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SEN support – Is online therapy the answer?

The pandemic has seriously disrupted the provision of SEN support, says Martha Currie, but could digital options ensure children get the help they need?

  • SEN support – Is online therapy the answer?

Covid-19 has caused no end of difficulties for schools.

There have been the direct educational challenges; the safety precautions to implement and upkeep; the emotional drain. And what is becoming increasingly more pressing is the ongoing problem of supporting SEN.

As teachers, you’ll already be very well aware of the difference it can make when children with special educational needs receive the right support. It builds confidence and can change futures. But the pandemic has seriously disrupted the provision of SEN support.

With schools first closed for months, then reopened but with external agencies prevented from entering the school grounds – or only entering under very strict control measures – SEN support has been limited at best, non-existent at worst.

Teachers and SENCOs have been left over-burdened as they’ve worked to plug the gap. Children have faced disruption and, occasionally, a complete cessation of support, which can have a critical impact on academic – and emotional – development.

So, with the pandemic rumbling on, what are the options for securing essential SEN support for the children in your care?

SEN provision in Covid

SEN provision has never been easy, simply because it covers such a large remit. SENCOs might be supporting behavioural difficulties in one child and physical impairments in another, while a third could potentially benefit from a multi-tier approach.

Coordinating that support requires the involvement of numerous agencies and specialist practitioners. That’s difficult enough at the best of times, but when movements are restricted and contact necessarily limited, accessing that support has become extremely problematic.

While this is totally understandable in the current climate, the potential repercussions of the disruption could be significant on the individual level.

For many children in need of SEN support, routine is essential. A break in routine can be a trigger for anxiety and disruptive behaviour, particularly for children with autism spectrum disorders. Pupils with communication problems are far more susceptible to developing negative mental health.

Although that statement is worrying when standing alone, it becomes fairly desperate when you add in the fact that over 80% of children with social, emotional and mental health concerns may have undiagnosed communication problems.

While communication difficulties can present in a huge array of forms, they all carry significant social implications. Bullying is common; many children experience difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships. And most children with communication concerns suffer from lack of self-esteem.

These issues all necessitate significant support.

And then, of course, there are the pressures of the pandemic itself to deal with – bubbles; reduced access to established facilities such as sensory rooms; one-way systems to contend with. Alongside the ever-changing societal regulations and rules, many children with special education needs are already feeling off kilter.

Future planning for SEND

At the current time, no one really knows what’s going to happen next with Covid-19. Restrictions are limited, enforced, eased, then re-enforced. This makes planning for the future nearly impossible, for both schools and the external agencies who would normally support them.

While observing the two-meter rule and wearing PPE when providing support in schools is an option for therapists, these measures aren’t conducive to building the trusting and receptive relationship necessary to provide the support that SEN children often need.

And, of course, any therapist who serves multiple locations runs the risk of becoming a ‘super spreader’ as they move between schools and towns, often within the same day. And even if that is an option, if schools are closed again children will be faced with yet more disruption.

Online therapy

One obvious solution is to use technology to supply SEN support. Benefits include the fact that it’s contact-free and flexible. If a child is unable to attend school for any reason, they can still access their therapy if they wish to. So, why haven’t we all adopted digital SEN support already?

The problem is that as adults, we’re all guilty of projecting our own opinions on our charges. And for most adults, the knee-jerk reaction to the concept of online therapy is negative.

On the whole, this is because we’re not fully comfortable with technology ourselves, and the idea of sitting through any kind of virtual therapy session is anathema. For kids, this isn’t the case.

All of the children currently within the school system have been born into technology, and it has become a huge part of day-to-day life. Young children know how to use touchscreens with confidence and ease; teens typically talk more online than they do ‘in real life’.

This gives them a degree of confidence when working online that few adults can comprehend. And this carries over into digital therapy.

Technology for SEND

Dialling into a Zoom call is absolutely nothing to most kids. It holds none of the natural anxiety that can come with sitting one-to-one with an adult in a physical room. And this is because technology is their territory. They are in control.

They know that they can leave a conversation without even leaving their seat, should they need to.

Technology can’t answer every SEND requirement – physical support will still need to be provided face-to-face. However, it can relieve the pressure on schools, and help ensure that children with SEMH concerns receive the help they need without interruption, regardless of what’s happening in the wider world.

During the summer lockdown, over 70% of children who required speech therapy through the company that I work for were able to continue receiving support online.
SEN support has always been an area that has required careful handling. It’s always been difficult for schools to access the expertise their pupils need.

And yet it’s an area that simply can’t be allowed to fail. Teachers and SENCOs are working incredibly hard to find the best solutions for the children in their care. Covid-19 is not making that job any easier. Technology, potentially, could.

Martha Currie is the clinical director of Mable Therapy. Follow Martha on Twitter at @marthacurrie.

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