In my early days of SEN tutoring back in the early 2000’s, I encountered many students with a variety of learning differences.
After qualifying as a dyslexia specialist in 2007, I fully understood that as well as phonics-based difficulties, my dyslexic students often had weaker working memory capacity and slower auditory processing speed. What I hadn’t quite grasped was the broad extent of knowledge and understanding beyond this that I would actually need to help my students effectively.
Here are some of the things I wish I had known then…
According to Dr Valerie Muter, co-occurrence between the different classifications of SpLDs (such as dyslexia, AD(H)D, dyscalculia and so on) is actually the rule rather than the exception.
For example, there is a shared risk factor of poor working memory for both dyslexics and dyscalculic students. Therefore there is a 23% chance of co-occurrence. Similarly, there is a shared risk factor of slow processing speed for dyslexics and students with AD(H)D. In this case, there is up to a 40% chance of co-occurrence.
This highlights the need for any educator working with students with SpLDs to be ‘clued up’ on all of the most common learning differences, not just dyslexia, or AD(H)D for example. Our approach should be to look at all of our students and ourselves as diverse in the way we think, feel and learn; and as a consequence, adapt our teaching and assessments according to our audience. This is why we now offer our tutors free training in all of the most common specific learning difficulties.
“If we have high expectations of students and empower them with strategies that work for them, they will perform better.”
When giving targeted support to students, we often focus on the areas of learning that they find most challenging. We may use the terms ‘difficulty’ and ‘need’, neglecting to reference ‘strengths’ and ‘special talents’.
What I didn’t realise then, was the powerful impact that positive labelling could have on my students’ psychology, affecting their motivation, self-esteem and confidence, ergo their ability to learn.
As far back as 1968, the theory was tested as to whether labelling a child with a positive term such as ‘gifted’ would have a measurable effect on their behaviour – even when the label was applied randomly. The answer was, yes, it can. When teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development…. they did (Pygmalion in the Classroom, Rosenthal + Jacobsen 1968).
If we have high expectations of students and empower them with strategies that work for them, they will perform better. In an SEN setting, whilst it’s important to be teaching the core skills students need; we should also discover and play to their strengths. Use songs, role play, games, movement, art, cartoons, colour, and then also take advantage of assistive technology. The key is to enable students to focus on and celebrate what they can do; not be bogged down by what they can’t.
20 years ago, mental health was not talked about much in the mainstream. It certainly wasn’t part of the training I received. Now, thankfully, these issues are well documented. We know that students we’re teaching may be trying to cope with a variety of mental health difficulties. These are varied and include anxiety, depression, eating disorders and so on.
Children with learning differences can often feel misunderstood, frustrated or anxious in a classroom setting, so it is hardly surprising to note that a child with a learning disability is six times more likely to present with a mental health difficulty throughout his/her life than a child without one (Emerson and Hatton, 2007).
What is now clear, is the need for us all to spot the tell-tale signs of mental health difficulties, as well as to know how to help. For more information on this please see our Mental Health page and resources.
Countless brilliant and accessible books are now available for both practitioner and student. They’re a far cry from the relatively dry, academic texts available when I first started teaching.
One of my early students was a boy who displayed typically autistic traits. He avoided eye contact and had sensory processing difficulties. In hindsight, he would have been far better served by me if I’d had resources available to me such as the new book, “Is That Clear? An effective communication in the neuro-diverse world” by Z. Gaynor, K. Alevizos and J Butler. It’s a simple, clear and brilliantly informative user-friendly guide for anyone working with autistic people.
Not only are books for educators more accessible, there are now many books that we suggest to our students (and parents). These fantastic tools help students understand the way they think, feel and learn. A superb example of this includes Siena Castellon’s book, “The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow up Awesome and Autistic”, or the new book for young dyslexic students, “Mission Dyslexia: Find your super power and be your brilliant self”.
Jessica Kinglsey Publishers is one of my favourite publishers for brilliant SEN-related books and is now one of my go-to places for the best books available.
“The key is to enable students to focus on and celebrate what they can do; not be bogged down by what they can’t.”
The education system as a whole, it is still woefully inadequate for serving the needs of nuero-diverse students. Thank goodness for forward thinking educators like Victoria Bagnall of Connections in Mind who are paving the way for a brighter future with initiatives like The Forum for the Future of Education.
In terms of supporting students ‘on the ground’ with specialist, targeted tuition, thankfully progress has already been made. It continues apace with: a greater understanding of the range of specific learning difficulties that can co-occur; the advantages of understanding the psychology surrounding positive labelling; a broader more holistic approach to assessments; a greater understanding of mental health difficulties and related support strategies; and a huge array of accessible, practical teaching resources from forward-thinking authors and book publishers.
Sarah Cox, SEN Consultant