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How we Have Helped Teachers Support Children with Special Educational Needs

Guest post by Professor Julia Carroll, Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science

More than one in 10 children in the UK have some form of special educational needs, with most of them taught in mainstream schools. These pupils’ difficulties can include problems with reading, writing and maths, behaving properly or organising themselves or making friends. But for their teachers or teaching assistants – quite often their main form of support in the classroom – there is a bewildering range of information available on how to help these youngsters and it can be difficult to know what approach to take.

For the past year myself and colleagues in the Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science (CABS) have been working with the Department for Education (DfE) to address this issue. We’re pleased to have contributed to the development of a new interactive teachers’ resource, which is now available online. Crucially, the resource has been based on our research so the teachers who will use it know the information available is evidence based.

The DfE commissioned us to carry out two parallel projects. One was a survey of teachers, to understand what strategies were commonly being used to help support youngsters with special educational needs.

The survey was completed by 216 individuals. We aimed to get responses from a range of education professionals in a mix of settings and so we were pleased with the final sample, which included 68 responses from individuals working in primary schools, 98 from secondary schools and 53 from colleges.

These individuals were a mixture of teachers, teaching assistants, headteachers and special educational needs co-ordinators. The respondents described a wide range of approaches to supporting learners with SEND. In general, those in primary settings focused more on intervention approaches, while those in colleges focused more on ways in which difficulties could be supported, for example by using assistive technology. We also asked the respondents how they found out information about how to support learners with SEND.

The most common approaches involved advice from colleagues or CPD sessions, with relatively few respondents mentioning web-based resources. We felt this was important when preparing a resource for teachers to use: we wanted to make something that could be printed and placed in the staffroom, rather than something that was only web-based. The other project was a rapid evidence assessment – this was a search of published academic papers to establish what strategies were supported by good quality research.

We decided to structure this review around cognition and learning; language and communication; social, emotional and mental health; and physical and sensory needs.

These are the four broad ‘areas of need’ described in the Code of Practice for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities published by the DfE in 2015. A literature search found more than 1,000 articles but thankfully we had a team with a range of expertise to analyse these papers and the suggestions made within them.

Dr Hayley Crawford focused on social communication; Dr Louise Bradley on behaviour and attention; Dr Helen Johnson on emotional wellbeing and mental health; Penny Hannant on physical difficulties; Angela Thompson on writing and executive function, and myself on reading, language and hearing difficulties.

We found some interesting contrasts between the different areas. The evidence suggested that while whole school approaches are successful in improving social skills and emotional wellbeing, small group approaches are more useful for different areas of cognition and learning. For individuals with mental health difficulties support from specialists, such as counsellors or psychologists, was recommended, while for reading and language, there was strong evidence that well-trained teaching assistants could make real improvements.

On the other hand, there were some consistencies. The most effective interventions were on groups of children whose strengths and weaknesses had been clearly assessed, and their progress was monitored. Whatever the area of weakness, there was evidence that no approaches are successful for all children, so educators should be willing to try another approach if a child isn’t making progress.

We also found that interventions that focused on the outcome skill tended to be more effective in general: for example, if you want to improve handwriting, teach handwriting rather than focusing on finger strength exercises. As you can imagine, the report on these findings has a lot of detail, stretching to over 100 pages. We don’t anticipate that busy teachers will have much time to read all of that! In November 2017, the Department for Education used the findings from the report, as well as a set of case studies carried out by ASK research, in an accessible resource for teachers.

We hope this will be a really useful means of finding out different ways that schools can use evidence-based practice to support children with special educational needs in the classroom.

The resource is hosted on the Nasen’s SEND Gateway and the Education & Training Foundation Excellence Gateway.

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Coventry University