Findings from a report from The Key, mentioned on the BBC news site of a survey of just under 1200 head teachers about their views of SEN, highlighted the gap in funding for mainstream schools to effectively support pupils with SEND. The question about mainstream schools having the money, time and training they need to provide that support cannot be ignored.
The report mentions a lack of training. Addressing training needs in initial teacher training for SEND is welcome, in fact, in an ideal scenario it would be great for every trainee to visit and experience class support in a Special School. Having said that, mainstream schools and the individual staff within them, can make a difference. During my teaching in mainstream there were 25% of pupils in my classes on the SEN register, including statemented children with varying needs. Constantly seeking to find ways to enable their access to and enjoyment of the curriculum was not always easy to do. Sometimes it can feel like you are out of your depth. Yet while resources or support may not have been optimal, one important tool was to be a positive influence. We can learn to be a listener, to encourage and speak positively into their lives. It is of the utmost importance to take the time to talk to the children and their parents, then not being afraid to try out strategies with the individual, or across the whole class.
Look beyond the disability. The report highlights a concern that staff are not able to know about every disability or need of children coming into mainstream schools. True. Teachers are not repositories of medical or psychological information. Yet relevant and timely information about how a condition affects a pupil is invaluable to put in place strategies for their learning, social interaction and behaviour. There are classroom strategies that work for some children no matter which disability they may have. Other strategies may need to be adapted for the individual. Working in special schools made this clear. They also taught me to see beyond the ‘disability’ to the child or young person.
Hidden attitudes to hidden disabilities need addressing too. A hidden disability such as Asperger Syndrome, high-functioning autism, mental ill-health or dyslexia can, as the mother’s comments in the BBC report showed, be a cause for concern where the ‘criteria’ for obtaining assessment relies on a narrow interpretation of whether the pupil engages in negative outward behaviour that disrupts the rest of the class. Another issue is where disabilities such as dyslexia are not even acknowledged.
A few generic strategies that can benefit everyone, regardless of disability or otherwise:
- Use a visual timetable for the whole class with age-appropriate images, signs or symbols. Older students can carry an individual one in their planner.
- Give verbal information in short sentences, simplify language. Give only one instruction at a time.
- Reduce the amount of visual information on the walls of the classroom.
- Have a section of the room wall space without anything on it, where pupils who are easily distracted can sit near to work.
- Create work or information sheets with simplified layouts. Use Heading Styles in bold on its own line for each section, with all body text in Arial font and left aligned not justified.
- Only use images that relate specifically to the text.
- Allow students to use tablets or recording devices to record key teaching / lesson information, or record your teaching sections and make available to ‘listen again’ on the school VLE.
- Printing out worksheet / information on a coloured paper such as a pale yellow reduces eye strain.
- Change the background colour of presentations to a pale cream.
Yes, meeting the needs of children with SEND may require more initial planning, thinking time or research, but there is training available such as provided by Connect, that can be taken in modular bite-sized chunks. Generic strategies that make small adjustments like these can be applied school-wide. Resource banks of materials and templates can be set up and shared from the server reducing planning time for other staff.