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My Life As A Sped Teacher: Problem Solving In Virtual Special Education

I have been employed in the field of education for over 7 years. My husband and I foster children in need.

Going Virtual

The transition to virtual school has been a challenge. Let's move forward with education despite this challenge and give our kids the support and education they so greatly deserve.

The transition to virtual school has been a challenge. Let's move forward with education despite this challenge and give our kids the support and education they so greatly deserve.

The Challenges

Every teacher has challenges with managing and their classroom and providing both opportunities and accommodations to all students. In this article, we will cover a lesson plan and potential challenges. We will then look at research-based methods to provide these opportunities to ALL students. Please Enjoy!

Some Background

I teach within a virtual Middle School special education setting. This setting is in a virtual Public School special education classroom that consists of no more than 14 students at a time. This pull-out setting consists of mostly students with autism and ADHD. They are all 6th graders who qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Depending on their individual goals, I instruct them in the areas of Reading, Writing, math, social skills, and study skills. Facilitating cooperation amongst teachers, students, and parents are very important for each student’s education. The focus is on building students’ strengths to overcome their weaknesses. When I plan lessons that pertain to each student’s individual goals and take into consideration their stages in development, attention span, and interests. Understanding instructional theories can play a big part in the success of students within any setting. Let's take a look at one of my lesson plans and specific instructional theories that align with the implemented best practices.

The Lesson Plan


Lesson Title & Subject(s): Social Skills

Topic or Unit of Study: What do you do when someone hurts your feelings?

Grade/Level: 6th

Instructional Setting:

The group consists of 13 special education students in the sixth grade. There is 1 deaf student, 4 students with ADHD, 5 students with autism, and 3 students with emotional/behavioral disabilities.


Student Achievement Standard(s):

Students will learn to manage emotions through effective strategies.

Lesson Objective(s):

Given a presented scenario that involves hurt feelings, students will choose the most appropriate response options during 3 out of 5 opportunities.

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Instructional Materials:

7 scenarios involving hurt feelings (with pictures) on a PowerPoint presentation.


Visual assessments


Total Duration: 25 Minutes

  • Student Prerequisite Skills/Connections to Previous Learning:

Students must have the ability to share thoughts and take turns.

Presentation Procedures for New Information and/or Modeling (5 min.):

  • Presentation Procedures for New Information:

The purpose of the lesson is to guide students towards differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate reactions to difficult situations in which their feelings get hurt.

  • Making Connections to Related Background Knowledge:

At the beginning of the lesson students will watch a short video clip showing a student's feelings get hurt on a playground.

  • Modeling:

During this part of the lesson the teacher models critical thinking skills. They think aloud possible reactions and the consequences of each action. After weighing the options using “think aloud”, the teacher asks students what they would do in the given situation (cartoon visuals are shown to depict different choices.

The teacher then asks, “What would your emotions look like if your feelings were hurt by a friend or sibling?”

Students type words to describe their feelings in the chat pod.

An additional question is asked, “How would you feel if you hurt someone else’s feelings?”

Students type words to describe their feelings in the chat pod.

  • Guided Practice (10 min.):

In small groups of four to five students each, students discuss a picture scenario that is projected on the screen. Students are asked to come up with solutions to both the protagonist's and antagonist's problem. What would be the best solution to the confrontation for each party? In the small groups students discuss the problem and agree on a solution. After 8 minutes, students come back together and share the results of their discussion.

Students get up and do 20 jumping jacks or 10 sit-ups.

  • Independent Student Practice (8 min.):

Students are each given 5 basic multiple choice scenarios to problem solve independently.

For students with ADHD and hearing impairments the scenarios are visual instead of written. A vocabulary word list with pictures is posted on the screen if students get stuck. Students are encouraged to think-pair-share with another student if they get stuck.

  • Culminating or Closing Procedure/Activity/Event (2 min.):

Students are asked to share what they thought was the most difficult part of the lesson. They’re asked to name one thing they want to improve on and one thing they feel they have mastered. Students are encouraged to write or draw these two items in their Journal so they can track their progress later on.

  • Instructional Strategy (or Strategies):

The use of small groups and a think-pair-share strategy is used to support diverse learners and encourage collaboration.

  • Differentiated Instruction Accommodations:

A visual vocabulary word list, modified assessment, and visuals were used to accommodate students with ADHD and hearing impairments. Implementing an active break accommodates students who need physical movement to help them focus. The use of a video at the beginning of the lesson acts as an attention grabber that pulls students with ADHD in to encourages their participation. The use of the chat pod for answering the first couple of questions accommodates students with autism who need a little extra time getting used to the environment and group of students.

  • Use of Technology:

A homemade PowerPoint presentation, video, and visual supports are used during this lesson.

  • Student Assessment/Rubrics:

The independent practice segment measures the students' understanding of the concept and provides extra practice. It is directly related to the objective in that it includes five questions and students are expected to be able to answer three of them.

Potential Challenges

Learning Styles

  • If there are any deaf students in the classroom, it may take a lot of time for them to translate and understand what is going on in the classroom.

Student Achievement

  • Many students require tactile instruction to reinforce abstract concepts. It is difficult to design and apply activities since all students do not have access to the same tools. To supplement these needs, visuals are often used to reinforce and provide supports in the presented lesson.

