Every child and parent has suffered greatly at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Noone has escaped its clutches and living in a continual state of uncertainty or isolation has sparked a wealth of mental health challenges across the nation.
As the pandemic rages on, studies suggest that up to 10 million people—this includes 1.5 children—are currently seeking some form of mental health support. We’re experiencing a mental health crisis.
Arguably, one of the pandemic’s biggest victims—from a mental health and wellbeing perspective, are children with SEND.
In the government’s official guidance to ‘Help children with SEND continue their education during coronavirus (COVID-19)’, the amplified disruption to children with special needs due to staying at home is noted:
“Staying at home can be more disruptive to the lives and routines of children with special educational needs and disabilities.”
The literature then goes on to state how ‘parents aren’t expected to act as teachers and the schools should help to provide at-home learning support’.
But, the question is: why is this the case, when the government’s ‘children of critical workers and vulnerable children’ policy states that children with ‘an education, health and care (EHC) plan’ are eligible to access an educational setting during the pandemic?
During the first lockdown, like many SEND families, we struggled enormously—we watched our son in torment day after day, wondering why he couldn’t see his friends or fulfill his routine. He was at nursery at the time and didn’t have his EHCP, so our situation couldn’t be helped. But although we kept it together, the experience served as an ill reminder of just how delicate SEND children are, in particular.
Despite policy suggesting that children with an EHCP should be able to access an educational setting, literally thousands up and down the nation have been denied provision.
At this point, I would like to say that in Lockdown 3.0, we’ve been among the lucky ones. Our son’s school has been incredible at providing support, tending to his needs, and allowing him to attend school. I can’t praise them enough really.
But, understanding the everyday struggles that SEND families face first-hand, it’s a sad state of affairs when you see people at their wit’s end, stuck at home while their children are suffering—simply falling through the cracks.
You see, it’s not about ‘catching up on education’ alone—in this context, it’s beside the point. Children, especially children with SEND, need extra wellbeing support and maintenance in these challenging times. For many, going to school (whether it’s a special or mainstream setting) plays an enormous role in mitigating these mental health issues.
For children with SEND, brave youngsters that navigate a world that often refuses to accommodate them, going to school transcends English and maths alone. It’s a vital component of being able to get by.
I’m a member of a local online SEND parents support group and when the Autumn term 2020 rolled round, there were literally hundreds of exasperated parents sharing stories of drudgery at the hands of a false promise.
Of course, not everything is clear cut in life (this is rarely the case), and some specialist settings haven’t been able to open at all for COVID safety reasons—but, the wider problem here is that in practice, there seems to be an enormous level of ambiguity of what actually constitutes a ‘vulnerable child.’
The reality is, many children with SEND aren’t seen as vulnerable enough for additional support in a time of great crisis.
This sentiment is put, quite astutely, by Special Needs Jungle:
“By the time the autumn term 2020 began, the statutory duties to make and arrange SEN provision in Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) had been fully restored. However, whether it was provision in EHCPs or on the lower levels of SEN Support, it is apparent that COVID was used as a reason, or an excuse, for support being denied.
Therapies in particular, such as speech and language and occupational therapy, were not back in place, with few external therapists allowed into the school environment, despite government guidance stating that this was allowed.”
Autistic children and children with ADHD alone are incredibly prone to mental health challenges including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—and this mismanagement of the ‘rules’ has not helped. It’s time to stop letting these children, and their parents, stumble through the cracks without the support they deserve. More needs to be done to pluck people out of the space between policy and reality.
With schools set to open on 8th March this year, and winter slowly yielding to spring, there is hope in the air.
But, let’s not forget that the mental health hangover is far from over. As the world begins to open up little by little and children start to find their feet again, nurturing positive mental wellbeing should be a top priority all round.
It’s with the hope that in time, children with SEND will gain access to all of the provisions they deserve without a catch or a caveat. The path to a more inclusive society is awareness, revised policy, and authorities delivering on their promises.
In the meantime, if you need access to mental health services, here’s a comprehensive list of mental health support charities that includes full contact details.
Note: If you have a child with SEND, you are classed as a parent-carer and are eligible for an earlier vaccination. You should call your local GP surgery to register.