How Online School Supports Students with Special Needs

6 min to read
A young student with special needs learning online with his learning coach

I recently had an interesting call from a Learning Coach (a parent who supports their child in their education at Connections Academy®), who asked if he could modify a journal-writing prompt I had assigned. The prompt was to write from the perspective of a person who has a disability. The student didn’t know anyone with a disability, therefore didn’t feel he could write convincingly from that perspective. The parent asked if their student could write about a person who was dealing with an injury like a broken leg instead. 

After giving my approval, I smiled. That dad and his student know me, but they didn’t realize that I have a disability. I have a hearing impairment and wear two hearing aids to correct it. I’ve never kept my hearing loss a secret from my employers, coworkers, or students. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses and other public venues are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities. For example, my hearing aids are my own responsibility, but I can ask for hearing-aid-compatible headsets and phone attachments from my place of employment in order to do my job—teaching online—effectively. 

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Legislation has also benefited children with special needs. In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Part B) was passed to provide federal funding to support services for children ages 3–21 who have disabilities. Through IDEA, states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million children, 3-21 who have disabilities. Through IDEA, states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million children. 

While federal law mandates that every child receive a free and appropriate education in the least-restrictive environment possible, and IDEA requires schools to give students with special needs the necessary accommodations and/or modifications to support their learning, services may vary by state and even by school district based on factors such as funding and resource availability. 

Additionally, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a Federal law that offers protection to those individuals who have a disability. Under Section 504, an individual who has a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits a major life activity is considered someone with a disability. In schools, this means that a person with a disability eligible under Section 504 may receive reasonable accommodations and/or reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures

An online school family provides online learning for a special needs student.

Online Learning for Students with Special Needs

Some children can learn easily in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. Others simply can’t. This can be especially true for students with special needs. Parents of students with physical limitations, mental health issues such as social anxiety, or children who have been diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition, which includes dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum, or other neurological issues that affect how their brain functions, may turn to special education online to meet their student’s unique needs.

How Does Online School for Special Needs Students Work?

Online public schools must follow ADA and IDEA guidelines just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Parents of children who have disabilities and special needs have many K–12 online school special education choices. Online schools like Connections Academy provide a safe and inclusive environment where students with special needs can learn from the comfort of their own home and on a schedule that suits them. 

“We have two children with multiple medical conditions that require round-the-clock care,” said Jamie Kosmerick, a Michigan Connections Academy Learning Coach. “We have been thrilled to have a public-school accredited program that we could do from the safety of our home while caring for our children.”

Free online school for students with special needs can be a great equalizer because it removes barriers that can hinder the educational journey of students with special needs. Here are five key benefits of online learning for special needs students:

1. Flexible Class Schedules

Students with special needs or chronic illnesses often have many doctor and/or therapy appointments that are scheduled throughout the week. In a brick-and-mortar school, this could mean a lot of missed class time. Online school offers flexible scheduling, giving students the ability to complete schoolwork around their appointments or when they feel up to it. If the student has a chronic illness, they can work ahead when they feel well so they don’t fall behind when they need treatment. 

Iowa Connections Academy Learning Coach Sarah Hunter noted, “My special needs child has therapy three times per week, as well as other functions weekly. I am able to schedule LiveLesson® sessions, therapies, and all other functions around each other. The flexible scheduling makes everything so easy.”

A student taking advantage of online learning for special needs students.

2. Learn from Anywhere

Students who have conditions that require longer hospital stays or frequent medical treatments can also just bring their schoolwork along with them so they don’t fall behind. Online school can be done anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection.

3. Fewer Distractions

Crowded hallways, lunchrooms, and classrooms can be overwhelming, especially for students on the autism spectrum. Online school removes many of the social barriers and noise distractions, allowing students to focus on their coursework and academic progress. 

“Our daughter has social anxiety and moving to a large middle school would have become a problem for her. We registered her for Arkansas Connections Academy in the fifth grade. She is now in high school and is still thriving,” said Melissa C., Learning Coach at Arkansas Connections Academy. 

4. A Safe Learning Space

Online school is typically done in the student’s home, which already has everything to mee a student’s needs. Students can navigate their home environment easily and find the things they need quickly. For students who need a quiet space to calm down and refocus, learning from home provides that ability at any time.

“As a Learning Coach, I have not had to micromanage my son. He has his own learning space where he can doodle or step away to refocus and regroup when needed, and then he can come back to schoolwork when he is refreshed,” said Lisa Alexander, Learning Coach at South Carolina Connections Academy.

A student looking through books as part of her special education online.

5. Flexible Pacing and Individual Support

Online school is largely done at the student’s own pace, which gives them the opportunity to spend more time on lessons or schoolwork when needed. Students who have trouble staying focused can benefit from watching a recorded lesson more than once to ensure they absorb all the facts. Teachers in online schools also get to know students individually and can adjust their lessons based on the student’s unique learning needs as they progress toward their educational goals. Students can meet with their teachers one-on-one to talk through any issues or concerns and to answer questions to support their progress.

Online School for Students with an IEP

Students Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which is a plan developed in collaboration between the school, teachers, and parents to ensure the student has the support services they need to succeed in school and achieve their educational goals. Students with IEPs are welcomed at online schools, and often benefit from the personalized attention online school teachers can provide. When you enroll in online school, be sure to share your student’s IEP information with your child’s teachers. 

If you are enrolled in online school and feel your student needs an IEP, you can request an evaluation through your teacher just like at a brick-and-mortar school. Connections Academy has trained special education staff and guidance counselors who work with families to determine what supports are needed for the student.

Learn More About Connections Academy Special Education

With ADA and IDEA in place, today’s young adults have grown side-by-side with their peers who have a disability, thanks to the necessary services and accommodations for students with disabilities. This has helped many students look beyond their disabilities to see friends, classmates, and teammates. As for me, if my students don’t remember that I’m hearing impaired, I’ll take that as a compliment! It means my disability doesn’t interfere with the way I teach. 

If you are interested in learning more about how Connections Academy supports students with special needs, attend an information session to get all your questions answered. 

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