The coronavirus pandemic has placed the education of hundreds of millions of children across the world on hold indefinitely. In South Africa, schools have been shut down in the national lockdown, placing many children at risk of losing out on learning time. Particularly at risk are children with special educational needs and disabilities, who have various difficulties. These include physical, behavioural and learning difficulties.
This is already a vulnerable group that requires specialised, time sensitive education and support. Wide scale, specialised programmes are not available to children with special educational needs and disabilities and generic homeschooling and e-learning solutions may not be suitable.
As elsewhere in the world, the problems faced by children with special educational needs and disability needs are likely to be amplified by the country’s national lockdown. They often require specialised education programmes, services and support to which they will no longer have access.
Special educational needs and disabilities can range from learning difficulties to emotional, behavioural or physical challenges affecting a child’s ability to learn or socialise. For instance, a child who has been diagnosed with dyslexia will encounter difficulty in reading, writing and comprehension skills. A child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder will lack concentration skills.
UNICEF estimates that there are about 93 million children with disabilities worldwide. According to the 2009 general household survey in South Africa, there are an estimated 2.1 million children with disabilities. Of these about 600,000 have never been to school.
Implementing continued educational opportunities for children with special educational needs and disability requires collaborative efforts from both parents and government. Children need tailored measures to ensure learning continues during the lockdown. Teaching must be adapted to accommodate children with various needs through scaffolding – a process of modelling or demonstrating how to solve a problem, then stepping back and offering support to a child as needed. Through differentiation and adaptation of activities parents can prepare work that is user friendly for a child. And they can work alongside the child to build confidence.
Materials, too, must be adjusted to a level of simplicity that is stimulating for the child, with assistance from the parent or caregiver.
Education needs to be delivered time-sensitively and appropriately for their development.
Face-to-face contact lessons with caregivers and teachers are not available during the national lockdown. This puts strain on the parents having to fill in the gap. And some children will lose access to networks of support, leaving them vulnerable to isolation.
Before the pandemic, parents normally had the support of caregivers, teachers and organisations. They also served as a source of information. This was a lifeline for many and helped to facilitate learning and teaching.
A concern for children with special educational needs and disability during the lockdown is the educational capacity of their parents. The government is providing resources such as the COVID-19 Learner Support initiative. But educating South Africa’s children now becomes the parents’ responsibility.
The pandemic is already placing stress on many South African families. But parents who have children with special education needs face even greater stress without adequate support. Some parents may not have the emotional resilience or the training to cope.
Children with special needs require routine and consistency in learning and development. A small break in special needs education delivery could mean that children’s foundation for future development is not adequately laid. If delicate developmental windows of opportunities are missed, children with special needs may never be able to catch up. So it’s important to consider their needs and include them in COVID-19 education initiatives.
These will differ depending on the unique special needs of child. But there are various strategies to reduce stress and sustain learning.
Firstly, parents should talk to their children about COVID-19. They need to help them understand the pandemic using text or pictures and allow for the expression of difficult emotions such as frustration, anger, anxiety or fear.
Secondly, parents should foster calm and create routines for children. Where possible, these should mimic the routines they follow at school or day care or the routine provided by the usual caregiver.
Thirdly, if available, parents should reach out to the child’s teachers or carers for specialised advice or input. Communication is key using platforms that are accessible and effective during this time. Various learning resources may also be found online.
Finally, parents should prioritise self-care and reach out to family members or friends when they need support. This could be vital, given the reality of social distancing and limiting physical contact. Parents should also connect with other parents from the same school or even social media platforms that may have similar challenges.
For its part, government should work to make resources and learning materials available to South Africa’s most vulnerable children. Some small-scale efforts have been made by nongovernmental organisations and private individuals. But such resources must become widely publicised and readily available and accessible. Various media such as television, radio, internet and WhatsApp groups could be used to deliver information, activity ideas and support to children and families across South Africa.