Greater Shepparton parents of children with special needs adjust to remote schooling

by Charmayne Allison, Shepparton News

Every time Shepparton’s Josh Symes, 15, asks why he can’t go to school or see his friends, his mum Sandy pulls out a social story book.

The pages of this book, created by his school, tell the story of COVID-19.

Explaining simply what is still – to everyone – an unthinkable, bewildering situation.

A situation Josh, who has Down syndrome, is still struggling to grasp.

“Every time Josh wants to see someone, we have to explain all over again why we can’t visit anyone or have friends over,” Sandy said.

“I think he’s slowly and reluctantly getting the picture.”

Countless parents across Greater Shepparton are having these conversations with their children as schools close their doors for the coming term.

While all are facing the daunting task of educating their children from home, for parents like Sandy, there are added challenges.

“Verney Road School is a really good school, with a top bunch of teachers.

– Sandy Symes

Josh has been pulled from Verney Rd School, where he and many other local children with mild to profound intellectual disabilities receive personalised special education.

Now, his schooling lies largely in the hands of his mum.

“I was in two minds when they told me we would have to start remote learning,” Sandy said.

“One was, this’ll be a good challenge.

“The other – I’m not qualified to be a teacher.”

Verney Road School is among local schools adjusting to remote learning, working closely with parents through this challenging process.

And Sandy said there needed to be grace in this.

“There are extra challenges for children with special needs,” she said.

“You have to tailor everything to each individual child’s needs.

“Verney Road School is a really good school, with a top bunch of teachers.

“And I have to say, I was exhausted after day one of teaching – hats off to all teachers.”

Josh and Sandy Symes

Congupna mum-of-six Margie Mackelmann is already homeschooling five of her children on the family farm.

And for the coming term her son Ryan, 15, will join the classroom.

Ryan, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, has attended Verney Road School from when he was three.

As he is leaving behind close friends and beloved long-term teachers, Margie said this would be a big adjustment for her son.

“Each child with special needs is different,” she said.

“It has been hard for him to comprehend the situation and why he’s staying at home.”

Ryan’s teacher is phoning Margie every morning to check in, see how the schooling program is going and offer tips.

Margie & Ryan Macklemann

With 18 years of homeschooling already under her belt, Margie said the transition to remote learning had already been an easier adjustment for her than many parents.

“When it comes to homeschooling, not much has changed,” she said.

“The daunting side is making sure Ryan’s needs are met and match up with what he was doing at school.

“I’m trying to manage that, while ensuring he doesn’t distract the other children.”

But a few days in, Margie said Ryan was already fitting in well.

“He’s with his family tribe,” she said.

“At the moment we’re just keeping things calm and slow, while still trying to stick to the same routine each day.

“Consistency and security is so important – so even though everything else is changing around Ryan, home is a safe place.”

Ryan’s Verney Road teacher has been suggesting resources such as word games, number games and writing practice.

“What has really helped us is completing some kind of activity every morning, like riding our bikes, before we start learning,” Margie said.

“We’re also enjoying going for walks and looking for things like weather patterns and birds and making stories or sentences about what we see.”

While it was still early days, Margie said Ryan was settling well into his new rhythm.

“A lot of children with special needs do love school and friends and routine,” she said.

“So we’re just explaining that this is the way we’re doing things now, but one day we’ll go back to how we used to do it.”

As for parents of children with special needs who are brand new to remote schooling, Sandy encouraged them to “be kind” to themselves.

“We weren’t given instructions on how to be mothers and we’re doing that well,” she said.

“And we haven’t been given instructions on how to teach – but I’m sure we’ll do that well, because we know our child better than anyone.”

Josh Symes