Assembly point - Find out where the pieces fit

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Look for ways to avoid the anything-can-happen chaos with special needs pupils in assemblies

Assembly: a time to sit back and relax, a time you don't have to plan or fill for your class, a time to look on as the primary classes sweetly produce their first class effort, a time to try to look interested as a member of the leadership team drones on, or a stressful time when anything could happen in full view of all your colleagues. Chances are if you identified with the last description, you teach pupils with special needs.

My recollection of assemblies during my five years in mainstream school is of sitting at the side of the hall whispering archly at the wrigglers in my class, or the wrigglers in other classes near me. The only stressful assemblies were the ones that had to be produced by my class. I fervently hoped they would be the right length, intelligently entertain the school and parents, and not involve anybody wetting themselves. In contrast, I can barely recall an assembly in a special school that hasn't been stressful.

Every class in a special school is different. Consider the school for pupils with severe and complex learning difficulties; within that descriptor pupils have a broad range of learning difficulties and physical disabilities. Some classes will be made up entirely of pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Other classes will have pupils who are physically able but who have significant learning difficulties, yet others will be made up of pupils with autism. Add to that the fact that it's probably a school for four to 19-year-olds, and you begin to get a picture of the variety of needs that the assembly ought to address.

There is always at least one class whose pupils exhibit challenging behaviours, and who find it difficult to sit still for an all singing, all dancing lesson designed especially for them, let alone for a general assembly in a room of perhaps 80 people conducted by someone so far away they are not sure who is in charge. The teachers of this class pray the assembly will pass without anybody running away, hitting out, shouting or self harming. Swinging on your chair and falling off is regarded with an indulgent smile and a huge sigh of relief - it could have been worse. This class perhaps seems the most stressful to sit with but there are other classes equally fraught with worries.

A number of pupils may be on oxygen and their assistants will have to remember to keep a constant watch on the levels in their cylinders, including checking them before going into assembly. These pupils need to sit near their assistants so their breathing and colour can be monitored.

Some pupils are also likely to be epileptic. Seizures are no respecter of assemblies, or any other time, and can occur dramatically and without warning just as the head announces silence for the prayer or a child with learning difficulties is proudly sharing the first word they have learnt to say. And of course, just as in any other school, there are the pupils who are driven by boredom to need the toilet and who have to be coaxed to hold on for just a few more minutes.

So how best to keep the pupils interested and the staff relaxed? Try these few tips:

- Play introductory music as pupils enter the hall as a cue that it is assembly, and to give them something to listen to while waiting for everyone to gather.

- Use a projector or whiteboard to show images linked to your theme.

- Follow a consistent format so that pupils understand the process of assembly and anticipate what comes next. For example: introductory music, welcome, assembly content, prayer and dismissal.

- Make sure that you can be heard, use a microphone if necessary.

- Try to have an activity that can involve everybody, such as an action song that pupils can listen to or see, even if they can't physically join in; tiny tastes of chocolate egg in an Easter assembly; flowers to pass around and look at for a Mother's Day assembly.

The key point is to make your assemblies as multi-sensory as possible and in that way you will meet the needs of as many of the pupils as possible. By keeping your assembly short and sticking to the time limit, you'll meet the needs of the staff, too.

Joan Smith is a class teacher at St Nicholas School in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

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