Supporting SEN students: Lessons from a career in special needs education

Written by: Colin May | Published:
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Colin May’s years of experience working with children with SEN led to him winning the Nasen Award for SEN Leader of the Year. In this article, he gives his advice to teachers working with special needs students

Over my 40 years of working with children and young people, I have come to experience different scenarios, perspectives, feelings and challenges.

Moments of pure delight and on the flip side moments of despair, but since retiring and reflecting on my time as an SEN teacher and leader, I wanted to share some ways of working that may be beneficial to you too.

Develop positive relationships

I know this is obvious, but I am not sure it is always at the forefront of our practice. The pressure of achieving targets and the demands of a broad curriculum can, understandably, get in the way. Nevertheless, we must strive to discover the daily reality for the people in our care. What a child or young person is feeling and experiencing will help us make the right connections.

As the lead in supporting behaviour in school, I have frequently been called to support students at times of significant distress. The most successful outcomes are those when we have been able to support young people through listening, responding to their concerns, and working hard to creatively resolve their difficulties. This leads to relationships built on empathy and mutual trust.

It is important to be clear about expectations and to be consistent in our responses – children and young people need to be able to rely on us. On the other hand, we need to be flexible and reactive. No one thing is ever the solution. However, a commitment to support students and their families sincerely and honestly needs to be the bedrock of our practice.

Understand your students’ needs and concerns

While empathetic, reciprocal relationships are central, we need to make sure that we have the right things in place for our students – I am still surprised when staff don’t realise that pupils are distressed because they simply do not understand what is happening around them.

I can recall a child once saying to me in a phonics session: “I don’t even know what these numbers mean.”

Working closely with families, and not just through the review process, will help you to support your students’ needs and help them to discover and explore the things that are important to them. By doing this, you can make sure you have the right things in place.

Eureka! Not quite. Explore external sources

I am not sure that we ever experience a single “eureka” moment that truly transforms our practice. For me, volunteering at a local Phab Club when I was at school led me and many of my friends to follow a career supporting people with additional needs.

But there have been turning points and for me, perhaps the most enlightening was attending a conference in “gentle teaching” led by Dan Hobbs 25 years ago. The heart of gentle teaching is the principle of interdependence, and the importance of loving and caring relationships – valuing unconditionally everything that a person brings.

This is more challenging than it might appear, especially when I was working in social care and people were regularly getting hurt, but when I really began to embed the principles and understand the world from our service users’ perspectives, and then in turn the students I taught, it really helped.

Another piece of work that had a massive impact on my practice was that of Phoebe Caldwell, an expert practitioner who has spent 45 years working with people on the autistic spectrum. Her capacity to observe and move into a young person’s world to try and forge meaningful communication has always lived with me.

Trying to marry this altogether without imposing your own will on young people is, for me, the “Holy Grail” of working with children and young people with additional needs. Giving them opportunities to really discover what they want is a daily challenge and I always have to guard against the “I know what’s best” mentality.

The work of Louise Bomber, an attachment lead teacher, therapist and author of Inside I’m Hurting (Worth Publishing, 2007) and What About Me? (Worth Publishing, 2011), as well as the Coventry grid (Moran, 2010) and polyvagal theory (Porges, 2007), has helped me greatly with understanding trauma and attachment and had a huge effect on our practice at my previous school.

Many of our young people’s complex needs were compounded by early trauma and continuing, chronic hardship. This work helped me to contextualise the needs of our students and helped me communicate this with staff teams. These are clear, scientific principles and I would suggest they need to form the basis of school policies.

Work towards a collective commitment

As part of its ethos, every school must have a collective commitment that all staff can truly understand, but crucially that they can demonstrate all of the time, in all that they do. Remember: what you permit you promote.

Collective staff meetings are crucial and provide the opportunity for staff to input, share their thoughts, experiences and best practice, as well as giving them a dedicated time to challenge leaders.

That was one of my great sadnesses when we went into lockdown due to Covid-19, we were unable to hold those collective staff meetings. Yes, we used Zoom but it just didn’t do it for me – for one thing, it’s really hard to reach those people that you know have something valuable to say but just don’t have the confidence to express it.

There will always be some discord and anxiety about approaches, but my experience has been overwhelmingly that the people I have worked with want the absolute best for our students and work hard to achieve that. For an approach to become common practice it depends on a number of people who think and feel the same way and are committed to developing and improving our approaches. Once that is embedded, all school staff and pupils can shine!

Appreciate those around you and be understanding

I have been really fortunate to work with some amazing practitioners. Gentle people, great communicators, incredibly tolerant people, people who are truly committed to our children and young people. Over the years I have learned to value the simple tenets of kindness, patience and thoughtfulness. Never underestimate the importance of having decent, kind, hard-working people on board!

At the heart of interactions with children and young people, we need to be authentic, genuine and reflective people with a true commitment to making things as right as they can be. This depends on really trying to understand what pupils are communicating to us. It depends on understanding the right kind of environment needed for someone to thrive and learn.

There are very few moments in my career where I can say I have got things “just right” for everyone. But I knew when they were and always tried hard to recreate those situations. I still feel it now. I love it when a day has gone well – not necessarily some major breakthrough, but a recognition that at the end of the day we have got things right and that our children have learned and flourished.

Final reflections

I’m not 100% sure I am articulate enough to properly explain what I feel is at the heart of good practice, so I will finish with the thoughts of Dr Andrew Curran.

I have been fortunate enough to see him speak and have always been enthralled. He says that children learn best when they feel loved. This is not as simplistic as it sounds and is based on clear neurobiological research. However, for a simple, straightforward person like me, it is a pretty good principle to work from.

  • Before his retirement, Colin May worked at Mayfield Special School in Torquay for more than two decades, supporting pupils with a wide range of needs, and moving from a class of extremely complex secondary pupils to the school’s primary department. He was awarded the accolade of Nasen Award SEN Leader of the Year at the 2021 Nasen Awards.

Further information & resources

  • Phab Clubs: Around 140 Phab Clubs across England and Wales, with 8,000 members, enable disabled and non-disabled children, young people and adults to get together with friends and family for all kinds of activities and social events:
  • Moran: Clinical observations of the differences between children in the autism spectrum and those with attachment problems: The Coventry Grid, Good Autism Practice (11, 2), October 2010.
  • Nasen Awards: For more information on the nasen Awards visit
  • Porges: The polyvagal perspective, Biological Psychology (74,2), 2007.

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