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Enchant them

In the first of a four-part series on special needs teaching, Louisa Leaman advises you to forget convention and develop approaches more relevant to your pupils. So you want to be a special needs teacher? Or perhaps you are wondering how you can best support special needs pupils in your mainstream class? Have you got what it takes? And exactly what does it take? As a teacher in a large and thriving special school, I'm often asked by mainstream teachers what I do and how it differs from their work.

Perhaps one of the toughest challenges faced by teachers who make the transition from mainstream to special needs is the relearning of what a "typical" lesson should look like. Forget all those Ofsted-proof lesson plans, forget all you learned during your training, forget the eyes-down- and-get-on-with-your-work approach. Depending on the needs of your pupils, you may want to forget the pen or pencil - or even the desks.

In classrooms that support pupils with severe or profound levels of need, the written word can become obsolete. What relevance does reading and writing have when the concept of words has no meaning? That is not to say that such pupils will have no urge to communicate. It is about finding alternatives, approaches that are more relevant to these children.

Given the current mainstream emphasis on literacy skills, this can be awkward for inexperienced special needs teachers to get to grips with. Imagine a typical mainstream English lesson. Extracts from a text, let's say A Midsummer Night's Dream, might be read by the class, followed by some discussion about the theme or content, leading to a written essay or exercise.

In a classroom of children with severe learning difficulties, the same lesson might go like this: the lights are switched off, a sweet smell of incense drifts through the room and the tinkling of bells can be heard. Suddenly, a path of fairy lights illuminates the room and a voice announces the arrival of Titania, queen of the fairies. One of the pupils, sporting a homemade crown and wings, sprinkles handfuls of fairy dust (glitter) over those shehe passes. After much excitement and cheering, other pupils are invited to play the part of Titania, to find out what it's like to be a fairy queen.

If formal language is hard to interpret, whether that's the written or spoken word, we need to find other ways of giving pupils enriching and stimulating lessons. Stories and ideas can come to life through sensory experiences: smells, textures, tastes, sounds. Let your imagination go wild.

Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Enfield Next week: the importance of teamwork.

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