Families of students with special needs face stress, fears — but online learning not entirely negative

Families of students with special needs face stress, fears — but online learning not entirely negative

by Sue Jones
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Ashley Gibson-Taylor of Sudbury was relieved when her six-year-old son Kai finally got a spot in a class for students with special needs, but was worried when in-person learning was put on hold in March due to surging COVID-19 cases. Educators responding to a CBC questionnaire react to how the pandemic has affected learning for students like Kai.

Ashley Gibson Taylor Family

Ken and Ashley Gibson-Taylor of Sudbury, Ont., are doing their best to help their two sons learn from home. It’s been particularly challenging for Kai, left, who is diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. (Submitted by Ashley Gibson-Taylor)


This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. For the series, CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. Read more stories in this series here. 

Ashley Gibson-Taylor of Sudbury, Ont., was relieved when her six-year-old son Kai finally got a spot in a class for students with special needs last fall.

Kai is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Gibson-Taylor said that once he joined the specialized class, he quickly made “huge strides” — with fewer meltdowns, lower stress and major academic gains.

When students were sent home in March due to surging COVID-19 cases, Gibson-Taylor was worried.

“My initial thought was, I’ve been fighting for him to get into this program since kindergarten, he finally got in in October, and now we have this roadblock. He finally got the opportunity and now it’s gone.”

Gibson-Taylor said the lack of school structure and supports at home had a quick and obvious impact.

“We saw about a year worth of regression within the first two weeks of him being home,” Gibson-Taylor said.

CBC sent a questionnaire to educators across the country. More than 9,000 responded, including 159 in northeastern Ontario, with dozens leaving additional comments.

The responses indicate that many students are struggling with at-home learning and the pandemic’s disruption on education. Students with special needs are facing particular challenges, and parents and educators alike worry about future impacts, although there are some bright spots.


Educator concerns

In the CBC questionnaire, those who work with young people with special needs were asked about the impact of this school year on students. The majority of the 20 special needs educators in the northeast who responded said they believe the challenges of this school year will have a psychological impact on some students, and that some students will not catch up academically.

Nothing I’m doing at home is enough for him. And I don’t know what more I can do for him— Ashley Gibson-Taylor, parent

One anonymous respondent wrote about the challenges of working with students with special needs during the pandemic, saying educators “are not able to [provide] the students with the life skills they need due to COVID protocol.”

“Online learning is impossible for special-needs students,” wrote another educator.


Todd Cunningham

Todd Cunningham, school and clinical child psychologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, says online learning for students with special needs isn’t negative across the board. (Todd Cunningham)


School and clinical child psychologist Todd Cunningham said that with the huge range of experiences and needs for students with special needs, online learning has not been entirely negative across the board.

“We have some students who have attention or self-regulation challenges who are actually loving the online environment,” Cunningham said, noting benefits like being able to “literally turn down the volume on the classroom.”

But Cunningham said others need “systematic direct instruction” to help them develop skills — something they’re not getting in the same way in an online environment.


Worries for skills, self-esteem

Christa Morel of Sudbury said direct instruction is exactly what her four-year-old daughter needs. Raina and her two younger siblings were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and global developmental delay. Morel said her attempt to get Raina to participate in online classes was short-lived.


Christa Morel And Family

Corey Leuschen and Christa Morel have three children, from left, Grayson, Raina and Liam, who all have autism spectrum disorder and global developmental delay. (Submitted by Christa Morel )


“I can’t even get her to pay attention to a laptop when her grandmother is on it, or when her favourite TV show is on it,” said Morel.

While she’s trying to maintain Raina’s academic and behavioural skills through daily educational activities, Morel worries about where Raina’s skill level will be when she returns to class and how she will handle the transition back to in-school learning.

Lise Orsini, an educational assistant (EA), shares concerns about how students with special needs will fare when they return to school. Since March, Orsini has had to adapt to providing support to students in breakout rooms in Zoom.


Lise Orsini

Educational assistant Lise Orsini says she’s focused on making sure students know that extra support is available. (Submitted by Lise Orsini)


Orsini said she sees some students doing well with online learning, while others, particularly those with learning disabilities, are “having a hard time keeping up.”

“I definitely feel that that will affect their self esteem and the gap in where they feel that they can go.”


Thriving ‘in spite of online learning’

Sara Kitlar-Pothier of Sudbury has spent this school year trying to maintain structure for her seven-year-old son Bohdan, who is on the autism spectrum. At the start of the school year, she made the decision to keep him and his younger brother Luka home, largely because of fears over disruptions to the school year, as well as safety concerns.

Kitlar-Pothier said she’s lucky to be able to spend her days working one on one with her children, sitting by Bohdan’s side and guiding him through his online lessons. She said he’s thriving “in spite of online learning.”


Sara Kitlar Pothier And Family

Shawn Pothier and Sara Kitlar-Pothier made the decision to keep their children, Bohdan and Luka, at home this year, largely in an effort to ensure stability for Bohdan, who is on the autism spectrum. (Submitted by Sara Kitlar-Pothier)


“I’m able to be there with him as an EA, as a teacher, giving him one-to-one attention,” she said.

“I have the capability and the capacity to be able to do it, but I know lots of parents who aren’t able to, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Because I’m not a teacher, other parents aren’t teachers, they didn’t sign up for that, to be an EA, to work as therapists for their child.”

Gibson-Taylor also guides her son Kai through his online lessons — while her husband works during the day, and after she’s finished her night shift job. While she has seen some improvements in recent weeks, including fewer meltdowns, the stress of taking on the roll of parent, teacher and therapist is taking its toll.

“It’s really difficult. I feel every day like I’m failing him as a parent, because nothing I’m doing at home is enough for him, and I don’t know what more I can do for him.”


Morning North 640

Morning North9:44Special needs students have been particularly challenged by this pandemic

We continue our series “Schooling Under Stress”… The CBC’s Sarah MacMillan joined us with a look at how special needs students in the northeast are faring. 9:44

This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. Read more in this series here.


Methodology: How did CBC gather educator responses?

CBC sent the questionnaire to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that publicly listed them. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.

CBC chose provinces and school districts based on interest by regional CBC bureaus and availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory, and not all respondents answered all of the questions.


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