Summer lessons can help kids with learning difficulties catch up after pandemic

Students with learning disabilities had to weather the COVID-19 pandemic: what’s next now, asks LAURA CALLEJA?

Children with learning challenges face a daunting future as the slowdown in COVID infections now raises the question of how they will recuperate once the pandemic was over.

“As it is, without COVID-19 we already have children falling between the cracks, and that is a worry,” Malta Dyslexia Association (MDA) secretary Dr Ruth Falzon told MaltaToday.

COVID-19 had a profound impact on people’s health but also how they learn, work, and live.

Among the most important challenges created by COVID-19 was how to adapt a system of education built around physical schools. With schools physically closed during the height of the pandemic, many students struggled to adapt to online learning. Perhaps some of the hardest-hit students, are those with learning difficulties, who may already struggle in a traditional school setting.

Falzon said that while some children were struggling, some were not accessing education at all. “An example of this would be two parents who work full time, who need the money to live, and have to send their child with learning difficulties to their grandparents. The grandparents, because of their age, and vulnerability can’t go out, so obviously the child doesn't go to school, there may also be problems with the internet. So those with least social capital are the ones getting the least support.”

The only way forward she sees is changing the curriculum to include summer school, in such a fashion as to allow children to get a break. “It should be fun learning, but you still have to gauge what they missed.”

It’s also about how teachers can undersatnd what children have missed out on and where the holes in learning are. “If a student can’t multiply, the teacher needs to see why. It could be because ‘I don’t have number value’. So while we are in this recuperation stage, we need to make sure that the foundation learning that needed to be there is actually there.”

Falzon said there was already a problem when it came to maths. “The failure rate in primary schools is 10%, increasing to over 30% in secondary school... a reason for this could be because it is being taught too fast to younger children, so the concepts are not automatic, so they can’t do higher-level maths.

“When you get children with difficulties who need more reinforcement, we need to find the time when to do it. It’s done in summer to make sure there is support throughout the year, because kids need to be in class with their friends. You need to find a system...  but it’s not going to be easy,” Falzon said.

Falzon said some children have benefited from repeating a ‘lost’ year while others have found it traumatic. “Repeating a year would need to be done in consultation with the child and how they feel about it. Sometimes they change schools, but repeating a year then does not affect you because you get new friends.”

“The majority of cases where repetition is recommended is in the early years. We’re had positive results there. But it’s not a decision just based on what has academically been lost; the psychological aspect is more important. If the child is sad, it will be a wasted year. They won’t learn anything because they will be depressed.”

For that reason Falzon said she would rather see extra lessons helping children catch up in a summer programme.

“Apart from the pandemic, the curriculum was too packed, an issue that has been brought up but which fell on deaf ears. We have had teachers tell us they are very frustrated because they are teaching too rushed, let alone the child with learning difficulties. Where will they end up? We have had numerous reports that had said they gone slower in the early years, the faster we could go later on.”

But Falzon says the use of technology in schools also helped students with dyslexia, such as at University. “Before students weren’t allowed to use the computer or speech-to-text; now because schooling is done oneline, everybody could use speech-to-text. So students at university with dyslexia felt more comfortable because they could dictate into the computer if they wanted. So one thing about COVID-19 that was positive was that they have realised the use of technology does not detract from children’s learning.”

Research and online lessons

Research by the Malta Dyslexia Association during the pandemic with 31 parents of children at primary and secondary level with reading or writing difficulties, ADD, ADHD, autism, dyslexia or a combination, found that Teleskola and online support via teams proved beneficial. However, support varied depending on the school and the educators concerned. There was a mixed reaction regarding online live lessons, depending on the severity and learning difficulty.

When it came to ADD, some parents said their child was more focused because there were not many distractions since mics were muted, so they could only hear the teachers. Another parent said the lessons were less engaging for students with a short attention span.

Parents of dyslexic children said, on the one hand, that there were fewer distractions and quieter; however, others felt online lessons were not suitable for dyslexic children.

As for recorded lessons, parents said while they could be re-visited or followed at convenient times by learners and parents, the need to receive some feedback from the teacher was felt.

Parents also said children with reading/writing difficulties faced communication problems when written instructions were sent. “Formatting and fonts used were not dyslexia-friendly,” the MDA said. The data pointed out that educators need to be aware of these individual difficulties when uploading material.

19.4% of parents felt that the schools were not considerate of their child’s learning difficulties during the lockdown. Only 9.7% of parents responded that the school was “highly considerate” towards their child’s needs.

Regarding children who had support from Learning Support Educators (LSE), 28.6% of parents said their child benefited from the support of LSEs during the lockdown. In comparison, 14.3% said LSEs were not beneficial at all.

Out of the 14 children, who took part, who have LSEs, ten continued to have LSE support, whereas four parents claimed that the support was discontinued.

The data found that almost all parents said that they felt very stressed during the school lockdown

The association said it was evident from the responses that at times parents were under a lot of tension and affected the relationship between the parent and child. Some children found it hard to adjust since their usual routine was disturbed.