In the last of a four-part series on how to be a special needs teacher, Louisa Leaman looks at making lessons suitable for a wide range of children.Learning activities in the typical mainstream classroom are likely to have to be differentiated to some degree - challenging enough to stretch those with the most ability and simple enough to support those with the least. The special needs classroom is just the same. Differentiation plays a vital role in ensuring the enrichment and development of every pupil. But where a mainstream teacher, with a class of 30, might aim for a broad best-fit approach, a special needs teacher has to take each individual pupil as the starting point. Learning aims for each pupil have to be broken down into micro-steps, and each tiny step is vital.
One could be forgiven for thinking that having pupils with special needs in one classroom together should make the task of differentiation easier, but I have yet to see this as the case. In my classroom of pupils with severe learning disabilities, although ability generally falls below reception level, there is little regularity in what pupils can and can't manage.
I have to conjure up lessons that cater for pupils with visual and hearing impairments, while supporting those with limited concentration spans, while being accessible to pupils with complex physical needs, and also stimulating those who have higher levels of understanding and potential. At one end of the scale, there are those who, for example, are just beginning to show a response to the sound of their name, and need a calm, patient approach to engage themselves. At the other end, there are those who have lots of energy, who want to explore and who quickly lose focus (and patience) if they have to remain on one task for too long. The process of balancing these needs and making sure that each pupil has a meaningful experience can be intense, and at times, stressful.
Effective use of resources is essential. Staff can be deployed to lead small groups or provide one-on-one support - some of my lessons have four or five different activities going on at once. Use of space is also key: quiet areas for those who need few distractions, dark rooms and cushioned areas for those who need a sensory approach, and more traditional desks and chairs where appropriate.
And then, of course, there are lesson materials. There is no shortage of creative learning resources for the special needs classroom - the only problem is that they tend to be damned expensive
Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Middlesex.