We need to facilitate all learners, says Karen Watson, not only those who fit into a neat curricular box.

To put it plainly, good practice means opportunities—opportunities for success for everyone. Accessible opportunities that everyone can access, regardless of need, prior learning or diagnosis. We need to be building systemic change into our education system. There are many children sitting in mainstream education with a diagnosed (or undiagnosed) need. These children have specific learning requirements. Can we honestly say our school system is set up to meet all of those requirements? The solution to this lies with you and me, the school staff—the ones who know our children well, and can anticipate their needs. But how do we undertake this momentous task? We undertake it together. There is so much good practice going on in schools, and it needs to be celebrated and shared.

Good practice boils down to a few key areas: Environment, Structure, Positive relationships, and Emotional literacy. Thinking about our environment, whether we are in a primary, secondary or specialist setting. Key things to consider here are sensory processing and overwhelm. Try to keep your classroom or space low stimulus. Don’t detract from the learning going on currently with displays of past learning. Displays should avoid bright contrasting backgrounds with textured borders, and focus on key aspects of learning that can be understood by everyone in the class. That means appropriate labelling, linking to targets in a way that is meaningful, and keeping things simple. Other environmental factors could include lighting, seating arrangements and any potential noise triggers. I always advise people to try what I call a ‘neutral sensory scan’ of their classroom. Take a minute to just stand and take it all in. Is there anything grabbing your attention, anything irritating you? Think of our children with sensory processing issues, and how amplified this irritation must be for them. Taking steps to minimise a busy environment can be conducive to a calm, anxiety free space, and we know that a calm child is a learning child.

Structure can take two forms, physical and visual. Physical structure is thinking about how your day or lesson is structured and planned. Do you have regular routines that you incorporate? If so, great. If not, now might be the time to look at your lessons or day and think, where could you pop in some regular activities? This could look like a regular ‘choose’ throughout the day, or specific times for ‘relax’. If you are secondary based and thinking more about individual lessons, this could look like standardising your introduction, midway check in and ending. Visual structure we will discuss in detail later, but essentially this is providing an alternative to verbal delivery, whether that be in the form of a timetable, instructions or environmental labelling.

Positive relationships are going to be instrumental in transforming your classroom practice. It is also one of the trickiest things to actually begin, because it involves taking the focus (temporarily) away from curricular learning. But I promise you that the outcome will be worth it. If you take some time to build a trusting, positive relationship with each and every one of your pupils, their anxiety levels will decrease and therefore their learning potential will increase.

Emotional literacy is a life skill that children can start developing at any age. Nobody is too young to start thinking about emotions. If a child can’t read, we teach them to read. If they can’t swim, we teach them to swim. Yet if they can’t behave appropriately, we punish? Children need to be explicitly taught how to label, process and apply appropriate strategies to their emotions, and this is not restricted to our children with additional needs. All children can benefit from work on emotions, and this begins with us modelling appropriate behaviours in ourselves.

This leads us nicely to talking about positive language. It is hard to overestimate the power of positive language. Through changing our language, we can change how a situation or child is framed. Then we switch our mindset from one of blame and punishment to one of understanding and help. Let’s take a quick look at one example in particular. Changing the phrase ‘challenging behaviour’ to ‘distressed behaviour’. When we say challenging behaviour, who exactly are we referring to? Who is being challenged by the behaviour? Is it the child, or is it us? And doesn’t us being challenged sound like an us problem, rather than all the responsibility being on the child? Instead of this, frame the behaviour as distressed. The child is dysregulated. They have lost control. They are distressed. And what does a distressed person need? They need help. Instead of referring to a child as challenging, and beginning with a negative mindset, call them distressed and work on a way to reach them and help. If we make a small effort to put a positive spin on our language, this can transform our classroom. Think of it like this: the way we talk about children in front of them has a direct impact on their self esteem and how they see themselves. It also affects the way they think about their peers. If we as adults are using phrases like ‘challenging behaviour’ and ‘kicking off’ then that is the same negative phrasing that children will use to describe their peers. This causes a divide, causes feelings of superiority and inferiority, and is not working towards a future of inclusion and tolerance.

Let’s think now about visuals and how their use can have a big impact in our classrooms. You may have heard the phrase ‘Total Communication Approach’. This involves putting structures in place to enhance and promote communication opportunities for children who may have difficulties with processing, listening or concentrating. This is not restricted to specialist provisions, all children can benefit from using visuals. Our classes have a wide range of ability and need, and using a visual structure can help differentiate instructions and requests so they can be accessed by every single pupil. Visuals can be used to support inclusion, increase comprehension, and build independence. In Chapter ? I go into greater detail about different types of visuals, but for now, I would like to introduce you to some different types that you might encounter. Visuals can be anything from objects of reference, photos, symbols, all the way to words. Yes, words are visuals. Think of how you might use visuals in your day to day life. Do you use a to-do list? Recipes? A calendar? Instruction manuals? These are all incorporating visual structure into our lives, in order to help us plan and undertake activities, and to be independent. Would these not be wonderful skills for our pupils to have too? In order to teach those skills, we can incorporate some symbolic labelling, some photographic recipes, and a list of tasks to complete during a lesson. It really is that simple. A really important point is that visuals do not have to be removed. If you have implemented a strategy that works for a child, you don’t then have to teach them to cope without it. Think of it as a learning scaffold. You wouldn’t give a child a pair of glasses and then immediately start working on learning to read without them. It is the same with any support strategy. Yes, there may be work to do to ensure the child has constant access to the strategy (for example outwith school, at home and in the community), but this is a step we can take towards inclusion and accessibility that will benefit so many young people.

One last point about visuals: verbal information is transient, but visual information is permanent. Visuals are reliable, predictable, consistent and clear.

Karen Watson
Author: Karen Watson

Karen Watson
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Karen Watson is an ASN teacher, educator and inclusion champion based in Scotland. In writing 'Good Autism Practice for Teachers', published by Critical Publishing.

Website: www.scottishasnteacher.com
Instagram: @Scottish_ASN_Teacher
Twitter: @Karen_N_Watson



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