Our final report details the highs and lows of life during the pandemic for children and young people with disabilities, their families, and the practitioners who work with them.
It was said of COVID-19 that ‘we are all in this together’ but NCB knew from evidence and media reports that it did not impact everyone in the same way. This research set out to more fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), their families and those who support them.
This study was led by NCB in partnership with Mencap, SENAC (Special Educational Needs Advice Centre) and Specialisterne.
The aims of this research were to:
- Engage directly with a group of children and young people with SEND, their parents/carers and practitioners who support them in Northern Ireland;
- Ensure that the group includes children, families and practitioners from a range of different types and severity of disabilities and special educational needs; and
- Understand and track the experiences of this group through a series of engagements over a period of time as the crisis, and the government’s responses to it, unfold.
A total of 60 interviews and four focus groups were conducted with children, young people, parents, and practitioners from across Northern Ireland, to hear first-hand of their experiences of the pandemic and lockdown measures.
Some of our key findings
- Fear and insecurity: as the virus spread across Europe in early 2020, parents in this research became increasingly concerned for the health of their children and for their own health. Fear of the virus was widespread among both parents and practitioners due to the vulnerability of some of the children.
- Social isolation and loneliness: Social isolation is nothing new for families of children with SEND. In ‘normal’ times, both parents/carers and children often feel isolated and lonely. The arrival of COVID-19 and the measures taken to mitigate it compounded these feelings further due to the need for some children to shield and the closure of all clubs/groups that the young people and parents might normally attend.
- Reduced support for parents/carers: Linked to the social isolation and loneliness that many participants experienced was the lack of support experienced by parents and carers. This was especially apparent during the first lockdown before support ‘bubbles’ were permitted. During this time, families who had relied on paid carers coming into their homes to help look after their children were left unsupported as the carers were not allowed into the home.
- Anxiety and stress: Almost all participants in the study mentioned heightened levels of anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic and the measures taken to prevent its spread. There was a variety of reasons for such stress.
- The impact on education, development and employment: The closure of schools was identified by some as being the measure that had the biggest impact. Parents and some young people reported mixed experiences of communication with, and support from, staff from schools, colleges and university during the first lockdown, when schools reopened and in the spring term following the Christmas holidays. For some, this was very positive with regular communication from teachers and schools but others reported very limited or almost non-existent communication.
- The impact on learning and development: Some parents and teachers reported that there either was a loss of learning and development or feared there would be for the children during the various lockdowns and in the intervening period while the children were at school, as schools were not operating as normal, but also had mitigations in place.
- Developmental support outside school: Some parents also commented on the mixed experience of support offered to their children regarding their development from other sources, outside of education, such as the Health and Social Care Trusts. Some parents reported a positive experience, even if there were limitations as to what they could offer.
- The impact on young workers and jobseekers: Some of the young participants in this research had been employed prior to the pandemic or became jobseekers during it. With the initial lockdown, most of these young workers were furloughed as they worked in sectors deemed non-essential. They had hoped that as the restrictions were relaxed, they would return to work. However, this did not always happen. The need to shield, the closure of many workplaces and the move to working from home also negatively impacted young people’s work placement and work experience opportunities as most employers who normally offer such opportunities were unable to do so.
COVID-19 - a double disadvantage for children and young people with SENDSeveral participants in this study pointed out that the pandemic did not cause a lack of support for children with SEND, but rather exacerbated an already bad situation in relation to the lack of services and support to adequately meet their needs and the ongoing struggle faced by parents as a result.
Some of our priorities for recovery
Participants identified several priorities for recovering from the pandemic in the short term:
- Continued promotion of the vaccine programme: this was seen as key to getting back to ‘normality’, keeping everyone safe.
- Clear and consistent communication: clear and consistent communication from government to service providers and, in turn, from service providers to parents, to reduce the potential for confusion, provide reassurance to all and create realistic expectations for both service providers and service users.
- Keep education and respite facilities open: the closure of schools, colleges and respite facilities has had a profound impact on young people and their families. Parents and some young people felt that keeping such facilities open to deliver normal teaching (not just supervision) should be a priority at all stages because disabled children are already disadvantaged. Closing such facilities further compounds this disadvantage.
- Speed up the SEN system: The current review of Special Educational Needs provides an ideal opportunity to improve several aspects of the system, including speeding up the assessment procedure and having more timely access to appropriate support so that the educational needs of children and young people are more effectively met.
Some of our recommendations
- When responding to emergencies such as a global pandemic, the government and its agencies need to consider and plan for the likely impacts on different sections of society, particularly those who are already vulnerable or who face significant challenges in society, including children with SEND and their families.
- Action is needed now, and as part of COVID-19 recovery planning, to ensure that parents/carers of children with SEND do not feel socially isolated and lonely. Government should work in partnership with parents/carers and the voluntary and community sectors to develop packages of support and networks where parents/carers can connect with one another, both for themselves and their families.
- The longer-term impacts of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of society will need to be recognised and resourced if a full recovery from it is to be made. Young people with SEND should be recognised as a priority group requiring specific support.
Find out more in our full report, which can be downloaded at the top of this page.