Remote Learning for Students with Disabilities Who Have Complex Needs

Remote Learning for Students with Disabilities Who Have Complex Needs

As schools and districts continue to provide educational services during the pandemic and experience changes in educational delivery models, they must consider how to support the learning needs of all students with disabilities, including those who may have complex needs. Remote learning may pose exceptional difficulties for these students. They may have physical disabilities that hinder the use of technology, shortened attention spans for virtual learning or intellectual disabilities that require hands-on learning. Nevertheless, Ohio schools share the goal to challengeprepare and empower all students with disabilities for future success. This information, written in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities and Ohio Department of Medicaid, specifies various considerations that should be made toward ensuring the best educational services under the current circumstances.   

Parent and School Collaboration and Communication 

Collaboration and continuous communication between parents and schools is paramount in identifying the appropriate services for all students with disabilities. 

Parents are in a unique position to share with school staff what works and what does not work in the home environment. Parents and school staff will want to schedule frequent check-in meetings. They should develop and communicate a plan for how often and when to have check-in meetings. Additionally, they should decide who will be involved in these check-in meetings besides the special education teacher and parent. The parent may want to have a school staff member who is a point of contact if the parent has a question or concern. 

Fortunately, many schools and parents already are working closely together to meet the needs of students with disabilities, including those who have complex needs. These vital relationships are invaluable during times when these students are unable to attend school physically. The individualized education program (IEP) teams will need to consider these students' unique needs and the exact nature of the services required on a case-by-case basis. The decisions on how to provide services to students with disabilities are always, first and foremost, an IEP team decision.   

Parents may request an IEP team meeting at any time to review and revise a student’s IEP and to discuss how schools will provide services remotely. 

An IEP team meeting is an opportunity for parents to share their observations and ideas about how the IEP may enable the student to make appropriate progress. An IEP team meeting is also an opportunity to share concerns about implementing the IEP remotely. Parents may invite individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, such as related services personnel, to IEP team meetings. Parents may also invite representatives of any agency that provides services to the child, such as the service and support administrator from the local county board of developmental disabilities. Including these individuals in the IEP team meetings helps facilitate conversations among the different entities supporting the student. 

General Considerations for the IEP Team 

In the IEP team meeting, the team will review the student's IEP, current progress data, curriculum and other information to establish priorities for the student. The team will decide the essential skills for the student to maintain and learn during the student's time away from school. The team will then determine what skills the student can reasonably practice at home and what assistance may be needed. The IEP team should consider how teachers instruct the student in the school setting and what accommodations and modifications the student may need in the home setting. Teachers and parents are encouraged to communicate on an ongoing basis to make needed adjustments to services and supports.  

The IEP team will confirm what technology is available for the student, what the student can use and the level of assistance the student may need. The team should evaluate whether the student needs additional technology to access remote learning. The team should also consider training needs for any new technology. If the student uses an augmentative or alternative communication device, the team may need to consider how the student will use this device in the home. The team will also decide what manipulatives — physical tools of teaching that engage students visually and physically via objects such as coins, blocks, puzzles and markers — or other educational items the student may need to make progress on IEP goals and the curriculum. Most importantly, the IEP team will learn what support parents may need from the school, during remote learning, to use specific materials or devices, follow lesson plans or address challenging behaviors. 

The IEP team will need to consider the delivery of the related services that may be included in the student’s IEP, such as audiological services, orientation and mobility services, school nursing services, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy and physical therapy. In the schools, related service providers such as speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists often integrate services to students with disabilities with instruction or classroom activities. It may not be easy to embed these therapeutic elements into schoolwork completed at home. Consequently, the IEP team may decide if a modification of the delivery is needed to support delivery of a related service. Related service providers may serve students via telehealth. For more information, see the Ohio Department of Education’s Telehealth Guidelines for Service Providers

Some schools that have chosen to reopen remotely are working with their local health departments to develop programs for providing in-person services to students with disabilities. School administrators may contact their local health departments for guidance in developing plans that ensure staff and students’ health and safety and allow for individual or small group in-person services. Along these lines, some schools have made provisions for staff to meet with students with disabilities for outdoor learning activities when appropriate. District representatives of the IEP teams may need to consider local plans that are in place and available to access alternative learning environments. 

