Many families are now experiencing the trials and tribulations and, hopefully, joys of home learning.
There are heaps of glossy photos of home learning for (mostly) neurotypical children and adolescents circulating on line with descriptions of the great achievements being made.
For many parents of SEN learners, while we are happy things are going well for others, our experiences may feel quite different.
From speaking with clients we feel that parents generally compare home learning with school and what teachers do and immediately can begin to feel inadequate instead of noticing the great things that they are already well placed to teach their children. These include valuable life skills and help with learning to self-regulate.
In addition, articulating and describing their child’s strengths, needs and preferences in a loving way is such a positive for their child and helps children learn to advocate for themselves and see themselves and how they are positively.
Our team has put together a few ideas and thoughts for families to think about that we hope will be encouraging and helpful.
Where formal learning is necessary
There may well be a need for fairly formal learning for some who have full schedules of lessons set by school or where there is work set to be done each day or over a week.
A full day of online sessions can be helpful although for learners with, for example, attention difficulty or sensory needs sitting all day in front of a screen may not be easy.
In this case, we would suggest talking with your child and finding out how they find this and start experimenting with ways to make it easier. Top of the list might be asking teachers to give your child a way to request additional movement breaks and being honest with them about what your child is finding hard so that they can also help you with suggestions and ideas as well as make reasonable adjustments for your child.
You may even need to ask for your child to have shorter days or be excused some lessons if this is really difficult. Or can they be given tasks to work through while they are listening to the teacher so that they can be more active rather than having to listen passively for long periods? Can they be encouraged to use chat functions to share with the teacher when they are getting frustrated as soon as they can rather than sit in frustration and give up or switch off.
Try to see this time as a way of experimenting to find what works and time spent experimenting at the outset could really help you find a routine that works not just for the coming term but for other times in life when screen based work or learning is necessary.
For some learners, especially those with attention difficulty, starting the day with movement whether through following an online class or using your daily exercise outside to be active can help improve focus which is especially important for those with a full day of screen based learning. Exercise is known to improve concentration even for those not taking medication for ADHD for up to several hours. Again can movement happen during any lunch break whether inside or outside?
Getting through set work
If your child needs to get through a certain amount of work set by school, it may help to print all the worksheets and put them in a pile for the week.
Then work out together how much work needs to be done each day and put completed work in its own pile so that your child can see they are getting through the tasks.
Agree a time with your child each day for formal learning that is realistic for the amount of time they can concentrate (with breaks) and build in activities that they will enjoy e.g. reading or playing board games which can be great to practice turn taking and social skills.
If you are struggling with formal learning/work sometimes it may be better to play an educational board game or do something else learning related that is fun within the time that you set rather than give up to maintain the routine of sitting down for work.
It is likely that movement breaks may be critical and also talk with your child about what helps them get through more formal learning. It would be huge step if you are able to help your child notice when they need a movement break and be able to start to articulate this to adults around them.
Experimenting with what are the best rewards may be critical to getting formal work done. Getting a school task done can be followed by a break or fun activity with, say, fun screen time being related to completing the day’s share of tasks.
Some learners need to feel there is some control for them in order to manage anxiety. Therefore, asking your child which school task they would like to start with can be helpful. If your child is resisting a task or subject try and have a conversation about it if possible. Do they understand what is needed? Is it too hard? Is it too easy? Which bit is hard? Can they do other bits first and come back to the tricky bits when there is a sense of achievement from the areas already completed?
If the subject matter is difficult for a particular subject then perhaps you can ask school for guidance on materials you can watch together to explain better or maybe you can experiment with your child in finding a video on how to do it that helps them. This is showing your child how to ask for and find help if things are difficult and is helping develop important problem solving skills.
Look for the positives
Of course, praise and looking for the positives are key to all work happening successfully. Even if not everything is getting done find things to give specific praise for as you go along.
Perhaps your child managed to stay calm when they found the work difficult, maybe they were able to explain what they found hard. Did they manage to ask for a movement break or notice that they needed one? Did they manage to tell you how they are feeling?
Self-regulation and behaviour
Being at home nearly 24/7 gives parents the opportunity to work with their learner with SEND on self-regulation and to seek to understand what their child’s behaviour is revealing.
At school, you may not know exactly what happened if your child gets upset or has difficulty with another pupil or a teacher. However, at home, you have a good chance of being able to unpick what happened and what may have caused a challenge enabling you to talk about the situation and to have an open and constructive dialogue about what has happened and what your child is feeling and how similar situations could be resolved in future.
You could start as simply as articulating to your child what you think they might be feeling as behaviour is an indicator of feeling just as much as words are. Every time you say “you seem angry”, “you look frustrated”, “you seem happy”, “you seem like you may be anxious”, you are giving your child words for what they may be feeling and a chance to to start to articulate what they feel.
For some children, you may need to start with using zones of regulation and checking in with them to see if they are in the red, orange, or green zone and talking about which feelings mean which zone.
The next step is to help your child try or continue using strategies that help them manage their emotions.
For example, can your child start to say “I am feeling angry so I need to sit quietly on my own for a few minutes” or “I need a movement break to be able to concentrate” or “I feel overwhelmed because it is too noisy and I need to be somewhere quiet”? If so, being able to explain their situation and what they need would be great steps forward that will be beneficial at school and in later life.
The best way to model this kind of self-advocacy and self-care is for us parents to practice articulating our feelings in an appropriate way and showing our children how we ask for and find the right help we need.
One of the advantages of this situation is the opportunity for us to help our children identified with SEND learn life skills.
Life skills could be developed by cooking lunch together or helping load and unload the dishwasher. Helping with laundry and learning about not washing whites and darks together and so on.
We would encourage parents to see this as a valuable part of learning at home and it can also be a way to develop numeracy and literacy skills.
Cooking together, choosing recipes, calculating which ingredients to buy and writing a shopping list are ways to use numeracy and literacy skills. In cooking there are lots of opportunities for practice with measuring and the use of fine motor skills. Also, cooking is an active task that can help those who need to move around more.
Topic based learning
Where you have little guidance from school or are between schools or just starting home learning permanently we would suggest beginning with a focus on learning related to what your child is interested in.
Learning about a single topic in depth can often bring in other areas of learning and can be an easier route to start your child learning at home. For example, learning about animals would include where they are found, how they would live in the wild, how many of them there are, what can be done to protect their habitats, what kind of jobs involve working with animals and so on.
Learning by doing
Many learners who have had difficulty at school and in formal learning may benefit from a more active learning style.
School based learning in mainstream schools especially can be quite abstract such as, for example, the way that maths is taught. However, learning fractions by doing might involve cutting up a cake into different numbers of pieces to demonstrate that the larger the number of pieces the smaller the pieces are.
Wherever possible, switching to learning by doing can be really helpful and during this exceptional time where most of us are at home for most of the time there are plenty of opportunities to learn at home by doing, being and talking instead of or in addition to required learning for school.
We believe that parents are well placed to help SEND learners learn in this way and do not need to replicate school based learning to help their children learn valuable skills and knowledge.
If you would like more help with ideas and encouragement suited to your circumstances and your child identified with SEND please do not hesitate to book a free 45 minute appointment with our parent line. You can also use our parent line to talk with us about any other SEND education related matters especially if you are working on accessing EHC plan support or are needing to transition to a new educational setting.