Working with children who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is the most rewarding job I have ever had. The smallest steps forward fill you with pride, and you learn to measure success in very different ways than when assessing students who find learning less of a challenge.
Supporting SEND students is essential; never more so than during these strange times, when they have to adapt to studying from home using a more changeable timetable than they would like. Unintentionally, we are at risk of letting these children down through circumstances beyond our control.
Unfortunately, remote learning brings SEND students’ difficulties into sharper focus, as the support they usually have in lessons is almost lacking. In the classroom setting, where you are near your SEND pupils, they benefit from one-on-one subject support when needed. They are taken out of the class to receive extra tuition, and we support them emotionally or even physically by scribing and being their ears or eyes.
Online learning has a very different feel to it, not only due to the obvious physical distancing but also because SEND students miss out on the usual support they get at school. We are trained to help these children discretely because they are at an age where they don’t want to be seen as different, even if they are in some ways.
Online learning can be triggering for SEND children
For some SEND students, remote schooling is not even an option. Despite the present risk of COVID-19, I go into school to provide them with face-to-face support. One boy has epilepsy and cannot access his online lessons for fear of triggering a fit. Instead, I deliver all of his subject lessons to him, using written materials and an interactive whiteboard. Without this assistance, he would be falling behind his peers. In his case, and for many others, virtual learning is not even a substitute; it’s a hindrance.
In addition to finding the whole concept of learning through online lessons incredibly challenging, SEND students struggle to cope from home when they find the set work difficult. We have children who do not want to be seen or heard virtually, making it harder to help them. Of course, they can mute the microphone and turn off the camera, but this is still a different experience from sitting quietly in a physical classroom, where we can observe signs of them having difficulties.
We also have SEND pupils who find the online classroom experience a lonely one. Educators are increasingly concerned that these children are in danger of becoming more insular and alone than they have ever felt before. Checking on these students by asking aloud or in the chatbox, where everyone else in the online lesson can see and hear you, isn’t always an option, as I have already explained above.
Certainly, we can message them privately, but this is still a distant form of support. We can use an app like Google Meet – a virtual ‘hangout’ facility – where the student leaves the lesson environment to talk to us directly – but this means missing the lesson and any extra useful input that happens there. And never underestimate children’s abilities to thwart their learning – it’s amazing how many times I hear “the computer crashed, Mrs Parkinson”. This excuse is fast becoming the modern-day replacement to the dog ate my homework!
The truth this: there is no exact replacement for books. For time immemorial, children’s education has relied on book learning. My fear is that (yet another) hidden impact of the pandemic is the further erosion of hard copy books in a learning setting.
Online teaching has a lot to offer the education sector as a whole, and some SEND children can supplement their education in the virtual world, but it really oughtn’t to be a case of books or technology. Even during lockdowns, all children should be making use of textbooks too.
I am finding that when we offer SEND students hard copies of the learning materials, they generally prefer it. When we use them in conjunction with online learning, the quality of the work is so much better, especially if they also produce it as a hard copy.
Never underestimate the tactile benefit of hard copy learning materials for SEND students. They often need to physically hold a book, turn pages, reread paragraphs several times, and look at diagrams to help them learn. Even lifting the book to their face, laying it down on a table or walking around holding it while reading it are useful techniques some students apply.
It seems that, for pupils like mine, the transition from short-term to long-term memory relies on a combination of all their senses; touching the pages, seeing the typed words, hearing the pages turn over. Repeating these stages many times in different locations might also be necessary. In some cases, the sounds associated with computer work – the feel of a computer keyboard, the sound of keys tapping etc. – can lead to sensory overload. Students also require multisensory equipment and other educational supplies that may not be available at home.
Sadly, children do not always have access to course books in each subject while learning at home. Imagine not being able to enjoy something most of us once took for granted? Flicking through a book is a uniquely satisfying experience at the risk of being lost to school children. The possibility of a generation of students missing out on this fills me with sadness. That’s why the objective of charities like Books2All – to help ensure that used copies of course books (and storybooks too, of course) make their way back to schools – is so valuable.
Remote learning saved the day, but it has limitations
While it’s great that most schools are now in a position to loan out computer equipment to families in need, there is still the issue of whether they can afford to pay for broadband. Also, Wi-Fi is still frequently unreliable in more outlying areas of the country, meaning that students there are isolated by geographical location and technological barriers.
If other households are anything like mine, two children, or more, needing access to online learning at the same time is a recipe for chaos! The Wi-Fi might also need to be good enough to help parents work remotely. And not every home has enough private space for lessons to take place uninterrupted. There are areas with a poor internet connection in our house, and it’s the luck of the draw who grabs the best spot! I can imagine that we aren’t the only ones. How do you fairly decide who has access to equipment? You often can’t!
To a greater or lesser extent, online learning is here to stay, and that is not a bad thing to happen, in the round. Our kids need to learn how to use the technology to equip them for their future lives. Since 2020, we have found ourselves in an unprecedented situation that disrupts every aspect of our daily routines, and the virtual world has come into its own in ways we could never have anticipated. Though severely disrupted, education can often only continue at all because of current technologies.
However, just as in other aspects of our social lives, technology cannot replace real-world contact between student and teacher or support teacher. I am counting down the days until I can once again give my students the support they need to thrive and reach their full potential in our school’s classroom setting.
Thank you for visiting our blog. Our vision here at Books2All is a world where every child finds the books that help them reach their true potential. If you have spare books in good condition at home that you think might be appropriate for school children, please sign up for our app’s pre-release waiting list. If you represent a school, please register to receive books for your students.
Top inset photo courtesy of karlyukav – www.freepik.com