SEN: Are you listening?

Written by: Adele Devine | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Are you listening to your SEN students? Teacher and SEN expert Adele Devine discusses some strategies and resources she has found effective in special schools to help support your students by reducing their anxiety and building good mental health

Suzie is looking out the window. She is watching a little bird flying about collecting sticks to build a nest. She is not hearing a word her teacher is saying. Step into the teachers shoes. What would you do?

  1. Demand Suzie looks and listens. She must pay attention to learn.
  2. Ignore it. Focus on the students who are listening instead.
  3. Change direction. Find a way to gain her attention and sustain her interest.

So what actually happened between Suzie and her teacher? The teacher confronted Suzie: “Is what’s out the window more interesting than my lesson?” Suzie replied truthfully: “Yes.”

The teacher sent Suzie to the headteacher, who in turn phoned Suzie’s parents about their “defiant and lazy” daughter. Ouch! The phone call about this incident confirmed Suzie’s mum’s niggling feeling that her daughter was in the wrong school. Suzie started at a different school soon after.

Her new teacher picked up that Suzie was not being lazy with reading. She was dyslexic. Suzie gained confidence in all subjects, but particularly excelled in the arts. She developed her talents further at university and became a very successful designer. Some of her most loved prints include images of birds.

When Suzie’s mum told me this story I thought about what I would do if I had been the teacher. My instinct would be to take a subtle look out of the window to see what had grabbed Suzie’s attention. I may have gone a little off plan and included birds in my lesson. I’d have reflected on how I could have made the lesson more interesting and applied this in future.

Think back to when you were at school. Recall that teacher who “got you”, that teacher who knew who you were as an individual, cared about you, showed respect for you and interest in you. What was it they did differently? They listened...

In April 2017, the NASUWT teaching union published findings from a survey involving 2,000 teachers – 98 per cent said that they had come into contact with pupils experiencing mental health issues. Nine in 10 had experienced a pupil of any age suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.

We need more funding, training and time to support children’s mental health. But we also need to be given the freedom and time to follow our instincts. We need to share strategies and support each other. Anxiety reduces the ability to process language and to learn. With this in mind here are some of the strategies I’ve found effective in special schools.

Intensive Interaction

A child who distances themselves or shows unusual or repetitive behaviours such as rocking or flapping may seem to only want their own company. They may be mistaken for a “loner child” or seen as “locked in their own world”. But this child may be anxious or they may not have learnt the play skills other children pick up so fast.

Intensive Interaction (see further information) is an approach to teaching the pre-speech fundamentals of communication to children and adults who have severe learning difficulties and/or autism and who are still at an early stage of communication development.

When we allow ourselves to be led by the child and we respond to their actions or sounds they start to notice us more. We become less intimidating, more interesting and in time they become more playful.

Think about how a mother interacts with her new baby. She will naturally respond to the facial expressions and gurgles she hears. Her instinct is to take communication to the baby’s level of development so they can have these wonderful interactions.

One-to-one tutorials

Provide one-to-one teacher time when the child can speak (without the pressure of peers). These times can be scheduled, but they may also be spontaneous. They sometimes work well when paired with an activity such as gardening.

During a tutorial Lily (diagnosed with autism) explained to me that the reason she was refusing to go to her mainstream inclusion placement was that “the teacher talks too ‘complicatey’ and often shouts”. The teacher was shouting at boys, who were disrupting, but causing Lily pain and anxiety.

The inspirational Sir Ken Robinson points out how the “focus on testing and data-driven outcomes” means “the relationship between teachers and learners has become impoverished; this has disaffected teachers and students alike”.

When our daughter Darcy (age five) mastered riding a pedal bike I said, “I’m so proud of you. You should tell your teacher”. She replied in a matter of fact way: “I can’t tell my teacher. She only listens when children read.” I’m sure this isn’t true of the teacher, but it certainly made me think...

It’s only needs to be 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes will make such a difference. The child learns that they can talk to the teacher. We teachers are not just there to impart knowledge. One-to-one tutorials show the children that we care.

Comic Strip Conversations

Comic Strip Conversations were developed by specialist teacher Carol Gray and can help unpick situations and allow children to explain thoughts behind reactions. Sit with the child and draw a simple stick figure and then together you can build up a visual representation of what happened. Add what was said in speech bubbles and what was thought in thought bubbles. Different coloured writing represents different feelings. The child may choose red for angry words and blue for sad. It’s up to them.

Attention Autism

Attention Autism was developed by renowned autism expert and specialist speech therapist Gina Davies. I have never known a course to get teachers more enthused and excited.

Attention Autism sessions are a fantastic, motivating way to gain a student’s attention, inspire them to want to join the group, develop attention, listening, communicating, cooperating, turn-taking, waiting, independence, thinking skills, awareness of self and others, and to raise self-esteem. The list goes on...

Attention Autism structures can be applied to any lesson. Begin by visually showing the children how a session will be structured. Use a dry wipe board or paper and show the lesson in sections crossing these off as they are completed. Think what a difference it makes to us when we do INSET training and the trainer sets out the structure of their session. We know when we can get up, check our mobile or get a cup of tea...

Try it! Break a lesson down into sections. Let the students know your plan. Start your lesson with something that is high interest and sparks curiosity and build their attention. Ms Davies explains: “What I try to do is look at my activities first and ask, is my activity absolutely irresistible?” (Davies, 2011).

Focus on the good and give praise, creating role-models for other children. Don’t say “sit down Alfie” if he is getting up, but comment on a child who is sitting well “good sitting Alex”.

Have everything set up and ready so that you don’t waste any time. Ms Davies’ energy and enthusiasm are infectious. Children pick up on and mirror our moods. We must love what we are teaching and who we are teaching!

Headteacher post box

When a child is angry, frustrated or anxious there must be a way for them to communicate this. Maybe Hassan hates the morning rush and thinks the corridors need more order. He gets more and more frustrated and ends up refusing to come to school.

Maybe if Hassan was able to post the problem away to the headteacher there could be a discussion and strategies might be introduced to avoid this issue building up to school refusal.

Headteachers are busy, but they must also be accessible. Introduce the headteacher post box in an assembly with some practical examples of how it could help. Ensure children know that they will not get in trouble and that letters will be answered. But be clear you don’t just want complaints, you want ideas.

Being able to write a problem down and post it can reduce anxiety and also put things in perspective. A simple strategy and so effective!

Are you hearing?

GK Chesterton observed: “There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” Once we have shown children that we are a listening school then we must demonstrate that we hear. We must show willingness to accommodate and change.

  • Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery School, an all-age day school (2 to 19) in Surrey catering for children and young people with severe learning difficulties. She was a finalist in the Award for Achievement by an Individual Education Professional category at the 2016 Autism Professional Awards run by the National Autistic Society.

Further information

Literacy for Visual Learners

Adele Devine’s new book Literacy for Visual Learners: Teaching children with learning differences to read, write, communicate and create is out now published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Headteacher Update readers can access a 20 per cent discount by using discount code VIS when checking out via the following URL. See

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