Student Motivation

  • Due to the fact to that instruction is provided in a virtual environment, it is easy for students to show up, turn off their microphone, and go play video games. Students don’t stay long enough to see the attention grabber at the beginning of the lesson. If a parent is not at home, students may not be motivated and will have no consequences for their actions.
ChallengeHow it is AddressedJustification


In every lesson an interpreter is provided. However, there are always language barriers that must be addressed. For making universal and easy to understand connections, visuals are implemented throughout each activity. The individual practice scenarios are visual instead of written, visual representations of scenarios are posted on the board for reference, and a visual vocabulary word list is provided to support participation in the giving activities.

Theory: ACTIVITY THEORY Principles of activity theory are based on the understanding that activity facilitates learning. In other words, teaching and learning must include purposeful activities. (Gagne, Western Governors University). When considering this principle, one must contemplate how students of varying abilities and cultures will view and access specific activities. Depending on the diversity in the classroom, accommodations and modifications may need to be implemented in order to provide access. For students with hearing impairments, visual aids and a sign language interpreter are provided so that the learner is able to access activities that lead to new understandings and increased knowledge.


The use of visuals, an attention-grabbing video, think-pair-share, and active breaks are used within this lesson plan to encourage engagement and keep the focus on instruction.

Theory: NEGOTIATED MEANING Learning is a social process of constructing meaning. This principle, when applied, involves Learners of various levels working together to construct new meaning in a social setting. Collaborative Learning facilitates this process encourages the synthesizing of multiple knowledge bases into one. These types of environments require effective communication, attention, and motivation (Gagne, Western Governors University). This lesson uses think pair share and small group strategies to get students communicating with each other. The attention-grabbing video helps provide the motivation and interest required of in-depth collaboration. Active breaks also help students control their energy and behaviors during instruction. Even though this lesson is only 25 minutes long, it requires a small break to help students with ADHD and autism reset and return to instruction with settled brains that are ready to learn.


To discourage this irresponsible behavior, starting a video at the beginning of a lesson will catch student's attention and keep it reeled in. The activity that follows which focuses on prior knowledge helps students make cognitive connections to what they already know. As a result, participation and attendance are rewarded and are given the opportunity to increase.

Theory: SITUATED COGNITION: This Theory suggests that learning occurs in authentic contexts where it can be meaningfully applied and is more likely to be remembered and recalled when needed (Gagne, Western Governors University). In these activities, students make connections to prior knowledge. The video provides multiple stimuli that grabs their attention and prepares them for learning. Having students watch a video clip at the beginning of the lesson discourages tardy attendance. When students are late to class they are responsible for missing the fun video at the beginning of class. As a result, students learn that arriving on time results in a fun and rewarding video clip.

Curriculum Design Strategies

- A goal-oriented classroom is one that is focused on the end goal. Using the system for backward instructional design insured this focus remains and is aligned with activities, accommodations, and resources.

  • Identifying the need for social-emotional instruction was easy; students rarely responded in an appropriate manner to emotional circumstances. This would result in arguments, frustration, and sometimes tears.
  • After identifying the need, a goal was created, and standards found that aligned with said goal or objective. To make the assessment as realistic as possible, it was decided that scenarios with multiple choice answers would be most appropriate. These scenarios would reflect situations that could happen in real life and appropriate choices that students could make. The reflection piece is for students to think more deeply about what they learned and its usefulness.
  • Lastly, the curriculum content was planned to support achievement of the objective and standard.

Instructional Strategies

  • In order to align with current pedagogy, the ADDIE model was applied during the design phase of instructional activities (Kruse, 2002). Here is an analysis showing how each step in the model was utilized within the lesson plan:

Analysis: students’ strengths, needs, and gaps in knowledge were analyzed. Students' abilities to work in pairs and small groups were considered and used to facilitate instruction.

Design: Designated time for breaks, transitions, and assessments were established

Development: instructional activities were developed and catered to students' strengths and needs.

Think about your students' strengths and needs. Think about how they will impact your timing, flow, and even type of instruction.

Circling Back

How Do These Strategies Address The Identified Challenges?

Using a backwards design model enabled alignment between standard, goal, activities, assessment, and individual student differences (Mills, Wiley, & Williams, 2019). As described above, the predicted challenges were addressed using accommodations and catering curriculum to student needs. For example, the curriculum touches on different perspectives and points of view. It considers students' need to understand why people do the things they do and how feelings determine one’s actions. Activities involving small group and paired instruction provided more individualized learning opportunities where students get to know each other and have more time to discuss what was learned. The reflective piece at the end helped students refocus on the goal and how it pertained to them individually. Unpredicted challenges are addressed through classroom management processes and accommodations that could be added or are already set in place.

Utilizing the ADDIE Model ensured that instruction accounted for any challenges weather predicted or unpredicted. It helped identify challenges from each of the focus areas and develop solutions and support. For example, the introduction video is it great attention grabber for students with ADHD. The implementation of movement breaks and small group work addresses any unforeseen issues by providing time to resolve them.

In the everyday virtual live lesson classroom, there are always technical difficulties. By providing a short video presentation at the beginning, time is allowed for students who are having technical difficulties and may need to contact student support.


Gagne, R. M. Principles of Instructional Design. [Western Governors University]. Retrieved from

Kruse, K. (2002). Introduction to Instructional Design and the ADDIE Model ... Retrieved August 5, 2019, from

Mills, J., Wiley, C., & Williams, J. (2019). "This Is What Learning Looks Like!": Backward Design and the Framework in First Year Writing. Portal: Libraries and the Academy,19(1), 155-175. doi:10.1353/pla.2019.0008

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Miranda Hurtado

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