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Tips for Supporting Students with Social Skill, Mental Health, and Communication Disabilities in Digital Settings

By Tulare Williams Park, Kari L. Sheward, Carol Rogers-Shaw / May 2023

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Online instructors in higher education must meet the needs of a growing population of students with social skill, mental health, and communication disabilities. Although access to higher education has increased for these students, graduation rates have not [1]. These disabilities may include autism spectrum disorder (ASD), anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and language related learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Higher education institutions offer synchronous online classes that often replicate face-to-face experiences in cyberspace [2], yet these academic spaces present challenges for engaging students with disabilities. The recent shift to increased online learning is “a moment of change and a time to reimagine how education could be delivered” [3]. The possibility for increased online synchronous learning today requires added instructional knowledge acquisition and skill development. The purpose of this article is to provide recommendations for postsecondary instructors for building inclusive communities, focusing on accessible course design, and increasing specialized professional knowledge that serves all learners, saves planning time, and diminishes frustration from excessive individualization of instruction.  Instructors in higher education may be familiar with strategies that promote success for all learners, but they may not be aware of how to apply them effectively. Using concrete tips for inclusive instruction in synchronous online classrooms can be time saving for educators. These suggested teaching practices also offer learners with disabilities many avenues for achieving their goals, the aim of dedicated and effective instructors. 

To support higher education students with challenges, it is important for instructors to build an online class community, develop an efficient course design to increase student success in navigating the learning management system (LMS), and access valuable professional development materials. An inclusive class community is beneficial to students with disabilities because it increases their motivation and engagement, deepens their learning, and creates a supportive environment that helps them overcome barriers [4]. For students with language disabilities, communication can be complicated. Instructors need to be aware of the accessibility of the LMS and course materials so that a model is used that addresses individual differences [5]. For example, color coding important information on a class syllabus or online course module is beneficial for some learners but may be distracting for others [6]. Creating a clear, easily navigable course structure and updated calendar is critical to students with anxiety, for example, because it reduces barriers resulting from confusion and fear, increases motivation, and “results in a feeling of safety” [7]. Enhanced professional development increases the chance that students will be successful because instructors will have the knowledge needed to apply effective strategies for teaching and supporting learners with disabilities. 

Creating intentional peer-to-peer activities to be completed in class with instructor guidance builds trust within a vibrant class community. Highly organized course design is a key component of teaching presence which is the foundation for quality online instruction [811]. In an effective online higher education community, teaching presence increases student success as learners develop the confidence to take the knowledge and skills they acquire in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations [12, 13]. Professional development for online instructors is crucial as they take on roles beyond content expert, including as course designers, facilitators of technology-based communication, online community builders, and mentors to students who find online instruction challenging [14].

Instructors who adopt the following recommendations can increase learner engagement and participation while building a welcoming class community. The teaching/learning options provide strategies for instructors to assist university students in overcoming the impediments to academic and social success, as well as increasing graduation rates. Postsecondary instructors can effectively address students with social skill, mental health, and communication challenges in digital settings by designing a course that increases participation for all students rather than merely applying a generic list of accommodations for disabled students. This approach saves educator planning time and diminishes frustration instructors feel from the need for excessive individualization of instruction. Tips for enhancing community building within the online classroom, suggestions for improving course design that address the needs of students with disabilities, and areas for increasing instructor knowledge are described below. 

Community Building

The use of a virtual platform allows for easy accessibility to postsecondary education; however, it may limit the opportunity to develop relationships and a sense of community among its users. The goal in providing tips to educators is to focus on fostering social interactions and developing trusting relationships. Designing a safe and nurturing environment is key to building connectedness among faculty and students. By suggesting educator practices that are beneficial for all learners, particularly those with challenges, we illuminate productive interactions that bolster student achievement. Socially mediated reinforcement can be accessed when engaging with others, thereby increasing the likelihood of future participation. 

Establishing trust is essential to instructor-student relationships that support learning, particularly in online university courses. Activities that follow a social learning theory framework are less pressured and enhance online social presence [8, 9, 15, 16]. Creating a trusting relationship is paramount for students to engage and respond to guidance. The feeling of safety and trust allows students to focus on the tasks presented rather than being fearful and cautious in an effort to protect themselves. Building elements of strong inclusive communities into course structures can increase students’ comfort level and long-term skill development [3]; peer mentoring can enhance these relationships [17, 18]. Community building occurs through improved personal interactions between instructors and students that enhance communication, through increased social support and encouragements within the course design, and through heightened attention to creating trust.

