Over recent years there have been plenty of innovations aimed at addressing the needs of Special Educational Needs (SEN) students: among them is the radical shift from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side".
Rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach, where a teacher simply imparts knowledge, schools have become more focused on differentiated teaching, which focuses on addressing the individual needs of students.
The draft New Code of Practice for SEN, for example, which is currently open to consultation, proposes that schools must teach students of all abilities in a mainstream setting by personalising and carefully structuring lessons. Under the code, both tutors and subject teachers would be expected to work alongside the special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco). At the moment, the Senco might identify students with learning difficulties and then, with other SEN staff and outside agencies, provide strategies for teachers to follow in order to help particular students access the curriculum. But if the new code is introduced in its current form, teachers may need to regularly assess and develop students' progress and identify the point at which they should receive additional support.
Given these new proposals, how can teachers improve their lesson personalisation? The key to excellent differentiation lies in observation. Here are three easily identifiable characteristics that may suggest a need for further investigation:
1. Continually disruptive behaviour
It might be the case that a small number of students disrupt for the sake of being disruptive – to oppose staff, for example, but look behind the behaviour for a deeper cause. If work is too challenging or too detailed, some students may feel threatened and disillusioned because it is beyond their ability. If they feel the challenge is too great, work becomes "boring" and any effort is "a waste of time". They may become disruptive to gain attention in a different way. Ask yourself why the student is performing in this way, check their files and then consider ways to re-engage them with the lesson.
A good example was Steven*, a pleasant, polite student who had a tendency to temper tantrums. He would clash with staff and storm out of classrooms when things were not going his way. Detentions did not help the situation and his parents were at their wits' end as to why he was behaving in such a way. Eventually a specialist teacher assessed him. It quickly became apparent that Steven had significant memory difficulties which prevented him from remembering information from one day to the next. Every time he went back into the classroom he was expected to consolidate and build upon the knowledge he had gained during previous lessons, but for Steven this was impossible. As a result, he would lose interest in the lesson and misbehave to get the attention he craved. Soon, initiatives and strategies, including personalised differentiation, were put in place, and Stevent began to make progress. Eventually he achieved some good GCSE results and went on to college.
Teacher's top tips for differentiating for this student:
• Use supported self-compiled visual dictionary for subject-specific vocabulary
• Break work down into smaller chunks disregarding superfluous content
• Use visual cues to support written text
• Use a lesson menu to write down instructions
• Tick off each one as the student completes it so they can identify their own progress.
2. Lack of concentration or focus
The special needs of some students leave them unable to focus for long periods of time in the classroom. They might be engaged, intelligent and keen to learn, but they find it difficult to maintain focus during a normal class.
Lucy* was such a student: although bright and engaging, she rarely concentrated in lessons, nor completed homework on time. She preferred to fiddle and fidget rather than complete a given task. She occasionally missed school, but her parents could not provide a reason for her absences. Teachers were both puzzled and exasperated as they felt that if she concentrated better and attended school on a more regular basis, she would be a high-flier. Luckily the school decided, with the consent of her parents, to make a referral to an educational psychologist. He identified Lucy as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which meant that every time Lucy was given multiple tasks to achieve she felt too pressurised and quickly lost concentration. What was perceived as disruptive behaviour was merely her frustration at being unable to absorb excessively long instructions, coupled with the pressure to perform. With the right strategies in place, based on the advice of the educational psychologist, Lucy began to make progress.
Teacher's top tips for differentiating for this student:
• Class work should be broken down into small sections which can be worked on one point at a time
• Introduce "time out" as a calming measure
• Use realistic timed targets to promote engagement with a task. You can also use these to monitor student progress
• Homework and classwork should be phased so that your student is not overwhelmed by quantity
3. Lack of written work
There is often an expectation in schools that students are naturally able to read information from a whiteboard, absorb and then regurgitate it as evidence that they have understood a given task. For some SEN students this is not the case, causing them great anxiety and frustration .
Imran*, although able to disseminate sound subject knowledge verbally, was unable to translate his ideas into writing. He rarely completed more than two or three sentences in his exercise books and when he did they lacked structure and clarity. His reading was slow and hesitant; he never volunteered to read out loud in class, and would become flustered if asked to do so. Those teachers who had been trained to identify indicators noticed this pattern of behaviour fairly early on in Imran's secondary school career and flagged it up with the Senco, who suspected he was dyslexic. She referred him for further specialist assessment and her diagnosis proved correct. The school was able to apply for additional funds to support him and to buy a laptop for use in lessons. These steps helped Imran to feel more comfortable in class and gave him access to the specialist support he needed to progress.
Teacher's top tips for differentiating for this student:
• Use coloured overlays, following advice from specialists to reduce glare and jumping letters
• Keep instructions simple and break down into short, well-spaced out sentences
• Facilitate 1:1 tutorials to engage your student in letter/word games that encourage phoneme blending
• Use alternative means of recording such as dictaphones or laptops
• Use visuals to support written text
• Colour code books and equipment, using different colours for each subject
Behaviour problems can often be solved by identifying underlying issues and introducing differentiation. The biggest challenge is ensuring that all teachers in a school personalise their lessons. If teachers can be trained and supported in doing this by SEN specialists, then the more needy in our school communities will feel less ostracised. Rather than being perceived as having to be "babysat" and catered for separately from their peers, they will naturally be absorbed in lessons. Beingcatered for in a non-discriminatory way, in an inclusive environment, can only enhance the self image and self worth of these young people.
