By Stephanie McCabe, Teacher of Food and Research Facilitator at Manchester Communication Academy
Students with special educational needs bring their own unique strengths and abilities to a classroom, although they may be unable to reach their full potential if not properly supported during their time in education. It is our job as teachers to minimise the barriers that these students may face when accessing the curriculum and to support individual needs. It starts by being consistently mindful about the range of needs that may be in your class and then adopting specific strategies to help individuals. SEN needs themselves can be fluid, 44% of students currently in UK education have been “classed” as SEN at one point during their time in school but on average only 14% of students are SEN at any one particular time. This means we need to continually monitor the needs in our classes and adapt our teaching strategies to meet these needs and build on prior learning.
Whilst there is little evidence into the effectiveness of use of fonts such as comic sans, there are thoughts that fonts like this do improve readability. If you students like it and you like using it, there is certainly no harm in opting for these choices.
Making keywords bold and using colours such as light blue, light green and cream as backgrounds on powerpoints can also make it easier for students to read information. Incorporating a ‘strategy for time’ is important when planning in order to allow students enough thinking time as well as giving a warning for upcoming tasks for example “in a minute I am going to ask you….”
The fundamentals of Cognitive Load Theory are also worth consideration here. Minimising the extraneous load when planning for how subject material is presented. According the cognitive load theory, this increases the possiblity for students for engage with new material and support is transition into working memory.
Praise is something I have found to be incredibly important, particularly with SEN students. Often they lack confidence in their ability and don’t have high expectations of what they can achieve. Giving both private and public praise has not only improved the confidence and attitude to learning but students are very engaged in class and motivated to do well. I have given students high target grades and have consistently high expectations for the standard of their work and detail in their answers both verbally in class and written in their books.
Evidence based teaching and learning strategies ensure teaching is of a high quality. Having previously taught mainly high prior attaining students at KS4 who usually absorb and retain information easily, this year I have a KS4 class with a range of SEN needs and it was a learning curve at first to see how some students struggled to retain information. I had to stop and think about the approaches I was using and made some big changes in the way that I delivered my lessons for this class. I have tried various approaches and have summarised the two most successful:
Scaffolding: The KS4 exam in food includes a section of long answer questions which contribute to over 50% of the mark allocation in the paper. These questions are usually 6 marks or more and these are the questions which students often leave blank as seeing a large space puts them off and is daunting to them because of the amount of writing and structure required. Scaffolding has been essential to support and show them how to successfully approach these questions. We have used the ‘fishbowl activity’ where students who are confident in how to approach an answer explain how they do it and write it down with the rest of the class around them watching being modelled to them. I have used ‘think alouds’ where I attempt an answer and model my thought processes as I go to improve critical thinking. Kagan strategies such as Think Pair Share have also been weaved into scaffolding tasks but then I have been aware of ensuring that enough is left for self scaffolding, giving students enough independence and only removing the scaffolding gradually when they are secure in their prior knowledge and confident in strategies for breaking the question up and knowing how to achieve all the marks.
Multisensory: Research has shown that a sensory based approach is effective for students with a range of difficulties. Having an active learning environment has improved engagement with SEN students and I have found that students are retaining information well, showing that it is embedding into the long term memory. Some multisensory activities have included:
Role play for specific topics where willing students are given a role and stand up in front of the class to act out a scenario linked to a topic we are learning
Air writing and verbally saying out loud new complex vocabulary as they write it down.
Using ingredients in practicals such as flour and rice to write answers to the questions I ask instead of using whiteboards
Using glitter glue on flashcards and tracing over the words when recapping information
Making specific links to out of school examples which students relate to.
Teaching SEN students is complex due to the number of different specific needs that children can have in our classrooms. As well as this, two students with the same SEN need may have different barriers to learning which we need to be aware of. To further add, we know that needs of students aren’t necessarily going to be fixed and may change over time. However, while we can’t be experts in every specific special need, we can become confident in a range of strategies we know is helpful for these students and then choose the most appropriate ones when planning and delivering lessons, monitoring how well these help and then reviewing our future planning.