The most effective ways to help pupils with special educational needs and disabilities to access remote learning have been identified in a new report.
The report, Education in times of crisis: Effective approaches to distance learning, published today by the Chartered College of Teaching, identifies ways to close the growing attainment gap for the 66 per cent of pupils with SEND who have not engaged with remote learning over the past year.
The Chartered College says that while special schools and early years settings have remained open during the third national lockdown, and despite the government's intention to reopen all schools more widely from 8 March, "it is anticipated that distance learning will remain a key part of education".
Online learning: How to support SEND pupils
The report identifies some key ways to help pupils with complex needs, such as autistic pupils and those with Down's syndrome and dyslexia, to access remote learning.
1. Use characters to help pupils with ADHD access learning
One study in Iran cited in the report found that remote learning could be more effective for pupils with ADHD where it incorporates a computerised "character" to gain pupils' attention and guide them through activities.
The research, involving 30 boys aged 11 to 12 with ADHD, found that a computer-based maths programme with a guiding character had a "significant effect on learning achievement" compared with the same programme with no character.
It is thought that the character "plays a key role in gaining the child’s attention and directing it appropriately to relevant information throughout the activities".
2. Working with parents to ensure pupils sleep well
The report highlights the importance of pupils getting a healthy amount of sleep per night, especially students with Down's syndrome.
A study from the University of Arizona, cited in the report, found that children with Down's syndrome with higher quality sleep improved their oral language production.
"Sleep quality can be affected in children with Down's syndrome even outside of the current context, but the current situation may represent an additional stress factor, potentially influencing children’s sleep quality," the report says.
The report also notes that pupils with Down's syndrome may find it harder to navigate online systems, and so they might need clear visual instructions on how to use remote learning platforms, or to be guided through these by a parent or carer.
3. Wear plain clothing in filmed or live lessons
The report encourages teachers who are recording lessons or delivering live classes to wear plain rather than overly patterned clothing, in shades that contrast with the teacher's skin tone so as not to distract from their lip movements.
"This can help students who are deaf or hard of hearing and who are lip-reading," the report says.
"Additionally, it is important that the lighting in the room where the recording or live lesson takes place is good and diffused so as not to cast shadows on the presenter’s face, as this could also impede lip-reading."
4. Make content easy to edit
The report says that providing students with editable content, instead of scans and PDFs, can help students with visual impairments, as editable documents are more suitable for pupils using screen readers.
Editable documents also mean students can adjust font sizes and colours, according to their needs.
5. Use captioning and visual aids
The report suggests that teachers should use captioning and visual aids for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, as accessible design will benefit all students.
Captions can help students who are learning English as an additional language, and a study found that the use of captions led to lower levels of frustration and cognitive load.
The report also highlights that cluttered pages with lots of information and images were more difficult for students with visual impairments to use, as those working with screen magnifiers were only able to see a fraction of a page at a time "so it is important that the individual sections are as informative and clutter-free as possible".
6. Organise time away from screens
The report recommends planning time away from computer screens during the school day, particularly so that students can take part in physical activity.
"Reduced physical exercise and contact with nature, increased sedentary and non-educational screen time, disrupted routines, limited social contacts and stress can all negatively impact children’s socio-emotional development, leading to changes in behaviour and emotions, such as emotional outbursts, depression or new behaviours or tics," the report says.
"Schools may, therefore, want to consider raising students’ awareness about these risk factors and propose ways to mitigate them, throughout and outside the school day," it adds.
"Beyond awareness raising, some schools may also want to consider scheduling the remote school day so that students have the chance to spend some time in their local park or woodland, incorporating physical exercise into the school day, limiting screen-based activities and incorporating activities that can be done individually and then shared." One example of an activity that is cited is arts and crafts.
7. Help pupils with their routine
And the report recommends helping pupils with re-establishing their routine in an unfamiliar environment.
One study found that parents of children with SEND needed specialist support – for example, from their children’s special educational needs coordinator – to reassure them and "provide advice about their child’s needs or to help establish a new routine".
Parents also said "how important it was for their children to see familiar faces and for parents to get a break from caring duties".
"The need for familiar teachers to deliver online teaching may potentially also be greater in the context of children with SEND," the report adds.
The report also highlights some of the positive outcomes from remote learning for SEND pupils during the pandemic, with one study in the US finding that 83 per cent of teachers felt virtual learning had improved access for students with auditory limitations.
Dame Alison Peacock, chief executive at the Chartered College of Teaching, said: “Almost one year into distance learning, teachers and parents are continuing to go above and beyond to support young people and children with complex learning needs during the pandemic.
"I’m incredibly proud of how teachers have adapted to new remote learning methods and technologies with little practical information and guidance available.
“This report compiles some of the best global research on strategies to help bridge the gap for the most vulnerable children in our society and it is our hope that it becomes a valuable reference point for the sector, easing the strain on teacher workloads so that they can focus on delivering high-quality education and pastoral support to students."
Aretha Banton, vice-principal and Sendco for primary and secondary at Harris Garrard Academy, said: “It is extremely encouraging to see distance learning approaches with SEND pupils take a central role in this report.
"Throughout the pandemic, this has been a neglected area of study, and shining a spotlight on the research available and providing recommendations to help engage and motivate children with complex learning needs at home will be instrumental in closing the learning gap with non-SEND peers.”