Changing Course, Transforming Special Education

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Legada, E. J. 1,2 & Ng, J. J. E.1,2

1 Department of Psychology, Sunway University.
2 Be The Catalyst (Asia).

† Lead authorship shared by first two authors

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According to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act, special education needs are defined as a restriction in a person’s capacity to engage in and benefit from education due to an enduring physical, sensory, mental health, or learning disability, or any other condition that causes a person to learn differently than a person without that condition (Children with special educational needs information booklet for parents, 2014). Any child that is characterized as “special needs” has a wide range of lifelong impairments, neurodevelopmental disorders, and chronic health concerns (Left out: Children and youth with special needs in the pandemic, 2020), such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), intellectual disability, or traumatic brain injury. These children require a variety of inclusive special education programmes and support from others to be able to learn and engage with peers in schools (Whitley et al., 2021).

Challenges faced in educating children with SEN during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major shift in education, with the closure of schools, and online learning– through the use of electronic devices– taking over as the main learning method. Students and parents alike have had to adapt to the new norm, where formal education happens at home and their parents become their main educators. This change is especially challenging for students, due to their limited resources and accessibility to necessary learning resources, which can ultimately cause them to drop out of schools due to the disparity in treatment (Selvanathan et al., 2020).

A recent study by (Nordin et al., 2021) reports that the SEN students, teachers and parents all do not have sufficient knowledge and experience to facilitate online for students in the special needs category. Under regular circumstances, students with SEN already face difficulties in trying to manage their education, however behavioural and physical problems faced by those with special needs may be more taxing in adapting to learning from home, such as difficulties operating electronic devices independently.

Furthermore, the additional stress of being primary educators to their SEN children has induced physical fatigue, anger and fear in parents. This is attributed to the childrens’ changes in behaviour, as well as increased concern for their children’s wellbeing and health (Duraku, 2021). The role of educating an SEN child from home also requires a greater time commitment and expertise levels (Currie-Rubin & Smith, 2014), which may be more difficult for some parents. Being a teacher on top of other parental roles can negatively influence family dynamics at home, potentially leading to frustration and conflict among parents and children (Smith et al., 2016; Borup et al. 2015)

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How Children with SEN are being left out in terms of education during the pandemic

All around the world, children with SEN have not received sufficient support to obtain the necessary education opportunities. A report from the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) in Northern Ireland revealed that some families felt the pandemic was being used as an excuse to limit or remove services, such as the provision of therapists, psychologists, and special education teachers (Meredith, 2021).  In the United States, a survey carried out by an advocacy group ParentsTogether discovered that 40% of SEN children had never received support for their education so far (Levine, 2021). Even in Malaysia, the Star reported that a number of students have had to restart from the beginning of their syllabus when learning institutions were opened up again (Beh, 2021). These students were not able to attend their sessions and were not given alternative opportunities to follow up with their progress, thus causing them to even forget their lessons altogether.

Astro Awani reported academics’ call for improvements in the National Special Education policy to address the needs of our SEN students (Bernama, 2021). A large proportion of these children in Malaysia are not registered in the Disability Registration System (SMOKU), which not only deprives them of accessibility to special services and programs, but will also cause them to not be considered in national policies, programs, and budgets. Therefore the inaccurate figures of children with special needs are reflected in the inadequate considerations during policymaking, as well as the planning and provisions of public services (UNICEF Malaysia, 2020).

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Suggestions of Transformations in 2022

As the world works towards slowing the spread of Covid-19 through increased focus on vaccines, novel treatments and convenient at-home testing, it is strategizing for transformations in crucial fields such as the field of special education in 2022. Firstly, the development and education of children with SEN depend immensely on their parents, especially during the pandemic restrictions. In this unpredictable situation, experience and readiness become barriers for parents to provide the best educational support to their children  (Norazmi et al.,  2019). Hence, parents are recommended to acquire physical, mental and material preparation in order to assure continuous learning, educating them about the use of online applications, knowledge of distant learning and those related to students’ abilities (Mustafa et al., 2020). Parents of children with SEN need additional preparation for providing devices and internet access, as well as formulating effective teaching strategies with help of appropriate guidelines (Amir, 2020). The encouragement of parental involvement and preparation can reduce the experience of parental burnout when taking care of their children in terms of daily essentials, education and wellbeing during the pandemic (Sorkkila & Aunola, 2021).

Besides parental involvement, collaborations between teachers and families can be formed to create the optimal learning environment in digital classrooms for children with SEN. Although parents’ involvement is vital in child development, parents may be engrossed with chores and work life, overlooking their children’s education (Yazcayir & Gurgur, 2021). In order to ensure special education is successfully delivered to students with SEN within the inclusive education system during the pandemic, special education teachers are recommended to communicate with parents remotely about keeping up the progress of homework completion and providing feedback (Mustafa, 2020). Additionally, Schools can consider collaborating with private education institutions, to establish special education services, practices or interventions such as antecedent-based interventions (ABI) for children with autism, to support students with SEN outside school hours to follow up the learning progress (MoNE, 2012, as cited in Yazcayir & Gurgur, 2021). Cooperation and communication between and among teachers, parents and students is significant to maintain the main purpose of educating students with SEN, which is to guarantee their integration with society by offering equal and useful educational services in special education schools and through inclusive education systems (Yazcayir & Gurgur, 2021).

Lastly, according to Rosales-Viray and Versoza (2017), social media has a strong participative role in influencing and making political decisions as it creates a platform for public discourses about raising the government’s awareness towards public concerns. Based on research from Yazcayir & Gurgur (2021), support for education services was not provided by certain school authorities at all throughout the process of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is considered a major problem that requires immediate actions from the government. Rosales-Viray and Versoza (2017) found out that the government can actually no longer refuse to take public matters into account when the debates in the media have become widespread and vociferous. Since social media plays a major role in affecting political decisions, it is recommended to utilize this strong advantage of social media platforms to attract the government’s attention towards the vulnerable group of children with SEN. By enlarging the focus of the problems faced by these children to the government, we hope that the government will initiate any programs or create new educational policies to adapt the new norm of the special education system after the pandemic and ameliorate the standards of quality for the learning of students with SEN.

It is our responsibility to make sure every student is given equal opportunities to access quality education, especially an education that is in line with their unique needs.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Cite this article
Legada, E. J. & Ng, J. J. E. (in press). “Changing Course, Transforming Special Education”. Be The Catalyst (Asia).


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