Supporting Students Impacted by Interrupted Learning

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Andrea Gold, Ph.D., BCBA-D
The Bay School

[This column was published in The Daily Item on December 13, 2022.]

Recent findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” have confirmed that students across the country were negatively impacted by “interrupted learning” during the pandemic; math and reading scores for hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders dropped dramatically since 2019.

Interrupted learning refers to the stopping or disruption of a student’s formal education – whether it resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic or other factors, such as seasonal school breaks or absenteeism due to student illness. For special education students, interrupted learning may also occur when services fail to meet their individualized educational needs. 

Any disruption of learning, whether it is caused by a pandemic or a long holiday break, poses a unique set of challenges for special education students – especially those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. This vulnerable population often experiences challenges due to complex communication and behavioral support needs that may require more direct, individualized support. 

For example, while remote learning can be a viable alternative to in-person learning for typically developing students, this is not always the case for students with special needs. They may have difficulty sitting in one place for any length of time and may not know how to use technology (e.g., mouse or touchscreen). Teaching those skills cannot be done remotely. It requires someone to be with the student providing different levels of physical prompts and prompt-fading once the skills are mastered. In addition, there are some self-care skills, such as toileting, that cannot be worked on remotely because these types of programs require more direct, individualized support.

For readers who provide support to special education students, we offer the following suggestions:

Establish school as a positive environment
When a student experiences interrupted learning, the transition back to school can be challenging. Make school a comfortable, fun, and preferred place to be by associating it with preferred things – positive attention, fun activities, and more. Then, slowly reintroduce instructional tasks, paying careful attention to gradually introduce more challenging work. 

Assessments may include informal probes or more formal assessment tools. Identifying a student’s current skills can help the teacher and other service providers more effectively provide instruction to “meet them where they’re at.” 

Revise IEPs and ISPs, as necessary 
If a student’s present levels of performance changed significantly since they were last assessed, goals may need to be amended to meet them where they’re at. The child’s Individual Educational Plan (IEP) or Individualized Service Plan (ISP) team can meet to determine if this is necessary. 

Provide systematic instruction  
Define the learning objective. Break complex skills down into smaller components. Provide whatever level of prompting the student needs initially and fade prompts over time. Track the student’s performance with data collection and evaluate their performance on an ongoing basis. As the student builds independence, gradually increase the complexity by adding more components of the larger task. Continue this process until the student has met their learning objective. 

Reinforce desired behaviors 
Use praise, other preferred items, and fun activities to reward students for meeting expectations – whether it be focusing on a task, attempting to task, asking for help, or making a correct response. 

Although most students have returned to full-time, in-person learning this year, they will continue to experience some level of interrupted learning throughout their educational careers – whether it be due to absenteeism or the upcoming winter holiday break. But young learners are resilient and, with the right supports in place, they will be able to regain lost momentum, achieve educational milestones, and prepare themselves to lead happy, productive lives.

Andrea Gold, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is the Executive Director of at The Bay School, a May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Santa Cruz, Calif. She can be contacted at

About The Bay School
The Bay School, a May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a nonpublic, nonprofit school dedicated to providing education and intervention services to individuals with autism and their families. It is one of May Institute's four special education schools in Massachusetts and California for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other special needs. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit