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Model Miss

In a world that doesn't always make concessions for learning difficulties, pupils need to communicate, take risks and cope with rejection, says Pam Itzkin.

There are many teachers who have to deal with pupils with a complicated range of needs in their mainstream classes. Already overworked, teachers often find these pupils difficult or become dependent on the teaching assistant to find a programme for the pupil.

Getting these pupils to interact with the rest of the class is important. After all, many pupils with severe learning difficulties are unable to access information in a meaningful way from written text, so social skills and interaction is crucial. To cope with a world that does not always make concessions for learning difficulties, these pupils need to be motivated to communicate, to take risks and to be able to cope with rejection, which is part of social interaction.

All pupils do initially want to communicate. A few years ago I was disappointed that a pupil did not appear to have made any progress. "Oh no!" said the teaching assistant proudly. "When he first came he used to point his fingers down at the other pupils but now he can put his fingers up and insult the other pupils like everyone else."

The teacher is the model to the class of how to relate to pupils with special needs and facial expressions will give the message louder than anything spoken. It's good to acknowledge the work of these pupils in every lesson, and to get them to share work with classmates. Also, sending pupils on errands gives them the opportunity to communicate with different adults, though it's important to prime the other adults.

The first step for the pupil is to break the sound barrier and hear his or her own voice in the class. Role-play is very useful for interaction. For example, in one school, a mixed-ability group of seven pupils created a dance to demonstrate how food travels down the digestive system. This helped them memorise the names of body parts. When they demonstrated their work to the whole class, the teacher could explain that kinaesthetic learning of this kind was important and useful.

Tally charts afford lots of possibilities to include pupils. When the class was doing some revision on Shakespeare, each person wrote on a sticky label the name of their favourite character and their worst character. The pupil with severe learning difficulties collected the labels and made a tally chart that was then displayed. This could be used in other curriculum areas - for example, the class could vote on what were the best and worst aspects about life in Victorian times.

For pupils with literacy difficulties it is useful to give them text in the "writing with symbols" programme. With practice they can stand up and read a bit of research they have done to the class. When I tried this I heard one pupil turn to the other and say: "I never knew that he could read." The pupil gained status in the class giving him the confidence to take more risks with his reading.

Pam Itzkin is a special needs teacher and senior learning support co- ordinator at Eastlea Community School in Newham, east London.

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