Why we need end-of-life careworkers during a pandemic
October 9, 2020
Statue of Liberty with face mask and sanitizer
A sociology of the pandemic: Caring for carers
October 16, 2020

The importance of social supports for learning in COVID-19

By: Helen Dickinson and Catherine Smith

One of the consequences of the types of lockdown that we have seen associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has been that many children have switched to remote learning.  This has not been an easy process for most of us as we have attempted to balance work and home learning, but for children and young people with disability this has been even more of a challenge.  This is not as a result of the impairments of these students, but instead because our education system fails to live up to principles of inclusive education and discriminates against this group on a daily basis.

Families of children and young people with disability often have complex service systems that operate around them to offer support with daily living activities. Our research explored the experiences of Australian students with disability and their families during the pandemic and found many experiencing cancellation of supports due to concerns around COVID-19.  This put some families under significant stress, particularly when added to the fact that we saw extreme shortages of some supplies in shops and significant restrictions about who could leave their house and for what periods of time.  Many respondents reported that taken together these different factors had a significantly detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing.

Although many children and young people with disability are eligible for and receive additional supports and/or funding to access education, many reported that these also fell away during the switch to remote learning.  While some of these are understandable, for example individual aides who were not able to come to family homes.  Others are less comprehensible, such as not making adjustments to learning materials as agreed in individual learning plans, for example by providing a simplified text version of a teaching material or a captioned video clip.  This left many students and their families feeling as though they had been forgotten.  This also meant that parents needed to make adjustments to materials if their child was to engage in learning.  For many this put them under stress as they juggled supporting home schooling, work and caring for siblings.

For many families this is not an entirely unfamiliar situation, but one that they face every day.  Despite a range of policy frameworks and systems, children and young people with disability fare far more poorly within our education system than their peers without disability.  Yet, the evidence suggests that inclusive education is better for all students and not just those with disability.

Our research also demonstrates the importance of social interaction to being part of a learning community and feeling engaged in learning.  Using regression analysis we compared perceptions of different types of education interventions and the degree to which this made learners felt more engaged with their community and their learning.  We find that social supports are the most effective of all types of interventions.  Where educators had made efforts to bring together students with their peers in a meaningful way this had a positive impact on wellbeing and ability to engage in learning.

As we are coming to realise, the road out of this pandemic will be long and it is far from a straightforward path.  Ultimately the only way to prevent these types of issues emerging again within an emergency situation is for schools to fully realise principles of inclusive education.  But Australia is a long way from this happening, with the Australian Coalition for Inclusive Education suggesting this will take at least a decade to achieve.  Should individual schools or local communities find they go back to periods of remote learning, one important lesson to take from this work is that paying attention to social supports and making students feel as though they are cared for can be beneficial in engaging in learning processes.  If schools and educators wish to do one actionable thing that will deliver better outcomes then this is achievable in the short term.

Comments are closed.