July 16, 2017
I have been teaching elementary special education at an online school for four years now, and I LOVE it! Besides the obvious benefits for myself and my family, I am also able to serve students with special needs all over the state.
I find that people are fascinated with what I do and often have many questions, especially about special education. One of the first questions I was asked upon getting my job was asked by my dad, and it was “Do you think this is good for kids?” I had to pause for a second and think before I gave him my answer, and when I did, it was something like, “For most students, no. School is about so much more than academic instruction; it’s also about social interaction and emotional development. However, there are some students that, for one reason or another, are not having their needs met. For those students, virtual education is a good option.” The virtual school in which I work will have an enrollment of 14,000 students for the upcoming school year and a waiting list of 2,000 students, so clearly it is meeting a need with the students of the state.
If you are thinking of enrolling your student in a virtual school for the upcoming school year, here are a few questions to ask yourself before making the decision.
- Do I have the time to devote to my child to help them be successful in this environment? In my experience, I have found that many parents think that they are going to be able to park their children in front of a computer all day and then be able to go about their business. For high schoolers and some middle schoolers, this may be the case. However, for elementary students, especially those with attention issues, there is much more involved. Students are not logged into a classroom from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. They likely have several classes in a day (usually in the morning), but they also have lessons in an online curriculum to complete. Students are assigned to homerooms and have content area teachers, but as the parent, you are the one putting eyes on your student on a daily basis. There are emails to check, lessons to check off, and appropriate behavior to enforce. Bottom line…it takes a great deal of time and energy on the part of the parent for the student to be successful.
- Am I able to wear the teacher hat AND the parent hat?
One of the main things that I hear from parents each year is that they are having a hard time getting their child to complete the work they are supposed to or that they don’t know how to help their child with a certain lesson or assignment. Yes, you have an army of teachers and support staff behind you, and you should by all means make use of that, but you are the one that is face to face with your child. If a certain technique or strategy doesn’t work, you are the one that will deal with the behavioral fallout. It will become quite clear that there is a difference between teaching strategies and parenting strategies. I am a teacher with a background in behavioral instruction, and I STILL don’t think I could have my own child be a virtual student! One of the best strategies that I have ever seen for dealing with this comes from the mom of one of my students. Each day, she and her son went down to a room in the basement, specifically set aside for school, to “mommy school.” She was able to clearly delineate between parent and teacher, and more impressively, convey that to her child. He knew that when they were in that room, he was with his teacher, not his mom. It worked extremely well!
- Does my child interact well with other students and adults?
If not, then virtual school may not be the best option for your family. In a traditional brick and mortar setting, students are placed in a setting with other students their own age in a controlled environment and being supervised by trained staff. It is vital that children learn to interact appropriately with other children as well as other adults. If they do not have those skills (and do not receive them in another setting), then a traditional setting may be the best option for them. That being said, if your child is able to interact appropriately with others, or you have other ways for them to receive this interaction (scouts, church, sports teams, etc.), then virtual education may be a viable option.
- Will I be able to establish a consistent structure and environment for my child?
Children function better when they have a consistent schedule they follow. Will you be able to set aside a consistent place for your student to attend class and complete their lessons? Will you be able to establish and stick to a schedule? There are, of course, exceptions. Many families decide upon virtual education because of the flexibility it allows. There still needs to be as much consistency as possible so that your child knows what to expect.
- If my child receives therapy, will I be able transport him/her?
Psychotherapy, counseling, occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, hippotherapy…these are all examples of activities outside the home that may take place during the school day. If therapy is a part of your child’s IEP, the school will pay for it, but most of the time, you as the parent will be responsible for transporting the student to the therapy location. In my school, speech and occupational therapy are offered online, and that is the first option explored. Transportation is part of an IEP, and it can be discussed as part of an IEP meeting, but as a general rule, you should be able to transport your child.
Other questions to ask yourself when making this decision:
- Do I have a reliable internet connection?
- Do I have a reliable email address that I check regularly?
- Do I have a reliable phone connection (cell or landline)?
- Do I have a reliable/up-to-date computer?
- Do I have a strong support network in place (family, friends, neighbors)?
- Do I know where to go if I need help?
This is a big decision for your family, and before you make it, I recommend you talk to someone who is currently in a virtual school setting; parents, students, and/or teachers. Shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to help you in any way that I can!