Editorial: Making up for lost instruction

What should special educators do to help students with disabilities catch up?

With pending—and already started—return to live, in-person instruction, I have seen many news analyses of schools’ efforts to help students with disabilities catch up for the time lost over the last 12 to 18 months of instruction. To me, “catching up” seems like a daunting standard, a challenging criterion, a tall order. But, if our students are to stand a chance, what do we special educators need to do?

I’d start with an important given: Students with disabilities almost always start out “behind.” That is, even though their experiences may differ (see Toste et al. 2021), regardless of whether they lost instructional time because of the SARs-CoV-19 pandemic, they were in catch-up mode from the proverbial get-go. 

Said yet another way, to make up for being behind, most kids with disabilities have to learn more in 5 days, 1 month, 1 semester, or a school year than their non-disabled peers do in that time. If a student with a disability learns at 

  • her own, individual learning rate, based on previous years’ achievement, she will likely get farther and farther behind;

  • a learning rate equal to the rate of his peers, he will likely stay just as far behind as ever; or

  • an accelerated learning rate, depending on how much faster than normal and how far behind she was, she will make progress in catching up. 

In the olden days, we used to hope that patching up some underlying problems would allow  our students to learn better and, hence, catch up. Patch-up teaching of, say, auditory processing or working memory skills would help students learn reading and math.  As most of us know PU teaching didn’t prove particularly successful. At best, students got better at tests of those skills we were patching up, but they didn’t get better at tests of reading, math, or writing. As Tricot and Sweller (2012) argued, educators are much better off teaching domain-specific skills, as opposed to domain-general skills.

So, we agreed that it was better to work on reading, math, and writing directly. But now another concern arose. Would it better to provide rich environments that would break through deficits in motivation (see, e.g., White, 2021) or simply teach required skills explicitly and systematically? Will they have better chances of catching up if they have joyous, experiential, hands-on lessons? What if the lessons were coordinated across time, focused on specific learning outcomes, provided copious opportunities to respond, and included teacher feedback and corrections?

If the goal is to help students catch up, I’m going to favor the focused, practice laden, systematic and explicit lessons, the kind of lessons that Hattie (2009) showed were superior. To be sure, we want the students to learn both specific behaviors as well as broad concepts and operations. But, let’s be efficient! They don’t have time to waste. Given that educators have to teach students at a faster-than-normal rate, educators should not waste students’ time with traditional discovery learning and its cousins, whole language, project-based learning, experiential learning, and the like. 


Hattie, J. A. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of 800+ meta-analyses on achievement. Routledge.

Toste, J. R., Raley, S. K., Toews, S. G., Shogren, K. A., & Coelho, G.  (2021). “Eye opening and chaotic”: Resilience and self-determination of secondary students with disabilities amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic.  Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 26(2), 157-183. http://doi.org/10.1080/10824669.2021.1906248

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 265–283. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-013-9243-1

White, J. (2021-08-18). 1A: Back to school: Can special education make up for lost time? National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2021/08/18/1028911400/back-to-school-can-special-education-make-up-for-lost-time