Meeting the needs of all of our learners: some ideas on inclusion
Some of the biggest challenges can be overcome by raising young people’s self-esteem and making them aware of their strengths.
Teacher and author Dr Emma Kell offers advice on meeting the needs of all learners.
Talk to any teacher, parent or SENDCO and the challenges surrounding inclusion in schools are rife.
Accounts of catastrophic failure to meet young people’s needs abound.
Many parents are at their wits’ end, and many teachers so exhausted by performativity measures that they can’t contemplate doing ‘more work’.
This piece seeks to offer practical strategies and approaches that can be effective when working with students with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) in the classroom.
An important point before we begin. I write as a mainstream teacher of 21 years with extensive experience of working with children with a range of needs. In addition to my own observations, this article draws upon the two experts in the field: Helen Shakespeare Teaching and Learning lead at Aspire, a PRU in Bucks, and Rachel Higginson, a former SENDCO who now trains teachers in SEND.
1. The non-negotiables: know your stuff
Teachers are busy – many teachers are exhausted and overwhelmed, but this stuff is really important.
My research shows that the vast majority of teachers are in it to make a difference to young people, so the time invested in truly understanding their needs will benefit them, you, your relationship with them and their learning – and will (I promise) lead to greater job-satisfaction in the long-term.
At a fundamental level, it is a teacher’s fundamental duty to read a child’s EHCP (Educational, Health and Care Plan).
If you are a school leader, please ensure time is set aside for this to happen – and to be discussed.
In addition, schools should have a central record of the strengths and specific needs of all students with SEND. Again, taking the time to familiarise yourself with this is essential.
Every child with SEND is different – it’s very important not to make assumptions.
I once knew a student with spina bifida who wept as she described the way others would bend down, talk slowly and assume she couldn’t understand.
Bear in mind that in one classroom, you might have children with emotional, behavioural, social or communication challenges, physical disabilities, dyslexia, ADHD, autism, Down’s Syndrome or colour-blindness, to name but a few special needs – and equally that they are not defined by their physical or educational needs and can simultaneously be very talented in other areas.
SEND does not discriminate – students may come from a whole variety of possible backgrounds.
If you as a teacher feel a student has an undiagnosed need, it is essential that you use the appropriate systems to alert your SENDCO or the relevant member of SLT so appropriate support can be given.
2. Understanding primary and secondary behaviours
As teachers, we often come across the child who will appear to be doing anything to sabotage our lesson and the learning of others. Bear in mind that this will more often than not be a secondary behaviour – a strategy to deflect from a task that the child finds challenging or humiliating.
Here’s an account from Helen Shakespeare, Teaching and Learning lead at Aspire:
A child throws a chair and they've broken a rule. You can't throw a chair. There are consequences to throwing a chair. But we also sit down and consider, why has he thrown that chair? Who put that chair there for him to throw? Where did this start? Actually, when he came in, he told one member of staff that his mum had been arrested and the night before he'd had an argument with his girlfriend. It’s about always being reflective and saying, why has this happened?
It is excellent practice (as modeled at Aspire) to end each lesson with a staff reflection – what did we do well today? What we could have done better? What have we learned from this?
Taken further, a failure to distinguish between primary and secondary behaviours, combined with a failure to read and understand a child’s needs can have catastrophic long-term consequences for the child.
Here’s an example of a scenario that is all too common:
- An EHCP states clearly that a child is likely to be triggered by others shouting, getting into the child’s personal space and public humiliation. The teacher does all of the above in response to the child failing to follow class rules. The child retaliates by becoming verbally and physically aggressive and is asked to leave the school.
3. Small tweaks can make a big difference
It’s our duty as teacher to put in place strategies to help students overcome barriers that are outside their control and are not their fault.
Helen describes it like this to her students:
If you told me that one day, I won't need my glasses if I just make a bit more effort, that would be nonsense. I will always need to wear glasses. It's not my fault. It's not because I'm not putting in the effort. I just need my glasses. Find what the equivalent of a pair of glasses is in order to assist the learning.
