I’m not claiming to be an expert on all things SEN. I’m not claiming to fully know and understand what each individual child with SEN wants, needs or prefers or that these strategies will work for all of them, all the time. I’m aware that in a full classroom, some of these strategies can be difficult to manage or to compromise on with all children. I also apologise if use a term/label that anybody is offended by – I have become increasingly aware that labels we are taught to use in schools are often not what the communities of disabled people want us to use. I am also aware that different cultures and nationalities have different preferred terms for certain disorders etc. I am willing to be corrected.
It’s likely that most things in this post are teaching the proverbial granny to suck proverbial eggs but I’m hoping if it reaches just one teacher/parent and offers a few ideas or supports just one child with a barrier to learing then it was worth writing.
Last year I was not in a full class for the first time in 18 years. I was given a group of 14 junior aged children who were struggling to make academic progress in their classes due to behavioural, social, emotional or neurological barriers to their learning and often needed complete support. All the children in my group had a SEN support plan and two were being assessed for EHC plans.
The first few months were a battle but as we slowly learned to work together, to listen to each other and what our boundaries were but what our limits weren’t, we made progress. I have no wow stories of children who suddenly made 3 years progress and caught up to expected levels but we gained confidence, independence, mental and physical security and progress was made at a steady rate.
I have put together some of the more simple strategies I used and found worked well in my room. It’s by no means all that I do in my classroom or a list that will transform everything but it’s a list of simple things that might help.
KNOW THE CHILD
First and foremost my biggest tip is to know the child. Read the support plans, talk to parents, gather information from previous teachers and the SENDco but you’ll never get a picture of the child from all of that. Speak to the children, ask them how they prefer things to be, what helps them learn etc. Respond to what they show you in their emotions and behaviour. Even when it’s not possible to give, acknowledge needs e.g. I understand that you would like this however at this moment it’s not possible because…….
As a school we began to use one-page profiles which gives supply teachers, classroom workers and anyone really – an overview of a child. It is written in collaboration with the child, teacher, and their parents but can be read at a glance.
MOVEMENT IS IMPORTANT
All children need to move. We have ridiculously high expectations of a young primary school child’s ability to sit still or focus for extremely longer periods of time, particularly when the subject does not hold a lot of interest for them. Not one of my lovely children could sit with their bottom on a chair, have all four chair legs touching the ground and their two feet touching the floor at the same time. They would tuck legs underneath themselves, hang partially off the chair and some would even have two feet on the seat and bounce (this last one I corrected as it’s not the safest). I spent the first few weeks constantly correcting this until I realised that they just couldn’t stay that way. Once I relaxed the rules, I found they worked, albeit in funny positions and not the ones promoted for the neatest writing but they were working. I now scowl at anyone coming into my room and forcing them to sit perfectly. I also used a variety of wedges and wobble cushions which did help some children to centre themselves and receive stimulation without so much movement.
Children with motor skills difficulties, attachment difficulties, ADHD, ASD/ASC, and sensory needs need to move to enhance concentration and to stimulate! My room was a tiny room with no room to move at all so I would allow a toilet trip, a move to put even the tiniest bit of paper in the bin, a stretch to borrow a rubber from another table even though there was one in sight and reach, a visit to me to show me something etc. It may sound like chaos but it wasn’t. The children moved when needed and this wasn’t really taken advantage of in general.
In the case of a child who was so worked up that day and needed bigger movements, I would send them on a job to another member of staff carrying something fairly heavy. The staff member would be aware that often my children may turn up with an armful of atlases, resources etc so would accept them graciously. They were often returned to me under the same circumstances.
Additionally, weather permitting, I would often do short lesson introductions or physical activities out for short periods of time. Sometimes we would incorporate deep pressure movements of activities into the lesson.
Also, never stop a child from stimming (a repetative movement, usually expressed by autistic children/children with autism – I’ve seen this heavily debated on twitter and wish to offend nobody). Stimming is a way of supporting the regulation of emotions, it is not specific to one emotion but it can sooth anxiety and a feeling of being overwhelemed or it can help to regulate excitement. If it isn’t dangerouse then support and accept it.
