Using Blended Learning Models to Differentiate Instruction for Special Needs Students

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Using Blended Learning Models to Differentiate Instruction for Special Needs Students


Aside from the operational challenges COVID-19 brings, most educators are challenged by using the blended learning model as an approach to support effective student learning. There is no single formula that guarantees learning for students; however, the teachers I observed adapted an approach similar to blended learning that seems to work for their student population while leaving room for minor adjustments.

For the purpose of this case study, I interviewed two teachers, the first a social studies teacher who instructs mixed ability grade 10 students. Roughly fifty percent of her students choose to attend school while the other half attend synchronously online. When conducting class, she uses Google Meet and Google Classroom. Most of the students understand how to access assignments on Google Classroom because she spends time modeling the process for students. Lesson modifications are made for each student and class. According to the teacher, an adapted version of a blended learning model seems to work well with her high ability groups, yet she does have concerns including equity, virtual engagement and safety while teaching asynchronously--all of which have an impact on students’ learning.

The second teacher I interviewed teaches a small group of self-contained class (SCC) students in grades 6-8 who have severe autism, intellectual/learning disabilities, and selectively mutism. She and her two instructional assistants work as a team to provide a learning program that is as close to a traditional learning model as possible. The teacher explained that parents want to send their children to school daily because they struggle with managing them at home due to the deviation from the normal face-to-face routines that school provides. She further stated that students appeared to be regressing when they spend more time at home rather than school. When the teacher is working with students online, she and her team use Google Meet and similar visual activities that they would in the traditional model. When they come to school, her concerns are the challenges these students face wearing a mask for long periods of time, the shift away from normal school routines, and the provision of providing physical support around hygiene.


Distance learning is not easy for most students, and it is particularly difficult for those with learning differences that require Individualized Educational Programs. (IEPs). Educators are quickly understanding that not only do students with IEPs need strategies for asynchronous and synchronous learning, but parents need them too when trying to help from home. The grade 10 teacher is currently challenged with access to IEPs for her current group of students. If she does not have their IEPs, it is difficult to differentiate within the blended learning model to support students’ individual needs. Additionally, she is concerned that she cannot properly inform parents about effective strategies for preferred and non-preferred activities that will help reinforce skill mastery.

The SCC teacher's main challenge is around students sticking with visuals, routines and schedules. Some of her students were misbehaving at home after deviating from the routines and schedules they were used to at school. Asynchronously, both the parents and the students were lost and frustrated. The irritation diminished once the teacher appeared in front of the camera. The same activities she used in the blended model reminds students of the normal predictable day they are accustomed to. “If parents of SCC students had the opportunity to learn Google Classroom and other programs, this might help with adapting a more robust blended learning system,” she explained while waiting for her student to arrive on camera.


There are daily operational and non-operational challenges schools face while implementing blended learning models, yet there are components of this model that educators can adapt and differentiate for the needs of individual students and parents. Here are the top four recommendations for delivering the blended learning model to students with IEPs.

  1. Implement a Skill-Driven Model: According to Valiathan (2002) blended learning that’s skill-driven mixes interaction with a facilitator through email, face-to-face meetings and self-paced learning. This type of approach allows teachers to have daily/weekly check-ins with students and parents which can be useful in modifying accommodations for special needs students. This space might be used for goal setting which will clarify expectations around assignments for students and increase student motivation. Teachers could also use this time to demonstrate procedures and processes for online learning. For example, the grade 10 teacher modeled multiple times how to access assignments on Google Classroom with her class. She mentioned that by doing so, two-thirds of her students were able to locate the assignment and know how to submit the assignment. This might be a good model to suggest to the SCC teacher for her high performing students who are slowly adjusting to asynchronous schooling and developing independence.

  2. Implement an Attitude Driven Model: Welby (2020) suggests that starting synchronous class meetings with fun inclusion activities will “motivate students to join before starting academics.” When teachers combine peer-to-peer interactions with synchronous meetings in a risk-free environment it helps students develop healthy attitudes and behaviors toward classwork and learning. For example, one instructor uses popsicle sticks that have either an activity to address an IEP objective or preferred activity such as “Do a Jumping Jack” or “Show Me Your Pet.” During each virtual meeting the teacher will randomly choose a popsicle stick until all the activities are done. Another suggestion is engaging in events on certain days. For example, on Mondays have students wear a funny hat, on Tuesdays schedule a household scavenger hunt and on Thursdays host a show n’ tell using their favorite item. Welby explains, “such activities have students look forward to attending, boost engagement and tend to increase participation.” This model will help teachers learn more about their students’ interest.

  3. Celebrate Engaging Activities: Provide self-paced learning material that is coupled with individualized weekly schedules. A teacher in Methuen, Massachusetts, includes schedules with assignments and expectations with links to documents, websites or other materials centrally located on the document. This might work well with the grade 10 high ability group and it would be useful to give to tech-savvy parents in the SCC class. These schedules assist students and parents with pacing, planning, organizing, task completion and other functional skills students will transfer to adulthood. Recording videos with closed captions helps students and parents in asynchronous learning programs refer to the tasks and help reinforce IEP learning goals.

  4. Involve Parents: Blended learning models can be self-paced, individualized instruction which might work for some students with IEPs or they may present a new learning curve for students who are used to routines used in traditional classroom settings. As students adapt to this different method of teaching and learning, it may be advantageous to create a video for parents using closed caption (language preference) or to talk with parents to explain where specific areas of support are needed to help their children excel.


Shorr, J. (2014) Blended Learning in the Mix: The Informed Parent. Edutopia

Valiathan, P. (2002). Blended Learning Models. Old.astd.org/LC/2002/0802_valiathan. htm

Welby, K. (2020). How to Improve Distance Learning for Students with IEPs. Edutopia


Alexis Crump

Lead Trainer
Education Development Institute