A new report by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) has revealed the impact of Covid-19 on children and young people with SEND in Northern Ireland.

In order to gain an insight into the lives of young people with SEND, the researchers conducted 60 interviews and four focus groups with children, young people, parents, and practitioners from across Northern Ireland.

They spoke to people from a range of different types and severity of disabilities and special educational needs to gain a broader understanding of the experiences different people had.

The research has demonstrated that the Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the emotional wellbeing, learning and development, and available support for children and young people with SEND.

The impact on emotional wellbeing

The report highlights that fear of the virus was widespread among both parents and practitioners due to the vulnerability of some of the children. Parents said they became increasingly concerned for both their child’s health and their own, which resulted in heightened levels of anxiety and stress.

With the closure of schools, clubs and groups, many families of children with SEND felt isolated and lonely. This was particularly pertinent for families who had to shield during the pandemic. Although many parents, carers and children report feeling lonely in “normal” times, the report shows that the arrival of the virus compounded these feelings further.

A detrimental effect on learning and development

The closure of schools was identified by some as being the measure that had the biggest impact. Some parents and teachers said there was a loss of learning and development and reported having poor experiences and very limited communication with staff during lockdowns. Contrastingly, others had positive experiences with regular communication.

Moreover, many young people with SEND in work were furloughed during the pandemic and hoped that as restrictions relaxed, they would return to work. However, this did not always happen. The need to shield, the closure of 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.

A reduction in support

Due to the restrictions imposed during the various lockdowns, paid carers were no longer allowed to come into the homes of families who usually received support. This left many families entirely unsupported and intensified feelings of social isolation and loneliness. This was especially apparent during the first lockdown before support bubbles were permitted.

Some parents also noted that developmental support outside of education suffered, such as the Health and Social Care Trusts. However, some parents reported a positive experience, even if there were limitations as to what they could offer.

Several participants 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.

Recommendations for recovery

The participants highlighted four key priorities they believe are essential to a quick and efficient recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. These are:

  • The continued promotion of the vaccine programme to keep everyone safe
  • Clear and consistent communication from government to service providers and from service providers to parents
  • Keeping education and respite facilities open to stop disabled children falling further behind
  • Speeding up and improving the SEN system so that the educational needs of children and young people are more effectively met.

The authors of the report also laid out some recommendations for recovery. Firstly, they ask the government to consider and plan for the likely impacts on different sections of society when responding to global emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly those who are already vulnerable or who face significant challenges in society.

Secondly, they say the government should work in partnership with parents/carers and the voluntary and community sectors to develop packages of support in order to prevent families from feeling socially isolated and alone.

Finally, if a full recovery is to be made, the researchers say that the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of society will need to be recognised and resourced, with a particular focus on young people with SEND who require specific support.