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Curriculum - Science - Working in synthesis with special needs

Teaching practical science to children with special educational needs is tough. You need to cater for a range of requirements to get a good reaction, says Vicki Shiel

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Teaching practical science to children with special educational needs is tough. You need to cater for a range of requirements to get a good reaction, says Vicki Shiel

You're about to plan the first practical lesson for an investigation into food energy and it dawns on you that getting the best out of each of your pupils may prove difficult.

Lisa has a tendency to knock things over, albeit unintentionally - a result of her dyspraxia. Tom has dyslexia and finds reading, understanding and remembering new words difficult. And Michael has autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), which often sees him get stressed and anxious, causing him to misbehave in class. Of the 30 pupils in the class, nine have been identified as having special educational needs (SENs).

The practical you intend to teach will require the pupils to use a Bunsen burner to burn a selection of food items including peanuts, and deduce how much energy they each contain. This can be problematic enough with a class of mischievous teens, but with so many particular requirements to consider, what approach do you take?

Moira (not her real name), a science adviser for a county council education advisory service, says this is not an unusual situation for a teacher in a mainstream school. Pupils with special educational needs can make up more than 30 per cent of a class of between 25 and 30 pupils, and these can range from children in wheelchairs to low-level literacy skills.

Depending on how the school chooses to integrate its SEN pupils, the class may also have high-achieving pupils with special educational needs, she adds.

Last year Ofsted called for more practical lessons in science as tests, it said, were making the subject dull. But some teachers aren't always confident as to the best approach to take when delivering practical lessons to classes with SEN pupils in an inclusive way. Their typical dilemma? "How do I cater for SEN pupils in a practical? I'm a little against giving out differentiated worksheets as I don't like to single kids out. I'm being observed tomorrow and want to ensure my pupil with autism is catered for," posts one teacher on the special needs thread on the TES web forum.

For Moira, the key to practical lessons is planning that incorporates successful differentiation. "Differentiation will depend on the individual needs of the child. For a child with Asperger's syndrome or ASD, you may decide to make sure you conduct the lesson in an area that they are familiar with and with equipment they are familiar with, so the only thing that is unfamiliar is the fact that you are burning food to find out how much energy is in it."

Asking a teaching assistant to focus on a child with dyspraxia to prevent accidents could help, she adds. "The assistant could help them set up the equipment and guide them through the practical. And for a child with dyslexia, you might decide to write as little as possible on your whiteboard when teaching, using colours when you do to make the information easy to process."

It's important to take the pupils' individual needs into account, as well as the commonly understood needs of that particular disability. "The aim should be to meet pupils' needs so they start and end at the same point, but having taken slightly different routes," she notes.

Catherine - not her real name - a science teacher at a comprehensive school in Bolton, says the key to catering for all educational needs is extra adults in the classroom. "The most useful tool is an extra adult to provide support as, even in a small class of 15 pupils, many of them with special needs, it is difficult to give the support."

She explains some of the challenges SEN pupils can pose when conducting practical lessons: "An inability to read can be a huge barrier to successful practical work. Even when a task is explained you often have to provide a guidance card for them to refer to as they go along. If they can't read this, they will constantly ask for help."

Behavioural difficulties can cause the most problems, she adds. "The added health and safety issues of using glassware, Bunsen burners and chemicals is a real problem when working with impulsive or defiant pupils. Supervision is hard enough with a group containing no SENs, but when many pupils need additional support, it can feel like an insurmountable task."

Where pupils display lower than average ability, they often struggle to appreciate the need to do things in a particular order, such as putting goggles on before collecting glassware, or adding indicator to an acid before adding alkali, she adds.

Catherine attempts to prevent problems arising with the Year 8 SEN class she currently teaches by dividing the class into two groups with her learning assistant. She explains: "She is very capable and we divide the class almost along the lines of a behavioural, emotional and social difficulties group and a learning difficulties group. We move them to separate sides of the room, work through the instructions with them and assist them when needed."

There are a number of ways in which teachers can differentiate when teaching mixed-ability classes with SEN pupils, she suggests. "For a pupil with ASD, you may decide to provide extra support by enlisting a learning support assistant and paying close attention to them. For a pupil with mild to moderate learning difficulties with a reduced reading and spelling age, you may approach their requirements by adapting the task itself - perhaps by making slight changes to the worksheet. And for a child with a specific learning disorder, such as dyslexia, you may adapt the outcome - asking them to take three measurements rather than five, for example."

The approach taken can be indicated on a lesson plan, answering for whom, why and how the approach is being taken.

Lynn Greenwold, chief executive of Patoss - the professional association of teachers of students with specific learning difficulties, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and Asperger's syndrome - believes that SEN pupils benefit from seeing demonstrations, as they stimulate the senses. "And there are plenty of opportunities for demonstrations in science. The more you show pupils what you're talking about, the better. It's so much more fun anyway," she says.

On pupils with dyslexia, she notes that the carrying language used in lessons must not be more difficult than it needs to be as the scientific terms are already difficult enough. "Science has a very specialised language. Dyslexic pupils find it difficult to learn new spellings and memorise new words, so they need opportunities and assignments to highlight them. They need focused sessions on vocabulary."

According to Moira, schools have come a long way in terms of how they approach teaching pupils with such different requirements in one class, but they're also still learning. "We're much farther forward than when I was at school and when I started teaching, but you do still get chalk and talk teachers."

One positive came with the introduction last month of the Improving Practical Work In Science Programme, led by the Association for Science Education.

The two-year programme will identify activities that promote good practice in practical science and aims to improve the quality of practical work, not just the quantity undertaken.

The work will hopefully shine a light on the difficulties faced by teachers tasked with teaching practical science to classes with SEN pupils and provide them with ideas and support.











- Teaching science to students with SEN

10 June 2009, Science Learning Centre

East of England, Bayfordbury

Cost: Pounds 125 (Impact awards available)

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