SENDT Reflections

b558ec7ba439a6ffd0ceb3c4660897f2_special-education-clip-art-special-education-clip-art_500-375This year will make 10 years since I trained as a teacher. It is no wonder then, that I have started to reflect on the journey and what I would have done differently. In one way or another, my students are still with me. Whether they appear on trains or in the drive thru, in a plane or just my memory, I have come to accept that their story will always cling to me. Their lives are continually shaping me.

So, now I wonder, what would I have done differently and below, I’ve taken the time to chart a few reflections:

For the little boy with the veiled anger and buried hurts who was nowhere near the old level 3, I wish I had the time to hear you read. I should have given you more spelling tests and tried to get you out on trips. I should have created word walls and vocabulary lists, set you targets to use new words and make opportunities for you to use them. For you see, recently, it has come home to me that in schools, we are often expecting students to create extended answers. However, if the students do not have the language to do so then getting these answers are near impossible. So before we begin to ask for paragraphs and extended responses, we must ensure that our students have the language to make this a reality.

For the other little boy, the one who should have a diagnosis of autism, I should have chased it for you. I should have gone beyond the rhetoric that your parents were not interested and called them myself. I also saw your loneliness, I saw the anxiety now that must have been chipping away at the dawn of teenage-hood that made you withdraw from your peers. I should have requested that the learning mentors buddied you up with someone. I should have made more time for you, perhaps prepped you with questions at the start of the lesson so that you were more confident answering them as we would go through the lesson. This could have made you more confident, it could have helped your peers to see the possibilities that I will always see in you. I know I placed you near the door, so if ever your fight/flight/freeze impulse flared you would have an easy way to escape. But I regret that now, I should have put you front and centre, directly in my line of sight so that I could forever get to you. I did growl for you though. The minute they hinted at marginalising you, I would snip them back in line but those who seconds in an eternity where I am absent. Your memory tears me up!

And to the students who were always off task, wiggling in your seat and ready to drift off at any moment to near oblivion who I strategically seated next to the quiet intelligent ones to maintain my sanity, you needed a checklist. I simply could have kept you a little more focused by giving you the feeling that you were achieving, that you were making steps. Perhaps, you also needed a sensory aid just to settle you, or a cushion to make you move in your place but I never knew they were out there then. I do now of course and although I would definitely use them, I would still want you to say random things and make me smile.

I remember the young, black boys too who thought they were some kind of ‘bad man’. At every turn, they are ready to swagger and light up the room with some new slang. When they started to lose the plot, have a few too many fights, they could have used a few comic strip conversations to view their thinking and the people they’re arguing with in an objective way. It would have helped them to really think about the world outside of themselves. And I should have found ways to get you mentors from the community, people who could help to show you that the see more in you than you do in yourself.

And for all of you who hated English and reading and writing, we should have spent more time just talking. We should have had more artists in, performed poetry and do presentations. We should have danced, done the olden days equivalent of the dab whilst making rhymes about the things we’ve learnt. I still remember when Freddie  Macha came in for some workshops. Where ever you are, my lovely class, I think you will too.  I know we had fun in the end and that you all tried so hard. You might not all have gotten Cs, but you went far beyond expectations. I’m still saluting you.

And for the little girl with the long black hair, who had started to perform beyond expectations and then suddenly stopped coming in, I should have gotten your parents in and tell them that you’re smart and could go on to do amazing things. It might not have made a difference but I feel now, that I should have tried.

Through it all though, meeting you all has been a blessing. I just wish now that my teacher training had helped me to recognise that meeting the needs of my SEN learners, went far beyond coloured paper, clear tasks and dyslexic friendly fonts. It’s so much more than where you seat them or by differentiating, giving them a simple text. It’s myriad strategies and ways in, realising that each child is unique and forever bringing their own things. And as teachers who are SENDT (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Teacher), we must identify what they bring and if it is a barrier, we must lead them past it, however gently.

 

Are Special Schools Fit for Purpose?

For some, this is a daft question. Of course, they are fit for purpose! Of course, we need them! This is the place for young people with severe and complex needs; this is where they are provided with specialist equipment and specialist teachers that you might never find in mainstream. In special schools, these young people feel they belong, they are included. If you take the time to watch them, chatting away to their peers, an adult or alone, you will see how happy they are. How safe!

But are they fit for purpose?

