Lessons for adapting home learning from parents with children with special educational needs

By Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Hatice Yildirim, University of Exeter

This blog was first published by BERA (British Educational Research Association) on 8 June 2020.

‘Doing less, making learning fun and looking after everyone’s wellbeing’

Most parents of children with special education needs (SEN) were required or chose to school their children from home during the Covid-19 school closure: children with SEN but without an education, health and care plan were not eligible to staying in schools, and participation in schooling among all groups eligible to participate has been significantly lower than policy models predicted, dropping to 1 per cent of all school children in April 2020.

We wanted to understand how parents with children with SEN were developing and changing their learning practices during the school closures. We knew from our other rapid response research at the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter that parents with children with SEN reported lower wellbeing than other parents, and we expected this group to face additional challenges in providing education to their children.

We undertook an online survey with parents with one or more children with SEN. This survey started off as qualitative semi-structured interview research, but many respondents indicated that they would find an electronic version that they could complete in their own time more convenient. The research gained ethical approval from the University of Exeter, and took place between 7 and 30 May 2020. Of the 132 parents who responded to the question of whether they had changed their approach to home learning, more than half (82) said that had made changes. These changes were as follows.

  1. Increasing flexibility to focus on children’s needs and interests.
  2. Increasing structure and routine.
  3. Including more fun and games.
  4. Varying activities – mixing both online and offline activities.
  5. Being more patient, doing less and rewarding successes.

An example of increasing flexibility and being more relaxed (mentioned by 35 parents) was, ‘Not trying as hard! Letting my son do as much or as little as he wants’ (parent 13). A second parent reported that they were

‘adapting to the level of work and also learning more about their different abilities and what they can do. We also have adapted our approach so not to work children too hard, as being at home is not the school environment anyway.’ (Parent 186).

We also found that parents were becoming more confident or, as one parent responded, ‘now have a very laid back approach with lots of choices’ (parent 87). Parents increased flexibility and shortened lesson length: ‘More breaks introduced. Shorter lessons’ (parent 43); ‘stop if it gets too much” (parent 148). And many parents explained how they reconceptualised learning as having to be more fun: ‘I focussed more on play and less on rules’ (parent 18).

We also asked parents the reason(s) of the changes in their approach/practices to homeschooling that they mentioned, and the following drivers for change emerged.

  1. Wellbeing of parents and child/children.
  2. Experiencing difficulties with completing school work.
  3. Having to continue other responsibilities.

As one parent put it,

‘As the children’s stress levels have mounted/built up over the last few weeks, in weeks one and two we had more of a ‘sprint’ mentality, now we’ve got more of a ‘Marathon’ approach!’ (Parent 89).

The SEN parents we surveyed are developing and adapting rapidly in their home learning practices. Encouragingly, many of the changes were to increase flexibility, fun and wellbeing. Parents’ initial aspirational goals of maintaining a full school syllabus proved challenging. The changes parents introduced to home learning were, then, to meet the needs of their child or children, but also their own needs as adults with other responsibilities such as work. Some initial practices of home learning proved unsustainable in the long run or, to use the phrase from Parent 89, unsuitable for the ‘marathon’ that home learning had become over the duration of the school closure.

While our parents are thus taking an increasingly child-oriented, fun, flexible and varied approach to home learning, the vast majority of respondents were not going to continue home-schooling their children. Nonetheless, a sizeable minority of 20 parents felt that their experience of home learning made them wish to continue doing so when the option for schooling in schools was fully available again; the wellbeing of the child was the most reported reason for wishing to do so.

Overall, our SEN parents have perhaps become a little more awe-struck by the jobs that teachers do, and gained first-hand appreciation of not only the challenges but the opportunities there are in designing and developing effective learning environments. Furthermore, some parents have found that their children are happier with home-education than they have seen them in schools. Further research may help us understand where schools can perhaps learn from parents, after their experiences of home schooling, about how they can further improve their provision. And perhaps we can all take a lesson from the experience of the SEN parents: don’t forget a focus on fun and tailored and relevant learning experiences to keep the interest of students and teachers alive for the education journeys that lie ahead!

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