In this article, Tony Sullivan, managing director of Academy21, discusses how attending an online school can provide a solution for children struggling in a mainstream classroom environment. Tony qualified as a teacher in 1978, and has spent the majority of his career specialising in the education of pupils with social, emotional and mental health difficulties.
A school without noise
Picture a typical secondary school classroom. The lighting is harsh, oversized colourful displays cover the walls, a video clip plays on the whiteboard and a teacher raises his voice sharply to make himself heard over 30 excitable students. A shrill school bell rings signalling the end of the lesson, at which point it is time to enter a crowded corridor and deal with more noise and a sea of faces as you make your way to the next classroom.
Most students thrive on this heightened level of stimulation, but for a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) this noisy, bright and busy environment can make their time at school difficult.
While children with ASD vary considerably in their responses to situations, many I have worked with have difficulty processing this degree of sensory input. In such cases, children are prevented from progressing with their learning as so much time and energy is being used to process the standard school day. Added to this is the anxiety that comes from being with fellow students that do not understand your behaviour, which can lead to name calling or worse. This environment led to one of our students with autism telling me that he felt ‘left behind’ at school.
A different set of rules
This was the case for Finn, a very able and hardworking young man who was finding the pressures of mainstream school tough. “I found the level of noise in the corridor and the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day routine very difficult,” explains Finn. “And it really impacted on my ability to learn.”
His mum Frances, describes the reality in greater detail. “A child with ASD approaches school with a completely different set of rules. They are playing the same game but have a different way of understanding and responding to it. I know in Finn’s case he would sit in the classroom worrying if the bell was going to go, what the child next to him was going to ask or whether there would be any unexpected noises. There was always the possibility that he would need to leave the classroom for various issues such as sensory overload or high stress levels.”
“We worked with the school to make things more predictable for him, like Finn starting the day a little later than the other students so that everyone was already settled in the classroom when Finn joined them. But I began to realise that Finn was becoming more and more withdrawn and unhappy. There comes a point when you have to ask yourself as a parent whether it is worth it.”
“To be honest, we began to give up hope that Finn would be able to study for GCSEs, but then I did a bit of research and discovered Academy21.”
A virtual school
Academy21 is an online school that teaches children with a range of issues like ASD, illness, behavioural or mental health issues that mean they cannot attend mainstream school. Students log on to an online classroom where a teacher takes them through the lesson and they can respond by instant message, writing on the virtual white board or speaking through a microphone if they wish.
“It is quite social,” says Frances. “You are still in a classroom and so there is that online banter between students and the teacher, but what it does is take away all the other distractions.
“Finn logged on from home so there were no unknown variables in his physical environment. He could just focus on the lesson without all the worries of what else would happen around him.”
Regaining control of learning
Our teachers have had specialist training to help children with ASD access learning for Key Stage 3, GCSE, A Level or functional skills qualifications. Louise Hamilton, from our team, taught Finn AS Level history, and explains the advantages of the online approach.
“Each lesson follows a similar structure which makes it predictable. We also display a white board with the lesson content for the student to focus on, rather than a video of the teacher, as this can be a distraction and take attention away from the content and learning.”
“I also like to give my students a choice of how they want to respond so if they are feeling confident, I can give them the opportunity to speak or if they want to write on the white board they can do so.
“I remember Finn always liked to use a certain dark green font to write up his responses so I always gave him a bit of extra time so he could select this before he needed to answer. And if he was not up to it one day, that was fine too.” This approach helps put the ASD learner at ease.
Freedom to flourish
The new environment was liberating for Finn, says Frances, “At school as soon as he managed to acquire one skill, they pushed him on to the next thing. It was ‘Ok you have done that, now here is the next thing.’ In my view, he needed to be able to stay in his comfort zone for a bit longer before being moved on and that is what he got in the online environment.”
Finn went on to achieve nine GCSEs at Academy21, a B grade in his AS history and he now studies in the 6th form of his local school.
“It improved his self-esteem as he could say to other children that he was ‘at school too’ and studying all the same things they were. It made him feel like everyone else and that was incredibly important to him,” says Frances. “So much so that he wanted to try completing his studies back in a mainstream environment.”
“I could learn without the disruption of noise and crowds that had held me back at secondary school,” says Finn. “That’s why Academy21 has really changed my life.”
Academy21 provides online learning to over 70 local authorities and schools. To find out more about Finn and other students benefiting from online learning, visit our case studies page.
Author: Tony Sullivan
Date added: 12 June 2015
Hear more on the topic of alternative education solutions for autistic children at this year’s National Autistic Society Professionals Conference