Remote Learning for Students with Disabilities with Technology and Internet Access 

Regarding remote learning, the IEP team may want to identify a student's needs related to technology based on observations and data from both school and home. Some students with disabilities respond very well to computers and cell phones. For these students, technology has provided incredible opportunities for instruction and developing social skills. 

However, some students with disabilities with complex needs may be limited in terms of the amount of screen time they can manage due to needs for sensory breaks, alternate positioning that is not compatible with some types of technology, behavior and medical needs. When planning for technology use, the IEP team must consider student needs such as physical, sensory or visual tolerance for computers, fine and visual motor skills, communication skills and the level of assistance the student will need. Many peripheral devices such as adapted keyboards, touch screens and switches enable better access to computers for students with disabilities. The IEP team will need to address these needs to determine what will work in the home environment and what, if any, training needs to be provided on new equipment or materials. The IEP team may need to meet multiple times to adjust the student’s IEP goals as an understanding of the student’s preferences and success with the use of technology evolves. 

Suggested ways to use technology to develop remote education and social skills for students with disabilities who have complex needs are listed below.  

  • Schedule regular daily interactions between the student and school staff for the student to see and hear familiar school people. Use these interactions to develop social skills; speaking skills; fine motor skills such as typing and texting, letter, number, word or name recognition; and telling time. 
  • Many students with disabilities who have complex needs will only be able to sit in front of a computer for short periods. Consider breaking lessons up into smaller segments and giving the student a hands-on task to do as a reason to get up from the computer. Teach lessons at short intervals throughout the day.  
  • Create and use prerecorded videos with multisensory components to demonstrate daily living skills, art projects and physical and vocational tasks. Use varied instructional methods such as showing three to five steps in completing a task or finishing all the steps except the last step and asking the student to complete it. 
  • Use real-time interactive platforms, such as live webinars or video conferencing, to allow practice in communication such as articulation, expressive language, augmentative communication systems, sign language, conversational skills and listening skills. 
  • Assist the student in accessing digital electronic media to make slides with symbols, create a story with pictures or record a student video using words, signs, objects or symbols to tell a story, name objects or follow simple directions. 
  • Assist the student in creating an online newsletter that shares family and neighborhood events with school staff. 
  • Consider using video games, watching funny YouTube videos or toys or games that are not technology-based as motivators for completing work. 
  • Students may practice telephone communication skills by calling school staff members for scheduled conversations. 
  • School staff may have coaching sessions with parents and caregivers instructing them on how to assist students. The school staff member sometimes can coach in real-time by being on the telephone with the parent or caregiver while virtually interacting with the student. 



Office for Exceptional Children Supports 

The Ohio Department of Education’s Office for Exceptional Children is here to help. The Office for Exceptional Children is open and available to support educational agencies, parents and caregivers. If educational agencies or families have questions or concerns, please call 1-877-644-6338 or send an email to

Dispute Resolution Processes 

If an educational agency or parent has questions concerning dispute resolution processes, they should contact the Department’s Dispute Resolution staff for information at 1-877-644-6338 or send an email to


5C Process: Instructional Planning for School and Distance Learning for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Environments. The 5C Process is a five-step process that outlines a plan for transitioning instruction between school and home during periods of distance learning. 

CEEDAR Center: Literacy instruction for Students With Multiple and Severe Disabilities Who Use Augmentative or Alternative Communication. This publication is a guide for teachers in improving literacy instruction for students with multiple and severe disabilities who use augmentative or alternative communication. 

Parent Center Hub offers a collection of resources developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic by the Center for Parent Information and Resources funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Program. 

The Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI) serves families, educators and professionals working with infants, preschool and school-age children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and low-incidence disabilities, including hearing impairments, visual impairments, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments and other health impairments. OCALI develops and delivers high-quality professional development and technical assistance to educators and parents through the state support teams and Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities

Remote Learning Access for Students with Complex Needs: Video. This is a quick, four-minute video that showcases different resources that offer switch access, choice-making activities, age-appropriate cause and effect activities and a collection of scaffolded online books.  

This list is not comprehensive, and the Ohio Department of Education does not endorse these products. The list is made available to support engaging students in learning during the new school year. Please be aware that sources on this list that are developed in jurisdictions outside of Ohio may reflect laws and rules that differ from Ohio laws and rules. 


Last Modified: 5/3/2022 10:53:46 AM