SEN: Getting the last five minutes of your lesson right

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The last five minutes of any lesson is vital if we are to avoid disengaged students, sensory overload, and anxiety – especially for those with SEN. Sara Alston advises


A quick scan of the education section in any bookshop demonstrates the emphasis put on the first few minutes of a lesson. The shelves heave with books on lesson starters and hooks for learning, but on the last five minutes there is almost nothing.

As Daniel Sobel and I were writing our book The Inclusive Classroom: A new approach to differentiation (2020), we became more and more focused on the importance of ensuring a successful end to a lesson as well as a successful beginning.

Too often the end of the lesson is rushed and under-planned. There is so much to include in the last few minutes of the lesson: some kind of plenary or recap of learning, an assessment of what the children have learnt and how far this links to what the teacher hoped they would learn, identifying and challenging misconceptions, self and peer evaluations as well as the practicalities of tidying up and getting the children safely out of the room.

In a short article, I am not able to focus on all this, but I would like to discuss this phase of the lesson as a point of transition and its links to what comes next.

Teachers know the importance of transitions. While they understand transitions as a source of anxiety for many children, this often gets lost in the myriad demands of managing the end of the lesson. There are impacts from the end of the lesson itself and from the journey out of the lesson.

A disorganised or unplanned lesson-end, where everyone grabs their equipment, gets up and pushes their way out has an impact on both the current and the next lesson. As we start our plenary and finishing up the lesson, there will be children who have already disengaged. Their anxieties will be ramping up.

Thoughts of managing the sensory overload of the noise and movement through the school corridor, the fear of unkind remarks, losing their belongings and maybe even losing their way becomes so overwhelming that the last minutes of the lesson are lost amid this rising sense of panic.

Children need to know what is happening and have a secure routine for the end of the lesson and the transition to the next. Only by clearly setting this out can we hope to engage them effectively in the end or beginning of any lesson. Below I suggest some simple practical steps to support this process.

Using pre-warnings

We all know how irritating it is when we are in the middle of something and we are asked to stop. Yet we do this all the time to children. Time warnings are part of daily life for most parents with young children.

Yet we do not use this consistently in our classrooms, particularly as children get older. We expect them to monitor the time themselves, or to stop immediately when asked. Not all are able to do this. Pre-warning children towards the end of a task, enables them to prepare for the transition.

Verbal pre-warnings and time checks can be supported by visuals to indicate that the end of the lesson or task is coming. However, beware of interactive whiteboard timers that show a countdown to the end of an activity. For many children, both with and without sensory issues, these become overwhelming, a source of anxiety in themselves or so engrossing that they become transfixed and unable to engage with the learning.


Having clear task endings

The instruction to “finish your work” requires the child to understand what this means. Does it mean to finish the calculation, the page of calculations or everything on the board? For most tasks, the expected finished result is flexible.

Writing for 20 minutes will look different for different children, and indeed for the same child with different tasks. Most children can manage this degree of uncertainty, but not all. They need the teacher’s expectations to be clarified. Without this, often they cannot start the task, let alone finish it.

This can be supported by modelled examples or clear instructions, such as: “Complete five calculations,” or “Write to here,” shown by a mark on the page, and so on.


Using tidying up as a learning experience

In early years classrooms, tidying up is explicitly taught. Teachers establish specific structures to support engagement with and understanding of routines. As children get older, tidying up becomes an unexplained expectation. We issue instructions and expect the children to follow.

Most children have the necessary experience to understand and follow these instructions or the understanding to follow the modelling of others who get it. But some will remain disengaged and confused. These children need the tidying up to be explicitly modelled or to be given specific tasks so that they can engage.

For children with sensory issues, tidying up at the end of the lesson can be used as a specific opportunity to support them. For example, for children with proprioceptive needs, tidying up can enable them to engage in the “heavy load” work such as moving chairs, books or other equipment that helps them to manage their sensory needs. For others, the movement break can enable them to calm and refocus before they leave the room.


Marking the stages of the lesson

With very young children, teachers often use “tidy up music” at the end of the lesson to gently remind children to finish what they are doing. It provides a clear auditory cue for the transition. But many children need this kind of support long after we stop using it. We need to consider age-appropriate ways of using visual and auditory signs to mark the stages of the lesson, so the journey through the lesson, including the end, is clear. For example, a marker on lesson slides can be effective (see image, below).

Top marks: Using a marker on your lesson’s slides or resources can be an effective way to help give SEND students cues about lesson transitions


Planning the end-of-lesson routines

The finishing routine for a lesson will depend on the lesson and the age of the children, but it needs attention, including at some level:

  • Support to ensure children have their belongings and are able to pack them into their bags appropriately. Some may need a visual to help them identify what they should have. Others may need support to carry them.
  • Support to help children manage anxiety and sensory overload.
  • Support to know what their next lesson is, where it is and what they will need for it.
  • A clear and planned route to help the children reach their next lesson safely and within the time limit.


Being aware of particular anxiety points

For some children, particular times of day may be triggers for increased anxiety. Many children (and adults!) begin to struggle as they move towards lunchtime.

For many, growing hunger, particularly if combined with anxieties about managing lunch routines, having sufficient time to eat, finding a food choice they like, interactions with others and so on have an impact on their ability to manage the end of lessons successfully.

Similarly, home time can increase anxieties. There can be anxieties about being picked up, managing the journey home, the transition into an after-school activity or leaving the safe school environment. Further, there will be particular lessons that trigger anxiety. We need to be cognisant of these anxieties and encourage children to share them, so that we can work to reduce them.


Thinking flexibly about SEN support

The support for children with special needs is usually focused on support for learning and therefore based in lessons. This means that children with physical and sensory issues, social communication difficulties or mental health and anxiety issues are often left to negotiate lesson transitions unsupported.

For many of them, transitions are the most difficult part of the day. When allocating SEN support, it may be worth considering if giving children more support to navigate unstructured times would reduce their anxieties, enabling them to access learning with greater independence.

Some children may benefit from a staggered start or end for lessons, so that they have more time to move from place to place and/or are able to make the journey in quieter corridors.


And finally...

It is often said that “people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”. This is key to a successful lesson ending.

If a child can carry the feeling that they are valued and wanted from one lesson to the next, it will give them security and a sense of belonging to support them to manage the transition successfully. It is key to ensuring that each lesson end feels calm and positive.

The end of one lesson is the beginning of the next. If we can ensure that a child has a successful end to a lesson, it increases the chance of their successful engagement in the next lesson, establishing a virtuous circle of success.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Visit www.seainclusion.co.uk. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/2EY0wNj


Further information & resources

Alston & Sobel: The Inclusive Classroom: A new approach to differentiation, Bloomsbury, January 2021:
https://bit.ly/3kBduiQ


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