One interesting thing struck us about online learning and SEN, though: whilst homeschooling was an unforeseen hurdle for parents to overcome, and much flexibility was required, a number of families have also reported that the change of environment (and delivery of information) was actually helpful in some ways. For children with additional needs who struggle to focus and find classroom settings overwhelming, online learning could provide a helpful gateway to education.
As tutors, we pride ourselves on examining the whole picture in a way that schools cannot, because we are afforded so much one-on-one time with our students; with this in mind, we pay attention to not only the academic progress of a pupil, but also their emotional wellbeing. That our pupils – particularly those with additional needs – would experience feelings of distress due to the change in environment was a great concern to us: we worried about the disruption in routine causing a lack of focus and interest; lack of social contact causing feelings of isolation and lessening confidence; or, indeed, that there might be overriding anxiety and frustration about falling behind at school, struggling with their work, or the potential health impacts of the coronavirus itself. Parents are not trained teachers, so the burden for them was also great – and, in many cases, they were left to fend for themselves by an educational industry in great turmoil.
We, too, had to adapt. Thankfully online tutoring was a service we had offered for some time, so we were well set up to meet these new challenges head on – but we were concerned about the impact it would have on our students. However, to our surprise, a large number of pupils – particularly those with certain additional learning needs – were not adversely affected by the change in educational setting; in fact, they thrived in this new environment, free from the pressure of scrutiny by peers and teachers. Could online learning and SEN be a surprisingly effective combination?
Benefits of Online Learning for SEN Students
There are many positives associated with online learning, particularly for students with SEN. In our experience, these include:
Reduced social anxiety. For many SEN children, classroom interactions can be daunting – whether that’s conversing with classmates or teachers – and this detracts from their enjoyment of learning (and how effectively they’re able to absorb the material under discussion).
Free of distraction. Social interactions are both a source of anxiety and diversion – and that’s just one example of the multiple distractions present in a school setting. For students with ADD and ADHD, the relative calm – and isolation – of learning online, at home, can be extremely helpful.
Reliance on technology. Technology is a source of solace to many students; as a generation, they’re familiar with myriad forms of technology, and, for students with SEN, technology appears impersonal, less invasive, and non-threatening. It’s binary: it works or it doesn’t. When it takes on more prominence – as it must during online tuition – technology can be comforting and conducive to learning.
Highly adaptive delivery. When tutoring online – as in face-to-face settings – we’re able to tailor our lessons according to the student: but for many SEN pupils, the barrier of the computer screen makes it easier for them to relax and participate. We’re also able to make greater use of audio, visual, or interactive materials, and students are able to work entirely at their own pace, playing lessons back or downloading material as necessary. This enhanced flexibility can improve a student’s appreciation of learning in new and robust ways.
With coronavirus cases rising rapidly once more in the UK, much about the next academic year feels uncertain; however, it seems clear that online learning is now an integral part of any educational setup. To our minds, lockdown was a precursor to broader change: an enforced, widespread trial of an educational system that is likely to last well beyond the pandemic.
As a means of providing support and guidance in a really flexible way, online learning cannot be discounted; and, when delivered by highly-qualified, experienced tutors, can be a very effective learning tool. Balance is crucial – the benefits of in-person, one-on-one teaching should not be forgotten – but when utilised as part of a wider programme, online tutoring could offer an unexpectedly powerful gateway to educational success for students with SEN.