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The possible impact of lockdown on special needs children

| November 5, 2020 | 0 Comments


The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:1 ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…,’ are a perfect reflection of our education situation in South Africa during our current pandemic.

For some of our children, this time has offered an opportunity to find new, better ways to learn, while for others, it has meant the loss of safety and security, and the worst outcomes imaginable. I am a paediatric speech and language therapist, as well as a foundation phase teacher, who has been in private practice for the past 15 years. I have worked with many children from many different schools in Gauteng and always thought that my greatest strength was understanding the educational, social and emotional needs of my clients. I gathered a room full of equipment, files bursting with information about schools and therapy approaches, certificates from many courses regarding child development… and then came COVID-19. Schools closed, therapy practices closed, businesses shut down – and our children’s lives changed. My room full of equipment was rendered useless, the information in my files placed ‘on ice’, and the knowledge from many of my ‘hands-on’ courses was suddenly no longer tangible. Time to pick up and run with initiative – and rather than me guiding the children, I had to let the children guide me.

The best of times and the worst

And so, I saw the unfolding of the ‘best educational scenarios’ for children, as well as the crumbling of the ‘worst educational scenarios’ in this unprecedented time. With millions of children enrolled in our educational system from pre-primary school to high school,2 the impact of this lockdown will obviously be varied and far-reaching.

Our schools being closed for over three months required a sudden and drastic shift in the ‘normal’ daily routines of our lives. All of a sudden, parents who had been dropping children at school early in the morning, letting the learning ‘happen’, and then collecting their precious ‘educated’ beings at the end of the day, were either thrust into a world of online learning, navigating Zoom calls and Google Classroom meets or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, nothing – no resources, no guidance – and then, of course, all the variances in-between. Teachers had to frantically find new ways of teaching the curriculum, and the children – well, they were now expected to either ‘just pick up’ where they left off in class online, or were left wondering why their fun-filled days of socialising, play and learning were suddenly now quiet, lonely and empty.

As a therapist and parent, dealing daily with my own children’s home-learning and keeping my clients’ sessions going through tele-health, I have delved into this rabbit hole and watched themes emerging that will change the course of education, both in the near future as well as further down the line.

Socio-economic status

One of the biggest areas in the educational shift that I have found is the most obvious – the availability of learning depending on socio-economic status. Those students who have access to a caring, nurturing and more affluent school have been provided with enormous resources. For some, this meant online classes, while for others, packs provided by the school that could be fetched by parents to ensure that children were given input to maintain their learning. Many of these schools have ensured some contact with their students and have required work to be handed in, to ensure that there is learning taking place while the physical school buildings could not be occupied. This rosy picture is all very well, provided that the child has a stable home life, access to the internet, a parent who could be involved in their learning and a teacher who followed up on work. Most of these children will not have come out of this lockdown with enormous learning gaps, and they will more than likely navigate this time without serious, long-lasting negative repercussions on their academic development.

However, for those children who have been left alone while their parents try to work to make ends meet, and teachers overwhelmed by the sheer number of children in their classes needing attention, the gap has become a canyon, which I am not sure can be overcome in the next six months – even if ‘normal’ school returns. Furthermore, millions of children in South Africa fed by our national feeding programme have been left worrying more about survival than education. Katharine Hall, a researcher at the Children’s Institute attached to the University of Cape Town, cites the following statistics: ‘Nearly 60% of children (11.6 million) live in households below the Stats South Africa poverty line (R1 277 per person per month in 2019). A third of children (6.4 million) live below the food poverty line of R561.’3

For these families, learning to stay alive has been more important than learning maths and literacy. Therefore, much of what these children had learned at school may not have been retained or practised, let alone furthering any knowledge, and the setback will prove enormous. Research done by Bao et al4 indicates that in the foundation phase of learning, over 67% of global literacy ability will be lost during this time, and the overall student dropout rate for the higher grades is likely to increase drastically around the world, radically affecting the future of several generations.

Lockdown beneficial for some special needs students

I can note another interesting development regarding those children who have been fortunate enough to continue their education through online platforms. This concerns the emotional development of children in relationship to their learning. I am fortunate to work with mainstream students as well as children with special needs. I was concerned that many of the children with special learning needs would struggle without the hands-on interaction of face-to-face therapy, but with no other alternative, therapy started online in lockdown level 5. The results of this surprised me enormously, as I found that many of the children who had suffered from extreme anxiety in the school system were now far calmer, and suddenly learning had become more accessible to them. They were in the comfort zone of their house, they did not need to try to block out the distractions of the other children at school, and their sensory systems were mostly better regulated. The learning space was more free, and as the amount of anxiety decreased, the doors to new language and learning were opened. All of a sudden, they had more freedom of movement to get up and move away from a task to regroup, more time to process information, and opportunity to think and formulate ideas on their own without being pressurised by peers or time, which led to a massive shift in their learning ability. For these children, the new, alternative approach has given them the opportunity to determine a better way of reaching their academic expectations.

Others are more anxious

There is always the flip side of the grid, as learning is unique to each individual and there is never a ‘one size fits all’. So, there have also been those students who have really missed the physical involvement of their teachers, social interaction with peers and the security of their routine. They have found learning online challenging and anxiety-provoking. These learners have expressed to me that they would rather disengage from the screen or work that they have placed in front of them than fight a battle which is too daunting to handle – the more they work, the more ‘real’ the challenges become. These are the children who really concern me, for their struggles are not easily noted or seen. These are the children who will probably come out of this lockdown not only needing help to catch up academically, but also nurturing in building up their selfesteem, their confidence in their abilities and help in building their fragile sense of self. Recent studies conducted in Hubei, China, revealed that after one month of COVID-19-caused school closure, 23% of children in Grades 2–6 were reporting symptoms of depression.5 There is also a concern that teen suicides could increase, from the already staggering 9% of teenage deaths.6 I wish I could look into a crystal ball and see how these children will fare over the next year, but I know that the small hill they were climbing at the beginning of 2020 has developed into a mountain. It is with these children that educators, as well as parents, are going to need to really dig deep and be on the lookout to help fill in the gaps and concerns, as soon as they start emerging.

Look at the whole child

This brings me to the last point in this ever-changing and endless discussion of education during COVID-19: the relationship between the child, the parents and the teacher. This has had to evolve, as there is a symbiotic relationship that has become more important than previously acknowledged. Where there has been a successful build-up of trust by each player over this time, the child, the parent and the teacher have all benefited and learned to trust the system. However, when one player does not live up to the expectations of the others, the trust has deteriorated, and learning has been hindered. Many parents I have spoken to at this juncture have seriously wondered how to educate their children, and have looked at the health, financial and educational benefits of online learning, but as one teacher warned: ‘Parents think that learning from home is home-schooling. It is far from it, as we, the teachers, are putting in more hours than ever before to ensure that the curriculum is accessible to each student.’ The whole child needs to be taken into consideration: their emotional, physical and educational needs must be addressed before decisions are made that create further disturbance than already dictated by this time of insecurity and uncertainty.

All we actually know right now is that there will be an inevitable shift in education from this time onwards. There will be change – children will learn differently, teachers will teach differently, parents will approach their children’s learning differently. Some children will not recover easily and some may find new ways to thrive. Whatever the outcome, this pandemic will etch itself into our children’s future and the education system as a whole.


  1. Dickens, C. (1998) A Tale of Two Cities (unabridged edition). London:
    Dover Publications.
  2. See:
  3. See:
  4. See:
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  6. See:

Category: Spring 2020

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