Ann-Marie McNicholas, author of ‘The Dyslexia, ADHD, and DCD-Friendly Study Skills Guide’ writes about neurodiverse kids and what can be done to support them with catching up and preparing to go back to school.
Coronavirus has disrupted the lives of children across the world. Unfortunately, not all children will emerge from the pandemic relatively unscathed. For those children who were already at a disadvantage in the education system, the effect of lockdown and limited schooling could have huge long-term consequences, especially if appropriate additional interventions and support mechanisms are not put in place.
The attainment gap
Neurodiverse pupils consistently underperform on key measures of attainment in literacy and numeracy compared with their non-neurodiverse peers. For example, in England in the academic year 2018/19 at Key Stage 1, the expected standard in English reading was achieved by 83% of pupils without a special educational need (SEN), compared with only 30% of pupils with SEN. At Key Stage 2, 74% of pupils without SEN achieved in reading, writing and mathematics at the expected level, compared with only 22% of pupils with SEN. At Key Stage 4, 49.9% of those with no SEN reached the expected attainment level, compared with only 27.6% of those with SEN.
Whilst there is much ground to make up for neurodiverse pupils, there has been a gradual narrowing of the attainment gap over the years. However, the prediction is that the impact of lockdown will have completely wiped out any progress made on closing this gap.
Additional barriers to learning
In a recent review of the impact of school closures, teachers reported that 58% of pupils with SEN and disabilities were less engaged in remote learning than their peers. This is not entirely unexpected when considering the additional barriers to learning experienced by neurodiverse pupils.
Memory can be an issue, with lots of reinforcement and consolidation of information required. Much of what was taught in school prior to lockdown may have subsequently been forgotten, without the ‘overlearning’ needed to commit information to long-term memory. Acquiring new skills will be challenging without secure understanding and recall of prior learning.
It can be difficult at the best of times for some neurodiverse pupils to keep focused and on-task in a structured classroom. The requirement to maintain the attention and concentration required to complete work at home and often in front of a computer will be a significant challenge for some pupils.
Some neurodiverse pupils maintain a clear distinction between school and home, with school being for work and learning and home being entirely detached from schoolwork. These pupils may struggle to complete school related activities in the home environment.
Structure and routine are crucial to the learning and also wellbeing of many neurodiverse pupils. The familiar routine of school has been taken away, with busy families and households having to adapt to new structures and attempt to create new, unfamiliar routines for their children, which may be resisted.
Social, emotional and mental health issues can be additional barriers to learning. Low self-esteem, a lack of confidence and experiences of stress and anxiety often accompany learning issues. The disruption caused by the pandemic is a further threat to their social and emotional wellbeing, from anxiety about health concerns to the restrictions on social interactions as a result of social distancing measures. If pupils’ wellbeing is threatened, learning is more challenging.
Many pupils will have some form of additional support at school, and be dependent upon this support to help with their learning. Independent working will be a struggle. Furthermore, those with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans may be missing out on crucial health and social care interventions, in addition to the educational support required to enable them to make progress.
Catching-up on lost learning
It is widely recognized and agreed that a comprehensive catch-up programme is needed, with specific interventions targeted at those most in need. In practical terms, it is important that the learning requirements of neurodiverse pupils are accommodated, if progress is to be made with lost learning, whether this take place in the home, in class or in 1-1 and small group sessions.
Social and emotional needs
Social and emotional wellbeing is very important to children’s learning, impacting upon performance. Challenging behavior can be a reflection of the emotional turmoil and confusion experienced and requires empathy and understanding. Some tips for promoting wellbeing include:
- Agreeing, setting and following routines to provide a level of security and stability.
- Giving praise for effort, persistence and determination in a task and providing feedback that communicates specifically what was done well and explicitly what pupils can do to make it ‘even better’.
- Encouraging a ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2012) – an attitude that recognizes that ‘ability’ is not fixed, but develops and grows as a result of effort and working through challenges.
- Introducing mindfulness to help to reduce stress and anxiety. There are a variety of apps for different age groups that offer short activities to calm and soothe.
Every pupil will be affected differently by the lockdown and support can be most effectively targeted through taking time out to assess individual pupils’ needs.
- Identify each pupil’s current level of learning. This may vary from subject to subject and some pupils may be able to demonstrate their knowledge more effectively by verbal means rather than written methods of assessment.
- Plan activities that gradually build upon what they know, allowing opportunities for success whilst also providing sufficient challenge.
- Identify and engage pupils’ interests and hobbies. Harness their strengths as well as assessing areas for development.
Teaching and learning strategies
- Implement teaching that is structured into smaller, logical steps, that ensures secure mastery of a task before moving on to the next step and that involves multisensory, active learning. Use tactile objects, games and quizzes and engage the visual, auditory and touch senses. Activities such as quizzes, watching educational videos, role-play, reading along with an audiobook or playing games, including board games can be fun and enjoyable ways of learning.
- Develop metacognitive skills by encouraging pupils to think about their learning. How did they get to that answer? What strategies helped? What can they do to improve even more next time?
- Encourage the gradual development of independent learning skills through techniques such as scaffolding (where a skill is taught by initially providing a lot of support and then gradually reducing the support in response to increased learning and mastery of the skill).
- Ensure that instructions and explanations are clear, using short sentences and unambiguous language. Long, involved explanations increase the memory load, reducing the ability to follow and comprehend what is being said.
Just as there have been challenges in adapting to lockdown, there will also be challenges in adapting to returning to school and college. Furthermore, some neurodiverse pupils will be progressing to new schools, new buildings and new courses and will have had no opportunity to take part in transition arrangements to help them to settle into a different environment.
- Explore alternative ways that transition arrangements can take place, such as virtual tours, video calls and information over the telephone or visits taking account of social distancing guidelines.
- Provide as much information as possible about the new arrangements/new building/new teachers, to prepare pupils for change. Use photographs, videos and social stories.
- Listen to their views, acknowledge their concerns and anxieties and support them to be part of the planning and decision-making about the next stage in their education.
The full impact of Covid-19 on the lives of young people in education will no doubt be discussed and debated for many years to come. For neurodiverse pupils who are already at a disadvantage in the education system, it is imperative that they are fully and appropriately supported now, as we slowly adapt to our new world. There has never been a more crucial time to embrace neurodiverse friendly methods of teaching and learning that can actually accelerate learning for all!
Further support and information
BBC Bitesize: Resources that include videos, animations, practice
activities, quizzes and games. Available for free at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/dailylessons/
Khan Academy: Pupils can work at their own pace on a range of subjects, filling in gaps in their knowledge and developing skills.
Parents’ Toolkit: SEND
Audible: Audible has free audio books for children at the moment. https://stories.audible.com/start-listen
American Psychological Association (2020) ‘COVID-19 virtual learning and education: Social and emotional learning’ (online), Available from https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/education-social-emotional. Accessed 17/7/20
Department for Education (2020) ‘Special educational needs and disability: an analysis and summary of data sources’. London: DfE.
Dweck, C (2012) ‘Mindset’. London: Robinson.
Education Endowment Foundation (2020a) ‘Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment’, London: Education Endowment Foundation.
Education Endowment Foundation (2020b) ‘Covid-19 Support Guide for Schools’, London: Education Endowment Foundation.
Lucas, M., Nelson, J. and Sims, D. (2020). Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning. Slough: NFER.
Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., & Beishuizen, J. (2010) ‘Scaffolding in teacher-student interaction: a decade of research’. Educational Psychology Review (22), p 271 – 296.