their own class song using a well-known tune.
  • An effective activity to teach about germs is this classic bread experiment, which works for many age groups and ability levels.
  • Have social stories available about washing hands, wearing masks, etc. Here is a free story about washing hands.
  • Here is a link to books about germs and hand washing for younger students.
  • Set your physical space up for success by creating visual boundaries for students to help with social distancing, as shown in this blog post.
  • A creative activity for the first day back could be creating a mask self-portrait or a “design your dream mask” activity. These projects put a focus on wearing masks in a fun, low-stress way. I would even do these activities with older students—high school students like an art break when they are stressed, too.


While it may seem exciting yet exhausting to return to in-person learning, it will be important to give your students and yourself time to adjust. It may be more difficult than expected and both students and staff will have to go through a period of transition in order for things to run smoothly. You cannot have everything perfectly ready and your students may not react in expected ways. If anyone can handle these changes, it is those who work in special education.


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