Homeschooling and wellbeing advice if your child has SEND and/or mental health issues
PUBLISHED: 21:46 29 March 2020 | UPDATED: 13:42 30 March 2020
Parents have spoken of the challenges of homeschooling children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) and have shared their tips.
As the first week of having children at home due to the coronavirus pandemic came to an end, two mums spoke of their experiences, and support groups have also passed on their advice.
Tracy from Ipswich
Ipswich mum Tracy Noble, 40, has three children - all with special needs, aged from six to 17.
Her eight-year-old son Zak is autistic and her daughter Tayla, six, has a range of needs arising from the rare chromosome disorder Triple X syndrome, including speech and language delay, as well as behavioural problems and separation anxiety.
Neither Zak or Tayla have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), but an application has been made for Tayla.
Tracy said Zak had been struggling without the structure of school, but at home they are going to bed and getting up at the same time, using a visual timetable for the day and alarms for snacks and lunch.
He is also finding being cooped up because of the coronavirus restrictions difficult, she said. They cannot even get out for a daily walk, as she is high risk due to severe asthma and is on her own with the children.
Tracy said: “I’m finding it hard getting him to do the work. He kind of goes into his own little world. I think doing schoolwork at home isn’t normal, that’s why he doesn’t want to do it.”
She said she was not pushing Zak or Tayla to do the tasks, and this is her advice to other parents in a similar boat.
“If you try to push them to do something it will trigger a meltdown. I wouldn’t push them to do the work, it’s there for them to do it if they want to.
“My son has had a lot of tablet time the last few days, but it’s keeping him happy.”
They have been spending time in the garden, karate lessons have moved online and they have been making their rainbows, but Tracy admitted it was hard to “keep the kids occupied”.
MORE: WATCH as rainbow spirit spreads across Suffolk
And she is worried her daughter, who attends a mainstream school in Ipswich with Zak, will fall behind with her work, and will then need to go to a special school.
Tracy said for Tayla, who works at reception level, some of the schoolwork set for home was “impossible”, while in school it is tailored to her and she gets extra support.
Despite her worries, Tracy said she was “just trying to take each day as it comes”.
Melanie from Lowestoft
Lowestoft mum Melanie Lord’s son Harry, four, also “loves routine” as he is autistic and had been enjoying school nursery.
She said: “It’s just really hard because when we got the packs sent home they were all based around if your child doesn’t have additional needs.”
She is also using a visual timetable – which changes according to his mood - so he can have some normality and a sense of structure to his day. At break times, she has introduced a pretend snack shop for him and his sister Jessica, two, to choose their food.
MORE: Your home-schooling questions answered - and remember, we can’t do more than our best
Melanie, 30, a beautician, said she had felt “a lot of pressure” from seeing homeschooling posts on social media that were unrealistic for her situation, but added: “Now that we have found the resources and social stories I feel more comfortable going forward in what we are doing.
“I think now we are settling into the first week, I feel it is achievable.
“I’m not doing lots of work with him. It’s just so he understands we still have the same routine every day.”
She is concerned about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Harry getting his EHCP, which is at the evidence gathering stage, in time for reception in September – and whether school will start in September is currently another unknown.
It is dependent on the child
Bec Jasper is a co-founder and trustee at Parents And Carers Together (PACT) support group, a network to help those with a child or young person with mental health issues.
She said the term “home schooling” seemed to focus on using school-based resources at home and structured online learning time with their school and/or parent, while ‘home education’ was “very much open to creativity and flexibility to fit in with what works for a particular child and the wider family”.
MORE: Why home schooling is on the rise in Suffolk
She said these different options may be better or worse for each child, so it’s good to research and take time to see what works for their situation.
“Some for example are visual learners, some need lots of time for physical exercise, some are much more practical and hands-on learners and relish in less of a formal structure, whilst others love a more rigid timetable as they like to know ahead of time what they’ll be doing at a particular time.
“For some, this time away from school will enable them to flourish and enjoy time to focus on things they enjoy in an environment they feel safe in, particularly those with mental health issues around school such as separation or other school based anxiety. Equally, some children struggle with sensory issues and will not be facing those currently due to being out of school.
“For others they will be finding the lack of school structure and social distancing measures from friends etc much more tricky and they may start to feel isolated and have a low mood.”
‘Mental health must be our priority’
Bec said she wanted to stress that all children, whether they have SEND or not, are at higher risk of experiencing a period of poor mental health and this “must be our priority”.
She said: “PACT have heard from parents concerned at the amount of work being expected to be produced on a daily basis by their children equating sometimes to up to eight hours daily. This is not sustainable either for the child or the family.
“This method is not taking into account the current levels of stress and anxiety being managed by families and must be reframed to allow families to manage as best they can the needs and expectations of their own members and not be pressurised into unrealistic expectations.
“Other schools are taking a much more creative and supportive role as sending work in case it is needed but letting parents know it is not an expectation that it will be completed. This principle is so important in preserving and promoting the positive mental wellbeing of our children and young people through this unprecedented period.”
MORE: How to help your SEND child deal with the UK coronavirus lockdown restrictions
‘Schoolwork needs to be balanced against the wellbeing of your family’
Clare Kingaby-Lewis - co-chair of the Suffolk Parent Carer Network, a support group of parents and carers of children and young people with additional needs and/or disabilities - said the most important thing during this time is that families are safe and spending time together.
She said: “Learning does not only take place in a classroom or doing online work. Some of our most important learning comes from being together, doing things as a family, laughing and loving.
“Whilst we welcome the fact that schools are setting work for children and young people, this needs to be balanced against the wellbeing of your family. This is especially important for children and young people with SEND as we know the impact the current situation and all the changes are having on them.”
She said schools should be providing work that is tailored to the needs of those children and young people, adding parents and carers “are not expected to be teachers, nor should they feel under pressure to be”.
“We are unlikely to ever experience anything like this again in our lifetime and so spend your time as a family in the way that works for you,” she said.
Bec gave some homeschooling (or home education) tips:
• Celebrate every achievement, however small you may think it is. Learning to use the washing machine is a lifeskill (as well as many others!);
• Take each day as it comes. There will be blips/emotions/tasks which are more important to sort and some days you will need to rest up;
• Take time to try different things. Children all learn in different ways. Taking time to see what works (or doesn’t) can save arguments and will have massive benefits in the long run;
• Try and make it fun - learn things together, create memories (our children will look back on this time and hopefully it will be mainly positive);
• Creativity and thinking outside of the box is essential or we will all get very bored (and stressed) very quickly.
Bec said parents and carers must give themselves a break and try not to feel pressured or guilty, adding “we have never all been under so much stress before in our lifetimes”.
She shared the ‘five ways to wellbeing’:
• Keep learning - remember learning can be anything;
• Connect - much harder now, but there are other ways such as social media/letter writing/phone calls;
• Take notice - being aware, mindfulness, journal writing, art, photography, anything which focuses on the here and now;
• Give - try and do nice things for others, again being creative, eg rainbows in windows, calling elderly or isolated relatives/friends;
• Be active - again, trickier now, but there are lots of resources online (PE classes, dance classes, yoga, using the Wii) and ideas like hide and seek, dancing contests.
• Go to Suffolk Local Offer on Facebook, which is a Suffolk County Council page for information, services and support for children and young people with SEND;
• Tracy recommended the Facebook group ‘SEN Activities, tips and Ideas for families at home’;
• Melanie also recommended the social stories for children with autism on the Little Puddins website;
• The Suffolk InfoLink website can also signpost people to useful services.
• For the Suffolk Parent Carer Network website go here.
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