First Step - Special needs - A need to know

8th May 2009 at 01:00
You won't become an expert on special needs in your first year, so seek extra help from your Senco. It's not a sign of weakness

Special educational needs cover an intimidating array of handicaps. Any one class may consist of pupils with cerebral palsy, emotional and behavioural difficulties, dyslexia and those with varying degrees of autism - to name but a few. The only given is that no two children will have identical needs.

It can feel overwhelming for the most experienced of practitioner, let alone for newly qualified teachers with limited training. But you will still be expected to plan effectively for children with special needs in collaboration with the special needs co-ordinator (Senco).

Don't be afraid to ask for help. "Seeking professional input is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of maturity," says special needs teacher Ghundi Shaw, who runs a learning centre for autistic children at Woodford Valley CofE Primary School in Salisbury.

The first port of call will be the Senco, who should be able to offer a range of advice and strategies. "A good Senco is worth their weight in gold," says Annie Pryce, a special needs teacher from Devon. "If the Senco knows the pupil well, they will be the bridge between the pupil and an unfamiliar teacher."

When a new pupil was put in Ms Pryce's class, the Senco was able to give her techniques for managing his behaviour. "She warned me that the pupil wouldn't like me because I was an unfamiliar face," she says. "As such, I didn't take his behaviour personally."

Further discussions with parents, past teachers and teaching assistants will also prove invaluable. Their knowledge will highlight all the little quirks, strengths and weaknesses that make up the individual.

One pupil with a personal space issue may appreciate being allowed to pick up their lunchbox just before the main rush. A child fixated on the colour yellow may respond better to yellow stickers in their book as opposed to red.

"Speak to the people who know the child best," says Ms Shaw, who won the special needs teacher of the year award in 2007. "Only then can you move forward, develop your ideas and become a superb teacher."

Small steps make a big difference, she adds. The more predictable an environment, the less scary it will be for some pupils with special needs. Even a timetable on the whiteboard at the beginning of each day helps, along with pictures for those who struggle with reading.

Autistic pupils will also benefit from more visual aids, and from being told in advance about any structural changes to the day. They can find even simple tasks exhausting, so give them a breather by letting them do something they really enjoy in the afternoon. It will act as a strong motivator.

"What works for one pupil won't always work for another," warns Ms Shaw, "but the more you know about the child, the better your chances are of finding little tricks that they'll appreciate and respond to."

It is impossible to become an expert on every element of special needs within the first year of teaching. Managing behavioural issues can be especially taxing, says Ms Shaw. Unlike strong strategies attached to pupils with hearing or visual impairments, for example, teachers may have to develop their own approaches when handling badly behaved pupils.

However, continuing professional development - in the shape of working alongside other teachers, visiting local schools or attending training events - will build on your expertise.

New teachers nearing the end of their first year will need to start planning for next year's intake now. Look at the class. Will you be able to meet children's diverse needs or would you benefit from more training?

"In the long term, developing your SEN skills can only improve your teaching and enhance your employability," says Sean Stockdale from Nasen, the special needs organisation. "Taking responsibility for your training choices will ensure that you develop a well rounded set of skills and have the right mindset for meeting pupils' needs."

Nexk week: Working with teaching assistants

Things to think about

- Your special needs co-ordinator (Senco) should be the first port of call.

- Discuss strategies with parents and past teachers.

- Small responses to individual behaviours can make a lot of difference.

- Look at opportunities for CPD in this area.

- Look at next year's intake now - where will you need to focus your energy?

Related content:

Autism awareness peer support pack

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