Rick Bell

The last eighteen months have been difficult for everyone. But students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have been significantly affected by the isolation and lack of services available during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The National Children’s Bureau (NCB) in Northern Ireland recently published a report revealing that parents and caregivers children with SEND feel as though they have been “forgotten” during the pandemic, consequently receiving insufficient support.

Particularly anxiety-inducing for the families of students with SEND was the closure of schools, mainstream and special schools alike. Many parents and teachers told the NCB that “there either was a loss of learning and development or (they) feared there would be for the children during various lockdowns”.

Unless the student is the child of a key worker or known to social services as vulnerable,, the children identified as requiring SEND support have remained at home. This means that approximately one million children with SEND, across primary and secondary education, were at home during the UK’s lockdowns – without the targeted support they need in order to access education and continue to make progress.

Covid-19 came as a surprise to everyone, and so the speedy implementation of edtech and remote learning solutions was, in many instances, far from seamless and stress-free. But now that edtech and remote learning solutions have, broadly, been integrated with the teaching process, it is possible to use these resources to provide a hybrid learning experience for students with SEND, minimising disruption for both students and their families in the event of in-person services ceasing once more.

Whilst no replacement for face-to-face learning and support from teaching assistants, the implementation of edtech to make home learning possible has a number of benefits for children with SEND, many of which can be maintained alongside in-person teaching.

Eliminates the stress of the classroom environment

For some students with SEND, the move to home learning facilitated a richer engagement with learning. The removal of the sensory demands of the in-person school environment can significantly decrease distractions and stressors, particularly for students with conditions like autism, which often come along with sensory processing difficulties. For students with such conditions, the everchanging noise, smells and sights of the school environment can be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, impeding their ability to absorb information.

Additionally, when working in a home environment students can complete their work in a flexible window of time, rather than being rushed along by the time constraints of a lesson.

Accessibility features without being singled out

Many edtech products, games, and services have inbuilt accessibility features, such as dyslexia-friendly displays. This has the potential to create a far more inclusive and integrated learning experience for students with SEND.

Even until recently, many products and objects designed to make learning easier, or possible, for students with SEND were visibly obvious. Take dyslexia, for example, a common way of helping dyslexic students to read was to take a coloured sheet of transparent plastic and lay it over the page. This minimises the visual disruption caused by black text on a white background. But many students with SEND are anxious not to be singled out as “different”, and having a physical object (such as the coloured plastic) that only you use does just that.

Yet with increased edtech usage, students with impairments like visual processing difficulties can carry out their work without being publicly assisted. Say a teacher sets an activity on an edtech platform - if there is one dyslexic student in the class, they can enable the dyslexia-friendly display and complete the activity just the same as everyone else. This ability to be assisted in private, without drawing attention to their learning difficulty, removes a significant stress factor for many students with SEND.

Recorded lessons enable rewatching

A significant challenge when teaching students with SEND in a mainstream school is setting a pace which all members of the class are comfortable with. Yet, in classes of mixed ability this is not always attainable.

One invaluable takeaway from teaching during the pandemic is the usefulness of recorded lessons. In a traditional face-to-face classroom setting, students are often uncomfortable asking questions if they don’t understand something. But with access to lesson recordings, students can replay their teacher speaking to them over and over, until they understand.

Learning disabilities can impede students’ abilities to hear the teacher, to take fast and accurate notes, to be able to concentrate, among a multitude of other factors which can inhibit information absorption. Access to recorded lessons can help children learn at their own pace, whilst reducing the stress caused by feeling as though they can’t keep up with what the teacher is saying.

Lesson recordings are an example of a measure taken out of necessity, but which ought to be preserved beyond the return to the classroom on the basis of the benefits it brings to all students, not just those with some form of SEND.

In terms of ‘forgetting’ students with SEND, it is a case of the pandemic highlighting and exacerbating this, not causing it. But hopefully now that it has been highlighted as such a significant and pervasive issue, we can begin to make improvements. This will have wide-reaching impact, allowing more children to learn in a suitable way for them, engaging them in their schoolwork and likely decreasing the endemic problem highlights in he Timpson Review (2019); that learners with SEND currently account for 45% of all permanent exclusions and 43% of all fixed-period exclusions in England.

Rick Bell is Head of Education at Texthelp, the global technology company that has led the way in creating tools for the education and workplace sectors for the last three decades. Rick is also a Chair of the British Assistive Technology Association

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