Richard Hanks on Common SENse: How Mainstream Teachers Can Maximise Existing Skills to Support Special Educational Needs

Richard Hanks is a former Headteacher and has extensive experience of working with children with special needs. Here, he answers some questions about his new book, Common SENse for the Inclusive Classroom: How Teachers Can Maximise Existing Skills to Support Special Educational Needs – out today.

Tell us about this project and how you compiled the teaching ‘menus’ featured in your book?

I had had long experience in Special schools for pupils with learning difficulties, including the Headship of three schools. Then I took a sideways move, into an independent school, which was not a special school, as Head of Special Needs / Learning Support.

With that background, it is to be hoped I would know something about special needs.

But in a Special school, you are – or should be- working in conditions which are near-perfect: small classes; staff who have chosen to work with “special needs”, and may well have additional qualifications; a whole-school focus on special needs; arguably a generous budget, etc.

These do not necessarily apply in a school catering for pupils of wide ability levels, with those ability levels – and different types of need – being found in any (every) classroom. In the case of this school, there was a wish or philosophy that such a mix of pupils should be maintained. While the school was certainly not against a certain amount of withdrawal, one-to-one extra teaching etc, the general policy was one of “inclusion”.

And so my task was to support teachers in finding ways – practical and fairly simple – whereby they could really do something to meet the wide variety of needs they met in their pupils in virtually every lesson.

Over a period of time, we worked out the strategies, and ways of thinking about those strategies, (the menu choices) described in the book that were not too difficult to implement, and would make a practical difference to the pupil(s) in achieving measures of success in their school lives.

This book is for the non-specialist teacher whose approach to teaching children with SEN may be: ‘Say it again, say it louder, and say it slower.’ Where does this approach come from? How does your book address it?

This expression comes from frustration.

The teacher is frustrated by the pupil (who cannot do what the teacher sets him to do), and the teacher is frustrated by himself (because he cannot teach the pupil to do what he wants him to do).

The teacher feels he does not understand the nature of the pupil’s difficulties (e.g. dyslexia) and feels he should do. And he is frustrated because he, therefore, does not know how to meet the pupil’s needs. The teacher feels that a high degree of expertise is required – and that he does not have it.

And so this expression also comes from a feeling of inadequacy – a very uncomfortable feeling.

The book will bolster teachers. It will give them background information (in an easily digestible way) about dyslexia, etc. It will enable them to see that meeting (or certainly going some way towards meeting) pupils’ special needs as found in most schools does not require rocket-science teaching methods; it will give ample suggestions as to how teachers might go about this; and it will empower teachers, not least because the choice of strategy remains with the teacher. It will give them confidence that they can make at least a certain (worthwhile) amount of difference.

In mastering these strategies, will mainstream teachers come to prioritise the needs of SEN students as a matter of course? How do mainstream teachers incorporate these strategies into their overall teaching and management styles?

“Inclusion” is here to stay. The (UK) Coalition is rowing back a little from wholesale Inclusion, but teachers would still be well advised to consider it as part of their professional life (and, in principle, many welcome this). (As the book describes, there are now also certain legal obligations upon schools to do so.)

But teachers can be puzzled – and exasperated by – some of the pupils they now customarily meet (pupils that they may not have met not so many years ago, when schools organized themselves internally differently).

For the most and overwhelming part, teachers do want to meet the needs of every single one of their pupils. But, yes, they will have to spot quickly (prioritise) those pupils who are not coping with particular tasks. And then, having thought about the pupil and the task as described in the book, they will have to choose strategies – which mostly are just adaptations of what they are doing anyway.

Incorporating these strategies becomes part of routine lesson planning. Modifications to the general teaching method, and way of accomplishing a task, are simply built in from the outset.

But a teacher without a background in special needs is not expected instantly to be familiar with every type of learning disability, and every possible strategy for overcoming them. Teachers new to inclusion are allowed to be patient with themselves, and to build up a lexicon of strategies over time, and as needs present themselves. The important thing is that they always do as much as they reasonably can; this will mean they are not doing everything – because that’s just not possible – but it is a great deal better than doing nothing (which is what some of them currently feel they can do). Regularly dipping into this book will help them a lot, I hope.

Do you have any strategies for teachers that will help them communicate with the parents of students with SEN?

The main strategy for communicating with parents is to do it regularly, not only when there are problems, and not belatedly, so that the parent can never say, “Why are you just telling me this? How long has this been going on for?”

An analogy I use in the book is of a bridge existing between home and school. The bridge does have, by definition, different locations at each end of it – but these locations are joined by the bridge, not divided by it. And the pupil, who crosses that bridge every day, is fully aware of this.

So, communication, should be regular – and, wherever possible, positive. (This also makes negative feedback easier for the teacher to give and the parent to receive if it is necessary.)

How to get that info across the bridge?

End-of term reports,of course.

Much more frequently (even daily?!) home-school diaries / comment books. Allow space for pupil comments, too. (Homework diaries come into this category, too.) Such books can relate to everyday activities, but can well be bolstered when a particular matter is being addressed eg something new in maths being introduced, a forthcoming trip which the pupil may be becoming anxious about.

As indicated above, involve the pupil. There may be occasions when it is best that the pupil does not know what the parents and school are talking about, but these are, in fact, probably, rare.

Do not forget we live in an electronic age; most homes have e-mail!

Try to improve upon the usual Parents’ Evening formula. A rolling programme of short evenings may be more productive all-round than the fraught rugby scrum once per team that serves as parent consultation im some schools.

Make it all about communication. Communication is a two-way affair. Do not just tell parents. Expect them to respond; and respect what they say.

As the book points out, good parent-teacher communication is particularly important in working with SEN pupils. Involve the parents, and see if they can support learning at home. Initiate contact.

In some cases, be the parents’ mentor; having a son or daughter with SENs can be very difficult. In other cases, be prepared to learn from them; many parents are well aware of their children’s needs, and can give valuable pointers as to how their children can be supported.

It’s a hard thing to say, and a fine line to walk, but judge the distance between striking up a friendship and having a positive but professional relationship.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

Richard Hanks, M.Ed. was Headteacher of two schools in Avon and Hampshire before moving on to become Head of Learning Support at a school near Bath. He is currently a member of the Independent Monitoring Board of a Young Offenders’ Institute and of the Members’ Council of Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

Books related to this blog post

Common SENse for the Inclusive Classroom

Common SENse for the Inclusive Classroom

How Teachers Can Maximise Existing Skills to Support Special Educational Needs

Richard Hanks


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