COVID-19 has exposed the cracks and inequities that exist for vulnerable students with new research showing four out of five students with a disability are not receiving enough support from their school. What does it mean to provide an inclusive education during remote learning?
A team of Monash inclusive education researchers and inclusive education teachers provide their perspectives.
Inclusive education means providing high-quality schooling that is fair and equitable for all students. It means every child is welcomed and valued without exception, explains Monash inclusive education researcher and former secondary school teacher Dr Kate de Bruin.
“It means support is provided as needed to ensure they can participate, contribute and make progress on an equal basis with their peers,” Kate says.
“It is a human right, yet many groups of vulnerable students – those who are in unstable or unsafe living arrangements, students with a disability, students who live in remote or regional areas, students who live in poverty and students from culturally and diverse backgrounds – are disproportionately denied this right.
Transitioning to remote learning has left gaps
COVID-19 and the move to remote learning has exacerbated existing inequities. While the Education Department and schools have moved to address some of these issues – with laptops and dongles provided for students without access to technology – more support is needed, Kate says.
“Students with disabilities have been shown to have reduced access to supports they are normally entitled to such as attendant care or targeted learning interventions. Some report they have been completely excluded from online learning opportunities.
“Parents are reporting targeted funding that schools receive to provide adjustments are not being passed on, and parents have struggled to fill the gaps.
Monash Professor of Inclusive Education Umesh Sharma acknowledges the transition is not straight-forward. “Teaching learners with a range of diversities including disability, is not easy. It requires teachers to make ongoing adjustments and modifications.
“COVID-19 presented new challenges. Schools were expected to teach all students, including those with additional needs through remote learning.”
He says with time, training and support, teachers have been shown to create very inclusive environments and acknowledges the rapid changes brought by COVID may have left schools scrambling for solutions.
The importance of connection during remote learning
According to inclusive education teacher Suzanne Boatto, who is also the mother of three children with additional learning needs, the transition was all about taking the principles of inclusive education and extending them to remote learning.
“Inclusion is about connection and every child being part of the class. Keeping contact with the students has been our foundation to a successful remote learning experience.
“It is about every child knowing that someone is there to help and knowing how to get help. It is about families knowing you are there to support them.
“We have all of the learning programs online and the lessons videoed and aired through YouTube, but it’s the connection that engages the students to learn.”
Suzanne says apart from all-of-class and all-of-school meetings, small group online teaching sessions for literacy and maths have been very effective.
“It is this time that is essential. We talk about tasks, what each child is finding challenging and go over misconceptions. Most importantly we check how they are feeling.
“Students who have experienced additional challenges then have the opportunity to come into additional tutoring and catch up sessions.
“Once the learning groups are finished, students have the chance just to chat to each other. This social connection is essential for every child to feel included, [that] they are not alone and they are still part of a community that cares,” Suzanne explained.
Working with parents
Researcher Dr Penny Round has worked with students with special needs for more than 25 years, including time as a teacher and integration leader. She says COVID-19 and the challenges of remote learning are so much more complex, and add to already heavy and complex teacher workloads.
“Teachers genuinely want to create a classroom where every child is welcome and has friends and deliver school work that enables children with diverse needs to be independent learners. This involves commitment, planning and a deep knowledge of students.”
However remote learning means that there are many factors outside a teacher’s control, such as a parent’s ability to monitor their child and facilitate the set activities of the day.
“Communication with parents is always important to effective inclusion. Now more so than ever. More frequent communication is needed with parents who have a child with special needs. Work out a plan that is realistic for both the teacher, parents and the child, and set out the steps to achieve those goals.
Penny says that ongoing monitoring is essential. If the child is managing the tasks well, then more challenging work can be set. If not, then adjustments need to be made to the tasks.
“This means they are still relevant to the curriculum of the rest of the class with some accommodations and additional layers of scaffolding.”
Additional one-on-one time with the teacher, or in small groups might also be needed, Penny added.
Online learning can benefit students, and encourage teachers to experiment
Aidan Stewart is a teacher and Year 9 pastoral care coordinator at a school in Melbourne’s south-east. He emphasises the importance of having a deep understanding of students, being able to work with their strengths and enabling those students to deliver their work in a variety of ways.
“Learning and teaching online brings many challenges. Each student responds uniquely and requires a different approach to maximise their success. But it’s not all doom and gloom,” he says.
“For some, the freedom of studying in a comfortable chair with nobody around to distract them or cause additional anxiety has led to significant improvements in classroom engagement.
He acknowledges the transition has been difficult for learners with additional needs. “The increased difficulty of receiving one-on-one classroom support has seen a delay in their learning progression.
“The change in school routine, environment and means of communication has caused a variety of complex challenges for some students, and it has been one of my goals to make this transition as smooth as possible for my learners.
Aidan adds online learning has also allowed teachers to experiment with the creative use of technology, and for him, to experiment with new ways of engaging his diverse learners.
“Sharing pre-recorded videos with a class enables students to access content and instructions at their own pace, and enables the teacher to spend class time offering assistance to those most in need of help.
He says providing opportunities for all his students to be able to achieve success and progress in the curriculum has been both taxing and rewarding, but has needed to spend more time attending the wellbeing of his students.
“It’s hugely important to keep them engaged, and with a positive attitude towards their learning. Teaching inclusively online is not an easy task – but it is certainly a crucial and rewarding one,” he says.
Co-teaching and inquiry-based learning are proving successful
For teacher Rizkiana who is now working in Sekolah Cikal Cilandak school in Indonesia, the move to remote learning has seen both a shift in the way she delivers her classes, but also in the way her school works with support staff.
