For the past month, I have been supplementing my English teaching income by working as a Teaching Assistant within the mainstream education system in the UK, especially with those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Having spent this time developing an awareness of the issues surrounding SEND and the all encompassing yet broad stroke applied to any students having difficulty with learning in an educational setting, I thought it would be nice to share my experiences and strategies that I have incorporated to deal with SEND students, particularly for those English language teachers finding themselves having to supplement their earnings who have minimal experience within this area of employment.
Before continuing the reading of this post, I would highly recommend the following TED Talk to give you an idea about living with autism.
1. Remove The Label
Regardless the label applied to students, such as autism, ADHD or physical impairments, they are, to all intents and purposes, individuals who each have their own strengths and weaknesses. I have been involved with students who have received the same label, but are very much different compared to their peers of the same name. I would recommend others to remove the ‘medical label’ from the individual and understand who they are and what motivates them. For all those English language teachers on an initial certificate course, we are taught about the importance of developing rapport and learning more about the students. I apply the same principle to my dealings with SEND students by chatting to the learners and learning about what makes them who they are. Removal of this label certainly helps learn more about how the student responds and what prompts them to positively complete tasks or activities, as well as what support is needed.
2. Be Patient and Empathetic
When working with SEND students, anyone involved or associated with them need to be absolutely patient. When a student is starting to struggle, it always works best to diffuse the situation by largely being patient, understanding, and empathetic. If you respond as severely as a student, it will only expand the issue rather than diffuse so it is best to change or deflect focus, and then refocus on positive behaviour which leads on to my next point. When working with SEND learners, I would recommend all educators to be calm whether students are on task or not.
3. Praise Students
One thing that works for all students is praise. This motivates and provides a basis for positive and productive behaviour. Whenever I find an SEND student completing an activity, I offer praise and give them a little ‘high five’. With this, I have noticed greater progress with SEND students being able to do more with less interventions required when issues occur. This is something that is a naturally transferable skill from English language teaching, so am pleased with my experience to date.
4. Don’t Assume Incompetence
Many of the stigmas associated with SEND learners revolves around lack of achievement or incompetence. However, I have been fortunate enough to have supported students whose linguistic ability is second to none, others having a natural connection to mathematics, or others having a keen interest in other languages or cultures. Just because an SEND student has difficulty communicating or formulating their thoughts, does not mean that they are in anyway being unable to complete other classroom tasks. Teachers will feel a sense of reward when an SEND student is able to complete a task with minimal support or intervention.
5. Welcome Interests
One aspect of incorporating SEND students in a classroom or lesson is including student obsessions. I have met some students who have a keen interest in either cars, technology, or artwork. Rather than limiting or reducing such obsessions is counter-productive, with many responding negatively with a possible escalation occurring, I would suggest that teachers embrace these obsessions and include during activities. For example, say you have a student who is engrossed by vehicles, you could turn this topic into a maths lesson: i.e. split the 300 cars into 3 equal parts, which car is more economic, or how many miles is covered with Car A. Focus on welcoming these interests with SEND students, so that they are more engaged and curious during lessons.
I hope that this blog post is useful for those that are new or curious about teaching within Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. If you have any questions about my experience, then please post in the comments.