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Dr. A. Kossowska, A. Rumińska | Support and education for children with special educational needs (SEN) during the epidemic

13.05.2020 - 10:16 update 13.05.2020 - 13:39
Editors: OO
Tags: support

| Aleksandra Rumińska, Dr. Agnieszka Kossowska |

The period of social isolation is very hard for everyone – children, parents and teachers. In many families, pandemic brings additional burdens, stress caused by a loss of job or income source. Particularly difficult is the situation of single parents and those who look after patients under 24-hour care.

Following the first two weeks of chaos, despair, protest and being lost, some of the families have managed to achieve certain stabilisation, while others are aiming to reach this condition with better or worse results, and others still are falling into even deeper distress, helplessness or incapacity. At this point, teachers may have to cooperate with parents who no longer have the resources to provide educational support for their children and only want to survive this extreme period somehow. We need to emphasize here that without going beyond the usual routine, we (parents, teachers) won’t be able to help any child. The current situation is so remote from the well-known patterns that every attempt to treat it in a standard way has to end in a disaster.

When trying to help a child who has problems with focusing their attention, we keep repeating to them, ‘Think what is most important right now’. It is us, the adults, who should now ask this question to ourselves. What is most important right now? To learn another pattern, how to write letters, memorise multiplication table, or other subjects? Definitely not. The most important thing at the moment is to take care of the child’s well-being and ensure their need for security.

What has the child lost?

School and contact with peers, daily routine and predictability. In other words, they lost the sense of security, which especially for the children who are small, disabled, do not develop harmoniously, or live ‘here and now’, is the end of the world as they know it. The children do not understand the temporary nature of the situation they are in.

Teenagers may also have lost contact with their girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s a very difficult experience for them, requiring their parents to be very attentive, empathetic and delicate. A teenager may also be afraid that their relationship will not stand the test of time, which might be a source of great emotional tension for them.

Has the child got something in return?

Yes. Most often overworked, overstressed and frustrated parents, who are trying to combine remote work (or work away from home) and household duties with 24-hour care of their children. Coronavirus gave a vast majority of children the ‘gift’ of a lack of outdoor fun, severely restricted contacts with their peers and distance learning.

The children for whom school was, for various reasons, a difficult experience, were relieved from the source of stress. Everyone without any exceptions was given ‘prizes’ of stress and/fear – the effects of pandemic.

So far, the outcome is not positive.

How about emotions?

Already before the social isolation period, some children witnessed conversations about the spreading virus between the anxious adults. Those who asked their teacher or parent to explain the situation and were left with no answer, either handled their own fear by talking about it with their peers, or… did not handle it at all. The lack of reliable information, specially adapted to the child’s needs, is never good for them. We may only hope that during the period of over one month from the beginning of social isolation, each adult found a way to explain the child what social isolation is and what the cause was.

It cannot be expected that children will deal with this situation on their own. It is almost certain that the lack of adult support will result in the child’s huge emotional tension and change of moods. If the child is not yet aware of their own emotions and needs, self-aggression or aggression may also occur. Such manifestation of emotional condition is an important message from the child screaming for help with their entire self.

So how to help the child (and consequently the whole family)?

The starting point for the real support of a child (and consequently the whole the family) must be an honest conversation between the parents and teachers about the needs of all parties involved and possible support. While planning work with a child, it is good to start with their passions, which serve as internal motivation. Work sheets will not be motivating for all children; it will also not work if we try to force a child to perform tasks or take part in distance learning, make them stay or reprove them, if they don’t want to participate in the classes. For example, if a child likes comic books, we can use special websites to create them (e.g. www.storyboardthat.com), so that they can learn to tell the narrative, talk about books, learn to write and develop their creativity – such method of working can be an invaluable source of information about the young man for us. If the child is stimulated by and interested in a colourful pinwheel, let’s try to think if we are able to explain to them how it works (obviously according to their cognitive skills). Perhaps we can show them how wind power plants operate, and the pinwheel will become a starting point for another child’s interest? We can use tools which are natural for the child and which they are most willing to use spontaneously. For example, if new technologies are the child’s natural environment, it is worth using educational platforms and websites with attractive animations and instructional videos. Lego blocks are a great tool for learning multiplication and fractals (just try typing ‘Lego blocks mathematics’ in your Google). You can also try to offer a leading theme that is interesting and attractive for the child – for example, if they are interested in nature, they have a great opportunity to learn by growing an own plant from the stage of seed. The child can also document the development of their own plant or insect cultivation (rusty tussock moth, peacock butterfly – caterpillar cultivation is not particularly demanding). And if the child is interested in experiments, we can offer to perform interesting and safe experiments at home (e.g. volcano made with sodium and vinegar), and explain, by the way, what happens during a chemical reaction. There are many options – it is only that we, the adults, have to think out of the box and remind ourselves how cool science is (and how creative we used to be as children).

