What new teachers can learn from experienced colleagues about supporting kids with SEN
There is no doubt that teachers completing their initial teacher training year, or early into their career, have a difficult job trying to meet the needs of all children. This is not least because they are still developing a strong knowledge base and building upon new experiences while encountering continually high expectations of performance in their employing or training school.
This is especially true in special schools, where teachers new to this context have little experience or knowledge of the pupils needs yet must still ensure the highest quality of teaching within an effective and inclusive learning environment.
Recent research completed by the Department of Education (2015) suggests that one in five pupils have SEN–approximately 1.5 million–and an increasing number of pupils with statements and education, health and care plans attend special schools, currently around 40 per cent. In Special schools, the most frequent types of primary need are severe learning difficulties (24.8 per cent), autistic spectrum disorders (22.5 per cent), and moderate learning difficulties (17.2 per cent). Identifying and meeting the needs of such pupils can be a difficult task for an experienced teacher, let alone someone who is new to it.
In order to improve professional and teaching practices, educational research is increasingly being incorporated into teacher training programmes. This article summarises the findings of an action research project which was completed as part of the assessment for a PGCE course. The main focus of the research was to gain a better understanding from experienced teachers of effective inclusive practices that can inform and support teachers early in their teaching careers of ways to improve inclusion practices. This research also contributed to the development plan of the placement school in which it was undertaken.
The research focused upon gaining the ideas, views and opinions of successful experienced teachers who each had between 20 and 33 years experience of teaching in special schools. Their views were sought on the strategies that they found successful to enhance learning and develop and support inclusive practice for children with SEN in the classroom.
Effective inclusion in schools is multifaceted, but the experienced SEN teachers surveyed drew attention to certain resources, skills and strategies upon which it depends. Specifically, they pointed to four main features of a pupil’s learning environment which play a key role in inclusion.
Communication of information
It is important that class teachers share lesson objectives, individual pupil targets, and the lesson plan with support staff. Even a brief chat with will help to ensure they are supporting pupils in the correct way and so enhance learning further.
Recognise that all pupils have the right to access the curriculum and learning environment. It is important to share this recognition with support staff and actively pursue it together to enhance pupils’experiences.
Use support staff wisely
Utilise support staff appropriately according to their skills and dispositions. Consider the strengths of support staff, not only in their training and specialist areas but also their dispositions, and allocate pupils and groups accordingly. Headteachers view support staff as their most expensive but most valuable resource for inclusion.
Get the balance right
Carefully consider the level of support needed and the appropriate number of staff within any class. Special school teachers sometimes criticise one-to-one support for pupils as it can often take away their independence and exclude them. Too many staff could cause overload for some pupils, while too few might restrict their support and learning opportunities.
Adapt lessons in practice
A key skill for teachers is to be able to develop their teaching approach within lessons to ensure that every pupil learns to the best of their ability. Teachers can adapt learning objectives and outcomes, tasks, space, time, groupings, worksheets and equipment.
Individual learning objectives/outcomes
Where possible, pupils should have individual learning objectives and/or outcomes which are appropriate to their individual needs and abilities. The most inclusive type of task is one that all pupils can access, regardless of their ability, but for which the task and learning outcomes are differentiated to suit the needs of individual learners.
Recognise communication needs
Pupils in special schools have a wide range of communication needs, which might be specific to a communication condition (for example, they may be deaf or non-verbal) or the result of a learning difficulty.
Total communication approach
When appropriate, the use of the written word, sign language, symbols, photographs and objects of reference, as part of a total communication approach, will enhance pupil learning and understanding.
Pupils with communication needs will benefit from the creation of a communication profile that can be adapted and used in preparation for learning tasks. It can include methods of communication which have proved successful.
Communicating with parents and professionals
It is important to ensure good communication with parents, teachers and other professionals, and with the pupils themselves, to ensure their views, observations and experience are included in planning and differentiation work.
Knowing the specific needs of each pupil in your class is essential for creating an effective classroom environment. For example, you might need to ensure pupils on the autistic spectrum are exposed to appropriate levels of visual stimulation, as they can suffer from sensory overload and so often require a quiet classroom with limited materials on display. Consider all of the information about children in your class. This includes the learning needs of children and also their emotional, social, sensory, physical and basic needs.
Consider where children are seated and who they are working with. Seating and group interaction plans will help for all children –those with communication difficulties, those who need social interaction and those whose needs can support the needs of others.
Remember that pupils with a physical disability require access to all areas of the classroom if they are to be fully included.
Putting it into practice
Information gathered from this action research project supported the trainee’s practices at his placement school. He tried out a range of the strategies suggested and found them to be both effective and beneficial in enhancing the learning and inclusion of pupils, and also in his own professional development. Such strategies were also found to be beneficial to other training teachers in different school contexts. This small scale action research project also found that significant benefits can be gained by teachers early in their career researching practice, communicating with and learning from more experienced teachers.
PGCE graduate David Cole is currently a class and PE teacher for three- to 19-year-old’s with SEN at the Vale of Evesham School:
Kerry Whitehouse is Principal Lecturer and Subject Leader, PGCE Physical Education at University of Worcester: