This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 10
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Title: Distance learning issues for children with special educational needs
Author: Sajyan, A
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2021

Araksia Svajyan

In this article, Araksia provides an outline of research conducted by the Yerevan Republican Pedagogical-Psychological Center focused on the inclusion of children with special educational needs within distance education provision in Armenia during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Armenia declared a state of emergency on 16 March 2020, and the entire education system switched to home learning. It was a very serious challenge, since the transition to remote learning was an impromptu decision, without any preparation. Different levels of the education system organised and carried out home learning support in relation to the different formats, resources, capability levels and toolkits available.

Providing education from a distance meant catering for the needs of learners at 1,403 schools. That means over 400,000 students and 8,277 learners with special educational needs (SEN). The Republican Pedagogical-Psychological Center conducted research to understand how children with SEN were accessing home learning during the second semester of the 2019-2020 academic year. We wanted to identify the challenges they, their teachers, the pedagogical-psychological team, and their parents encountered.

The research was carried out in all secondary schools and in 20 Regional Pedagogical-Psychological Support Centers (RPPSCs), which support the schools. Our findings suggest that it is possible to generalise experiences of home learning and the additional support provided to children with SEN in Armenia. The educators and professionals who participated suggest that some children found online classes successful. However, there was not a complete and systematic approach to the provision of home learning support and many learners were unable to actively engage, requiring alternative solutions to be provided.

A manual developed during the pandemic
A manual developed during the pandemic

Key learning
There was a diverse range of challenges to the effective organisation and implementation of support for home learning. These related to teachers’ digital literacy and children’s ability to access and engage with online classes. The challenges were more obvious among teachers and students living in rural communities and families of vulnerable groups.

We found that:

  • Online classes were often video tutorials, where teachers talked at students and presented new material. Teachers were generally unable to use other distance learning toolkits to conduct more interactive lessons and students had difficulty understanding. Teachers struggled to monitor students’ participation during online classes, especially to ensure the engagement of learners with SEN.
  • Participating in several online classes a day was exhausting, especially for elementary school students. Some children with SEN were able to join and passively participate in online classes, but many struggled to engage from home without additional support. They did not want to sit in front of the screen and follow instructions. Some interrupted lessons or argued with parents in order to watch cartoons or play computer games.
  • Parents struggled to master educational materials and support their children’s learning, especially when they had several children in the family. This was more difficult for parents of children with SEN, who struggled to adapt general learning materials that were not generally tailored to individual education plans.
  • Children without access to personal computers, smartphones or the Internet, could not take part in online classes. Where only one device was available in a household, the participation of neurotypical children was often perceived as more important than the education of siblings with SEN.
  • Ensuring that children’s personal data was protected was difficult during online classes. Cases of cyberbullying increased, making children with SEN more vulnerable and a number dropped out of education or only participated partially.

The inefficiency of online classes and the additional psychological burden and tiredness for teachers, students and parents had an impact on the participation of children with SEN. We found that:

  • Children were present at online classes, but they were not involved in the lesson process at all. Their presence was meaningless, as they did not take part.
  • Online classes were not developed to take account of the individual education plans of children with SEN so their attendance at these classes was often formal.
  • Online classes were mainly attended by children with SEN with mild disabilities. Those with more pronounced problems could not access classes aimed at all learners.
  • Missed classes were either supplemented by individual lessons organised by the teachers, or teachers gave parents tasks to do with their children at home.
  • Some children did not join the everyday school classes online, but instead only interacted with a psychologist, speech therapist or special pedagogue who worked with them.
  • Teachers found organising online activities for children with speech and hearing impairments difficult.
  • During the online sessions, it was often difficult to create emotional contact with children with SEN.
  • Staying at home, lack of communication with peers, and the impossibility of participating in various events, directly affected the concentration, behaviour, communication and socialisation of all children during online classes, especially those with SEN.
  • Educators found it especially difficult to work remotely with children with autism and/or mental health problems, as they found it difficult connecting with the specialists through a screen.
  • Providing remote counselling support was difficult, as children often did not have access to a separate, private place, where it would be possible to discuss their psychological problems and provide support.

Developing pedagogical support
The Republican Pedagogical-Psychological Center developed manuals for teachers, professionals and parents to help them support learners with SEN to access online learning. These manuals provided guidelines to develop their own and their students’ technical and methodological skills. The methodological guidelines also focused on developing flexibility to meet the educational, social and psychological needs of children with various needs.

Two manuals were developed, one for parents and the other for specialists, in which the methodological tips will help both specialists and parents to organise the education of children with SEN online.

The manuals can be used in the future as well, as these children are often ill or live in rural areas where there are no specialists (psychologist, speech therapist) and sometimes it is necessary to organise their psychological and pedagogical support online.

Araksia Svajyan is an associate Professor, PhD in Armenian State Pedagogical University and director of the Republican Pedagogical-Psychological Center in Yerevan, Armenia.