Today, I was excited! The report entitled ‘Closing the Gap? Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage’ (Andrews, Robinson & Hutchinson 2017) was published. I had hoped that the expanding of academies and the creation of free schools might have helped us to close the gap in education like never before. Instead, the picture proved dismal with the “most disadvantaged…over 2 full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary” and those Higher Attaining students with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities), neglected.
The word neglect is of course, a very strong word. It suggests that our education system has failed to properly care for and look after the needs of those with SEND. There is an extent to which I agree. It is known that some teacher training programmes did not give enough focus to SEND and there were schools who were focused on C/D borderline students to the exclusion of other groups. However, in some ways, this is changing. The introduction of progress 8, means that the progress of all students matter. Teacher training programmes have also been revised so that teachers have a better understanding of the SEND of their learners. So, I do believe there is a shift in the way that we work with SEND learners. However, I also wanted to highlight some key approaches that could ensure that we are not neglecting those who are struggling to keep up with their peers.
Many students with SEND show that they find it difficult to retain the material they have studied. As a result, it is not a surprise that they “struggle to keep pace with their peers”. One of the key ways in which we can level the playing field for these learners, is to build curriculums which make overlearning possible. Performing a task or using information to the point where it becomes automatic, is said to improve retention. Within our schools and classrooms, we can aid the overlearning of key concepts or tasks by revisiting them throughout the term until students can use these concepts or tasks automatically.
As individuals, we all experience some anxiety. However, for many learners with SEND, these anxieties can lead to challenging behaviour, tantrums and meltdowns. As we know these behaviours become a barrier to learning and progress of that child and the class that they are in. As a consequence, these students are often given detentions or asked to work away from the class. Of course, I am not saying that these consequences should not be applied as I understand that we must not allow the learning of the majority to be interrupted. However, I believe that we must also support these learners to constructively express and regulate their emotions. If students are able to manage their emotions, it is possible that they become better able to focus and contribute to their lessons. If they are focusing and have a good working memory, then their struggle to keep up with their peers could be reduced. Therefore, if we want to ensure that our SEND learners aren’t being neglected or endlessly struggling, we should seek to use aids such as 5 point scales, social stories and ABC (antecedent-behaviour-consequence) charts, amongst other tools to help them to manage their feelings.
Emotional regulation and overlearning are just two approaches that we can use to level the playing field with our SEND learners. If we can support them to be less anxious whilst finding it more automatic to engage with concepts and tasks, it is possible that they will struggle less to keep up with their peers. This will in turn help these learners to develop their confidence as successful learners. Additionally, by helping these students to regulate their emotions, they are able to recognise and use a range of strategies that help them to respond constructively in a range of situations whether in or outside of school. Of course, these approaches might mean shifts in our curriculum or investments in staff training on how to help students to regulate their emotions. However, if the end result is to have students who can manage their emotions and make good progress, it must be surely worth the cost. Right?