In a sense, yes. For those students with severe cognitive impairment, who will not progress beyond P Scales throughout the duration of their time in education, I would say, yes. If these same students with severe cognitive difficulty are also violent, non verbal, require specialist IT equipment to communicate, then once again, yes.

However, as with any organisation or group, special schools possess a rainbow of students. There are those who began their journey with little language, poor social skills and progress that did not go past P Scales but with great teaching or maturity or their own thirst to improve, they have broken through those barriers. There are those, who with time, perform as well or even better than their peers without SEND. There are those, who with time, have come to show that they are capable of accessing the same subjects and curricula as the latter students. So the question is clear:

For these learners, is it necessary for them to go to special schools?

The answer is simple, absolutely not. Special schools are only fit for purpose if they are able to provide the curriculum which allows their students to progress to their best self. If the students, who perform as well as their non SEND peers are in a system that is stuck on P Scales, it is possible that such school are not adequately meeting the need of their students.

Yet, even in this case, there are those who would argue that regardless of the academic possibilities of the child, the young person’s  ability to participate socially takes precedence. And it is in special schools that the social skills of SEND learners are often fostered and brought to the fore.  This is the place where they are given copious opportunities to interact and communicate with others without judgment or too much fear. And so, they would argue, that even though special schools might not challenge these learners academically, at least socially that child would be able to interact with the world.

Special schools, as with all schools, should be able to meet the needs of a learner both socially and academically. In both areas, it should allow the learner to progress and achieve to the best of their ability. If it not able to cater to these areas, then it is not functioning as it should. I admit that for some special schools, with a high number of both able and less able students, it is an extremely challenging situation.  How do they effectively provide a curriculum that caters to those on P Scales and those on national curriculum levels, especially if they are mixed across classes and key stages?

In a situation like this, I think schools should create two streams of pupils within the school, one for those who are able and one for those who are less able. Doing this would mean that subjects like Maths, English and Science at the very least, are taught at the appropriate level to challenge all learners. It would also mean that teachers would not have to struggle to teach students at P Scales and at Level / Stage 3 or above in the same lesson. This of course, might be an unrealistic suggestion as special schools often struggle to recruit staff and so may not have the manpower or monetary resources to make this type of streaming possible.

Could there be another way?

I suspect, there might be an even more difficult solution. In cases where special schools have come to realise that there are students who with time, are performing far above what their schools provide, parents should be contacted and alternative arrangements made. This could be by linking the student to a main stream school to pursue interests to a higher level or it could be by transitioning the learner to a mainstream school with a SEN Unit. The impact of funding on special schools if this is to be done could be vast, in some cases catastrophic if many students fit this category. However, isn’t it a part of any educational establishment’s duty of care to ensure that their students are able to be their best?

But luckily…

…the winds are changing in special education and the government’s changes now mean that more students with SEND are able to attend mainstream schools. In this way, those students who with time can perform as well as their non SEND peers, have the opportunity to experience a vaster range of subjects. They have greater opportunity to discover their innate talents and gifts, the areas for which they have a flair. It is possible that in these environments, these students can see that the sky is the limit but they just have to take their own time to get there. I believe that mainstream schools are also awakening to the reality that for these students, it is important to balance the social and the academic for these students. Therefore, more emphasis is being placed on both the social and the academic to ensure that these students are given the opportunity to develop independence and resilience.

So, are special schools fit for purpose?

Of course they are! But only if the curriculum is right.

 

 

 

 

A Hope and A Future

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My baby brother is 16. He is autistic and yes, there is a future for him. It took some time for my mum and I to see the signs but when he was diagnosed, it all became clear. Through it all, we have never once thought that this limits him. Instead, we believe that given time, he will be better than he was before.

Working in special education doesn’t mean that we are teaching students who are underachieving. It means that we are teaching students who might need more processing time. Therefore, as teachers and leaders within SEN, it is important that our expectations remain high, that classwork remains personalised and challenging.

I understand perfectly that some students with Aspergers or ASD might be non verbal. For these students, progress might mean being able to use PECs (Pupil Exchange Communication System) effectively to communicate their wants or needs. However, regardless of need, we must find a way to push them one step further in their journey.