IS YOUR CLASSROOM SENSORY FRIENDLY OR SENSORY OVERLOAD?
Working with my group gave me the perfect opportunity to try something out that I’ve always believed. Classroom walls adorned with working walls, vocab and support material only reaches and benefits a small amount of children.
My new room had limited wall space anyway and with so many sensory and processing issues, I barely had display. (Now, I can hear the gasps as you are reading but bear with me). Rather than plaster support material all over, making it difficult to locate, inviting distraction and confusion, I made individual table mats. We had a jotter where we would put them. e.g. Childrne would have an A4 mat reminding them of conjunctions, adjectives, adverbs, contractions etc in front of them and easily accessible. This really boosted independence and limited distraction. If I was asked for this information, I could direct pupils immediately to their sheets. I did the same with picture prompts for sentence writing, number strips for formation etc and topic word mats children may need for writing.
Additionally, I turned the lights on a lower setting and I often had a window open to make the room cool. After chatting with the children they prefered this to a warm, bright room. I closed my blinds, partially because I couldn’t compete with the window cleaners and grass cutters but it worked and if I forgot to do these things, the children would ask for them anyway.
Many children with specific learning difficulties prefer a coloured background on the whiteboard so I often changed it to black with white writing. This was prefered by everyone.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
This does not mean ignore destructive behaviour. It can become very overwhelming to have someone nagging and picking at you all day. It’s a negative approach that often perpetuates a downward cycle for many SEN children. I often look at my class and pick out a few key things that are the biggest barriers to learning and focus on these. So yes, my cloakroom may not be the tidiest, I might not have the stillest children in school but several of my group managed the whole year without hurting a classmate or staff member (under my supervision), they remained in the lesson the majority of the time and they actually wanted to work. I’m a firm believer in children cannot learn if the environment or their mental state is not correct and these are always my first battles to pick.
WHAT IS IT YOU ACTUALLY WANT?
So many times I’ve sent a child to the head teacher with a piece of work that is fabulous for them individually and so many times they’ve returned with a “well done but your writing could be better”. Arghhh…… For some of my children writing is a physically painful and laborious task. Writing neat is even harder and takes so much longer. If I’ve asked my children to work on adjectives in their writing then that’s what I’m going to focus on in my feedback. I will keep an eye on skills already embedded e.g. basic punctuation and simple word spellings but I’m not going to ruin that moment of glory over presentation.
I strongly believe, writers do not make beautifully handwritten first drafts, mathematicians do not write their numbers for calculations in perfect squared boxed. Why should children?
PRAISE LIGHTLY AND SUBTLY
No I’ve not gone barking mad. My children are the ones who probably need the most praise but here’s the thing. They struggle with it so much and it can often then lead to a self-sabotage mode, tearing or destroying the work etc. I will often just place a sticker onto a child quietly (if a child doesn’t like physical contact I often just pass it to them) and say “that’s for….” or I will say “I love your adjectives today.” and leave it there. As confidence grows over time, children begin to share their achievements themselves or enjoy sharing their work but keeping it light and very specific really helps a lot of children.
ADVICE FOR THE TEACHERS OUT THERE
Don’t take it personally – it’s never meant to be
Start each lesson as new – As Elsa once said…..Let it go…..
Be prepared for it to go tits up! Because it will, you’ll feel like crap and spend days wondering where you went wrong. But, in the words on Chumbawumba…”You’ll get knocked down, but you’ll get up again….”
Practise self-care – I may not have the marking piles I used to but the time I spend delivering lessons is intense and I’m always on my toes. It can be draining, especially when it goes pear-shaped e.g. full moon, wind, non-uniform day, school nurse, photgraph day, 3 months until Christmas etc.
I also apologise for any typing errors. This was a long piece, my hands are cold and my eyes have lost the ability to see. Feel free to point any out.