Recently updated on January 3rd, 2023 at 03:09 pm

The Impact of COVID-19 Restrictions on Children with Special Needs

Reading Time: 4 minutesThe COVID Storm – and Silver Linings for Children with Special Educational Needs

Fatema Yusuf Jangbarwala, a master’s student at Hong Kong University, explains the findings of a study about the impact of COVID 19 on children with Special Educational Needs

Conducted in Hong Kong during the COVID fifth-wave school closures, the study revealed that, whilst there were severe challenges during this period, there were also some benefits for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in the early years. She shares how parents and educators can take advantage of these silver linings as we move towards recovery from pandemic-induced setbacks.

The Storm

The critical early years developmental stages, along with the unique learning challenges that children with SEN face, make them highly vulnerable to pandemic-induced restrictions such as school and playground closures, mask-wearing and social distancing measures. Face-to-face teaching and hands-on, playful experiences are crucial for optimal development, so keeping young children engaged on virtual platforms was an arduous task. Shorter attention spans and general distractibility presented difficulties for all, while the heightened issues of assessing children’s body language and emotions as done in a physical classroom environment made it challenging to provide adequate needs-based support for children with SEN.

School is instrumental in providing opportunities for children to practise social skills with their peers under the careful guidance of experienced staff. COVID restrictions severely limited these opportunities, such that when children with SEN returned to schools during the intermittent resumptions, social problems were more pronounced, evidenced by a drastic increase in playground disputes. Anxiety levels in children with SEN were also heightened, since they are frequently unsettled by the unfamiliar, and thrive on routine.

Mandatory mask wearing has also had a huge impact on children with SEN, who commonly find it difficult to read facial expressions and emotions. The inability to practise this skill, coupled with the difficulties in working on speech and language development, has made it incredibly difficult to meet their social and emotional needs in school. The ability to build strong immunity with faces covered has posed a further problem for young children.

In terms of providing specialized support at the youngest possible age for children with SEN, known as EI (early intervention), COVID restrictions have severely complicated the issue. Difficulties with early learning skills such as fine/gross motor and school readiness skills, which would usually point to developmental delays, can be compounded by a lack of in-person schooling and mask-wearing. It becomes highly challenging for even the most experienced educator or psychologist to determine what intervention is required, especially for those children with milder needs.

The Silver Linings

For some children with SEN, learning from their home environment provided a ‘karma space’ in which they thrived. Particularly for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and with social difficulties, the familiarity and comfort of home resulted in less sensory overload compared to the classroom environment, making it easier to concentrate.  It also provided autonomy over free time to pursue creative home-play, such as LEGO and art activities, without the pressures of school timetables and structured extracurricular classes.  Online lessons also gave children with SEN some respite from the pressure of being watched in a classroom setting. The ability to switch off their camera allowed them autonomy to deal with their emotions privately when they were challenged. The use of technology also provided alternate means of expression, including making videos, drawing, using voice-to-text and typing, which allowed many children with ASD, often shy and selectively mute by nature, to ‘come out of their shell’.

Learning from home also provided parents with an opportunity to observe their children and understand their unique needs compared to their peers. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), for example, found it enormously challenging to sit still for a 20-minute lesson without access to classroom learning tools which teachers commonly use to help them. Such realisations are a first step for parents to seek early intervention, and work with educators and SEN professionals to provide appropriate support and care for their children post-pandemic.

Looking Ahead

Hong Kong’s prolonged COVID restrictions have had a serious impact on all students, and we are now faced with playing ‘catch up’ for almost 3 years of interrupted education. The Society for Community Organization (2022) estimates that there are currently 82,858 children with SEN in Hong Kong (8.09% of all children), although this number could be higher if you include those as yet unidentified. In the very young, social, emotional, cognitive and physical developmental delays have been exacerbated by measures imposed during the pandemic, posing a challenge for the diagnosis of SEN. The need for parents and educators to identify early warning signs in children is, now, more than ever, essential, so that they can seek professional help to meet children where they are and move them along.

The resumption of in-person schooling made it easier to provide the consistent routines and structure that are necessary for children with SEN. However, the study found that more opportunities for play, practicing social skills, emotional regulation, problem-solving and group work, would help to develop skills that were difficult to practise during the pandemic.

By focusing first on these basic skills, we can ensure that children with SEN are equipped with the essential tools required for optimal social and academic learning. We must also continue to make good use of pandemic-evolved technology and less stringent schedules to improve provision for children with SEN.

*This article shares the findings from a research study conducted by the author as a Master’s project at HKU. A special thank you to the 21 participants who contributed to the findings. 

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