By Ellen D’Amato, PhD, School Psychologist, First Children School
“Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.” I wrote this quote from Dr. Dennis Kimbro, author, educator, and motivational speaker, in a spiral notebook with the date, March 23, 2020. This would begin our first full week of distance learning at First Children School. I did not text it, tweet it, or even type it. I wrote it in a notebook. There was something comforting about this familiar way of recording it as well as a realization that now, more than ever, we would need to connect with and support each other to be successful with distance learning. On March 23, we had been maintaining social distancing for about a week. We were no longer in our building, and staff were working from home. One of our initial struggles was that social distancing was the exact opposite of what I had been embracing and encouraging in our school. Bringing students, families, case managers, and staff together was very familiar to us; social distancing was not. We needed to create new and familiar ways to connect at a distance and engage our families, students, and staff.
We have learned a lot over the past three months, and we are still learning. One of the most important things we learned was that the needs of our families are just as unique as the needs of our students. Initially, we spent time learning about the natural environments of our students. Who will be working with the student? What types of toys and equipment are available? Is there outdoor space? Does your child have access to a computer, IPAD, etc.? How comfortable are you using it? How should we contact you? We needed to recognize and support the needs of our families in order to connect with our students.
We also needed to create a climate that supported requesting and giving help. How did we do this? We led by example and celebrated it when we saw it! Staff helped parents download applications and provided “how to” videos for programming devices, attaching switches, and adapting materials. Staff helped other staff become comfortable with these new ways of connecting.
During the first week of distance learning, I wanted to connect immediately with our staff. I used the “old conference” line because it was familiar and simple. Keep it simple became a guiding principle. We identified what had already been successful in our classrooms and adapted curriculum to our new delivery systems. Since our parents were now our instructors, we looked at ways to provide clear and effective directions using video modeling and sign language tutorials.
I cannot say enough about practicing. We were all struggling with access. We practiced with each other and with our school district case managers prior to our annual reviews. In this way, our virtual meetings were on time and coordinated. Although our access might have changed, our staff and input were familiar.
We also needed to continue with our familiar ways of connecting. For our staff, it was a monthly calendar. We have continued and expanded our calendar to now include our virtual meetings as well as access information. We are also planning to continue, when we return to our building, with some of the new ways we have been connecting such as video modeling and Microsoft Teams.
The success of our distance learning would not have been possible without our staff and their ability to connect in new as well as familiar ways.