Business as (un)usual: How to educate young people with complex needs in a pandemic


29th May 2020

Organisations supporting the most vulnerable people have to struggle against many challenges to deliver their services at the best of times. But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a whole new set of obstacles into the mix. Quick and innovative thinking is now more importantl than ever to ensure the communities they serve continue don’t become isolated or face further disadvantage.

We can learn a lot from one group offering this kind of vital provision. Bedazzle Arts, an Essex and Cambridgeshire-based organisation founded by Diane and Phil Janssen, has risen to the challenge of adapting and maintaining its integral work throughout the crisis. Bedazzle has two main strands to its work, firstly providing performing arts classes to people with SEND aged between 16 and 60, and secondly educating young people aged 17 to 25 year olds with Education Health and Care Plans who are out of school. They provide bespoke education programmes that span the curriculum but are tailored to individuals, from maths and English, to life skills or emergent communication skills.

The students

The majority of Bedazzle’s students have learning disabilities or complex needs, while others have significant behavioural needs. Many come to the organisation from out-of-county residential provision which has ended, for example when the local authority has looked for a less costly alternative. Others have attended special schools or SEND programmes at regional colleges but have had to leave because the placement hasn’t worked for them.

Hannah Ware, Director at Bedazzle, said: “Quite often there has been a breakdown by the time the young person has got to us. They might have been out of school for a while, there may have been problems. Often young people and their families come to us kind of shellshocked. There is a lot of wraparound family work that goes on to rebuild relationships and trust.”

Government guidance

When the impact of Covid-19 started to hit the country in March, the team at Bedazzle looked for advice on how to continue their work supporting young people with complex needs during lockdown. Sadly, they found government guidance vague and frustrating.

Eleanor Newstead, a lead tutor at Bedazzle, said: “When I’ve read the government guidance, there’s not much that speaks to the nature of the work that we do. It’s such broad strokes advice with no detail.

“They mention vulnerable people and those with EHCPs still receiving education at the moment, but I think they’re talking about young people who are already in mainstream schools or are in special schools – places where there’s a building with facilities and ways to socially distance.

“There’s no advice for education-focused groups that work with people in their homes or in the community. Just the practical things, like students needing to go to the toilet, haven’t been considered. For us to go back into that work would be putting people at risk.”

Quite often there has been a breakdown by the time the young person has got to us. They might have been out of school for a while, there may have been problems. Often young people and their families come to us kind of shellshocked. Share on X

Determining how to deliver highly personalised support is tough when the government calls for ‘common sense’ and invites interpretations of general advice to fit many situations.

“Best interest is a very hard thing to risk assess,” Hannah explained.

“Is it in someone’s best interest to stay at home and not get so much direct education or is it in their best interest to be surrounded by people wearing goggles, facemasks, aprons and gloves? Trying to pick that apart is tough.

“We are thinking on both the micro level of individual students and the macro level of staff wellbeing, then trying to fit it all together. That has been a complex task.”

Moving online

Before the pandemic, Bedazzle’s provision was based on in-person interactions. The team were “babies in terms of social media”. But in spite of the initial shock they were able to move fast, upskilling their 26 staff members and creating new responsibilities focused on quality assurance and safeguarding online.

The built their own website, which has an online portal for the performing arts sessions including teacher-led videos. They have started offering a free hour and half’s live dance workshop on Saturdays with typically around 35 students joining in.

“I get quite emotional,” said Hannah. “One of the guys who joins us said to me last weekend that the first time we did it he cried with happiness seeing so many people – that’s powerful.”

Other adaptations have included recording backing tracks for music students to sing or play along to, as a way of avoiding the time lag that can get in the way on Zoom. The annual pantomime has been replaced with an online variety show, where students will record their own songs.

“We can still make these things exciting and novel within the limitations,” Hannah said.

Virtual lessons

While the idea of engaging with a screen is quite cognitively complex, the team has had a lot of success moving their students online so far.

One of Eleanor’s students, a 20-year-old man with severe autism, was receiving a comprehensive programme of education every week, involving 2 adults for 1 young person, before the pandemic hit. His programme included exercise at the gym, work experience, building independence in the home through tasks such as cooking and cleaning, as well as literacy and numeracy at key stage 1 level.

