IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Anxiety has increased for individuals with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

12 February 2021

Individuals with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and their siblings have suffered from increased anxiety since the first UK national lockdown, new research led by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) shows.

Siblings standing looking at a lake with their backs to a camera

The researchers found that levels of anxiety were not predicted by age, gender or health. Instead, the levels of anxiety in the individuals with SEND were predicted by awareness about COVID-19, diagnosis of an existing anxiety disorder as well as parental anxiety, though this was not the case for their typically developing siblings.

The researchers suggest that the complexity of the current events and the associated rules of these events might be more difficult to be comprehended by individuals with SEND, leading to more stressful and anxious feelings which in the long-term could lead to higher anxiety.

The team, which included academics from the IOE, the University of Fribourg, the University of Geneva, Durham University, the University of Warwick, the University of Edinburgh and Unidistance Suisse, examined wellbeing and anxiety at different time points and included a control group matched for family situation. Parents of 402 individuals with SEND reported on their own anxiety and wellbeing as well as that of their son or daughter at three time points (before COVID-19, when COVID-19 pandemic started, and during the national lockdown). In addition, within these families data from 186 typically developing siblings was obtained.

Typically developing siblings were reported to increasingly worry about social related issues as well as family related issues, those with SEND were reported to worry about issues related to school closures. Both groups grew more concerned about changes in routine over time. However, this worry was greater in individuals with SEND than their siblings.

Both groups grew increasingly worried about not being able to meet friends. However, this was a greater concern for typically developing children rather than their siblings with SEND.

Dr Jo Van Herwegen, project co-lead, said: “Our research shows that COVID-19 impacts the wellbeing of those with SEND differently to that of their typically developing siblings and that school closures have a particular effect on this group. Our data suggest that both groups would benefit from attending schools and activity centres during current and future lockdowns.

“We also want to look further at parents’ and carers’ mental health as it can help understand how parental high anxiety leads to higher anxiety in their children and impacts the parent-child relationship.”

The researchers are continuing to study how individuals with special needs and their parents are coping with the COVID-19 crisis, particularly how parents and carers and their children are experiencing the pandemic in terms of health issues, coping with stress and social distancing.

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