SEND & Covid: Supporting students in the months to come

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The return to school last month may have been particularly challenging for our students with SEND. Garry Freeman reminds us of the basic principles of supporting students’ underlying needs – which will be more crucial than ever in the months to come

Since the return to school in March, teachers, leaders and especially SENCOs will have been assessing and planning how to meet the underlying needs of their students with SEND.

Of course, these needs never go away and may well have been exacerbated during the recent lockdown. And this work will be on-going for some time, well into the summer term and beyond.

This article advises on how we might go about this mammoth task and includes points on de-escalation and looking at the school/learning environment (high arousal compared to low arousal) – because if pupils have been learning from home for a majority of the past year then re-adjustment will take time, particularly for SEND children.

Adjusted consistency: SEND provision in 2021

I am minded of the vast amount of advice offered by politicians and others about “catch-up”. I am minded too, thankfully, of the even greater number of column inches devoted to encouraging schools to support the mental and emotional health of our children as we return to our routines.

This is particularly important in the case of students with SEND. So many of our children will have faced multiple challenges and will continue to do so.

Furthermore, schools will no doubt continue to be disrupted by staff and student absence and by the impact of blending increasingly effective home learning with teaching based in the classroom.

All this means that reassessing how well school leaders – particularly our SENCOs – and teachers support students with underlying needs is crucial.

We should always remember, as SENCOs, school leaders and other teaching professionals, that we need to place our support, our understanding, our actions, our words, in the context of a child’s underlying needs – those they had pre-pandemic.

Some SEND students will be able to return easily to school and their transition will be smooth and successful. Others will undoubtedly struggle to adjust all over again to the returning, albeit changed, routines around school, staff and their peers.

Some will be and are frightened of what the return may mean for them in the longer term and particularly so in the case of, for example, those with SEND who are transitioning this year to another school, college, university or work placement. Many may not have placements to which they can return, experiencing disrupted learning for what seems to them to be the foreseeable future.

I will throw in at this point a hackneyed phrase that I first came across in the early 1990s: “Return to basics.”

What does that mean for our students with SEND and their families, members of our communities who rely more than most on understanding and support from school? It means:

  • SENCOs focusing on their own self-care and wellbeing (the oxygen mask rule).
  • An unyielding spotlight on providing information and support for school colleagues – not just teaching staff – to maintain the understanding and knowledge of areas of need and specific needs.
  • A renewed drive on effective, transparent communication and co-production between home, school and other professionals and agencies (shades of the Lamb Report of 2009).

1, The oxygen mask syndrome

We all know the oxygen mask advice given on aircraft – for adults to fix their own mask before helping children or anyone else. This is because such help would be futile and pointless if the helper themselves cannot breathe.

The same is true of our SENCOs and SEND leaders in schools and other settings. SENCO workload has increased during the pandemic (Curran et al, 2021), but at the same time our SEND leaders have also, by force of circumstances, complied with unreasonable local authority demands on paperwork, particularly around Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) processes.

We should, as SEND leaders, understand the importance of placing our focus (specified in both the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice 2015) on identifying, understanding and supporting the underlying needs of our students. This requires us to:

  • Prioritise in often challenging situations.
  • Sometimes say “no” to our colleagues who may try to pass responsibility for high-quality classroom teaching our way rather than seeing it as a whole-school responsibility.
  • Say “no” to local authority colleagues who tell us we must complete long forms for EHCP needs assessments and submit 20 or more documents as supporting evidence rather than simply follow the law and submit a one-page letter.

Yet all of these are vital if we are to effectively support the underlying needs of our students and their families and have a meaningful impact on their lives and futures.

Our determination to prioritise and challenge some entrenched ways of working, in order to protect our own and ultimately our students’ mental and emotional wellbeing and health, is a key quality of an effective SEND leader.

2, The unyielding spotlight

That we as SEND leaders need to ensure that colleagues have the information they need to effectively work with and teach our learners with SEND is a given. How we do it with maximum impact is the real issue.

We all need to remember that in a typical school day, SEND learners will interact with staff from many different roles in a setting: teachers, support assistants, administrative staff, maintenance staff, supervisors, cover staff of different types and supply colleagues. The information and guidance we offer must be accessible and understandable for all.

What do we need to do?

  • Ensure that information is in an accessible format.
  • Ensure that it is in an accessible place – my golden rule is no more than “three clicks away” for anyone. This includes referring and signposting staff to the school’s SEND Information Report, the annually updated statement of where the school is in terms of SEND practice, provision and staff training. The SEND Information Report is the only statutory special needs document a school must have – it must be available on the school’s website in a format and form accessible to all, including learners.
  • Ensure that all colleagues understand their responsibilities in respect of confidentiality and data protection.
  • Provide clear, pertinent information about the needs of each child on the SEND register (or however your setting describes it).
  • Provide strategy sheets focused on each type of need. By this, I mean break-down the four broad areas of need – cognition and learning, communication and interaction, social, emotional and mental health, and sensory and/or physical – into types of need that we see. Start with the most common and try to include guidance strategies for less commonly occurring ones.
  • Offer colleagues reassurance that needs rarely occur in isolation: most learners with SEND have a co-occurrence. Equally, offer reassuring guidance on what it means for a student with, for example, autistic spectrum condition (ASC), in a classroom environment in a particular subject. I provide strategy sheets headed, for example: “How I can support autistic learners in history.”
  • Re-assure colleagues by using strategy sheets and Venn diagrams (see below), showing more effective ways of meeting a range of needs – this is more effective than a collection of detailed student profile documents.
  • I use Venn diagrams to offer staff a planning template to show how certain types of need overlap in terms of strategies, providing an opportunity for a teacher to meet several types of need present in the same environment through one course of action. I offer suggestions on types of need to write in each box and then suggest some starting strategies for them to write into the central section. They are then encouraged to reflect further and develop more strategies they can try.

Co-occurrence of need: The Venn diagram approach to provision strategy

3, Effective, transparent home-school communication

We need to remind ourselves, colleagues and particularly senior teams of the principles underpinning the Lamb Report of 2009 and how these informed the SEND reforms of 2014.

As SEND leaders we should work with colleagues to understand and practise the significance of effective co-production:

  • Build effective relationships with parents and families before we need them. Any disagreements are always easier to manage and resolve if the home-school relationship is well-founded on mutual trust and respect.
  • Work with parents as true partners: they are the experts in their child and the child’s needs.
  • Involve them, consult them, discuss and agree with parents at every step of the identification, provision and review process.
  • Support and advocate for parents and explain options based on proposed outcomes.


As SEND leaders, our relationships with our students, parents and staff underpin everything we do. Getting those relationships right supports the underlying needs of our students and how we as professionals support those needs to enable our SEND learners re-adjust to formal learning as quickly, as smoothly and as effectively as possible. This, for me, is true “catch-up”.

  • Garry Freeman is a National SEND System Leader. He was a teacher for more than 40 years also working as a SENCO and senior leader. Following his retirement from teaching last year, he is now an independent consultant specialising in SEND. Garry tweets as @gfreeman2012.

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