Approaches to SEN support

Written by: Jacky Wyatt | Published:
Inspirational: Teacher Jacky Wyatt picks up her Award for Achievement by an Individual Education Professional at the Autism Professional Awards (Photo: Autism Professional Awards)

Award-winning teacher Jacky Wyatt offers some insights into effective approaches to support pupils with SEN during their time at primary school

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to receive the Award for Achievement by an Individual Education Professional at the Autism Professional Awards, run by the National Autistic Society – and all for doing what I know many other teachers do each and every day: supporting children who may be struggling in school and inevitably supporting their families in coming to terms with their unique child.

As a mainstream primary school teacher winning an award in the SEN sector, I spent the weeks afterwards convincing myself that I was a worthy winner. All of the strategies and approaches I used are tried and tested by many before me. With that in mind, this article is a celebration of the hard work and dedication that is in evidence on a daily basis in primary schools up and down the country.

Teachers and practitioners reading this will probably recognise the approaches. You may well use them every day to cater for the huge diversity of children in your care. If they are not all familiar to you then give them a try or adapt them to suit your own needs. They are written from my experience as an early years teacher, but having taught across the whole primary age range I know that many of the approaches are easily adaptable for different stages.

Effective transition – be prepared

As an early years teacher, the need to be flexible, proactive and creative is crucial and begins well before the new intake of Reception children start school. Getting to know our families through meetings and pre-school visits gives us the head start to arrange extra transition opportunities and begin planning for children's individual needs well before they begin school.

Meeting with parents during the open mornings in the autumn term before applying for school places, helps parents make an informed choice about how the school can best meet the needs of their child.

For parents whose child's pre-school setting has already identified an educational need this is hugely important. It also gives us the opportunity to plan ahead in terms of applying for top-up funding (if applicable) or just with allocating the staff team for the following September to best support the needs of the intake.

Transition into school can be daunting for any child so good transition practices should start early. Consider the following:

  • Establish good links with the local pre-school setting. Invite staff to an informal information exchange meeting and proactively offer advice and support. It takes time for the teachers and SENCO, but it is time well spent if a child can be supported effectively on their transition to school.
  • Be prepared to meet with parents before the school applications deadline. Parents need to be confident that their chosen school can meet the needs of their child. The school will also gain valuable information to prepare for the transition process and staffing structure.
  • Where the pre-school setting has identified a child with an additional need, be prepared to offer extra settling in time and start the school visits in term six. For some children we have offered short and frequent visits to the classroom after school. Getting to know their new teachers and classroom in a quiet and calm atmosphere pays dividends for all. Be prepared to repeat this again in early September, maybe on one of the usual INSET days. Six weeks is an awfully long time when you are aged four and all the school familiarity built up in term six may well have dissipated.
  • Produce transition booklets in term six with photos of the classroom, toilet, playground, dining areas and staff so that the children can refer to these during the summer holiday.

Unidentified needs

All of the above is great, of course, if you know the nature of the child's need, but what if a child appears in your classroom with a need that has not been addressed before.

Some children will arrive in school without any concerns having been expressed by their pre-school setting. This happens more often than we would like and there is a need for good working partnerships between schools and pre-school settings where staff can give advice if a child is causing concern.

Addressing any concerns to parents is always difficult and practitioners may sometimes delay doing this if the child is young. For my part I would much rather that those conversations are started before the child comes to school. Some would argue that it is wrong to "label" a child and that they may well "grow out of it". However, I would argue that if a child has an additional need that will affect their transition to school and subsequent learning potential let's not wait and see.

Talking to families

My experience from working with many families has taught me that communication is key. Talk to the family. Don't be afraid to express concerns but do it gently.

Arrange a meeting with the parents or carers as soon as you have concerns. Lots of children have settling in issues but if a child has an additional need that requires support this will be evident pretty early on. Be honest with the difficulties the child is having in school and try to build a picture of what the child is like at home. The parents may well have concerns too and opening up this dialogue allows them to begin to express these.

Support the family and be prepared to give time and energy to this. For some parents, the fact that someone else recognises that their child is struggling is a weight off their shoulders. Other parents may be really concerned and fearful for their child. Be prepared to listen and reassure.

You should ensure you access external support too. My local authority has excellent outreach services for supporting children with additional needs. Seek advice from your SENCO and be prepared to make calls to move things along or seek advice on interim support while you wait for help or an assessment.

Furthermore, parents really appreciate regular contact. Email updates are invaluable. Left alone, a parent may worry and will probably be trawling the internet for help and advice. Be prepared to offer a listening ear and answer questions if you can.

Finally, don't wait for a diagnosis before doing something. Do your own research and start preparing resources that will help. Every child benefits from resources and approaches that lessen anxiety so don't be afraid to use them.

Here are a some of the additional resources that I put in place for two children in my class who both later received an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis:

  • Visual timetables – personal to the child with stick-on symbols that can be removed and "posted" when an activity was finished.
  • Planning boards – where children can select photos of class mates and activities to plan their Child Initiated Learning time. This enables children to choose where they want to learn and who they want to learn with, helping to develop social skills and broaden friendships (which can be hard for children on the spectrum).
  • Careful placement of drawers and coat pegs. Giving a child the top right corner drawer or coat peg on the end of the line helps lessen anxiety at busy times of the day when everyone is going to their drawer or collecting their coat.
  • Carpet tiles to identify a child's seating space at whole-class teaching time. This again helps lessen anxiety about where to sit. Placement very near to the teacher also helps.
  • Sensory toys or "fiddle objects". These can promote good concentration for some children as well as well as being comforting and calming to an anxious child.
  • Social stories. I made lots of these for different situations in the school day where the rules of social interaction needed to be taught. Talking through these stories can help lessen anxieties and teach "the rules" in a gentle and repetitive way. There are lots of good ideas for these on the web and they can be adapted and made more bespoke to suit individual children's needs.
  • Sharing resources. Duplicate everything and send it home! Continuity of approach between home and school is hugely important. A team approach between teachers and parents is mutually supportive and benefits the child no end.
  • Be prepared to be flexible. If something doesn't work or stops working then try something different!

Conclusion

The nomination for my award came at the end of an exhausting yet hugely rewarding year. Being appreciated by families who had gone through so much with their children was very humbling and I feel privileged to have been part of their lives. Their journey is on-going and so is mine, learning from the experience and using it to help future children and families in my class.

  • Jacky Wyatt is a teacher at Hillcrest Primary School in Bristol.

Further information
The Autism Professional Awards: www.autismprofessionalsawards.org.uk


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