Serving Student of All Abilities

As teachers and leaders adjust to the social isolation of COVID-19, it has been truly moving to see the ways that our students are deeply cared for by an entire community of believers. Parents and teachers are working hard to identify the most important things that our students might learn in this extraordinary time, while managing grief and anxiety about our world and loved ones.


In this time of little or no in-person community and when our schedules have been turned upside down, it is particularly important for teachers and parents to partner in new ways on behalf of students of all abilities. At All Belong, we have had the privilege of collecting creative ideas for supporting and maintaining church and school communities in this time of crisis. You can view what we’ve collected on our website, and below is a short summary of two popular areas: instructional tips and social/emotional tips.

Instructional Tips for Administrators and Support Services Staff

  1. Think Positive: This might be the time to really intervene with a particular skill that we have wished we had time for in the school day, such as math facts or long division or vowel sounds, etc., or oral reading. Framing it in this light might be helpful. In essence, maybe this is a chance to “catch up” on some skills/concepts.
  2. Make it personal for students with disabilities: Reach out to each of the families you serve (in collaboration with general ed. teachers) with specific goals for the student during this time. Maybe it is just a continuation of the goals that have already been set for the student, but parents could probably use a reminder of what those goals are. Maybe it is an alternative goal due to the new context in which they will be learning, but clear goals will make the families and the gen ed teachers feel better about what is happening. For example, maybe shoe tying hasn’t been a goal, but since this is something easier for parents to work on it could become a goal for this time. Learning to make breakfast, set the table, or how to use a cell phone/i-pad to text friends are other examples of alternate goals for this time period. Choose goals that are more in line with where parents/care givers may feel comfortable.
  3. If possible, consider the optics of communication coming from classroom teachers. Imagine how parents might feel if resources and supports are communicated by their child’s classroom teachers, even if the ideas, resources, or e-mail draft are created by the support services team.
  4. Encourage teachers to be mindful of students needing high accountability and accommodations to complete work. Students who need this may be severely impacted in terms of their ability to function successfully without the structure and routine they are used to having. Be proactive by working alongside general ed teachers to plan and make success achievable for all students.
  5. Use your paraeducator and support team creatively during this time to support parents and provide additional educational value. Some ideas might include using paraeducators to brainstorm with groups of teachers on accommodations and modifications for students during remote learning times. Paraeducators can also hold small-group Zoom reteaching sessions with subset of students. Finally, facilitate and direct or launch social interaction for students and peers—this is so needed for all of us during social isolation!
  6. Keep in mind that many of the current resources that are available and referenced by educators require internet access, and we can’t assume that all families have that. Teachers may need to provide books, manipulatives, or print materials for some students. Are there manipulatives or handouts you can provide to the classroom teacher for parents to pick up at a set time? Purchase a canvas tote bag (craft store) that the student can color or put their favorite stickers on. Consider materials that can be mailed.

Social/Emotional Tips for Families

Many children, not just those with diagnosed emotional or behavioral challenges, are struggling with the uncertainty of our present reality. Currently, and really always, parents and primary caregivers are the first teachers of social and emotional skills to children. Here are some research-based strategies for parents to support the varied emotions—stress, anxiety, anger, restlessness—of kids and the adults caring for them. You may wish to suggest these strategies to families proactively (e.g. through an email or e-newsletter) or individually as consultation opportunities arise.

  1. Provide structure and routine.  Write out your schedule for the day with your child.  Include time for structured routines (learning tasks) and open-ended play (creative time). Allow for appropriate choices when possible.  Be sure to allow for flexibility when stress arises; schedules can provide guidance, but trust yourself to read the emotions of the day.
  2. Label feelings. Work to be an emotional scientist not an emotional judge. Talk to kids about what you are feeling and ask them what they are feeling, be curious about feelings and know that they are temporal. When we can put our feelings into words, it becomes easier to manage them. Reading books or using media can help to facilitate conversations about emotions.
  3. When emotions rise, limit what you say (use fewer words) and find ways for kids to express anger safely (rip paper, squish playdough, do wall pushups, jump on a trampoline, do jumping jacks, run around the house). Then model how to return to calm (soft voice, go below eye level, model deep breathing, provide rhythmic, repetitive movement—swinging, rocking).
  4. Play. Play helps our brains to rest and solve problems. By engaging in something distracting, we move from our doing brain into our thinking brain, releasing emotions and getting back to the more rational part of the brain.
  5. Move!  Movement also releases positive hormones that help naturally improve our state of mind. Plan for children to get outside at least once a day for an extended period of time.
  6. Develop personal or family mantras. This can be related to the newness we are all experiencing in various parts of our lives with a growth mindset. Try  “I guess I just haven’t learned how to do that yet!” and “I can do hard things!” Speak God’s words over your kids and loved ones through scripture. Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Joshua 1:8-9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.  For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
  7. Practice Gratitude. There is much research that supports the idea that increasing our awareness of things we are thankful for can improve our psychological health. Write down the things you are grateful for, as a part of family devotions or on your own, to increase empathy and awareness of the good.
  8. Manage your own stress. Reach out to others to share your worries. Take a walk. Know that your child/children will benefit from your psychological and physiological health. Pay attention to what you are feeling. Sleep. Eat. Move. Manage your thoughts. Do things you enjoy.

Additional Resources

  1. Unexpected Time at Home With Your Child Who Craves A Routine: A tip sheet for parents
  2. Social Story on the Covid-19 Virus: This story uses simple language and simple pictures to explain the virus and staying home from school. People often associate social stories with Autism spectrum disorder, turns out this works well for most humans. Click the PDF or view online here.
  3. Talking to Children About COVID-19: A Parent Resource. Download the PDF or read more here.
  4. Just For Kids: A Comic Exploring The New Coronavirus. Download the PDF or read more here.

Finally, we at All Belong have been collecting and creating resources on our website for several weeks, and we encourage you to follow our Facebook and Twitter feed for more resources to come. Thank you for continuing to faithfully build belonging for all students and families of all abilities in your community!

[Editor’s Note: Join us for ACSI’s Online Town Hall titled, “Grow: Best Practices in Online Learning” on May 6, at which blog author Elizabeth Dombrowski will serve as a panelist. Register for free using this link. Once registered, you will receive the Zoom webinar link to your email. This webinar will take place 11 AM- 12 PM (PDT), 12 PM- 1 PM (MDT), 1 PM-2 PM (CDT), 2 PM- 3 PM (EDT).]

About the Authors

Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the executive director of All Belong, equipping congregations and schools to glorify God through purposeful, innovative inclusion of persons of varied abilities. All Belong partners with Christ-centered schools across the country to support their students, and welcomes conversations and questions about inclusion of students of all abilities. Elizabeth can be reached at


Becky Tubergen, director of school services at All Belong, is passionate about helping students better understand themselves as children of God and equipping teachers with the tools to include each one. Becky brings best practice expertise honed over nearly twenty years as a K-8 inclusion specialist and teacher consultant to a diverse group of schools. She received her teaching certificate (cognitive impairment endorsement) from Calvin College and her Master of Arts degree in Emotional Impairment from Grand Valley State University.

Betsy Winkle combines her passion for education and reconciliation in her role as director of evaluation services at All Belong. Fueled by a passion for helping each child flourish and develop their God-given gifts, Betsy enjoys walking alongside parents and teachers to help them understand how each struggling child thinks and learns and creating structures within schools that support all students. She is particularly intrigued by the impact of life circumstances and mental health on a child’s educational success. Betsy received her Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Calvin College and her Master of Arts and specialist degrees from Lehigh University.

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