Personalized Interactions

Postsecondary students with social skill, mental health, and communication disabilities can benefit from personalized interactions to develop a rapport and trust with faculty and peers. Students with these diagnoses often struggle with self-advocacy and may not feel comfortable initiating interactions. Instructors can begin to engage by addressing students by name and using their preferred pronouns. Personalized recognition of identity is important in developing a connection; this demonstrates that students are important to instructors, and it gains the attention of students in a meaningful way. 

When conversing with students, be clear and concise, avoiding idioms and sarcasm, so that students do not misinterpret intentions. This is particularly important when initially meeting students as first impressions can affect the establishment of trust. To teach students in an individualized manner, inquire about their learning preferences and comfort with technology. After hearing student perspectives of how they learn best, incorporate these techniques, varying oral, written, and visual methods. These suggestions establish a sense of interconnection and interest on behalf of the instructor. These tips work particularly well with university students with communication challenges, yet they meet the needs of all students as do suggestions for improving listening and communication skills.

Improving Listening and Communication Skills 

Communication is key for creating inclusive learning environments. Instructors can use multiple means of planned communication with individuals and groups such as online chat, email, discussion boards, and announcements. Explicitly acknowledging the challenges of being a learner and normalizing challenges as a part of the learning process is a key strategy for educators. This enhances classroom connection, collaboration, and community and is consistent with a strengths-based approach within learning communities advocated by social learning theory [9, 10]. 

Creating basic, clear rules for sharing personal information is another facet of safe and appropriate classroom communication that instructors must address. Allowing students to choose whether and what to share and setting guidelines related to confidentiality enhances trust and provides a road map of expectations for students to follow [19]. Modeling effective communication assists learners with communication disabilities, yet it also provides all learners with methods and formats they can apply in the future. Supporting the development of solid listening and communication skills is also beneficial for social engagement. 

Increasing Social Supports and Engagement

Social engagement is an important part of students’ educational experiences and challenges students with socially based disabilities. Interaction with peers offers expanded learning opportunities through sharing values, beliefs, and experiences. Offer peer mentoring and small group experiences; peer support and acceptance are key to reducing stigma and creating an inclusive community [20]. By sharing Google documents, holding virtual game nights, and organizing opportunities to meet in person, students have pre-arranged opportunities to interact, taking away the anxiety of initiating such encounters. The use of a trained peer role model can smooth interactions for students struggling in social and academic environments; training enhances the retention and replication of modeled behavior. Coordinate and provide training to teach peer mentors about different disabilities, provide education to mentors about various aspects of technological and environmental accessibility, and train mentors on evidence-based support strategies for neurodiverse students in the online environment. 

Disabled students may have difficulty staying on topic, taking turns, and following conversational nuances. Some may be slower to organize thoughts and speak. Speech tone and volume may differ from peers. Idiosyncratic use of words and phrases may occur. A mentor who models discussion behaviors can be valuable for students who struggle with conversational norms. Pointing out peers who excel in discussions can offer students a model to imitate as they develop their own communication skills. Closed captioning features provide a visual discussion model for communication. 

Instructors can create virtual social groups with specific topics for discussion. Open-ended prompts provide a direction for discussions but also offer groups the chance to take the conversation where it flows naturally. Students with disabilities can then contribute more easily. Many colleges have clubs specific to areas of course interest. A club creates a structured social environment that reduces the anxiety related to initiating involvement. Instructors should become aware of student organizations connected to course subject areas and suggest students participate, even encouraging groups within the class to pursue these outside interests together. This is an opportunity to strengthen relationships and create a sense of belonging that increases confidence and well-being. These suggestions are significant for engaging learners with social skill problems; at the same time, applying these practices creates more positive communication between all learners and can increase trust between students and instructors.

Creating Trust

Developing trustworthiness is paramount to connecting with individual students. Many postsecondary students with disabilities have difficulty trusting instructors and peers, having previously had negative school experiences. Begin by reaching out to students via phone or email to develop trust. Many educators do not have individual interactions with students unless a student initiates the contact due to a question or concern. Individual contact can be a mode of assessing students’ status in the course and their level of confidence. It can provide a way to address any concerns and determine if additional assistance is required. Reaching out after absences from class or missed submissions can address a problem before it becomes overwhelming. Engaging with a student demonstrates an element of care and interest in the student as a person and can be used to direct students to the Disability Resources Office (DRO) if needed.  