Does this require extra work? More often than not, the strategies that work with students are simple and include:
- Eye contact.
- Visual aids.
- Using symbols and shapes instead of colour coding for those with colour-blindness.
- A quick checklist on the board or so students can see where they are in the lesson.
- Strategic teacher circulation.
Reasonable adjustments sometimes just require a bit of lateral thinking. Let’s take a school where the two children in wheelchairs sit at the front of the tiered auditorium. Their tutor group has a labelled stop at the top right of the hall. Nobody’s ever questioned this until a new member of staff asks whether they could, perhaps, move the two tutor groups to sit with their peers at the front.
Inclusion in action! Often the best answers are very simple.
4. No child wants to look stupid
I remember early in my career being told by a more experienced colleague that ‘no child wants to look stupid’. Some of the biggest challenges can be overcome by raising young people’s self-esteem and making them aware of their strengths. Here are some effective strategies:
If you know a student is likely to struggle with a concept, a few minutes with a teacher or TA can make the world of difference. An example from science, as explained by Helen:
Then they can do the experiment because they understand what the words mean, rather than the teacher have them spend just as long teaching the meanings of the words as getting on with the practical.
This is learning which sets students up for success – has them working in their comfort zone whilst also consolidating prior learning or using their imagination.
Philosophical questions, such as ‘What colour is Tuesday?’ work well.
Times table grids are great, as explained by Helen:
I usually give them two pens and say, put the answers in one colour that you know, and put the answers in another colour that you don't know, then I know what to teach you. But as they go through, they see the pattern and it ends up the first colour. It works every time. And then they walk out my lesson thinking, oh my goodness! I’m great at maths!
Scribing and modelling
Scribing is a great opportunity to vocalise a learning process that is, by its nature, internal and invisible.
This involves gathering their ideas and writing on the desks (if possible) or on the board so they can all see a piece of writing taking shape.
As I write it says Helen, I will explain why full stop or commas started a new sentence or new paragraph or whatever level grammar skills they need. If we just use two or three long sentences, we might want a short one for impact. If we’ve decided it’s a sunny day at the fair, we’ve set the scene, but it’s a bit boring. What else could we describe?
This strategy is particularly good for children with dyslexia, whose thoughts can be just as creative as the next person, but as soon as their brain is required to write as well as spell, it can get overwhelming.
5. Working with a Teaching Assistant (TA)
A great TA is worth their weight in gold.
Team-teaching, speaking to them about the children with SEND, asking them for feedback and ideas on lessons all work really well, if you’re lucky enough to have one.
The conventional model where the TA spends all their time with one student is worth reconsidering. It can lead to over-dependence and a perception, says Helen, ‘that they can’t do their work unless the TA is with them.’
Consider setting up your classroom so that the TA can run the activity and the teacher can spend some time with the students with more complex needs.
6. Labels and unconscious bias
It’s also worth considering our own unconscious bias towards students with SEND.
Whilst a colour-coded register with codes can be useful when getting to know our classes, the tendency to ‘box’ students can be very damaging.
Helen and Rachel agree that high aspirations for our SEND students are essential.
Rachel points out the danger of ‘spoonfeeding’ students and a culture where ‘there is less focus on developing resilience and more emphasis around support.
'This leads to young people whom lack independence and self-belief’.
7. It’s all about the relationships – so don’t forget the parents!
The common theme in all of the above is relationships – knowing and caring about our students as individuals.
There’s a group of people who often get forgotten when working with SEND: the parents.
Rachel reminds us that Brian Lamb’s recent research found that the parents’ view and involvement are frequently not valued enough.
The parent knows their child best of all.
Can this make for some difficult conversations? Of course.
Is it every parent’s right and duty to fight for what is best for their child? Always.
If you’re a teacher in need of support, call Education Support's free and confidential 24/7 emotional support helpline on 08000 562 561.