Find a speed that suits you

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

Forget about the fast cats, lesson planning for children with learning difficulties requires focus, reinforcement and forward thinking, says Louisa Leaman

Pace is an important ingredient of any successful lesson. Pupils develop and learn at different rates and teachers have to take this into account when planning and structuring work. The challenge is to stretch the brains of the most able, while supporting the development of those who take a little longer.

- The received wisdom seems to be that a fast-moving, productive lesson is the way to challenge pupils; keeping them busy is the best way to reduce off-task behaviour.

In the special needs classroom, where the rate of learning and attainment level is likely to be lower than in the mainstream classroom, a strong sense of pace is no less critical to the success of the lesson. In this environment, however, we need to be conscious of the fact that we are dealing with extremes. For pupils with multiple learning difficulties, progress may be happening in "micro" stages. The signs of development can be so tiny and so infrequent that, without patience and vigilance, they can easily be completely overlooked.

For pupils with severe learning difficulties who have restricted concentration spans, the time spent on learning activities needs to be balanced with a sense of energy and succession. A fast turnover of tasks and an exciting atmosphere can be fundamental to pupil progress, keeping them focused and curious, where they would otherwise retreat inwards and switch off. Generally my pupils are good at letting me know when they've had enough - they pretend to go to sleep or walk away.

To me, there are three key factors that make the structure and pacing of special needs lessons easier to manage.

- First, I use repetition, as a means of building and reinforcing learning. A lesson, or series of lessons, may contain the same components, although slightly varied, week after week, maximising opportunities for pupils to absorb the experience. This means that, with good prior organisation, I am not having to re-invent the wheel each time: my resources are on hand.

- Secondly, I find it helpful to think about lesson plans in terms of what the pupils will be doing, rather than what I will be doing, always asking myself what is the best way to get them involved. This usually means doing away with lots of teacher talk and explanation, and coming up with hands- on ideas that encourage them to play an active and physical part in what goes on.

- Lastly, I make use of every pair of hands and every corner of space. After an initial lesson introduction, the class tends to be splintered into small groups, broadly defined by their learning needs, so that the pace and content of activities can be fine-tuned to their level. For this to happen effectively, forward thinking is essential, as well as good teamwork. It takes strong organisation to pull it together, particularly if time needs to be allowed for repositioning or giving pupils access to certain equipment.

On some days I feel more like a circus ringmaster than a teacher - when it comes together it looks magical, but when it doesn't it looks like chaos

Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Middlesex.

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