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Written by Stéphanie Dionne, Digital Era Facilitator

The quality of the teacher-student relationship promotes the emotional-cognitive balance needed for optimal student learning conditions. While this is recognized as essential in the classroom, it is even more important to recognize how essential this relationship is in a virtual teaching and learning setting. According to the Canada Research Chair in Information and Communication Technologies in Education, teaching or learning online is learning to overcome distance that is spatial, technological, temporal, cultural, social, emotional and, above all, instructional, in order for learners to have a very positive experience.

How can we stay connected virtually with students who have learning disabilities (LDs)? This was precisely the concern of Véronique Dinel, French and Math teacher of Secondary 4 students with serious learning disabilities at École Vanguard, and eight other teachers and workers in the field of education in Quebec, who presented the results of their experience in this documentary produced by École branchée (only available in French). For Ms. Dinel, too often an important dilemma remains between carrying out academic planning and taking the time to establish a relationship with students, when in fact, the time invested in the relationship allows the teacher to do more efficient academic planning. In her words, “It is worthwhile to spend time on the relationship because when there is no channel of communication between the students and the teacher, nothing (no teaching) will get through (learning) in any case, especially remotely!”

The pandemic has transformed the learning environment for all students. Teachers have needed to create optimal online learning conditions with the needs of students with LDs in mind. The transformation of their learning environment into a virtual location, can make some students anxious. Teachers can intervene to create a caring environment from one computer to the other to reassure them and thus reduce their anxiety.

3 ways to be attentive to the needs of youth individually or as a group:

  • Schedule time to share, take the time to ask, “How are you?” and listen attentively. Keep the routines that work well in your schedule. It will reassure the students and set the pace for learning.
  • Use an interactive questionnaire (Google form; Mentimeter; Wooclap or another questionnaire) to obtain a portrait of the well-being of your group. Click here to view the Snapshot of Student Well-being, created by Ms. Myra Auvergnat Ringuette, a primary school teacher, to measure her group’s happiness index. You can make a copy and adapt the questionnaire for use every week with your students.
  • Offer video-conferencing time slots to students with LDs during independent work periods so that they are always a few clicks away from being in contact with their teacher. Suggest a one-on-one appointment to meet their needs for ongoing support if they aren’t comfortable raising their hand or asking questions during group instruction. That way, no student will be left alone to face their challenges, fears, or difficulties.

All of these options are ways to stay connected with students and build a fairly accurate portrait of their needs, their well-being, and their learning experience. This portrait will provide the necessary clarity for you to help your group make progress by suggesting a work plan that is tailored to their skills and learning pace.

Adapting the workload and the nature of suggested tasks

Helping students progress involves determining their current level and creating the necessary learning settings for them to engage intellectually in reaching the program goals. A virtual teaching/learning setting limits certain options and allows for others. Here are four possible ways to leverage a virtual setting with your students with LDs.

  • Involve parents by informing them about how the virtual classroom works and allow them to effectively fulfill their role as partners in educating their child. Create a two-way communication channel with them to obtain their input so that you can intervene collaboratively and continuously with students regarding their academic performance. This communication channel can begin with the use of a Google form. Click here to view the Learning Experience Snapshot for Parents, designed by Ms. Myra Auvergnat Ringuette, which you can adapt and use to validate the students’ learning experience.
  • Develop the students’ digital skills. To feel secure in a digital learning environment, students need to develop multiple skills: videoconferencing, sharing their screen, mastering their keyboard skills, creating and sharing collaborative documents, creating an audio or video clip. Learning how to use digital tools is a process in itself. Take the time to demonstrate how to use each of the tools that the students will need in order to carry out the requested school activity. Introduce one tool at a time and give the students time to experiment with the tools.
  • Suggest authentic, concrete, and fun activities that give students the opportunity to decide how to report on their learning. You could allow the use of video or audio clips, the transfer of images or sketch notes in addition to hand-drawn or computer-assisted marks. This makes learning inclusive and accessible. You might also consider using EdPuzzle and Flipgrid. It has been noted that the use of technology makes it easier for students to express their creativity so that they can be proud of their accomplishments. Think of the sense of pride that a student who finds drawing difficult feels when using software such as Canva to produce a poster.
  • Promote collaboration by creating virtual subgroups where students can interact and work on tasks cooperatively. These options leverage different strengths that can make your students with LDs shine. Several tools enable students to work collaboratively: Google Jamboard, Padlet, Mindmeister, Google Docs, Microsoft Whiteboard, Whiteboard.chat, Miro, Explain Everything, and several other tools.

Take the time to lower the current stress level by creating opportunities to unwind, laugh and be silly. Even online, you can create a positive and stimulating classroom atmosphere.

