Closing the Gap for SEND Learners

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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.

Overlearning

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.

Emotional Regulation

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chalk & Cheese: Girls on the Spectrum

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The NAS (National Autistic Society) defines autism as a lifelong disability that affects how people perceive the world and interacts with other. They highlight that it is a spectrum condition, which means that no two people with autism are the same. Their autism affects them in different ways, making each day with them a new experience, like it would be with any other human being. Statistics tell us that in the UK more that 1 in every 100 people is autistic. Studies are now suggesting that the numbers might just be higher than previously thought especially because it is felt that girls have been undiagnosed or diagnosed later in life due to a gender biased screening process for autism.

Working within a specialist autistic setting, it is no clearer than on the playground that the girls are truly a minority. Testosterone often runs rampant as young boys strive to assert their control. But today, is not about the boys. It’s about the girls and the way that they are all autistic and in some cases as different to each other as chalk and cheese.

Cheese 

She is probably the reason why I decided to work in a special school. Her smile and her warmth was welcoming. She dished out compliments and reinforced my value as a teacher. In many ways, she doesn’t seem to fit the autistic stereotype. Although she had special interests, it didn’t seem particularly repetitive or overly intense. Not only was she a good communicator with adults but she engaged well with her peers and had a number of close and casual friends. In many ways, typical of her peers. It was clear that she was observant; she would readily pick up on the feelings and emotions of others and responded appropriately to them. Her behaviour never seemed to stem from rules or a literal understanding of instructions. Instead, like so many other students I’ve taught in mainstream settings, her behaviour seemed dependent on relationship, praise and her own internal motivations. In some ways, I had to question: is she even autistic?

Of course, some may argue that she is camouflaging or masking her true feelings. In this case I think this sunny side up is just who she is. Nevertheless, there are other indicators which stand out loud and clear. She loves to be in control. If she feels even for a second that this is being lost, she can descend into stomping, crying and tears. If she is unsure about a task, she locks her head and her pen to her book in the hope that you wouldn’t see her. She hates to admit when she doesn’t know something or feels unsure about it. When asked to present to a group or asked to share her answer in class, she easily reclines back into herself, afraid to speak, afraid to be wrong. There are other difficulties of course with her memory and her handwriting. She struggles tremendously in these areas; however, through over learning and praise, progress though sometimes slow is steady.

None of the areas above worries me because I know that with time and practise and maturity she will continue to improve. But, there is the sense that she is vulnerable to manipulation not necessarily with other girls but with boys. Often she is too trusting, doesn’t fully observe social rules of personal space which in other contexts could create difficulties. Therefore, teaching self-advocacy and e-safety becomes of great importance to ensure that she stays safe.

Chalk

Chalk forever remains my inspiration and is a constant reminder that all autistic individuals learn and develop. They of course do so at different rates but we can never afford to underestimate and undervalue autistic learners. In many ways, she is atypical of what we would expect of an autistic girl. She shares many of the special interests of her peers. Yet in a rare moment she communicated in a whisper that she loves to watch Shimmer and Shine, a cartoon often associated with younger children. This in many ways highlights her effort to mask her true self in an attempt to fit in and be accepted. Furthermore, she has an intense need to be perfect at all times and in all things. This allows her to be the perfect student, forever attentive, engaged and working hard. This drive as well as her high information processing ability consistently reinforces her high intellectual ability. Of course, after reading more recent research I have come to wonder at the extent to which the drive for perfection masks a feeling that she is not quite good enough. She worries me.

Her anxiety is ever present although it has subsided considerably in the last year. Presently, she is less afraid to fail and ready to try again after she has made a mistake. She is not shy and reclining. Instead, she is always ready to share her ideas and express her feelings. She is often sociable but as with many autistic girls, she engages well with adults or those who are younger but struggles when she has to communicate socially with a peer. Her intelligence though is clear and this means that if provided with a clear script for her interaction, it can go off without a hitch. But when the script runs out, the uncertainty and anxiety returns and so she’s cast adrift. Nevertheless, her desire for a friend is forever poignant. She seeks to connect with a peer, wants to interact and be with them. Yet, at the same time, the act of interacting and observing social cues can become mentally exhausting and so if she’s having a bad day, she will recline, happily away from them. It leads me to wonder: did she really want a friend or did she just want to fit the social stereotype for a young girl, if only for a little while?

Girls on the Spectrum

It is always life affirming to recognise that although we all have similarities, we are also unique. Young girls with autism are no different. Although they reflect some atypical characteristics, when you get to know them they are all different and contribute value in myriad ways. Therefore, it is clear that autism is quite rightly a spectrum condition – even with the same gendered peers, the result is simply: chalk and cheese!

The Drowning – Snapshots of a boy with SEN

You have sat him in the seat, next to the door so that in a moment of anxiety he can quickly escape. You are ‘differentiating’ for the boy no one wants to sit beside, the boy whose voice is lost amongst myriad others. He is drowned by the feint noises of their disgust and we can’t save him.

We can’t save him because his parents, though they loved him, didn’t understand that he was different and that he might never grow out of it. They have never heard of SENCOs and statements of needs and in their universe when it is materialised, it is like mosquitoes drifting past the ear on terrifyingly hot nights.

And we can’t save him even though as teachers we have sent him forward for diagnosis and he comes back with paper we helped to produce but barely have the time to read. And though we skim it, we can’t fully implement every strategy or cater to his every need because he is 1 of 30 and there are exams. There are exams; and he’s drowning.¬†

Tonight, rather than orchestrating solutions, I have a question: how would you save him?

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