From a qualified teacher and specialist SEN tutor, read how homeschooling and online learning has affected children with special educational needs.
In 2020, the pandemic forced teachers, parents and children to teach and learn in a way never seen before. Once locked down, tech came to our rescue, keeping children’s learning going with live Zoom and Teams lessons, recorded video lessons and digital classroom environments.
So far so good, but nine months later, we know that the quality and quantity of learning has been worryingly varied. Furthermore, many children and families are simply not able to access learning due to lack of devices, data, Wi-Fi signal and overcrowded home environments. There is great pressure on both parents and children to keep up with schoolwork, anxiety around exams and the difficulty of juggling schoolwork with family life and parents with their own workload to cram in.
But what about students with additional needs? For many parents of children with SEN, homeschooling has presented an entirely new kind of challenge.
One interesting thought has struck me about online learning for SEN children in the pandemic. Most SENCO’s assumed online learning would be a disaster for these children, and whilst homeschooling was certainly a hurdle for parents to overcome and much flexibility was required, many families I work with in fact reported that the change of environment and delivery of information was actually helpful in some ways. For children who struggle to focus and find classroom settings overwhelming, online lessons provided a new and helpful gateway to learning.
Online Learning and SEN: Unexpected Benefits
As a SEN specialist, I pride myself on examining the whole picture of a child’s development in a way that class teachers cannot because I am afforded so much more one-on-one time with children. With this in mind, I pay attention not only to the academic progress of a pupil but also their emotional wellbeing. It was a cause of great concern to me that pupils with additional needs would experience feelings of distress due to the change in environment and switch to online learning. I worried about the disruption in routine causing a lack of focus and interest; lack of social contact causing feelings of isolation and lessening confidence. I also worried that there might be overriding anxiety and frustration about falling behind at school, struggling to understand the work set or anxiety about the coronavirus itself. Parents are not trained teachers, so the burden for them was also great – and, in many cases, they were left to fend for themselves by an educational landscape in great turmoil.
I, too, had to adapt. Thankfully online learning was up and running in some schools prior to the pandemic, so I was well set up to meet these new challenges head-on. I was, however, concerned about the impact it would have on my pupils. However, to my surprise, a large number of children, particularly those with certain additional learning needs – were not adversely affected by the change in the educational setting; in fact, they thrived in this new environment, free from the pressure of scrutiny by peers and teachers. Could online learning and SEN be a surprisingly effective combination?
Benefits of Online Learning for SEN Students
There have been many positives associated with online learning for students with SEN. In my experience, these include:
Reduced social anxiety
For many SEN children, classroom interactions can be daunting – whether that’s conversing with classmates or teachers or the noisiness of the classroom overall. This can detract from their enjoyment of learning and how effectively they’re able to absorb the material under discussion.
Social interactions are not only a source of anxiety, but also diversion, and that’s just one example of the multiple distractions present in a school setting. For students with ADD and ADHD, the relative calm and isolation of learning online at home can be extremely helpful.
Comfort with technology
Technology is a source of solace to many students; as a generation, they’re familiar with myriad forms of technology, and, for students with SEN, technology appears impersonal, less invasive, and non-threatening. It’s binary: it works or it doesn’t. When it takes on more prominence – as it must during online tuition – technology can be comforting and conducive to learning.
Highly adaptive delivery
With learning online, as in face-to-face settings, educators can tailor lessons according to the student, but for many SEN pupils, the barrier of the computer screen makes it easier for them to relax and participate. Teachers are also able to make greater use of audio, visual, or interactive materials, and students can work entirely at their own pace, playing lessons back or downloading material as necessary. This enhanced flexibility can improve a student’s appreciation of learning in new and robust ways.
Hope for the future
With coronavirus cases remaining very high in the UK, schools closed and most exams cancelled, much about this academic year feels uncertain. However, it seems clear to all that online learning is now an integral part of any educational apparatus. To my mind, lockdown was a precursor to broader change: an enforced, widespread trial of twentieth-century pedagogy and tech versus twenty-first-century pedagogy and tech. The results of this trial will reverberate well beyond the pandemic.
As a means of providing support and guidance in a flexible way, online learning cannot be discounted; and, when delivered by highly-qualified, experienced teachers or tutors, it can be a very effective learning tool. Balance is crucial – the benefits spending time with other human beings and enjoying social time and interaction should not be forgotten – but when utilised as part of a wider programme, online tutoring may offer an unexpectedly powerful gateway to educational success for students with SEN.