Special Education: Teaching and Learning for SEND.
I didn’t plan on going into special education. It was my first PGCE placement, a large comprehensive school in a coastal town. The time had come to meet the class for the first time. A date with destiny, well actually a date with the bottom set (I know) year 8 geography class. One that would begin my journey into education for those who didn’t quite fit into the mainstream schooling model; or for whom the mainstream model struggled to accommodate. I walked in worksheets in hand to find one student was staring at the ceiling vent. Why?
“I can hear rats up there, loads of ‘em.”
His TA, the first I had encountered in my placement was encouraging him back to the desk, but to no avail. He didn’t move all lesson. My limited experience with additional needs led to the assumption that this must be an act, some cunning plan to avoid the demands of plate tectonics, an attempt to undermine the authority of the teacher. If it was an act he never once broke character.
SEN: An education for life beyond school
As the weeks progressed I got to know the children as individuals and the strategies that would work to engage the students. This came with a caveat, for any classroom management strategy to work you must build up a rapport based on trust and mutual respect. Many children just want to know staff like them and they have value. Building relationships with the group was the most fun I had on any of my placements. It was the time I felt most connected to the students and felt I had made the most difference. In general the top reasons people become teachers is to work with children, to make a difference, and for the variety it brings. Having fun is in a respectable sixth according to ATL.
Knowing the Individual
If teaching is a vocation then working in the field of special needs is a calling. That may sound clichéd but I truly believe that teachers, especially teachers of SEN must be passionate, and willing to strive with the odds stacked against both them and their students. Whether you work in a PRU, special school or inclusion unit, with children diagnosed with ASD, ADHD, PMLD, SLD, or EBD you will be bombarded with a range of acronyms. PECS, EHCPs IEPs etc. Everything has a label. On paper that is.
In reality these serve as an aside to the unique young person you have chosen to dedicate your time to. You have taken responsibility for ensuring you provide them with the best education possible. This will not be an easy task. Assessment data doesn’t fit, teaching strategies taught during initial training will be ineffective, the curriculum must be adapted at every point, no resources downloaded from the internet will be particularly useful (not including these free SEN teaching resources!) and so on.
Aspirations and Expectations in Special Education
It is essential that we have the highest and most aspirational of expectations of the children we are responsible for educating. Many children with a special educational need will have had a negative experience of education. This may be through failed placements, being bullied, or being labelled.
The very school environment can be a hostile place for those who process the world in a different way. It can be the lack of confidence in the child’s ability to develop and learn new skills that can be most damaging for their future prospects. This directly impacts their future wellbeing. It may be months before you see the extent of the progress the child is capable of. When that moment comes, and it will, the rewards of choosing a career teaching in special education or alternative provision become palpable.
Whether you teach in a specialist provision or supporting children within a mainstream school you need to ensure learning is functional, encourages participation and provides the skills we all need as the basis for our learning and development through life. Working with some of the most vulnerable children in the country we must ensure that we teach self awareness, identity, emotional regulation and decision making. We need our children to leave the school system confident, with high self esteem and as independent as possible.
The Importance of Academic Skills in SEND
There is myth that the education of children diagnosed with learning difficulties do not need to include academic skills. This also seems to apply to or who communicate differently. That their education should focus purely on life skills. I don’t agree with the simplicity of that statement. That notion suggests that academic skills are irrelevant and hold no value. That the child will never need to apply these. It devalues those skills and will limit the future prospects of that child. I have seen the impact a successful placement can have on the life of a child. How they can leave as confident young adults having achieved so much. They would not be leaving with the capacity to learn more had we not provided the opportunity to experience high quality education.
We should not deny our students the opportunity to experience a curriculum that encompasses all aspects of learning. As a teacher it is our role to make the teaching of these academic skills relevant, motivating and engaging. We must identify the child’s unique abilities and adapt the curriculum to ensure it fits and works for the child. This may be through sensory input, interaction, or adapted communication systems. Great special education teachers create opportunities to for learners to explore their communities. Literacy and Maths should be top priority but embedded throughout all aspects of the curriculum.
Every child is entitled to a broad and balanced curriculum. When we choose to work in Special Education we must ensure that is also relevant and accessible. The child and the highest of expectations must be at the centre. An education for success and to thrive in life beyond school for every child.