How I teach - Meet complex needs with creativity

An innovative approach can enable any pupil to exceed their expectations

Engagement is paramount in any classroom. Teachers across the country, regardless of the setting, seek to motivate and enthuse pupils in order to develop their understanding and create an enjoyable learning journey. In the secondary phase, more often than not the motivation comes from looking ahead to post-16 education and vocations. Secondary students are familiar with the pressures of acquiring certain grades and skills for adult life.

But for pupils in special schools, these factors do not usually promote participation and interest in the curriculum. Instead, inspiration must come from elsewhere - mainly the creative and often innovative methods of special educational needs teachers, who develop their practice based on a deep understanding of their pupils' mental, physical, emotional and educational requirements.

Merely adapting resources (however skilfully differentiated they are) or adopting the most judicious of mainstream intervention strategies is not enough to ignite the curiosity of a 14-year-old with a cognitive age of 6.

Does this mean that we should abandon hope of inspiring hunger for learning in pupils with complex needs? Not at all. Accepting limitations is a necessity, but teachers can overcome innumerable barriers by homing in on how a young person thinks and learns. In my school, this led to the establishment of independent writing lessons.

Engaging pupils who have a low cognitive age in independent writing can at first seem an insurmountable challenge. The difficulties are numerous and usually stem from neurological diversity. Yet we have found ways of persuading disaffected writers to write. And they have enjoyed the process of writing and celebrated the final outcome.

In a secondary class of pupils with moderate learning difficulties, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the crucial first step was to encourage these young people to believe in their capacity to become authors.

Attainment levels were put to one side. Students were provided with a rich literary environment that allowed for kinaesthetic learning; they were surrounded with spoken and written language that they could access through all their senses. Such resources (including speech-to-text and text-to-speech computer programs) supplied vocabulary that pupils could use to capture their ideas and compose sentences without relying on adults.

These tools minimised frustration and better enabled pupils to concentrate on generating ideas, as opposed to getting stuck on decoding challenging words or (even worse) limiting themselves to the simple vocabulary that they were already able to spell.

Equally important was the atmosphere in the classroom. It had to be conducive to a free exchange of ideas; pupils had to feel that the points they made were valued and to be encouraged to answer difficult questions related to these points.

Over time, the children began to collaborate and the adults - teacher, teaching assistant, learning adviser and volunteer - noticed a shift in the kind of support they were providing. Instead of acting as scribes or reinforcing basic writing skills, they were performing the role of listening partners who the pupils could bounce ideas off. The adults helped to shape and structure complex sentences and edit drafts.

The result was a collection of published stories that acts as a visual reminder for pupils, evidence that they are capable of writing and being creative. Their progress through engagement was real, tangible and accessible.

Kasia Fejcher-Akhtar is assistant headteacher at the Collett School in Hertfordshire

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