Remote education: Supporting learners with SEND (and their families)

Written by: Dr Helen Curran | Published:
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Reports from Ofsted and the National SENCO Workforce team have raised concerns about how SEND pupils are faring during remote education. Dr Helen Curran explores the findings and offers her tips and strategies for supporting those with SEND during Covid-19 and beyond

A recently published Ofsted report into remote education has highlighted the experience of this relatively new way of working for teachers and students since the first national lockdown, raising concerns about pupil engagement in particular.

The findings in relation to young people SEND were particularly stark: 59 per cent of parents of a child with SEND reported that their child had been disengaged with remote learning, while only 46 per cent of teachers said that their school offered additional remote learning arrangements for students with SEND (Ofsted, 2021).

As Ofsted states in its report, “remote learning is any learning that happens outside of the classroom”. Yet we know that there has been a strong focus on the delivery of learning through digital means. Trying to strike the balance is difficult.

Those working within the primary phase may be particularly mindful about the independent learning skills and concentration required to participate in remote learning, not to mention the need for adult support for this to take place successfully.

Secondary colleagues may face similar, yet different, problems including student engagement, access to devices, and uncertainty surrounding national exams.

We know that schools have worked tirelessly to support young people during the pandemic, both remotely and in school. Research from the National SENCO Workforce Survey into the experiences of SENCOs during the pandemic has highlighted some of the challenges with remote education, particularly in relation to differentiating learning for students with SEND (Curran et al, 2021).

Set within the context of continued dual in-person and remote provision in school, it is perhaps unsurprising that differentiation, and supporting children with SEND, would become a key issue for remote education.

The following ideas, drawn from teacher, parent and child experiences, seek to support development in this area.

Blending home and school can be difficult

This may sound like stating the obvious. A parent or carer working from home, while trying to support home learning, particularly those at primary age, is a significant challenge. However, the blurring of home and school boundaries can be challenging for children too, particularly if they have additional needs. Parents and children may need some additional support developing a routine that works for their child at home.

Consider whether you or a colleague, with perhaps support from the SENCO, may be able to help the parents to develop a flexible visual schedule that works for their child over the week, with daily repetitive tasks at specific times, such as reading.

While we cannot recreate school at home, and nor should we seek to, supporting parents in the development of a schedule which mimics some aspects of the school day may help to create a routine. Some schools have introduced a daily mini-reading session at the end of the day and for some children with SEND this may help separate the “learning” part of the day from the “home” part of the day.

Increase the scaffolding

It is often repeated that good practice for children with SEND is good practice for all and perhaps this is never truer than in the context of remote learning.

Children with SEND may benefit from the increased use of visuals, both for learning at home and online lessons. If teaching is taking place online, try decreasing the content on each slide to help them process information (and use bullet points).

Talk slowly, as if on the radio. We tend to talk quickly while online, in part due to the lack of in-person cues. Reading the information to children, rather than expecting them to, as well as chunking information and instructions can also help children stay on track. Limit instructions to two steps.

Make explicit links to the overall purpose of learning as this can help children with SEND to see the whole picture. Sharing this with parents could be particularly helpful so they can see the broader picture of their child’s learning too. If you are sharing work online, to be completed in their own time, consider creating a mini-video explaining the learning for the week, and how it links to prior learning.

Consider how teaching assistants are deployed

If possible, review how teaching assistants are deployed and consider whether there is a possibility for them to deliver interventions or support children remotely.

The National SENCO Workforce Survey demonstrates that some SENCOs were deploying their teaching assistants to deliver pre-teaching activities or intervention programmes on a one-to-one or small group basis. Respondents stated that this is something that they would seek to develop for future remote learning.

Pre-teaching in particular can be a useful tool for children with SEND, in helping them prepare for upcoming learning. Beginning to hear and learn subject or topic-specific vocabulary can be a useful way of supporting engagement with learning.

Education, Health and Care Plans

The provision of additional support is particularly important for children with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Children who have an EHCP are considered “vulnerable” and therefore should be able to attend school, if their parents wish them to. However, there will be a proportion of children with EHCPs who are currently at home. Duties under the Children and Families Act 2014, with regards to securing provision within an EHCP, remain in place. Therefore, it is imperative that their needs, both in class and out of class, are accounted for.

Use of equipment

The National SENCO Workforce Survey demonstrates that SENCOs had difficulties providing equipment for pupils with EHCPs during the first lockdown. When we think about equipment, we may consider it to be something specialist. However, the distribution of concrete resources to learners with SEND can help support learning at home – especially if the children are already familiar with the resources.

SENCOs who participated in our research suggested that for future lockdowns they would prioritise sending out home learning packs to children with SEND. Input from subject leads may be helpful here.

If children are used to accessing specific resources in class, for example counters, dice, whiteboards or writing frames, consider creating a pack and sending this home.

Consider sending home a “go-to” box. This could be a small box of activities, specific to the child’s needs, which the child can access independently for those times when adult support is not available, or some alternative activities that the child can take part in if the class set work is not working; not as an alternative, but as a support until feedback can be given.

Online is not just learning

The home experience, in terms of socialising, is going to be very different for each child. Some children may have siblings, others not. Some may be having video calls with their friends, or taking a daily walk, others not.

Consider building in social time during the week where the class can come together online. Be careful of asking children to share information, such as their news, as this could be sensitive. Try to stick to neutral topics, or a quick quiz. If you think that a child may benefit from additional social support, speak to the school SENCO.

Online is tiring

Screen time has increased exponentially for us all. Our learning, our work and our down-time are all often linked to screen time. Consider creating time and space for children to step away from their screens. This could be associated with learning – setting a task and then asking for all tech to be switched off while it is completed – or it could be a completely different activity, which is not screen-related. Some schools have introduced a weekly screen-free afternoon, for example.

Linking with parents and carers

Remote learning can make parents and carers feel more disconnected from school. The National SENCO Workforce Survey illustrates that SENCOs were focused on developing communication links with parents during the pandemic. The purpose of this was broad, to check-in on pupils, to support parents, to offer advice and support. Consider who can be the main point of contact for parents and carers. Prioritising this will help you understand the potential challenges children are experiencing while working at home, as well as the positive aspects of remote education.

Speak to your SENCO

Finally, while there are incredible pressures on schools currently, their statutory duties for children and young people with SEND remain the same. In addition, there is scope here for the SENCO to learn and share the lessons regarding how students have responded to being taught remotely. For some children this has provided an opportunity for them to effectively engage with their learning, without the sensory or social communication demands which can bring additional pressures when in the physical classroom.


Despite the challenges, many of which still lie ahead, the rapid move to remote learning has illustrated that even within such challenging situations, there are still opportunities to be found, good practice to be shared and the potential to reflect on how we support all learners effectively.

  • Dr Helen Curran is a senior lecturer in SEN at Bath Spa University, overseeing the MA in Inclusive Education and National Award for SENCO. Formerly a teacher and SENCO, Helen’s research predominantly focuses on the implementation of inclusive and SEN policy in schools. Follow Helen on Twitter @drhelcurran. The National SENCO Workforce survey team currently comprises Dr Helen Curran, Professor Adam Boddison, the chief executive of Nasen, and SENCO Hannah Moloney.

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