At the heart of this journey is the knowledge of who these young people are. What are their likes / dislikes? What do they repeatedly talk about? At the sound of which word, do they begin stimming with excitement? These are the signifiers. They are a sign of their motivators and something that we should take to heart. Who would have thought that my little brother’s fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine or our repeated journeys on DLR trains would ever be more than that? For many years, it seemed a game, an amusement. To this day, his lists of presents are usually started with another request for a Hornby Train to add to his collection. When he was old enough and thoughtful enough to answer what he wanted to be, his answers would be simple and quick: train driver! So many of my students today have the same answer. Regardless of skill, many of them are so fascinated with the tracks and how they can make this a profession. Yet, so often teachers can dismiss the dream because they seem to come from some place of automaticity rather than careful thought.

When the time came for my brother to start to apply for sixth form, he didn’t quibble or dance about. He knew instinctively that he wanted to study BTEC Engineering because he would get to work on trains. My elation and pride was undeniable not only because he knew what he wanted but because in one way or another, he had been getting ready for this his whole life. When we went with him to tour a possible Sixth Form, he was naming the equipments he saw and telling my mum about their uses. He could easily reference old DT classes and his experience of the equipments. It was in this moment that the last two gifts he requested also made sense. He had wanted Snap Circuits so that he could experiment with creating light and sound in his room. No game, no experience seemed a coincidence and once again, I felt the magic in High Functioning Autism; that almost evolutionary quality of focus that can bring about extraordinary things.

Consequently, my belief once again that every Autistic student should be challenged was reinforced. Although there are many students who might not be able to complete the 5 or 8 GCSEs that are so prized, it is incumbent on how as educators to ensure that students are able to access as wide and as broad a curriculum that is possible. If they are passionate about ICT and Computing, give them the avenue to prepare for this. Even if they are not as strong in Maths and or English, these subjects must be priority as it prepares for a life beyond school and so the level at which this is taught must be appropriate and with sufficient challenge. Beyond this, having access to quality vocational teaching from KS3 must be a priority for all schools because if these students are given the opportunity to produce their Magnum Opus, their potential will be unleashed! They will fly!

I had a conversation with a colleague recently about our Autistic Learners. We agreed that if we said “they can’t, then they won’t”. Therefore, we must make sure that we identify how our learners need to improve and then provide the scaffolding and the steps to get them there. By doing this, we’ll be able to see our learners grow and find the hope and the future that is waiting for them.

Mastery is Key

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Recently, I have begun to ponder what a Mastery Curriculum means for SEND learners. On this, Mary Myatt is clear. A mastery curriculum is about “fewer things in greater depth”. When teaching SEND students, this idea is completing freeing. Firstly, because it means that students can have the extra processing time that is often needed for them to be able to fully grasp a concept.

No longer should schools be rushing through topics; instead, educators now have the opportunity to embed and deepen the knowledge and skills of our learners. There is also extended opportunity for those working at a higher level than their peers to begin to use and apply the learnt skill in new contexts. I have no doubt that this is empowering for all learners.

It is therefore crucial for SEND schools to shape their curriculum in a way which has Mastery at its core. In English, this might mean that students are taught topics in a chronological order alongside the explicit teaching of grammar and punctuation. By doing this, learners will have the opportunity to place texts in their contexts and also make links across time. If the learning of new ideas are always interweaved with former learning, the likelihood that these ideas will be remembered and used is inevitably increased.

It is often said that ‘repetition is the mother of learning’. Within a SEND context where students sometimes have difficulty in remembering ideas or concepts, this method would surely be a godsend as they now have multiple opportunities throughout a yearly scheme to utilise and build on former knowledge and skills.

Students with Aspergers often take language literally and of course, sometimes simple statements can be very confusing because of this. Recently, my class has been learning about rounding numbers. One particular student who has shown proficiency at this became stumped when I asked him to circle a number which rounds to 50. Previously, another student became confused when a question asked him to look above and the above section was on the previous page. Despite being a very bright student, they can be stumped by this.

By having a Mastery Curriculum, teachers will have a greater opportunity to expose students to a greater range of terms or statements that are used within the topic area. Exams or tests may consequently become less of a puzzle and these students will have a greater opportunity to demonstrate the skills that they possess.

The potential for improvement in teaching and learning can not be denied. Due to the fact that more time would be allocated to key topics, teachers will be able to present the material in multiple ways. Therefore, presenting topics in a concrete and a sensory rich way before moving on to pictorial and paper based representations is even more possible. This allows learners to have multiple entry points into a topic and provides greater opportunity for learning to be embedded. It’s clear to see that mastery works for students and for teachers.

I am therefore convinced that a Mastery Curriculum possesses innumerable benefits. I am hoping that the value of this is recognised and capitalised on so that all students are able to demonstrate their potential.