Why learning in isolation doesn’t have to be an isolating learning experience.

from Lisa Thomas, Angela Kelly and Marguerite Haye

So, how was your first week of home teaching and learning? Despite the Government allowing "vulnerable" children and those of key workers to continue at school during Lockdown UK, only a tiny percentage have been going in. Most eligible seem to have taken on board the proviso that every child who can be safely cared for at home, should be. 

For some parents, life may be full of leading exciting, Instagrammable crafts, half-hour nature walks in deserted countryside, and orderly algebra at the kitchen table. For everyone else, the hassles of trying to persuade reluctant little darlings to complete a spot of spelling, has meant wine o'clock couldn't come soon enough.

Let's face it, parents whose children have special educational needs and disabilities are more likely to be in the second category. When your child hates change and insists schoolwork is done at school and home is for chillaxing, the thought of months of unaccustomed home "learning" may be the stuff of nightmares.

Over the coming weeks, Special Needs Jungle will be providing more posts to provide information, advice and support for distance learning, leisure indoors and the mental health and wellbeing of all the family. Hopefully between home-learning resources coming onstream from various sources, and the (often outstanding) efforts of your child's own school teachers, a little bit of education may happen over the next few months.

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Worries and anxieties

As parents of children with SEND, we know what a struggle being in confinement can be from day one. It's hard to get away from coronavirus news; it seems to be everywhere you turn and this just turns up the heat.

For families like ours, distance schooling is more likely to be "distance-learning-on-a-good-day" or "some-learning-sometimes". Learning aside, coronavirus brings out a lot of emotions. Even before the lockdown, we were already busy and tired and sometimes on our last nerve. As we struggle to support children with high needs, juggle schooling and managing daily family needs, our own wellbeing is under threat of being overwhelmed. Self-care? What's that, we hear you cry.

Many of our children will have similar worries; Lisa's daughter with learning disabilities and autism sobbed yesterday evening, as the reality of not attending college, plus worries about her favourite staff, began to sink in. It’s a transition year. She doesn’t know she’s leaving and she still has no updated EHCP, despite today being the legal deadline. Like others moving up to college in September, Lisa's worried that her daughter may not be able to return to complete her studies this year, or have a place next year. What compromises will be made as lockdown sets the SEND process even further adrift?

Angela’s son became very upset and anxious when he thought there was a possibility he would need to attend school as a "vulnerable child", but knew the school day would be very different. Angela thinks they'll be grateful to get through the day, with any schooling just a bonus.

Replicating EHCP support - an impossible task

It's stressful for every family but when your child has specialist provision as part of their EHCP, trying to replicate it at home is massively daunting. While there may be the ‘offer’ of a place at school, the risk of infection is too great. Schools have their own challenges with staff off sick or self-isolating with their own health needs. Like Angela's son, the changes at school and an ‘alternative’ school schedule may be too much to cope with.

Above all, just remember: you're not alone.

What we are all now experiencing is what, for too many in our SEND community, has already been a daily reality for months, or even years. These are the families whose children have been out of school through no fault of their own, lacking a suitable school place, excluded, or too unwell to attend. While they have home-schooling experience and resources they are sharing with the rest of us, the day their child goes back to school must seem even further away.

Keeping you updated about Coronavirus and SEND

To help you keep up with all the latest coronavirus/COVID-19 information that is relevant to SEND, we have already produced the following free resources:

We want to make sure you can easily access the information you need to make the best decisions for your family
coronavirus and SEND law ebook

We will have further information explaining legal rights in the days to come - because whatever your own situation, in the months to come, this will be very important to know. It's vital that you, as parent carers, know the facts.

It's even more important for both schools and councils to know, and follow, the current rules and not invent their own. Everyone understands it's not going to be service as usual, but nonetheless, our society is based on rights and the rule of law and this is even more important for those already at the "bottom of the heap" in so many ways.

One big "advantage": we're used to battling adversity

When you've had to fight for your child's education like so many of us have, you are used to adversity and getting on with it. So, we're already well equipped for the challenge. But take it easy - it's definitely a marathon, not a sprint. While you may feel obliged to try to ‘school’ your children every day, you will also need to allow plenty of time for emotions and stresses. Not to mention the regular domestic practicalities and your own work, if you have it.

Lisa has assembled a range of distance learning resources, social stories and exercise and leisure suggestions to support families (link at the end). You can also use our Facebook groups SNJ's Lets Talk about SEND and Lisa's SEND Lockdown Essentials, to ask questions and share further information and resources. But remember, you are not expected to be teachers and this may be one of those times when less is more!