Have each student write about themselves or share their world visually, providing connections with other students sharing similar interests. Blog writing or a class photo album offers a safe environment without the requirement of face-to-face conversations. Students can perfect drafts and take time to search for visuals rather than being forced to come up with their stories on the spot. 

Many students are socially motivated, while others rely on intrinsic satisfaction related to classroom participation and grades. In social learning, motivation is key [15, 16]. Group collaboration can be motivating for learners who desire social interaction and anxiety-provoking for others. Students may experience discomfort with being singled out even for praise; Reichenberger and Blechert discussed the implications that social anxiety and depression have on the attention gained from social praise [21]. The anticipation of judgment, both positive and negative, can result in individuals withholding their best work to avoid public recognition. A vocal shout-out to celebrate an accomplishment sounds benign on the surface; however, those with anxiety might find this more distressing than rewarding, and a personal email might serve to enhance a student’s trust of the instructor. It is important to consider instructor actions and employ course design features that enhance the relationship between students and instructors. 

Course Design

Effective course organization is a vital pedagogical tool for meeting the needs of learners with disabilities in productive online courses. Learners with mental health, communication, and social interaction challenges can find success when course objectives are presented clearly; due dates and assignment parameters are specific, comprehensible, and scaffolded; and feedback reflects how well students met distinctly explained instructor expectations [22, 23]. The more learners recognize what is required, the more likely they are to achieve. Often students who are new to online learning may not be familiar with effective strategies for navigating the online platform and may not be comfortable with initiating peer relationships in a digital environment. An organized course structure can smooth their adaptation to online learning and enhance their engagement with course content and with each other. Facilitated small group discussions that are well ordered can improve student information sharing and collaboration [24]. Diverse learners find that not only do they need structure in their online courses, but they also need flexibility and consistency [22, 23, 25]. 

Flexibility is critical for learners with mental health, communication, and social interaction disabilities. Students often choose online learning options due to the flexibility in when, where, and how they access learning; therefore, instructors need to understand the importance of flexibility for their students [22, 23]. In higher education, students are more likely to disclose their disability to an instructor who has demonstrated interest, gained the student’s trust, and offered flexibility in course assignments [26]; disclosure is a significant step toward success for students with disabilities. Disclosure communication between learners and instructors can lead to flexible assessment options and timelines, improving achievement levels. 

Instructor consistency is a crucial feature of online environments [22, 25] that support disabled learners and provide enhanced opportunities for learner success. Consistency builds structure that is familiar and expected, reducing stress that develops from feeling overwhelmed and unsure of expectations. When elements of the course have a consistent format and provide similar means of access, learners are more successful navigating the LMS, become more confident and less anxious, and can use course templates to become more organized. Expectations are understandable when assignments and group work have consistent formats. Repeated structures can enhance student/instructor and peer interaction due to familiarity. Highly structured coursework with well-defined goals, clear instructions, assignment options, and varied deadlines leads to effective teaching presence [2425]. Course design features can increase organizational efficiency, add consistency, and heighten flexibility.

Organizing Online Courses 

When sharing the expectations and syllabi, there are key factors that assist individuals with disabilities, although all students benefit from effective organization and instructors’ familiarizing students with procedures, preparing them for the upcoming term. One way to add effective organization in online courses is to distribute agendas for each class, providing an outline of the order of instruction, the activities to be completed, materials needed for participation, and key questions. Color code agendas to highlight upcoming assignments and important information. This outline prepares disabled learners to follow the flow of the course. It organizes the instructor’s plans, keeps the class on track, and once written, can be redistributed in future classes. 

Instructors can check that assignment due dates match and appear in both text (on the syllabus or in an announcement) and visually (on a calendar). If students can easily navigate an organized LMS that provides accurate, clear, and consistent information, they will develop trust in the instructor. List assignment and course requirements using clear, concise written details that are then emphasized through oral class reminders. This will contribute to student achievement as students gain confidence in their ability to meet the course requirements. Applying effective organizational strategies is especially helpful for students with learning disabilities and executive functioning challenges, but a well-structured course benefits all learners while providing consistency in format and delivery.

