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Clinical and Special Education

6 Strategies to Help Bridge the Learning Gap for your SpEd Students

Rachael Storey
Written By Rachael Storey
On Apr 19, 2021
7 minute read

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. For more information, be sure to check out 4 Considerations for Planning to Address the COVID Learning Gap in Special Education.

Part 1 Recap:

When devising a plan to address the COVID Learning Gap in your special education students, there are four steps you should consider:

  1. Start with the standards and IEP goals
  2. Use your data to find gaps
  3. Determine what is the most essential content, considering the standards and data
  4. Create an intervention plan for each student or class


Now that you have used data to determine exactly what you need to teach for the rest of the school year, what strategies can help teach those concepts?


Here are 6 strategies to help bridge the learning gap for your Special Education students:




 Build remediation in to grade level work.


Research shows remediation efforts are most effective when used alongside or incorporated into grade level work, instead of taking its place. Suzy Pepper Rollins discusses this concept in her book Learning in the Fast Lane, which provides a comprehensive overview of the merits of focusing on adding to grade level work, or “acceleration instead of remediation.” Continue with your usual curriculum, adding in scaffolding to the grade level standards or essential elements. Break material down into manageable pieces for students, adding in the extra knowledge they need to make connections to the bigger picture.


I know—it can seem difficult to add in scaffolding for all the grade level concepts you still need to fit in before the end of the year. However, scaffolding can be quick and easy in practice, when you already know the concepts you need to target.


Scaffolding could look like:

- Extra background information and prior knowledge lessons before starting a unit or story

- An emphasis on vocabulary instruction prior to learning new concepts

- Providing clear connections between old and new concepts, with the help of visual aids such as concept maps and graphic organizers

- Mini lessons built-in throughout your day

- Small group work and stations

- Warm-ups or “bell work” and exit ticket

- Individual binders/IEP goal binders with student work for them to complete

- An additional concept and question at the end of math homework

- Extra credit questions on assessment

- A class game with review questions to help students link together concepts, such as Kahoot!




 If possible, edit student schedules.


While in a perfect world it would be wonderful to have extra time to work on more content with our students, it is not possible that all students will be able to attend after school or weekend sessions to catch up, as has been suggested by many as a way to “stop the slide.” Do you teach resource room or help create your students’ schedules? If possible, work with administrators to create schedules that leave room for remediation in your students’ day. For example, can they receive credit for a study skills block or can you create an independent learning block? At the last high school I taught at, I was able to create independent learning classes for students to receive credits towards their diplomas. We have to think of creative ways to construct more time for remediation, and all the changes this school year may work in favor of more schedule flexibility for our students.




 Utilize paraprofessionals for small groups and tutoring.

Another option posited by many in education thought leadership regarding the stemming of learning loss is intensive tutoring. How can one educator possibly do intensive small group or 1:1 tutoring for all the students on their caseload, if additional time is not an option? It is not realistic; we would need assistance. Thankfully, tutoring by paraprofessionals is an effective strategy against learning loss. Work with your special education paraprofessionals and train them on the standards and content you are re-teaching so that they can run groups or individual tutoring. Perhaps it could be worthwhile for schools and districts to consider hiring more paraprofessionals, at least in the short term, in order to provide the intensive tutoring that students need.




 Offer choices for students to demonstrate knowledge.

This year has brought unprecedented changes to education—now is not the time to be a stickler for traditional assignments or being inflexible to student needs. I suggest playing to your students’ strengths and let them show competency in their own ways. Think of determining competency or if a student is able to meet a standard as you would think of creating accommodations for students. What extraneous parts of the assignments can we take away so that only the actual concept we are evaluating is left? For example, is it important to know how mitosis works, or to write about it in an essay? Take away all superfluous parts that are not the actual standard for the assignment; in this mitosis example it would be the essay. Then, you can determine competency based on the student. Maybe a student can explain the concept in a casual conversation. Maybe a student that loves art can make you a poster, or one-pager. Maybe the student who loves graphic novels can create a comic strip. I always like the quote by the cartoonist George Evans, “Every student can learn, just not on the same day, in the same way.” Every student can display competency of learning standards, just not in the same way. This philosophy is the reason why I often used choice boards for assessments for my students. Also, in my experience, giving choices to students--especially those who may have issues with compliance or starting assignments--gives them a sense of agency in their assignments and leads to more work completion.




 Encourage metacognition. 


I like to think of metacognition as thinking about thinking. Metacognition is a higher order skill but can be incorporated into your classroom in simple ways to help students process what they are learning. I have found that many of my students with disabilities have had difficulty or discomfort understanding or admitting what they did not know, which lead to trouble or reticence regarding fixing mistakes and relearning concepts. I can’t blame them; I remember being a student and not wanting to spend extra time on things I was not great at, either.


To help fix this, encourage a positive classroom culture of acceptance concerning making and fixing mistakes, and reinforce ideas about growth mindset. I have two easy ways to incorporate this mindset into your classroom. First, model making mistakes, thinking aloud, and relearning concepts every single day in your classroom. Do not shut students down when students offer wrong answers but lead them to think about how they found their answer. Second, I have found it important to accept assessment and homework retakes and/or corrections in order to help establish this classroom culture. By going over their work again and fixing their mistakes, students are taking ownership of their learning process and utilizing metacognition.




Consider ESY for certain students.


There has been a lot of conversation regarding the possibility of extra summer school for students in a number of school districts. While I believe some students (and educators!) need and deserve a break this summer, we could reconsider Extended School Year (ESY) for certain students who receive special education services. ESY can be a useful option for students who have significant issues with retention. If you know your student struggled over short breaks or over summers, this year may have compounded learning gaps and they could benefit from additional instruction this summer.


Unfortunately, in my experience I have found that it is sometimes not common practice to suggest ESY for students with less significant learning needs. Perhaps it is time to push back on this and really look in to the benefits ESY could provide for all students in special education regardless of disability label or level. Even students working towards high school diplomas could possibly benefit from ESY designed to fit their needs if they truly struggle with retention or would benefit from the continued routine in-person learning can provide.


I hope this series of blogs helped you create a plan for prioritizing content and implementing strategies to bridge learning gaps that occurred due to COVID-19. There will be content you cannot get to this year; all you can do is prioritize accordingly and continue to grow your positive classroom culture. Do you have ideas or best practices for closing the gap for students in special education right now? Please share in the comments.


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