You may have had a few c-words coming to mind recently. But here are a few that are printable and very helpful to remember:

The C-words: meeting the challenges of distance education

  • Co-operation:

Getting children with additional needs to settle or even work from home at all will be a significant challenge for many. Lots of Post-16 young people have life-skills courses that are based on getting out and about in the real world. Being stuck at home may set back their learning to be independent, so it'll be important to try to practice skills already learned. Many children and young people have distinct boundaries between home and school and will need to have additional support to help them understand why learning is now with mum or dad and on the PC they prefer to use for Minecraft. Help is at hand here: Minecraft is making its educational worlds available free, with 12 digital lessons available to download until the end of June.

Angela has noticed that when her son knows why something is important, he can adapt quicker with less resistance (at times). Many of our children will flounder without clear information, plans and timetables and social stories to reassure them. 

  • Co-habiting 24/7

This will undoubtedly test relationships with parents and with siblings with virtually no respite. This new ‘special family time’, will at times succumb to squabbles, competition, noise, meltdowns and for many, create new levels of anxiety. And that’s just the parents.

If it all gets too much, time out in their own rooms and you in yours, or splitting the children between each parent if that's possible, can work. And don't forget, you're allowed to exercise locally so take advantage of it. If there are two adults and more than one child, go two by two then you get double the time apart.

  • Co-working

Working from home with kids around poses many challenges. If they have additional needs, working may be almost impossible at times. Direct support, the need to regulate emotions and screen time and feeding hungry mouths, all sap your energy and eat away your working day. If one or both parents have lost their income through the lockdown, there will be added stress. Deciding on whose turn it is to do what childcare or housework can also cause frustration, especially if juggling work as well.

It's a good idea to set up a rota for fairness. You're all in it together and many children with SEND can help with tidying up their room or toys. Set out a rough daily schedule that includes snack times and meal times so children can see the day is progressing - but keep it flexible. If something's not working, move on!

  • Cabin Fever

Whether you've got a cabin, a flat or a mansion, confinement will naturally create feelings of being cooped up and isolated. Many of us also no longer have alternative carers or grandparents available to help, or the usual distractions of holiday schemes and breaks away. It's the Easter holidays for some children already and coming up for others, so remember this. Let them watch tv and play computer games, or dig out an age-appropriate card game or board game. Everything can be a learning experience. There are some easy-to-learn apps and programs to try coding for example.

TV doesn't have to be cartoons - sometimes a shot of Blue Planet or similar can be mesmerising for 30 minutes and can spark a discussion about the environment. Or maybe just a grunt and an eye roll.

When it comes to school work, chunk it up into manageable segments. Negotiate so that if they do 15 minutes alone, you will help for 15 minutes after that.

  • Contact

We will all be missing family who we can't be with. Keeping in touch will be especially important to your children. Calls, and especially video calls with whatever device you have, will be very reassuring and enable our non-verbal children to join in. For reluctant learners, video blogs can be good to share with loved ones, friends and teachers- with appropriate security settings. Or try laminated photographs of letters and cards to penpals and elderly neighbours. It can all be called education.

  • Controlling information

Be aware of what your child is consuming online and use parental controls from your internet provider or computer carefully. How well children are appraising, and coping with, what they read and hear will require close attention. It will be difficult to keep on top of their chats and access without encroaching on their already limited ‘space’, so making use of whatever controls you have to start with is important. Remember too, that children are as vulnerable to online pranksters (and worse) as at any other time. 

  • Coronavirus

Talking about C-words.... Coronavirus is the biggest of all. Talking with, and listening to, your family members generally has never been more important, from tot to teen. It is important that children have accurate and developmentally-appropriate information about what is happening. You're going to have to tell them something, but try to keep your own anxiety under control. Limit it to what they can reasonably process. For those with learning difficulties this is enormously challenging, but take confidence in your own expertise – you know your child best and what they can cope with. SNJ has a post here which will help you talk to your child about COVID-19.

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Stay tuned and add your own ideas and resources in the comments!

There's no doubt about the challenges ahead: Juggling extra house-cleaning, staying well, educating, administering therapies and medications, plus reminding everyone to keep washing their hands. This is going to be tough, but we SEND parents are made of strong enough stuff after all our years of battling adversity, uncertainty, fatigue and separation. We are an enormously resilient lot.

Special Needs Jungle and Lisa's SEND Essentials have compiled some tips and resources to help ease your journey through lockdown, here. Tomorrow more tips and advice for sane home learning.

Home education resources for learners with SEND

Also read:

  • SNJ FLOW CHARTS
  • SEND Community Alliance Join us
  • Neurodiversity Celebration Week
  • Books SNJ recommends

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