Challenges and possible solutions

School life, whether it is experienced in class or online, can be full of unexpected events. The virtual environment gives rise to new challenges that can be overcome both in terms of human relationships and technology. Following are four of the noteworthy challenges that teachers had to deal with.

Turned off cameras are often viewed as a sign of lack of interest or motivation.

In reality, students may prefer to keep their cameras turned off for several reasons. Checking in with students about their level of interest and their learning experience can help to clarify matters. You can use a perception scale: “On a scale of 1 to 10, tell me how much you enjoyed the activity that you carried out.” Ask the students to use their microphones to respond, or various tools such as the Mentimeter, the survey option of your videoconferencing tool or WooClap. You can also ask the students to use the Raised Hand icon to answer Yes or No to the question “Is this an activity that we should do again?”

Disruptive behaviours in a virtual classroom that interfere with the learning experience.

Virtual teaching is an opportunity to educate youth about ethical citizenship in the digital era. This is an authentic context that promotes awareness about the impact of their behaviours, whether these occur from behind a screen or not. It is also possible to end a chaotic session, reschedule it and begin a new session using a constructive dialogue to have a positive effect on student behaviour.

Connection problems

Connection problems can have an unsettling effect on teachers and students alike. Inevitably, the sound, camera, screen-sharing or any other factor will fail and affect the teaching and learning experience. The use of pre-recorded segments, independent work plans, or the creation of subgroups will enable students to make progress in spite of communication breakdowns.

A sense of incompetence

The new digital environment and technical glitches can trigger a sense of incompetence. This is normal. Taking the time to look after yourself and regain your strength is necessary to recover. Talking about your fears, mistakes and concerns with the people in your circle will help you to be open to drawing on existing successful practices. Next, surrounding yourself and collaborating with your peers will make it easier for you to learn new practices and to feel competent once again.

Advice from teachers

“We tell our students that people learn by making mistakes. Allow yourself, as teachers, to make mistakes!”– Véronique Dinel, High School French and Math Teacher.

“You want your students to be there with you! Make them feel that connecting with them is important! Avoid simply sending them a list of things to do!” – Myra Auvergnat Ringuette, Primary School Teacher.

“It’s easy to tell yourself that virtual classes are boring for teachers. It is important not to listen to this self-talk and to allow the students to speak as much as possible.” – Pierre-Olivier Cloutier, High School Science Teacher.

“Trust young people! Be flexible and agile. Listen to them. You will see that they are motivated!” – Jessica Rivard, Project Development Officer.

“We might even have to teach differently to get to know our students even better! The time spent is beneficial for what you are going to teach next.” – Nancy Lavergne, Ethics and Religious Culture Teacher.

About the Author:

school family partnershipStéphanie Dionne is the mother of three children and has contributed for 18 years to technology integration in the field of education. Today, she is a Digital Era Facilitator and a member of the L’École branchée sur la famille team. Stéphanie strongly believes in the leadership potential of parents and teachers, and in their ability to come together as co-educators to create dynamic and up-to-date learning contexts for youth. She also coaches parents in the digital era and suggests drafting a parentchild contract regarding the use of digital devices at La famille de ma vie - Coaching.


Testimonials presented

Compilation of interviews (only available in French) with 9 educators who attest to the importance of building and maintaining a relationship with students virtually:

  • Myra Auvergnat Ringuette, Grade 4 Teacher - Externat St-Jean-Berchmans
  • Véronique Boivin, Entrepreneurship Teacher in Secondary 1 and 4 - École secondaire de la Seigneurie, CSS des Premières-Seigneuries
  • Julie Chandonnet, Grade 6 Teacher - École Saint-Denys-Garneau, CSS de la Capitale
  • Pierre-Olivier Cloutier, Science Teacher in Secondary 4 and 5 - École secondaire du Mont-Saint-Sacrement
  • Véronique Dinel, French and Math Teacher, Secondary 4 - École Vanguard
  • François Lake-Héon, Grade 5 Teacher - École l’Arpège, CSS des Patriotes
  • Nancy Lavergne, Ethics and Religious Culture Teacher - École secondaire de la Seigneurie, CSS des Premières-Seigneuries
  • François Pichette, Science and Math Teacher, Secondary 1 and 2 - Académie Sainte-Marie, CSS des Premières-Seigneuries
  • Jessica Rivard, Project Development Officer, Tremplin Travail, CJE Vallée de la Matapédia [Vallée de la Matapédia Youth Employment Hub]

Dionne S. (2020, août). Faciliter la gestion de la classe dans l’enseignement à distance : l’avis du CSE . École branchée.