Victoria Annan on how targeted support for autism can go mainstream.
My role at Chalgrove Primary School involves identifying and delivering successful strategies to support the learning and development of our autistic and other SEN pupils.
As autism commonly affects how individuals process the world around them, much of our provision focuses on making the experience of navigating school life easier and helping the children to progress.
But when 76% of all children starting school in 2020 lacked the communication skills they needed to thrive, there was a growing sense that some of the effective strategies used to support children with SEN could have a positive impact on the learning and achievement of their mainstream peers too.
Interventions can be adapted to support both SEN and neurotypical learners in many areas, from building vocabulary to supporting pupils’ independence and promoting emotional resilience.
Looking at vocabulary
Many of the 2020-22 cohort of pupils have missed out on a lot of social interactions and life experiences due to lockdowns. As a result, schools are shaping strategies to close vocabulary gaps and build children’s communication skills.
The needs of SEN and mainstream pupils may be different, but by making the school day more visual, a school could help children to engage in what they are learning and put more tailored interventions in place if they are needed.
We do this at Chalgrove by providing symbols as visual prompts for all children, both in the classroom and in communal areas around the school.
Symbols and visuals help children to focus on the information you want them to know or act upon so they work for both SEN and mainstream pupils. We’ve added Widgit symbols to timetables, for example. With clear images for, say, ‘maths’, ‘assembly’ and ‘snack time’, pupils can quickly see what is happening now and next.
We label up our school environment with symbols too. So in the kitchen, there are symbols for equipment and ingredients that match the recipe cards pupils use, making them easier for children to follow. In classrooms all resources are labelled up with symbols, which are displayed clearly at the front of each drawer and cupboard so pupils can navigate their environment as independently as possible.
Children respond well to the symbols our teachers hold up while they are giving verbal instructions. It means that with a request to ‘please wash your hands’, a representative symbol of hands under running water can be held aloft, making it clear what the children are being asked to do. This is a lot easier to process than the spoken word which will disappear very quickly.
Fostering independent learners
With a little preparation and some visual prompts, there are some quick and easy ways to encourage children to be more independent.
Some children find it hard to manage routines independently or feel lost in the hustle and bustle of the busy school day. Creating a visual routine for lunch time, with symbolic images to represent the steps they need to take – fetch your lunch box, line up, sit down at the dinner table, eat lunch, put your rubbish in the bin – can help.
A simple change such as adding symbols to lunch menus means that all children can make their own meal choices and are therefore no one is likely to feel isolated. By adding symbolised images to classroom resources such as paints, scissors and paper and displaying the visual resources needed on the whiteboard, children can get what they need without feeling overwhelmed if they haven’t understood what equipment the teacher has asked them to get out. They are also more likely to return them to the right place when the lesson is finished. This encourages independence.
Many children react differently to change. A child might come to school unsettled after an argument with a friend, a family breakdown or a change to their usual routine and the signs they are not coping well can manifest themselves in disruptive behaviour, anxiety or low self-esteem.
Schools can introduce similar strategies to help children manage change effectively, regardless of whether or not the child has a special educational need such as ADHD or ASC.
Another strategy that is used to support all children at Chalgrove is Social Stories, a concept developed by autism expert Carol Gray in the 1990s. Social Stories use simple language and pictures in the form of a comic, poster or story to explain certain routines in advance – a new teacher’s name, the fact that they have red hair and love cats, for example – to help children feel more at ease.
Social Stories can be created to explain unfamiliar situations too, like a staff member leaving, or a visitor coming into the classroom. The story would be displayed for the children to see or can be provided individually to help children better tolerate situations they would otherwise find unsettling or scary.
Helping all children to thrive
Schools know there is a big challenge ahead to help their pupils recover from the disruption of lockdown and enable them to move towards life beyond Covid. At Chalgrove, we’ve found that adapting SEN techniques for mainstream learners gives all children the best chance to thrive and we hope that our experiences can help inform your plans too.
Victoria Annan is lead of additionally resourced provision (ARP) for autism at Chalgrove Primary School in North London.