Covid recovery: When the SENCO knows best

Written by: Victoria Annan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Communication and language skills have taken a hit during Covid, but techniques to support children with SEN can also improve outcomes for mainstream learners. Victoria Annan describes three interventions in particular

The legacy of Covid-19 is impossible to ignore when we look at children’s attainment.

Research from the Education Endowment Foundation last year showed us that in autumn 2020, a shocking 76% of primary schools reported that children who had that September needed more support than children in previous cohorts (Bowyer-Crane et al, 2021). To address this will take a range of highly successful and tailored interventions.

Schools are creative places where solutions are found every day to help children overcome education barriers and get maximum benefit from all that being part of a rich learning community provides.

From extra reading groups to support those in danger of falling behind, school-wide campaigns to improve wellbeing and new team sports introduced to encourage children to make friends, the right interventions can make a real difference.

But with such a big gap in the fundamental area of learning, communication and language development, solutions from the usual toolkit may simply not be enough. How do we help such a large group of students to “catch up”?

One solution we have used at Chalgrove Primary School is to adapt many of the interventions usually reserved for autism provision for the mainstream classroom. Our autism spectrum condition (ASC) pupils typically require extra support to develop their communication and language skills, so what works with them is now helping our mainstream learners to succeed too.

Below are some of the ways we are using SEN interventions to close mainstream learning gaps.

Simplifying the school day with symbols

Visual prompts are a fundamental part of our teaching at Chalgrove, which hugely benefit all our learners.

Combining written and spoken language with visual symbols makes it easier for all children to process instructions and feedback in a busy classroom environment. We use symbols in lots of different ways and both children with SEND and their peers have become really familiar with them. A straightforward way to start is to incorporate symbols into timetables to make them more visual.

Symbols representing different subjects and transitions as part of a timetable help children to see clearly what the current lesson is and what is coming next. The pupils also become more acquainted with the language associated with the routine of the school day, so maths is depicted with a symbol of shapes and numbers, while food, drink and a clock represent lunch-time.

Since lockdown, many more children can experience anxiety so visual timetables provide a sense of certainty and predictability. More detailed timetables are created for individual children who need them, where routines are broken down into smaller steps.

For example, lunch-time can be symbolised as “get lunchbox, walk to the hall, sit down at the table, eat lunch, put lunchbox back, go out to play”. The routine can be displayed to the whole class or given to an individual child to encourage them to be independent.

We label our school environment with symbols, too. So, in our kitchen there are symbols to match all the equipment and ingredients, and these are reflected in recipe cards making them easier for children to follow. In classrooms all resources are labelled up with symbols too, and we display these on the whiteboard so pupils can see what they need for the next activity without having to ask.

Teachers have matching symbols on lanyards which they hold up while giving verbal instructions, which helps children with delayed processing see what they are being asked to do. A verbal instruction like “it’s time for phonics, everyone get your books, pencils and paper out” is a lot easier to process when the resources are shown visually on a card held up while the teacher is speaking.

Creating stories to support school routines

Another strategy we use is Social Stories, a concept developed by autism expert Carol Gray in the 1990s. Social stories are written using simple language to explain a social event, situation, or activity and are usually displayed in short story form by way of a comic strip, book, or poster.

Social stories can be shared with children and repeated as often as necessary and provide clarity in unfamiliar situations that might otherwise feel scary and overwhelming.

While often used in autism provision, we now incorporate them much more widely to support all children through changes, such as a staff member leaving, or to help explain what will happen during more infrequent events, like a school trip.

The essential focus on literacy

We have also started to widen the delivery of interventions designed to build the literacy skills of children with SEND, including sentence building and structure.

Schools can use an intervention like Colourful Semantics, popular with speech and language therapists, with all children to break-down sentences into colour-coded parts.

Using this strategy, you can colour-code each section of sentence on the whiteboard or encourage children to highlight the different parts of the sentences in their workbooks using similar colour-coding to show the “who, what and where” elements, for example. This will help pupils who often miss out sentence components, jumble word order, or struggle to speak in full sentences.

If a child needs extra support, or the focus is more on speech than writing, we also encourage them to say the different components of the sentence out loud and join them together as they go.

Interventions like this can be adjusted to make written feedback easier for children to process and even support self or peer-assessment. Teachers can ask children to check the coloured components of the sentences they create and spot any missing parts. Students can also use their own set of highlighters to make sure their sentences include all the elements.

Victoria Annan, lead of additionally resourced provision (ARP) for autism at Chalgrove Primary School in London.

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