As we get back into the swing of college life for the vast majority of children and young people in our care, it is clear that experiences of lockdown and home learning have varied from person to person. This much we knew from previous lockdowns and the periods of college-based learning in between, but even so, this term has brought into particularly sharp focus the needs of young people with special educational needs and disabilities. All college staff will be engaged in picking up the pieces from this point onwards, but it is important to explore some of the core issues this entails.
Something that became clear as lockdown progressed was that having the opportunity to learn outside the classroom was not bad for everyone. While some young people clearly prefer their learning to take place in a classroom at college, others thrived as they learned at home away from the stresses and pressures of college life. In the media narrative about child wellbeing, this point is often forgotten or overlooked and it is key if we are to ensure that learning in college is safe and effective for everyone.
Elizabeth Murray, an assistant headteacher and SENCo and also the Founder of Spotlight Education Support, which provides consultancy support and CPD for SEND provision in schools, has seen that all children and young people will have responded differently to the lockdown situation. “Some will be keen to return to school/college but others will have managed the home learning better than they have at school [or college]” she said. “This is a transition like any other, and like all transitions we need to understand the young person's perspective; concerns and fears, so that we can ease them back into school/college life.”
The only way we can effectively do this is through communication, which remains one of our most effective tools in colleges throughout these challenging times. Asking our students about what it is that is working well for them, what they are struggling with, keeping the dialogue open with parents and carers about what needs are being met and what still needs to be met. “We have actively sought these views by having calls with our SEND students, and their parents weekly and recording this information,” Murray said. “Schools [and colleges] can also use a short transition questionnaire to capture this.”
Just as when they are in college, young people with SEND will have experienced joys and challenges, successes and frustrations while learning at home. As Murray said, “It is useful to acknowledge successes and challenges that they will have experienced at home and when returning to school [or college].” This acknowledgement helps them to process what has happened and to glean meaning from their experiences where possible. “Some children and young people will require a staggered transition back into school [or college] life,” Murray explained. “They may require shorter days to begin with, or, if available, use of a wellbeing space or quiet room where they can have some time out and quietly get on with learning. It can be useful to present this as a hybrid of the two environments.”
The narrative in the media has, quite negatively at times, been on “catching up”, “making up for lost time”, “damage limitation” and so on. While many children and young people have been working hard, they have been bombarded with notions of deficit in their progress rather than acknowledgment of what has been achieved – some of which will have been above and beyond what they perhaps would have done at college. This is entirely unhelpful. Teachers and lecturers will skilfully assess where each child is at and build their learning from there.
For Murray, it is important that everyone at a college recognises the need to ease back into college life. “For example, at our school we are not setting homework until after the Easter holidays. This is a clear directive which reminds everyone that as a transition, we need to take care not to expect immediate adjustment. We will need to look at gaps in learning and progress and take steps to ensure provision to support these but first we need to enable that children and young people feel comfortable, safe and happy to be back in school [or college]. We did a lot of work with staff in lockdown around supporting students post-lockdown. We specifically used an Emotion Coaching programme which was delivered by our educational psychologist; this helped staff to moderate their approach when a child or young person was responding in a way that might be highly charged due to the experience of lockdown and the subsequent transition required back into school [or college] life.”
There will inevitably be an element of picking up the pieces, in particular for our children and young people with SEND, which may well extend into next term and beyond. We cannot underestimate the severity and impact of what the country has been through, and continues to go through. With patience and compassionate communication, we can ease back to our new normality.
Five key points to consider:
1. Children and young people first
All steps to support the transition from home learning to college-based learning, and again after the Easter break, will have greater success if emerging from the young person’s perspective.
2. No sudden moves
This is all about easing. If we rush through transitions and expect all children and young people to hit the ground running regardless of known or yet to be identified needs, we may simply prolong the time it takes to get back into the swing of school life.
3. Acknowledge successes and challenges
The pandemic has presented us with the opportunity for both aplenty! Acknowledge the challenges and celebrate the successes, however small.
4. Adjust expectations
Knowing that the most important thing is to settle young people back into their college routines as calmly and smoothly as possible means adjusting expectations where necessary. There is no need to insist on college life resuming as before without offering some flexibility in expectations.
5. Be in it for the long haul
The impact of lockdown and the wider experience of the Covid-19 pandemic may well be felt long into the months ahead. That’s ok. There is no rulebook when it comes to picking up the pieces. With sound communication and plenty of opportunities to talk, play, and ease into post-lockdown reality, all children and young people can be helped to thrive.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.