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Up close and personal

Building a rapport outside a mainstream setting takes patience. Louisa Leaman guides you through.

The success of any learning environment hinges on the relationship between teacher and pupils. In mainstream schools, this relationship is helped and hindered by a number of factors - time pressures, large class sizes, disinterested pupils - but some key considerations are whether the teachers and pupils have a rapport and are prepared to listen to each other, and that they are able to understand each other's point of view and identify with their respective roles as imparters and learners of knowledge.

In the special needs classroom, establishing a teacherpupil relationship is also important to the learning process, but the challenges it presents are rather different.

To make learning happen, a special needs teacher may have to have close physical contact with their pupils, and will also have to get to know their diverse and individual needs. Providing a sense of security, familiarity and reassurance is vital.

In some cases, the development of a meaningful relationship with a pupil is a learning goal in itself. Take, for example, a visually impaired pupil who is also non-verbal and has severe learning difficulties.

The complexity of these needs could easily allow the pupil to become socially isolated and introspective, thereby restricting experience of the world and its opportunities. But if other people endeavour to develop and maintain meaningful interactions with them, their access to the world increases.

So how do you develop a rapport with a pupil who cannot see or verbally communicate and has restricted cognitive ability? First of all, you need to put yourself in their shoes and recognise that the world may seem a very frightening place - the calmness and familiarity of your voice may provide some reassurance. It may take time for that familiarity to be established, therefore patience and consistency is important.

One of my favourite activities is Intensive Interaction, a very practical approach in which I work one-to-one with a pupil. This is a process in which we go through interaction sequences, repeated often, with a little more added each time.

The sequence is meant to be enjoyable, and could be dynamic or relaxed. It helps with the learning of communication, though it's really the pupil who leads, with the teacher responding and joining in with what the pupil is doing.

So the guiding principle is simply that I take my cues from the pupil. If he or she claps hands, or chooses to lie down, I will do the same.

And gradually the fundamentals of communication exchanges will be rehearsed and explored, benefiting the pupil, who may feel relaxed and self- assured within the experience, and also the teacher, who may learn something about that individual's way of communicating.

Of course, a mainstream teacher can present an idea to their pupils and then let them explore it with relative independence. But a special needs teacher often has to go on the learning journey with the pupils, and may have to participate actively in the task in order to encourage and support others to do it.

This could be as straightforward as providing good hand-over-hand guidance, and helping the pupil to grasp and manipulate a paintbrush or musical instrument, or it could involve the more complex wonders of drama games and sensory stories.

Although it can be intense and, at times, frustrating, the close long-term partnership that a special needs teacher develops with pupils is definitely a key part of what makes the job so wonderful

Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Middlesex. In next week's The TES Magazine: coping with the emotional stress of the job.

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