Consistency Within an Online Course

Consistency is significant in instructor actions, course design, and course materials [22, 24, 25]. For example, when an instructor provides an agenda for each class that follows a specific template and is located in the same place on the LMS, students become familiar with the instructor’s expectations and experience less stress when they know exactly where to find this information and recognize the same format. It also saves time for students when they are looking for course information and allows instructors to access that information quickly to share in class. The following course structure suggestions are beneficial to all students and can be replicated across courses for efficiency in setting up future courses; they are very effective for supporting students with organizational disabilities related to a lack of executive function skills. Instructors can provide multiple means of content distribution. When sharing slideshows, use brief examples and minimal content as not to overwhelm students who may already be anxious. Add embedded videos and audio to demonstrate concepts. Slides can be saved and reviewed by students at their leisure. Use an application such as Google’s Jamboard that offers students the opportunity to create interactive slides while providing anonymity and allowing disabled learners to think before they must respond, build on peer responses, and participate without taking over the discussion. 

Instructors and course designers can provide assignment, discussion, and project templates and rubrics that become familiar to students and easier for instructors because the format is reusable. Offering structured guided note-taking templates and crowd-sourced notes allow students to view the standard individual note-taking process and a peer model to follow that meets instructor expectations and can be used repeatedly. Sharing notes through a discussion board or common document can create community. Consistency in instructor and assessment flexibility is valuable as well.

Adding Flexibility in Online Instruction 

All students, including those with disabilities, experience increased stress and anxiety from rigid deadlines. Frequently remind students of specific deadlines but maintain flexibility. Offering a window of dates for assignment submission enables learners with disabilities to take more time than nondisabled peers, yet still meet the needs of instructors who must establish concrete times for submission to provide meaningful feedback. It also benefits instructors by spreading out submissions over a week rather than receiving all student work on the same day; the pressure to provide feedback to all students at the same time is lessened. Instructors can develop an extension policy that asks students to inform them of the reasons behind a request for additional time, allowing the instructor to maintain control, increasing student responsibility for identifying needs and requesting support, and offering necessary flexibility.  

Instructors can allow multiple forms of competency demonstration by providing assignment options that give disabled learners the chance to show what they have learned using a format that is best suited to their disability limitations, yet too many choices can also be overwhelming. Include three categories of options: traditional assessments like a written paper or an exam, oral possibilities such as a debate or presentation, and visually creative means such as a video or interactive slideshow. Options present disabled learners the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in course content, offer non-disabled students appealing options that motivate them to complete assignments, and allow instructors variety in grading. 

Instructors can also provide choices such as screens on or off during class; if instructors feel the need to ensure that students are engaged, camera angles that show students in profile or capture their typing can meet instructor requirements but also allow socially uncomfortable students options to present themselves and cut down on visual distractions. Jamboard, Peardeck, and Lean Coffee are programs that can engage students while allowing anonymity. Instructors who increase their knowledge of teaching/learning options can become increasingly effective in assisting students with disabilities while enhancing the experiences of all students.

Areas of Professional Development for Instructors

To reach struggling students, educators must become learners themselves. Sniatecki et al. found “one of the important factors that may contribute to the challenging climate for [students with disabilities] is a lack of faculty knowledge and awareness of the issues that face these students” [18]. Instructors must be open to increasing their knowledge about challenges and barriers to learning faced by students with disabilities as well as inclusive, evidence-based instructional practices through participation in professional development opportunities [27]. Organizations must recognize the importance of providing employees responsible for education and training with ongoing professional development to help them deepen knowledge bases and stay up to date as technologies change.

One of the most important skills for instructors is development of active and empathic listening skills to understand students’ learning preferences and their needs. Specific training can reveal how best to teach to be heard and understood. It is also crucial to teach students effective listening skills to positively impact their learning outcomes [28, 29]. Reflection and engagement in discussion of ideas and learning materials enhances deep learning [8]. The following tips for professional development topics, including postsecondary learner characteristics and acquisition of specialized knowledge, are critical areas. 

