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One of the biggest challenges teachers face in online teaching is keeping students interested and engaged. Every student has different learning preferences, but those with special needs and learning differences can be even more affected by the switch to online instruction. Whether you have special needs students in your virtual classroom or are a specialist working one-on-one with a student, motivating students to stay engaged is the first step to effective learning.

The great news is, many of the techniques for improving engagement in students with special needs can help all your students successfully engage during online lessons. Here are 10 simple strategies to improve engagement in your special needs students–both in group and one-on-one instruction.

How to Keep Your Students Engaged in Online Learning

Preparation and Establishing Routine Are Key

All students are more likely to stay engaged when they feel prepared to learn. Give students a little time at the beginning of the session to make sure they have the supplies they will need for the day. 

Establishing a routine for the start of each online learning session helps students go from “home” mode to “school” mode, especially when school is at home. Think about the routines you already employ in the regular classroom and which ones could easily translate to a virtual space. Some great examples of this are:

  • Singing a song together
  • Having students hold up the supplies they will need for the lesson
  • Playing a review game

Keeping a similar routine throughout online lessons also helps students transition between tasks, anticipate what’s coming next, and feel comfortable with the online learning environment.

Build Social Time into Lessons

A huge motivator for students is being engaged with their peers. Some ideas for making sure your students are staying connected include:

  • Designating the first few minutes of virtual meeting time for chatting or having each student answer a question of the day. This can be part of your starting routine.
  • Incorporating virtual Show and Tell time. This could even be tied into a lesson or theme
  • Playing online games with the whole group. Many schools already use programs like Kahoot! or Quizlet during regular classroom instruction, and the digital nature of these platforms makes it easy for the whole class to play learning games together.

Monitor and Motivate

One of the trickiest parts of online teaching is that it’s easier for students to become disengaged or confused, and harder for teachers to notice the subtle shifts that indicate a change in a student’s thinking or feelings. Frequent use of positive feedback and direct questions to students during an online lesson are extremely effective. 

Collaboration with parents is equally important. The need for individual behavioral contracts–particularly for younger learners–seems to increase during online instruction, and is an effective strategy to keep expectations consistent and give students support and positive reinforcement during online teaching.

Building motivation into routine also helps students stay engaged. Having a fun activity or reward to look forward to at regular intervals helps students stay positive about online learning.

Present Options for Assignments

One silver lining of virtual learning is that many of the assignments are done outside of the virtual classroom during a time when children have more free time. Giving students more fun, project-based options for their learning can help to engage more kinesthetic and visual learners who can’t stand the idea of doing yet another worksheet. Every subject and age group will be different, but here are some ideas:

  • A video version of a book report or chapter summary
  • Building something with blocks or Legos for a math assignment
  • A photo scavenger hunt



Open and frequent communication with students and parents is essential for successful student engagement online. Make sure to create predictable opportunities during a lesson for students to ask different kinds of questions. When students feel that there is time for them to ask technical, content, and assignment questions, they are less likely to check out from frustration.

Also make sure to be clear when you are available for parents and students to ask questions, and about how long it takes you to respond on evenings and weekends. Online teaching does not mean you have to be available 24/7, but setting up parameters helps both you and your students have healthy expectations while feeling respected.


How to Keep Your Individual Special Needs Students Engaged Online


Use A Script

Following a scripted lesson–even during individual instruction–helps both teachers and special needs students. It creates a sense of predictability and consistency for students. A script also gives teachers the ability to focus more on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral needs of their students during online instruction.

PRIDE Reading Programs’ curriculum is an excellent example of scripted curriculum that helps students feel successful in their progress and creates a built-in way for teachers to monitor their students’ growth.

Prioritize Organization and Predictability

Preparedness and routine can be even more important for special needs student engagement than for regular classroom instruction. Students may need extra support in making sure their materials are organized and available, and having parent or caregiver support in this is crucial.

Students with learning differences will also benefit from clear adaptations to the expectations, rewards, and consequences teachers normally use in a behavior plan. When students know what is expected of them–as well as the positive results of staying engaged–they are able to focus better on the learning at hand.


Make the Task Load Appropriate

Changing a student’s work load can be very complex and require meetings of the student’s IEP team, but there are small steps all special education professionals can take minute by minute to help students avoid frustration and burnout.

One of the best options to help special needs students succeed is to make sure the student’s work is broken up. Frequently take productive time off from instruction with strategies like:

  • games
  • time for social discussion
  • checking in with parents

If a student struggles with a particular skill or concept, you can also incorporate supplemental instruction and resources into online teaching. A literacy specialist might break up instruction time with games that build phonological and phonemic awareness.


Advocate for and Experiment with Adaptations in Technology

When school is no longer occurring in a centralized location, teachers are an extremely important link between students with special needs and the services they legally qualify for. Students will disengage from learning if there are too many barriers in the learning environment, so having open communication about what you observe in your student during online instruction can make a huge difference. 

For example, one major change between traditional and online instruction is the increased use of screens, which may cause issues for children with vision or visual processing disorders. Tools like bluelight filters and text to speech readers can make a huge difference in these problems, but can only be implemented if a teacher notes signs of visual strain or processing issues.


Cultivate Parent Support

The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities sites parental involvement as one of the decisive factors in online student success. The challenge for parents and teachers this school year is that many parents did not actively choose online learning as the best option for their child, and may not be prepared for this increased involvement. Establishing a sense of teamwork with the caregivers of your students is crucial to student preparedness, engagement, and academic progress.

Working with parents to figure out what their child needs for a good learning environment–and what the family can realistically provide–sets students up for success. For example, many professionals who provide educational therapy services find that having parents present during sessions is an effective way to promote student engagement, but parents may think of these lessons as something they shouldn’t be involved in until the therapist mentions it.

When students have teachers and caregivers collaborating to implement best practices before, during, and after online instruction, they are more likely to have the holistic support they need in order to stay engaged in an online learning environment. Creating and sticking to a routine and encouraging parent participation may take some time to set up, but will make virtual learning–and online special needs teaching–much easier and more effective in the long run.

I Have a Resource For You!

Thank you so much for reading my post today. You might also enjoy reading my previous posts:

Show Me an Orton-Gillingham Lesson

The Science of Reading: What All Teachers Should Know

Structured Literacy Curriculum: 5 Ways It Will Empower Your School


Please don’t leave without checking out the PRIDE Reading Program.  The PRIDE Reading Program is an Orton-Gillingham curriculum that is used by teachers, tutors, and homeschooling parents worldwide with great success.

PRIDE Reading Program

Karina Richland, M.A., is the author of the PRIDE Reading Program, a multisensory Orton-Gillingham reading, writing and comprehension curriculum that is available worldwide for parents, tutors, teachers and homeschoolers of struggling readers. Karina has an extensive background in working with students of all ages and various learning modalities. She has spent many years researching learning differences and differentiated teaching practices. You can reach her by email at info@pridereadingprogram.com or visit the website at www.pridereadingprogram.com

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