Let’s not be afraid of digital tools. Children grow up surrounded by new technologies and for them, unlike for some parents, it is the natural environment, which is presently necessary for social development. Divided attention and communication are required for proper social development, so playing online together through Discord and WhatsApp, or using communicators with a camera for talking with friends can be interesting forms of spending time together (of course, please remember about restrictions in the case of children for whom excessive exposure to computer screen may induce epilepsy attacks).

Here are several online platforms that we like, have tested and may honestly recommend:

Aleksandra Rumińska
Aleksandra Rumińska – doctoral student in the Doctoral School at the University of Silesia in Katowice, coordinator of interdisciplinary research in Institutum Investigationis Scovorodianum at Autism Team Foundation| photo from the private archive of A. Rumińska
Dr Agnieszka Kossowska
Dr. Agnieszka Kossowska – lecturer at the Opole University of Technology, Chairman of the Foundation for the Development of Empathetic Education| photo from the private archive of Dr. A. Kossowska



It is also worth:

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Planning the day so as to adjust it to the needs and specific functioning of the child (it is good to prepare the activity plan using AAC systems).

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Visualising as much as possible for the children who need it – every tale, clarification, preparing site plans for particular activities; predictability will give the child a sense of security.

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In response to the need for closeness, simply being with the child and for them, giving them a hug if they need it, sharing their passions and interests (even if they are inconsistent with the effective curriculum).

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Talking about emotions, needs and weaknesses (including your own). We can use this special time to get to know your children closer, ‘read’ their emotions, needs and name them. The biggest mistake is to teach emotions to children using cardboard ‘faces’. Will the child who perfectly learns a set of emotion cards learn anything about their own emotions? Of course not. Naming the emotional condition for your child by simply saying I see/ I think you are… (worried, angry, cheerful, excited, sad, stressed) will give the child a real opportunity to understand themselves. Let’s also not be afraid to call your own emotions and needs. The child learns empathy by watching different emotions and states in their immediate surrounding and responding to it. Therefore, we should let them see us satisfied, proud, tired, sad, sometimes weak and only capable of fulfilling the ‘minimal plan’. We can safely communicate the need for relax or conversation, or if we have no power to do anything, we should express it to our children (verbally and visually), adding that we need to relax / calm down / listen to music / sit in silence. This creates a chance that the child will give themselves the right to such emotions and needs as well, regardless of the social expectations. Such attitude will not only help us (parents, teachers), but also the child to express what they feel, in a manner that will be less expensive for themselves and the surroundings. Therefore, it will support the social development of a young man.

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Letting go anything – a lesson / online meeting with a teacher / planned task, etc. – if fulfilment of emotional needs is definitely more important at a particular moment.

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Cooperating with teachers on an ongoing basis by providing them with information about the emotional condition of your child (or your own emotional condition), and if necessary, asking for support; as teachers, we should listen to parents and try, as much as possible, support them in this difficult time. The period of social isolation requires particularly close cooperation between parents and teachers of children with special educational needs. We use this very term on purpose, because we are not referring to strictly disabled children, but to children with various developmental challenges and educational needs. We have to add a certain comment in this place: in fact every child has special educational needs, because each of them is unique, has specific talents and needs, so the individualisation of approach in education should apply to all children.

And here we have reached the only possible conclusion – the subject of education of children with special educational needs during pandemic refers to the very teaching process only to a small extent, because it is not this process that should be the centre of our considerations. It is the fulfilment of the basic child’s need, which is the need for safety and taking care of the well-being of the child and the whole family, that becomes the absolute priority in this situation.

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