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Returning after lockdowns and bubbles – what kind of behaviours to expect?

19 December 2021

How to help children with SEN catch-up after multiple lockdowns

Let’s consider two different (fictional) children. Sam has literacy difficulties and was in Year 7 when lockdown started and Ami has Speech, Communication and Language Needs and is coming back into Year 2. Both are in mainstream education.

Sam was enjoying school before lockdown started, finding it easy to make friends but becoming less and less interested in learning. Sam’s family don’t consider themselves to be particularly academic, so Sam didn’t receive much support during home learning and had to share a laptop with two younger siblings. A report from the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Social Planning research  (Holmes and Burgess 2020 ) discusses the digital divide, identifying that ‘The likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, such that only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 had home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001’. Sam didn’t access much learning during lockdowns. He’s thrilled to be back in school and see his friends and teachers again, but he’s fallen badly behind in both English and Maths. There’s a lot of pressure on him and his teachers to catch him up, but Sam has lost confidence and has started to mess about in lessons, pushing him further behind and making it difficult for teachers and learning support staff to engage him in lessons.

Ami used to have regular sessions with a speech and language therapist, and this has finally started up again, after a gap of over a year. Her spoken language is below the level expected in her age group, which makes it hard for her to contribute to lessons. She is also struggling to re-establish her friendships and seems to get left out of games during playtime, as well as struggling with conversations at lunch and snack time. Her vocabulary is also poor and she has trouble learning new words and remembering them in lessons a few days later. Ami also works with a learning support assistant during some lessons. What kind of strategies could we put in place for Sam and Ami?

For Ami, we first of all need to think about the opportunities for developing her language skills as part of her ordinary classroom activities. Known as ‘High Quality Teaching’, we are increasingly aware of how important strong inclusive teaching strategies can be when supporting children with SEND. An important piece of research from the Better Communication Research Programme developed a Communication Supporting Classroom Observation Tool. This practical framework helps schools to create a stronger language learning environment, using examples like having quiet spaces for reading together, putting children’s work on display, having objects to stimulate conversations and creating interactive displays that invite children to think and respond. The tool also encourages language learning opportunities, such as well-planned group and pair work plus language learning interactions, such as adults using gestures, encouraging children to predict what happens next in a story and using turn-taking activities to model ‘turn-taking’ in conversations. Ami would benefit very much from a language-rich environment, with the teacher and learning support assistant looking for opportunities to develop her oral language. Additionally, this approach could be supported by the Speech and Language Therapist, who would be able to advise on particular areas of focus in the classroom to build on specific strategies being taught in speech therapy.

The Dyslexia-SpLD Trust offers a framework that might be supportive for Sam. This framework considers what is called a ‘graduated response to need’, focusing on the importance of small classroom-based adjustments that might make a big difference to a child’s learning. An example of this might be to start most lessons with an ‘errorless’, engaging starter activities, such as a Thinking Skills activity that engages children in a fun way, but still gets them thinking about the core topic area. A good example of this would be an Odd-One-Out activity with multiple potential answers or a ‘deep thinking’ question. Sam may ‘switch off’ if he is presented too quickly with a reading or writing task before he has had a chance to remember his prior learning and settle into the curriculum. Activities that invite him to talk with peers about curriculum areas and remind him of key vocabulary and core ideas in a relaxed way will ignite his interest and encourage his perception of himself as clever. Simple changes like this might be very supportive of Sam’s enjoyment of learning, improving his confidence and motivation.

Both children may need support in developing friendships. Sam is currently using his popularity as a distraction from classroom tasks he finds difficult. This suggests that carefully planned peer learning or well-structured group activities in the classroom might help Sam to engage better in learning activities. This could help him to develop his image as a smart kid amongst his peers. Ami, on the other hand, is withdrawing from her friendship groups and finds it difficult to initiate activities with other children. Adult support in initiating games or encouraging parallel play can be very helpful, with the adult gradually withdrawing as the children develop greater confidence and interact more with each other. This can also be a great opportunity to build in language opportunities too, such as naming objects and adding descriptors such as ‘bigger than’ and adverbs such as ‘under’ and ‘behind’, in conjunction with object play.

The final point to note for both children is that, post lockdown, anxiety can be experienced at any age and so may well also be part of both Sam and Ami’s profile. Here is a free resource from UCL Centre for Inclusive Education, which contains links to a range of resources, including support for mental health needs as well as resources to support literacy and speech and communication needs to help children with SEND get ‘Back on Track’  after lockdown.

In Summary:

  • Consider the design of the lesson so children with SEN can engage with as many tasks as possible
  • Use pair work and small group work to encourage dialogue, with adults modelling turn-taking 
  • Build vocabulary, using topics that interest children
  • Use rich, engaging starter activities that 'invite' children to explore the new topic
  • Be aware of mental health needs, such as anxiety and find resources to support you to support children. Encourage friendships too!

Author: Dr Amelia Roberts

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