Remote education: Supporting learners with SEND (and their families)

Written by: Dr Helen Curran | Published:
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Reports from Ofsted and the National SENCO Workforce team have raised concerns about how SEND pupils are faring during remote education. Dr Helen Curran explores the findings and offers her tips and strategies for supporting those with SEND during Covid-19 and beyond

A recently published Ofsted report into remote education has highlighted the experience of this relatively new way of working for teachers and students since the first national lockdown, raising concerns about pupil engagement in particular.

The findings in relation to young people with SEND were particularly stark: 59 per cent of parents of a child with SEND reported that their child had been disengaged with remote learning, while only 46 per cent of teachers said that their school offered additional remote learning arrangements for students with SEND (Ofsted, 2021).

As Ofsted states in its report, “remote learning is any learning that happens outside of the classroom”. Yet we know that there has been a strong focus on the delivery of learning through digital means. Trying to strike the balance is difficult.

Those working within the primary phase may be particularly mindful about the independent learning skills and concentration required to participate in remote learning, not to mention the need for adult support for this to take place successfully.

Secondary colleagues may face similar, yet different, problems including student engagement, access to devices, and uncertainty surrounding national exams.

We know that schools have worked tirelessly to support young people during the pandemic, both remotely and in school. Research from the National SENCO Workforce Survey into the experiences of SENCOs during the pandemic has highlighted some of the challenges with remote education, particularly in relation to differentiating learning for students with SEND (Curran et al, 2021).

Set within the context of continued dual in-person and remote provision in school, it is perhaps unsurprising that differentiation, and supporting children with SEND, would become a key issue for remote education.

The following ideas, drawn from teacher, parent and child experiences, seek to support development in this area.

This is not normal; this is a new normal

It is inescapable that this is not a normal situation, despite the normalcy we may want to provide. It is impossible to recreate school at home and nor should we seek to.

For young people with SEND the additional blurring of home and school boundaries can be challenging; particularly if their kitchen or their bedroom has become their school as well. This means that lessons need to reflect this new normal, perhaps through changing pace or expectations.

Many schools have amended homework policies and changed to opt in extension tasks. Such an approach can be supportive for those students who need periods of down time. For parents, this can remove the pressure to complete such tasks, which may be felt by themselves or their child.

Check the basics, often

While there are many benefits to learning remotely, technology can present issues. For example, if you are remote teaching in your classroom, are you using a headset? Otherwise, the sound can appear echoey. We tend to talk quicker online, without the natural interruptions and cues which come from in-person teaching. Silence online can be excruciating, but it also allows time to process.

Consider how to incorporate learning reviews, perhaps individually outside of the lesson, to check the pace of the lesson, the quality of sound and visuals, as well as how the child feels that they are engaging.

Increase the scaffolding

It is often repeated that good practice for young people with SEND is good practice for all, and perhaps this is never truer than in the context of remote learning. Try:

  • Increasing the use of visuals while decreasing the content on slides by using bullet points. This can help process information.
  • Reading the information to students, rather than expecting them to, as well as chunking information and instructions, can also help students stay on-track. Limit instructions to two steps.
  • Making explicit links to the overall purpose of learning can help those with SEND to see the whole picture. Sharing this with parents could be particularly helpful so they can see the broader picture of their child’s learning too.

Use of equipment

The National SENCO Workforce Survey demonstrates that SENCOs had difficulties providing equipment for pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) during the first lockdown. When we think about equipment, we may consider it to be something specialist. However, the distribution of concrete resources to learners with SEND can help support learning at home – especially if the young people are already familiar with the resources.

SENCOs who participated in the research suggested that for future lockdowns they would prioritise getting out home learning packs. Input from subject leads may be helpful here.

Ask students to switch off

For some, online, live teaching can lead to sensory overload. For young people with SEND, trying to focus while listening to the teacher answer multiple questions, with the concurrent ping of messages constantly going, may be too much. As part of checking in at the start of the lessons, encourage them to “mute” when they need to. Have a system, sign or timer, so that they know when to re-engage with the wider class.

Allow times to opt out

It is important to consider the expectations placed on students, and whether there are times when alternative work may be exactly what is needed. Alternative work may allow the student to work at their own pace, providing time and space to clarify or process.

Equally, there are huge benefits to offering pre-recorded lessons, particularly for students with SEND. Oak National Academy is an excellent resource which teachers can access for this content. If teaching assistants are available, they could be deployed at specific points in the week to help support this different style of learning.

Equally, time out of lessons may provide opportunities for students to work on a one-to-one basis or in small groups, to focus on the development of other, more holistic aspects of their learning.

Prepare students in advance

If you are intending to deliver a different type of lesson, for example an assessment, ensure that the students, and their parents, are aware in advance, perhaps notifying them via a homework app. This allows students time to prepare and process. Changes in expected learning can increase already heightened anxiety levels. For students who may not be able to access a quiet workspace, or have other responsibilities at home, this can be particularly stressful. Ensure that you communicate to your students the purpose of the assessment and repeat this often.

Education, Health and Care Plans

Duties under the Children and Families Act 2014, with regards to securing provision within an EHCP, remain in place. Children who have an EHCP are considered “vulnerable” and therefore should be able to attend school, if their parents wish them to. However, there will be a proportion of children with EHCPs who are currently at home. It is imperative that subject teachers are aware of those they are teaching who have an EHCP and why. Consider the adjustments which may need to be made. If in doubt, ask.

Online is not just learning

Many students are learning online all day, before then socialising online with friends throughout the evening. It is unrealistic to expect children, teenagers in particular, to step away from a screen when this is their only means of communicating with their friends. Yet not all students will be engaging with their friends outside of lesson time. The natural opportunities which arise from in-person sessions are no longer there and may leave some feeling isolated. Consider building in social time during the online day, for example during tutor time. This may provide the springboard some students need to connect with their peers.

Linking with parents and carers

Remote learning can make parents and carers feel more disconnected from school. In addition, different learning platforms may be used, which can be challenging to access. The National SENCO Workforce research illustrates that SENCOs were focused on developing communication links with parents during the pandemic. The purpose of this was broad, to check-in on pupils, to support families, to offer advice and support. Consider who can be the main point of contact for parents and carers. Prioritising this will help you understand the potential challenges children are experiencing while working at home, as well as the positive aspects of remote education.

Speak to your SENCO

Finally, while there are incredible pressures on schools currently, their statutory duties for children and young people with SEND remain the same. The SENCO is there to support and guide colleagues. In addition, there is scope here for the SENCO to learn and share the lessons regarding how students have responded to being taught remotely. For some, this has provided an opportunity for them to effectively engage with their learning, without the sensory or social communication demands which can bring additional pressures when in the physical classroom.


Despite the challenges, many of which still lie ahead, the rapid move to remote learning has illustrated that even within such challenging situations, there are still opportunities to be found, good practice to be shared and the potential to reflect on how we support all learners effectively.

  • Dr Helen Curran is a senior lecturer in SEN at Bath Spa University, overseeing the MA in Inclusive Education and National Award for SENCO. Formerly a teacher and SENCO, Helen’s research predominantly focuses on the implementation of inclusive and SEN policy in schools. Follow Helen on Twitter @drhelcurran. The National SENCO Workforce survey team currently comprises Dr Helen Curran, Professor Adam Boddison, the chief executive of Nasen, and SENCO Hannah Moloney.

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