His first experience of a video call did not go well, and he struggled to engage with tutors through his iPad, as Eleanor explained: “My student’s mother and I really weren’t confident that he would be able to respond at all to learning on his iPad.”

It's testing me to teach outside of my own box and get out of my usual routines that maybe get stale sometimes in the day to day. This has given me new ideas for things I could do with him once we go back to face to face, and a new… Share on X

However, she persevered, offering the student’s mum additional support in using the technology so that she could help to facilitate the sessions.

“We started building up from just five minutes a day, getting him used to us being there, so that he understood we could see and hear him and vice versa. We used a lot of physical games, such as ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’, combined with very basic questions and answers.

“Now he’s built up to an hour a day, which is fantastic. He does 30 minutes of exercise with my colleague, who does a sensory routine, then I take over and we do a very routine-based 30-minute lesson.

“I’m trying to add or change just one thing each day so that he builds up confidence and familiarity with what we’re doing. He knows the routine now and he’s able to tell me when he’s ready to move on. It’s definitely positive, he smiles, he laughs while we’re doing it,” Eleanor said.

Other successful activities have included songs, I-spy, and memory games, and Eleanor has found the experience has expanded her own thinking too.

“It’s testing me to teach outside of my own box and get out of my usual routines that maybe get stale sometimes in the day to day.

“This has given me new ideas for things I could do with him once we go back to face to face, and a new understanding of what he can understand, and what he is capable of.”

Another student, a 19-year-old young woman with autism, initially found moving online tricky, as she really enjoyed being in the same room as her teachers.

“At first she wasn’t turning up to every lesson and when she was, she was just using it as social chat, venting and offloading, which she needed,” Eleanor said.

However, she has now been able to build up to the same amount of online learning a week as she would normally have in person and is working towards an arts award.

Other solutions have included one student developing his own film making project with his teachers, while another has been working in the garden with her mother, who is a garden designer. The Bedazzle team have developed this experience with the student, to help her take a qualification in ‘Independence in Horticulture’.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

While juggling the ‘new normal’, the team is also thinking ahead and planning its return to face-to-face education. Hannah explained that for the students that Bedazzle works with, sustained close contact is often needed, and social distancing is not a viable option.

“When students come back, according to the current guidelines we would be asking practitioners not to wear PPE but maintain sustained close working with students, which doesn’t seem to effectively keep anyone safe. So of course we’re not doing that,” Hannah said.

Bedazzle’s staff are likely to have to wear full PPE when they return to teaching in person, which will include surgical masks, aprons and gloves. Getting ready for this is tricky, as the appearance of staff in full PPE can bring up memories of difficult experiences for students who have complex medical histories.

In order to help prepare the young people for working with staff in full PPE, Bedazzle has sent some equipment to families to start the desensitisation process at home. They have purchased all of this equipment themselves, even though it’s become more expensive. Hannah described buying six 750ml bottles of hand sanitizer recently for £60, meanwhile Eleanor is making her own face masks to use online with her pupils, to help them get used to seeing her face covered.

It's made us more resilient. When we do come back I think the value of digitising our materials is something we'll have forever. Share on X

Looking to the future

Hannah is confident that Bedazzle will be well prepared to return to in-person delivery, and feels they have learned a lot as an organisation.

“The online capacity has been great, teacher resilience has been incredible, the way people have come up with techniques to make online provision work for individual students has been amazing.

“It’s made us more resilient. When we do come back I think the value of digitising our materials is something we’ll have forever.”

She added: “We want to celebrate our parents too, they have been really engaged. Even when online hasn’t worked, they have asked us to send worksheets, which the teachers have then developed and shared.”

Eleanor believes responding to the crisis has brought the Bedazzle staff closer too.

“As a member of a teaching group that doesn’t often meet each other, it’s created a greater sense of community because there’s lots of teachers I hadn’t met before this lockdown. We don’t teach in the same building all the time as we’re often out with parents or in the community.

“We’re now having weekly meetings online and there’s a Monday morning social group. My role also involves observing teachers in their lessons as part of our quality assurance and safeguarding requirements, so I now have a sense of who everyone is and we’ve built closer relationships with each other. That’s been a really nice aspect of it and that something that we hope to continue after the lockdown ends.”