Working with Postsecondary Learners 

It is imperative as an instructor to understand how higher education students learn and develop knowledge [9, 10, 13]. Creating opportunities for connection with peers and the instructor through advising meetings, work groups, group texts, online chats, and threaded discussions is effective in building community to increase learner engagement and motivation. Instructors must also be aware of challenges faced by learners, such as balancing families, employment, and academics, which add additional layers of difficulty for students with disabilities. Planning multiple options for advising times to accommodate learner availability is also important. Instructors should know relevant university policies regarding attendance, leaves of absence, and incomplete grades. They should also be familiar with referral options for support such as financial aid, student success center, tutoring, and academic support. 

University students expect feedback and advising in addition to class instruction [30]. Feedback is critical for all students if they are to improve their skills. It is particularly important to students with specific reading and writing learning disabilities so that they can strengthen their skills in those areas; for students with communication and social disabilities asking questions and seeking guidance might be intimidating so timely written feedback is crucial. Understanding disabilities encountered in the classroom can lead to improved instruction. 

Acquiring Specialized Knowledge 

When teaching a variety of students, instructors must become educated about disabilities that affect college students most frequently and the ways barriers are encountered in online classroom settings for students with disabilities. Opportunities for learning about these challenges and ways to effectively address barriers must be made available to faculty by higher education institutions. It is important to note, “an institution’s commitment to an equitable, inclusive, and just learning environment is strengthened when faculty have the knowledge and skills to facilitate integration and success of all students, especially those with disabilities or other diverse learning needs” [31].

Effectively adopting Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices saves time once established; it reduces anxiety for time constrained instructors with heavy class loads and teaching responsibilities and for students with and without disabilities. Gain knowledge about challenges inherent in the transition to college for young adults or returning non-traditional students and learners with disabilities; obtain guidance about UDL to proactively reduce barriers. Understanding and applying UDL increases instructor effectiveness because it offers all students opportunities to acquire knowledge and demonstrate competence in an individualized manner, while reducing the need for constantly changing individual accommodations. 

As an instructor, it is important to understand the legal requirements of an educator and the college’s procedures for accommodating students with disabilities; know how to implement accommodations in the classroom. Use online resources that provide specific methods for effectively engaging online college students such as "Teaching Techniques for Higher Education" and “Integrating Technology: An innovative approach to improving online discussion boards” [32]. Following the recommendations for teaching students with disabilities can be timesaving and stress-reducing for instructors, can increase the efficacy of teaching practices, and can meet legal requirements.


To fully meet the needs of the growing population of students with disabilities taking online courses, postsecondary instructors must “change their ways of thinking.… to reimagine the ways learning occurs and is assessed in the online classroom” [4]. Implementing simple and creative approaches to online instruction that incorporate options for students with different learning needs to achieve success builds inclusive online communities, makes course design more accessible, and enhances effective teaching through professional development. A traditional approach to online instruction often focuses on adding individual student accommodations while an epistemological shift toward designing instruction to facilitate the learning of all class members can offer instructors an approach that is less time consuming and burdensome. If educators truly want all their students to be successful, following the tips provided can assist them in meeting the needs of students with disabilities, those with economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, students for whom English is not their first language, and for academically privileged and gifted students as well. 


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About the Authors

Tulare Williams Park, ACSW, MSW, is an assistant professor of social work at Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania - Lock Haven. She is a licensed social worker and a doctoral candidate in lifelong learning and adult education at Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include the emotional and relational experiences of adult learners, social work education, distance education, mental health, adult learner support, and disability studies.

Kari Sheward, MS, BCBA is a board-certified behavior analyst serving as the Vice President of Behavioral Health and Clinical Services for Tangram, Inc. where she focuses on services for transition aged individuals with autism. She earned her master’s degree in psychology with a specialization in applied behavior analysis from Purdue Global. She is a doctoral candidate in the Leadership for Organizations program at the University of Dayton.  Sheward’s dissertation focuses on impactful transition programs in high schools increasing the retention rates of autistic college students. 

Carol Rogers-Shaw, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor in the Leadership for Organizations doctoral program at the University of Dayton. She earned a doctorate in lifelong learning and adult education from Pennsylvania State University. She is the co-editor of Adult Learning, an international, peer-reviewed, adult education practice-oriented journal. Dr. Rogers-Shaw’s research focuses on expanding educational inclusion for disabled adults, stigma and disability disclosure, transition to postsecondary education for learners with disabilities, graduate study, profound learning, and Universal Design for Learning. 

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2023/05-3596515 $15.00


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