There has been a natural reluctance to embrace technology in SEND therapy provision. After all, therapy is deeply personal and can feel totally unrelated to the traditionally cold impersonality of tech. But COVID-19 has necessitated a step-change in attitudes across the spectrum. With movement restricted and contagion controls in place, all sectors – including health and education – have needed to re-evaluate practices. Technology has allowed vital services to continue to be delivered, including digital therapy for children, at a time when they would otherwise have been unavailable. But there now comes a question: should we all be looking beyond the pandemic to the implementation of tech in mainstream therapy? And could technology help make essential support available to children more quickly?
Why delivering consistent therapy and SEND support to school children is so important
As a SENCO, teacher or other education professional, you’ll probably understand the pressures of working with children and young people who have special educational needs, including long-term speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). You might have seen first-hand the difficulties these children face in the classroom, the frustrations they encounter in social situations. And the difference that therapy can make when it’s received.
But with more than 10% of children and young people having long-term SLCN needs, it can be challenging to find the right support at the right time. This is fundamental if these children are to reach their full potential, both academically and socially. Most of our learning is done through language. And it’s a startling, if not overly surprising, statistic that only 15% of children with communication difficulties gain five GCSEs at grade A*–C equivalent, compared to 57% of other pupils. Even more concerning and saddening, 1 in 3 children with untreated SLCN will develop mental health difficulties, which results in criminal involvement.
So, the importance of providing relevant, easily accessible support to children in a time, place and format that allows them to engage fully cannot be underestimated. And tech has the potential to play a significant role.
How can tech help schools with pupil support?
The idea of an online therapy session of any kind can seem anathema to adults. So, we dismiss it for the children in our care because we project our concerns upon them. But the reality is that for a lot of young people, the digital world is their safe place. They’ve been using computers and the internet for their entire life to date, which makes them more familiar and more comfortable with their use than most adults. That alone can play a significant part in the suitability of digital therapy for kids. But there are many more areas to consider:
- Technology puts children in control. For many, sitting in a room, one-to-one with an adult, can seem confrontational. With digital consultations, if the child feels uncomfortable, they have the power to simply walk away. 99% of the time, the mere knowledge that they can do this is enough to make them persevere.
- Digital consultations can deliver consistency, and that can be essential to the success of therapy. If a child cannot attend school for any reason, they can still access their essential therapy from any home with a computer, tablet or smartphone.
- And, most importantly, online therapy delivers results – studies revealed both telehealth and in-person participants made significant and similar improvements when treatment effects were measured through five of the six outcome measures.
- In a systematic review conducted at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, researchers found that 85.5 % of studies reviewed concluded that telehealth had advantages over the non-telehealth, face-to-face procedure of therapy delivery (Molini-Avejonas et al 2015).
Receiving the right therapy at the right time can be absolutely integral to the success of children in need of SLCN and other SEND support. One of the major hurdles faced by SENCOs is the inability to access the specialist support individual children require, either because the therapists are unavailable in their area or oversubscribed. This can often mean that children are left unsupported for longer than is acceptable. Technology resolves those issues, enabling schools to access support from across the country, and allowing children to grow and learn as they have every right to do.
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