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Whatever you do for a living, your professional life brings you knowledge and understanding that people in other fields might not ‘get’. According to people who work with kids with special needs, it can be a challenging but highly-rewarding way to earn a living. So what would the UK’s teachers and SENCOs like the rest of us to know?

Lloyd is a former secondary teacher and headteacher with more than thirty-five years’ experience working in the education system. He now works as a tutor, helping students with a variety of challenges.

Tutoring, he says, has clarified what he already knew – that children with SEN learn best when lessons are adapted to their individual needs and personalities. “If you think about it, schools have been run in more-or-less the same way for 150 years,” he comments. “They’re usually big organisations where someone stands in front of a class and delivers information. The kids are expected to get on with it. But in a mainstream classroom of more than thirty students, pupils with SEN can sometimes be left out, no matter how dedicated the teachers are.”

Working one-to-one, Lloyd explains, he can tailor the work for each child, and learn to see the world through his students’ eyes. “I’ve been working with one lad, for example, who has turned out to be an astonishing rapper,” he says. “I’ve just discovered he’s got thousands of followers on Spotify! When I work with him on English projects, he produces excellent work if I let him do so using rap. It might not be what examiners are looking for, but it certainly helps him. It all depends on finding the best approach.”

Special Needs Professionals are Caring, Supportive and Resilient

tutor having fun with pda child

Tailoring lessons in this way, Lloyd points out, takes hours of careful planning behind the scenes – something parents might not always be aware of. Teachers and tutors also need to be fairly resilient, as working with kids with SEN can sometimes be challenging.

And although he acknowledges that some mums and dads have a hugely stressful time when trying to get the best schooling for their child, he says that in his experience:

  • Teachers
  • Teaching Assistants
  • SENCOs

All are dedicated and caring people.

Tutor Jill, a former deputy headteacher and SENCO, agrees that people working with children with special needs generally have a passion for it. “Most of us are fighting for true equality – just because a child doesn’t follow an expected route, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with them. The education system needs to change and be more flexible.”

A Positive Attitude is Essential

patient teacher with autistic child

It’s a job where you have to be patient and think on your feet, she continues, as what works with one student might be completely wrong for another. “You have to think about how you speak to each child. Some students can be really affected by your tone of voice or the words you use,” she points out.

It’s important for parents and teaching staff to have high expectations for children but you also have to be careful how you encourage them – you can’t necessarily sit them down and say, ‘Right. This is what you’re going to achieve today’ as that might feel like too much pressure. It’s about setting achievable targets and having a positive attitude. Think of their progress as a journey.”

Seeing a student achieve a goal, no matter how small, Jill says, is an ‘immense’ feeling. “It’s what keeps us all going,” she concludes.

It’s Important to Listen to the Students’ Opinions

teacher listening to child

SEN Tutor Steven is a qualified primary school teacher who is currently working towards a PhD in Education. His research is focusing on the perspectives of students with special needs, something he feels is often neglected when parents and educators try to work out what’s ‘best’ for an individual.

“There is often an idea that SEN students don’t ‘get’ the adults or peers in their life and that they should adapt or assimilate to reduce problems,” he explains. “But building understanding is a two-way process. I would argue that it is more important for everyone else to understand the needs of the SEN students. I often play games or give my students a little quiz when I first meet them to learn about how they like to learn.”

Steven agrees that working with kids with special needs is highly rewarding though teachers need to be flexible as students will often take planned activities in a completely different direction. He adds that parents should have high hopes for their kids while recognising that each child has their own trajectory.

“For example, if a student struggles with social environments, hours of clubs and activities to improve social skills may not be the most realistic or beneficial course of action,” he explains. “They may need extra time to decompress, and more alone-time – and that’s OK because burnout, anxiety or withdrawal is not going to help any goal! It comes back to the idea of little steps and having patience with the process.”

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