2020 brought unexpected challenges for families across the world as they suddenly found themselves effectively home-schooling their children for many months due to school closures. Some families relished the extra time together that working from home and home-schooling provided; however, for those with children who have additional learning needs, there were further difficulties. What do school leaders and teachers need to consider as they prepare for the return to school in the new academic year?
Each child and family are unique. Their experiences over recent months vary according to many factors, including their domestic and financial situation, quality of distance learning provision and their child’s ability to access the specialist teaching and therapies that enable them to reach their potential. For many, it has been a period of extensive isolation, curtailed freedom and cancelled travel plans. While at first, a brief period of distance learning was envisaged, for schools in many areas, this quickly became the remainder of the academic year. This has brought both benefits and disadvantages, which differ for each family and student. Some families found that the situation gave them an insight into their child’s difficulties in learning that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
As we have recently returned to school, there are many points to consider, as school leaders, teachers, parents and pupils.
Pupils have missed out on the in-school transition process, which could lead to worries about their new teacher, class, classmates or school. Even schools that tried to negate this may have found that the goalposts have since been moved as local regulations changed, leading to revised allocations of staff and rooms and fewer pupils per class.
Anxiety and school refusal
There are many reasons for pupils to be anxious. They may have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as being fearful of catching it themselves. Couple this with impending transition, unfamiliarity with new processes and staff and the possibility of a second wave and/or a return to distance learning. Pupils who already found it difficult to attend school may struggle with the return to campus after such a long time at home. After spending a lot of additional time with their parents and caregivers, pupils of all ages may experience separation anxiety.
Access to therapists and other professionals
During the distance learning period, pupils who usually accessed ABA, psychotherapy, physiotherapy, occupational and speech and language therapies, may have had these provisions severely reduced, stopped altogether or only available online. Pupils who had been identified as needing an assessment to establish whether there are any additional learning needs may not have had that assessment.
Pupils with autism, sensory processing disorder or other sensory needs will be exempt from wearing face coverings, but may still wish to do so, or it may be parental preference. They may dislike using hand sanitising gel. For those who experience sensory overload in a school setting, distance learning may have provided welcome relief and leading to dread at returning to the classroom.
Pupils with medical needs may require continuation of distance learning rather than returning to school. If they also have additional learning needs, it is imperative that their needs are fully met despite them not attending school.
Has the gap narrowed or widened?
Some pupils with additional learning needs have flourished during distance learning due to the individual attention from parents/caregivers and specialised, differentiated teaching from their class teacher and inclusion department. Some will have learned new IT skills, improved their ability to manage their workload, organise tasks and gather resources. This is not the case for all, and others may have had a daily struggle in accessing online lessons and resources, organising their work, maintaining their focus on screen and when completing tasks. Pupils who experience difficulty in forming and maintaining social relationships with peers may have had little recent contact with other children and young people outside their immediate family.
Devising an action plan
In order to meet the varying needs of all children and young people, but especially those with additional learning needs, school leaders and teachers may wish to draw up an action plan to address the points listed above. Possible solutions include:
- Provide training for continuing staff and new joiners, not just about implementing the new guidelines at school, but also about the social, emotional and educational impact of distance learning and the pandemic on pupils, particularly those with additional learning needs.
- Carry out risk assessments for pupils with complex and significant educational and health needs, working with their parents and medical staff to ensure this is comprehensive.
- Work with parents and pupils to find out what their experience has been and how they feel about coming back – don’t assume that the distance learning period has been traumatic.
- Provide access to the school counsellor for at risk pupils and on request.
- Use circle time in class to give children structured and supportive opportunities to share their experiences and views of the summer break and distance learning.
- Use social stories and videos to prepare children for the return, explaining and showing what the school exterior and interior now look like, the processes they must follow and key personnel such as their class or form teacher. Ideally, these should have been be shared at least a week before term started.
- Be consistent in messages for staff, families and children in rules, words and images so that children feel safe, familiar and comfortable with new routines and are not wrong-footed by unfamiliar terminology or procedures.
- Be flexible as students return to campus, providing; time out of class, movement breaks or part-time attendance as needed.
- Provide safe alternatives to hand gel, such as antibacterial wipes or handwashing facilities.
- Ensure all staff are aware of pupils from Year 2/Grade 1 onwards who are exempt from wearing a mask, so that they are not challenged or criticised.
- Local guidelines and regulations may vary, so ensure any resources shared by other schools are customised for your own setting and students.
- Consider putting on a whole school virtual event to develop school connectedness, such as a display in a communal area to which all pupils contribute.
- Follow up outstanding learning assessments and support parents in accessing centres which can provide a suitable assessment.
- Find out whether children have missed out on therapies and whether these have now resumed. Work with affected families to find out how the school can compensate for the absence of provision.
- Consider using nurture principles or the SWAN approach to promote a safe and welcoming return to school (see resources below).
As we prepare to return to school, which will be a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar, it is important to consider the needs of everyone in our school family, to recognise that these needs vary and may change over time, and to ensure a safe and welcoming return for all.
Sources of support/resources
The SWAN framework:
Using nurture principles to support the return to school:
By: Ginette Moore
Ginette Moore is the Head of Inclusion at The Aquila School, Dubai. She has a Masters in Special and Inclusive Education, holds the NASENCo award and tutors the Real Training international SENCo award. She has led inclusion in Dubai and the UK for over ten years. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.