*Student names have been changed to protect their identity.
• This article was amended on 11 April to clarify that the special educational needs (SEN) code of practice and regulations is a draft and open to consultation.
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Parenting, Special Education
A Special Needs Guide to Homework
At the middle school open house, my buddy Sharon and I spent some time talking with the special ed teacher. There are 9 students in the class, but we were the only parents who showed up. During our conversation, Sharon and I both asked the teacher what we could be doing at home to support our children’s classroom goals. The teacher answered that he usually doesn’t assign homework, because the only students who attempt to complete it are my son and Sharon’s son.
The Problem with Homework
There are many other battles to fight at home that are preferable to homework assistance for a student with special needs. The phrases, “pulling teeth” and “torture” immediately come to mind. Homework may be a harrowing experience that ends in tears for all involved. Last week I wrote on my son’s math homework, “Louie was too distressed to complete this assignment.”
Lack of Instructions
Sometimes a teacher sends home incorrect instructions (see Facebook Post Below) for an assignment, sometimes no instructions at all: a student with communication difficulties may not be able to express what the assignment is about.
What’s more important: Therapy or Homework?
Then there’s the question of therapy: do we work on the occupational and physical therapy exercises tonight, or tackle the homework?
Does Homework actually Help?
And finally, does homework actually help anyone anyway? Studies and surveys of high school students have found a direct correlation between homework completion and high academic scores. For middle school students, the correlation is much lower, and for elementary students, there is no correlation. The national PTA organization and National Education Association recommend 10 minutes of homework per grade level – 10 minutes daily for first grade up to 120 minutes for twelfth grade.
The Benefits of Homework
For my son who has special needs, a small amount of homework helps to reinforce his memory and prevent a loss of skills. Some of the larger assignments, like the poster he recently made for social studies, help him feel like a valued member of his class. He takes pride in his work and in demonstrating his ability. I’ve come to realize that organizing himself, learning how to focus and monitor himself are important life skills for him, and there has been extensive educational research identifying these and other benefits of homework for students with disabilities.
Nine Tips to Make Homework Manageable
Homework is never easy. However, through trial and error (mostly error), I’ve found some methods over the years to make homework less maddening for me and my son. Here’s how we structure our time on each assignment:
1. Plan for the first break before starting
During that math meltdown last week, I had an epiphany: I could have prevented the whole thing if I had only scheduled a break and set up the break activity ahead of time. A break activity can be as simple as a cup of chamomile tea with honey, or something more vigorous such as 5 to 10 minutes of cross-lateral exercise. My son likes to follow a routine, so he is receptive to anything that is pre-scheduled for him.
2. Make space
Physical and mental space is necessary for homework. My son needs to know that it is the family’s top priority in that moment. We clear off a table, get the necessary supplies and review his school planner before opening any books. We talk about which assignments are due the next day, and which ones can be completed over several days. His parapros at school leave a one-line note for each class in his planner, explaining what was done in school and what needs to be done at home.
3. Model then step back
My son is very anxious about the possibility of doing something “wrong.” I help him by breaking down an assignment into tiny steps that he can understand. Gradually I offer less and less assistance, and I’ll step away for a few minutes at a time to prepare dinner – but I always return.
4. Offer gentle encouragement
Homework time is especially sensitive, full of little “aha” moments and big frustrations. Gentle words and positive reinforcement such as “You did it!” and “You figured that out all by yourself!” and “Wow! Your hard work is really paying off!” can start a snowball effect in homework completion and positive self-talk. Negative words, even words that are only slightly negative, can lead to meltdown – but don’t ask me how I know that.
5. Switch Gears
My most successful homework trick is to switch gears as soon as my son gets stuck on something. For example, if he is having a difficult time with a set of math problems, I switch him over to language arts and have him do a short assignment. Then we switch back to the math. Bolstered by his success with the language arts, he is ready to tackle the math.
6. Check work
Homework does not have to be perfect, but I do check to make sure that my son is on the right track and checks off the requirements for an assignment. This helps boost his confidence and sense of independence.
7. Take multiple breaks
Homework is draining because it comes after 7 hours at school, where my son works very hard all day to focus, manage his anxiety and control repetitive behaviors. Home is where he lets loose. That means he needs several sensory breaks, indoors and outdoors. He gets time with our pets. He gets a high-protein snack. He drinks some herbal tea to relax. He needs time to talk and time to be alone. Each break rejuvenates him enough to do another section of homework.
8. Quit while you’re ahead
Each student has different limits, and each student’s limits can vary widely from day to day. Before your student reaches the point of no return, close the books and call it a night. Homework is more likely to be successful if a student has positive emotions associated with it. An incomplete assignment may cause short-term anxiety, but it can usually be completed in school the next morning with a teacher’s assistance. In the long-term, the student learns how much is too much.
9. Pack up
The best part of doing homework is packing up the books when it’s finished. Our ritual involves putting all of the materials in his backpack, and placing the backpack next to the door where Louie waits for his school bus. My rewards are the smile on his face and his sense of accomplishment. And we’re ready to do it all over again the very next day.
What are your tips and tricks for homework?