As many wise people have often said, ‘Fail to plan and plan to fail’. This is particularly true when it comes to working as a teacher or tutor. For a student to benefit from a lesson, the person doing the education needs to have a clear idea of what they’re teaching, how they intend to do it and what the outcome should be.
Detailed planning is even more important when you’re working with kids with special needs as teachers need to take into account a pupil’s:
- Difficulties and strengths
- Learning styles
- Emotional needs
- Health issues
- Even their mood
Visual Timetables are Sometimes Useful
Nicole is a qualified teacher and tutor. She has been Head of autism at a special school and has worked with primary & secondary aged pupils and also young adults. She agrees that planning is essential for teaching staff but says that it’s not always clear-cut how much you should share these learning goals with a student.
“You definitely have to communicate that there is a plan,” she comments. “Lots of people with SEN like visual timetables which show them exactly what they’ll be doing at any point during the lesson. It makes them feel secure to know what’s coming next. But it’s important to note that not everyone responds well to this approach,” she continues. “A child with PDA (pathological demand avoidance) traits may feel that following a schedule places too many expectations on them. It can actually increase their anxiety.”
Where children feel pressured by a plan, Nicole has found it helpful to include them in writing their own lesson plan. Using a wipe-clean board, for example, allows the teacher to suggest tasks that the student can then move around to create an order they feel happy with. This, she says, gives children a greater sense of control which, in turn, makes them more relaxed and willing to engage in the planned learning.
Why not download your own visual timetable from this list of resources >>
Sensory Activities Becoming More Widespread
Many children with special needs also have difficulties with sensory processing – they are either over or under sensitive to what they see, hear, feel, smell, touch or taste. Sometimes, they can experience both extremes in different ways.
As an example, a young person may hate the feel of some fabrics next to their skin or the texture of certain foods. At the same time, they may need to squeeze stress balls to feel calm or spend hours twirling on the spot to stimulate their sense of balance.
Because of this, Nicole says, many teachers, even in mainstream schools, are beginning to incorporate sensory activities into the school day. Often called a ‘sensory diet’, this is a timetable of a wide range of physical tasks, using both gross and fine motor skills, which are undertaken for a few minutes at regular intervals. Experts believe these help kids to stay calm and focused and cope better with the challenges of the school day.
Everyone has Sensory Needs
“We all have sensory needs, even adults,” she explains. “We might chew the end of a pen, fiddle with our hair during a meeting or go for a walk to de-stress. But young children, especially, haven’t yet worked out what might help them so teachers have to provide activities instead.”
These might include things like:
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Squishing clay
- Crawling round a circuit
- Playing tug-of-war
- Throwing a beanbag
- Blowing bubbles
- Looking at coloured lights projected on the ceiling
“One young man I worked with was working on a project about autumn and was reluctant to do his work,” Nicole remembers. “I got him to sweep up leaves in the playground and when he came back inside, he did one of the best pieces of writing he’d ever done.”
A Sensory Diet at Home
Families can also provide sensory activities for children at home, she advises, to offset to the sitting still and concentrating required at school. Although many parents do this naturally – taking the kids to the playground on the way home, for example – it’s easy to leave it if we’re busy or stressed ourselves. Creating your own formal, sensory schedule, Nicole says, reminds you how important these activities are to family life.
“The best tip is getting kids to use heavy muscles,” she concludes. “Get them climbing, doing push-ups or if you’ve got kids who like fetching and carrying, get them to unpack the shopping. It makes them calm if they’re stressed and gives them energy if they’re tired and floppy. It’s like a magic trick!”