Dr. Symeon Retalis is a Professor of Learning Design Models for Technology-Enhanced Lifelong Learning Environments at the University of Piraeus, Greece. He is co-founder and chief scientific officer at Kinems Inc..
While some pandemic restrictions are still in place, students and teachers in New Jersey, along with other states across the country, are finally getting back to school after a year of challenging closures. While the emergency shift to remote learning during the onslaught of COVID-19 created gaps in educational outcomes across the spectrum, perhaps most impacted were special education services for students with disabilities. According to Joseph Casey, a special education resource room teacher in Nevada, significant academic delays and behavioral losses are already evident. “The impact of the pandemic [on children] is a crisis for all children,” he says, “but especially severe for those with disabilities.”
The compounded impacts of environmental transitions
Hindered by myriad logistic challenges, not least of which was the difficulty of remotely delivering such specialized programs that rely heavily on face-to-face, the transition to remote learning for these students was encumbered by program accessibility issues, rangeding from truncated offerings to technical complications. This was compounded by individual students’ personal challenges with self-management skills, focus, and attentional demands, and communication and collaboration difficulties.
Now the transition back to an in-person education environment has created even more demands. Administrators, teachers, and staff have been thrust into quickly redesigning their collective approaches, not only to address the achievement gaps resulting from adaptation to remote learning in the first place, but also to better deliver education services and support mechanisms that address these students’ special needs. Students who are returning to the classroom carrying significant social and emotional burdens.
Digital education technology could bridge the gap
As a result of prolonged periods of confinement, and the challenge of trying to conduct occupational therapy sessions digitally, as in-person school resumes special education teachers will aim to implement a “whole child” approach. This will mean designing enhanced learning programs and in-person therapeutic interventions to not only improve childrens’ academic development, but their social and emotional development health as well. This points to an important aspect of individualized approaches to the development disabled children: a focus on an improvement in motor functions.
Research shows the benefits of physical activity and embodiment on learning—specifically in engagement, self-confidence, and problem solving—and advancements in digital and motion-sensing technologies have boosted the design and development of multisensory, movement-based educational games that require students to use their body in order to interact with learning material. One such tool is Kinems that addresses the development of executive functions, as well as gross and fine motor skills. Dr. Christine Casey, 46 year veteran educator and Congressional Medal of Honor Awardee states: “We have Kinems movement station in every elementary self-contained classroom in our small special education facility. The students found using their whole body to respond to academic problems to be both fun and challenging. Gaming involves practice to achieve a goal which becomes a form of entertainment. What better way to show the teacher you know the concept of “more or less” then side jumping to give a right answer? No young child really enjoys sitting at a desk as much as moving their body and seeing themselves inside animated game screen graphics under the ocean water surrounded by colorful fish!”
Although a return to an in-person environment will be a “new normal,” the response to returning to the classroom is predominantly enthusiastic. I see it as an open window for in-classroom teaching reforms. In fact, growth in digital literacy, as well as increased usage of these educational tools, could make the classroom feel more interactive than ever before. Although during the pandemic, these tools and resources were the only way to connect with students, after a year of remote learning they have become an integral part of the overall school experience. Any skeptical education professional can rest assured, given the many positive outcomes from the role technology played during the 18 months of remote learning, such as aiding in the encouragement of active participation and streamlining access to useful learning resources like virtual science labs and video “field trips.”
Multisensory learning for the “new normal”
Capitalizing on a new level of familiarity and comfort with these technologies, as well as increasingly positive opinions about their degree of integration, individual schools are now investing more in this education technology, turning traditional classroom experiences into a framework for personalized, interactive, engaging, and effective education activities. As the transition comes full circle to the in-person classrooms, many schools, particularly in New Jersey, have acknowledged a need for Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and to do so, this “new normal” is taking on all the traits of a blended model, utilizing the best and most comprehensive assets that both remote and in-person environments have to offer.
Anyone confined to the home during the pandemic, interacting virtually instead of face to face, suffered numerous social and emotional consequences. But an understanding needs to be reached on our behalf for the sake of the children—especially those with disabilities. With less access to advanced cognitive resources than many of their counterparts, these children experienced that lack of human contact, specifically in socializing and learning, much more profoundly. Using these emerging technological tools to aid in the endeavor to get them back on track increases the possibility to successfully make up for the deficits created in remote learning, and to holistically address social, emotional, academic, and physical needs.