“I am changing the way I facilitate the class. Before I would explain things more, like a lecture, and directly answer inquiries, now I [encourage] students to find the answer by themselves.”
She says in her remote learning environment, this inquiry-based learning approach means questions are opened up to the class, and if nobody knows the answer then she asks a student to research the question and provide the answer during the following morning session.
“I actually teach them how to learn, not just knowing the content. The students are more engaged, and it increases their self-esteem.”
Rizkiana also says that she has applied a co-teaching approach which means one teacher can lead the class and one can supervise the children to make sure they are engaged online.
It also helps her tackle the technological issues that come with remote learning. “We can always rely on each other when we have internet issues or the connection is unstable.”
Rizkiana explains she is also supported by three additional ‘shadow teachers’ who support students with additional needs, and work closely with teachers and families to adjust learning agreements as the school has been delivered online.
Consider and address barriers to using technology
Schools need to minimise the impact of educational disadvantage, and ensure technology and materials that are provided during remote learning are accessible to all students, says Kate de Bruin.
Questions need to be asked that go beyond questions around access to a laptop, an internet connection and financial support. She explains schools also need to consider the technological skills of their students, as well as any mobility or sensory impairments they may have.
“Can students log in to the required online environments? Can they open, edit and save file attachments? Is information presented in more than one mode. Such as orally or visually? Are the applications used by teachers compatible with assistive technologies such as speech-to-text functionalities?”
Kate echoes Aidan Stewart’s focus on curriculum progression. “The curriculum content and delivery during remote learning must be inclusive and age-appropriate for all students.
“Students who receive curriculum adjustments during face-to-face learning should also receive these during remote learning. It is not appropriate to ‘swap’ materials from lower year levels. Rather teachers should continue to use the spiral of the Australian Curriculum to adjust to the skills and achievement standards, but keep the content area the same.”
The challenges of remote learning mean that the number of the tasks may need to be reduced, says Penny Round with the activities outlined in clear, personalised worksheets and really ‘scaffolded and chunked and monitored.’
“Some students will need to be supported with the reduction of task demand or additional time on tasks and instructions may need to be repeated – sometimes many times.
“Using visuals will enhance the ability to understand the task, along with mind maps, mnemonics and flow charts. Unless the child is in VCE, allowances can be made,” Penny says.
Five practices schools can use to support learners with additional needs
Umesh Sharma offers five key ideas for schools to support their learners who have additional needs.
- Work with the learner and the family, be a good listener and find out ways to provide support. It is more important now than ever before to work closely with families.
- Communicate frequently with families to identify potential barriers they may be facing to support their children with their schooling. Find out the best ways you and the school can support them. If possible, consider allocating a set time every week where families can connect on-to-one.
- It is critical to reduce rather than increase school work. Consider linking school activities to home routines to make it easier and more meaningful.
- School activities should allow students to build new social connections and sustain the old ones. Form small groups where peers can support each other and complete school activities together. Think about ways to encourage group activities, and online social events (e.g. birthday parties, karaoke).
- Make innovative use of the existing resources. Think about ways teacher aides can support you with teaching activities. Rather than always allocating a teacher aide to work with one learner, they can support a small group of learners alongside you in the online class (e.g. breakout rooms).
Resources and guidelines provide support for teachers
Christine Grové is developmental and educational psychologist and researcher, and says the COVID-19 global crisis presents an opportunity to rethink the need for accessible and truly inclusive education.
“Students with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from education, often experiencing a multitude of barriers in attending, participating and benefiting from school.
“We need to stand united in the challenges posed by this pandemic and create learning opportunities that reflect the unique strengths and needs of our students.”
Christine says a number of organisations are addressing some of these challenges.
- UNICEF, who are providing tools for children with disabilities and ethnic and linguistic minorities that include sign language and multiple language subtitles in remote lessons.
- UNESCO have developed an extensive list of Distance learning solutions, which include “educational applications, platforms and resources to help parents, teachers, schools and school administrators facilitate student learning and provide social care and interaction during periods of school closure”.
- Universal Design for Learning to Help all Children Read (pdf) provides principles about how to make reasonable accommodation – it is critical in planning for a curriculum for all learners.
- The recent 2020 Global Education Monitoring report Inclusion and education: All means all shares the available technology to use during online, remote learning. Specifically, suggestions to provide materials in different formats such as how to convert texts to audio or Braille characters.
- Schools need to use the available assistive technologies (most of which are cost-effective) for all students, or consider resources such as Bookshare and the Global Digital Library, which can support students with print disabilities, or provide a Checklist for teaching deaf students online (pdf) when planning educational services for learners using sign-language.
We would also like to acknowledge the contribution of inclusive education teachers and Monash Education alumni Suzanne Boatto, Aidan Stewert and Rizkiana.
Inclusive Education Café - an online chat room hosted by inclusive education teacher Loren Swancutt. It provides an opportunity for professional learning.
Using Universal Design Principles to Support Every Student - a webinar presented by Dr Kate de Bruin and endorsed by Learning Difficulties Australia.
Professional learning resources for online teaching and learning - a list of resources compiled by the Victorian Institute of Teaching.
Not even remotely fair: Experiences of students with disability during COVID-19 (pdf) - a report from Children and Young People with Disability Australia.
A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 (pdf) - a set of recommendations and checklist from the OECD. It is aimed at government, but applies well for school leaders and administrators.
Learning at home during a time of crisis: COVID-19 (Coronavirus) (pdf) - a resource developed by Australian Coalition for Inclusive Education (ACIE) to assist children and young people with disability and families to organise and plan for learning at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
OECD (2020), Education responses to COVID-19: an implementation strategy toolkit, OECD Education Policy Perspectives, No. 5, OECD Publishing, Paris.