Effective SEN differentiation

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Photo: iStock

Inclusion expert Daniel Sobel discusses approaches teachers can use to achieve differentiation for SEN pupils and to maximise its impact

Responding to the variety of needs presented in any secondary classroom can seem like an overwhelming task for teachers.

The 2014 Code of Practice brought SEN “back into the classroom”, emphasising the role of quality-first, personalised teaching in SEN support.

The problem is that of a teacher’s 200-plus students a week, perhaps 40 could need some degree of personalised learning. Noticing, differentiating for and keeping track of so many individuals, on top of the time required for those with the most severe needs, seems like a massive addition to a teacher’s workload.

I have worked with multiple SEN departments struggling to “lead from behind”: to support teachers to support students, rather than letting provision happen in the SEN office at the end of the corridor.

They do not report that teachers aren’t interested – just that they are run off their feet already, and the extra challenge can seem almost insurmountable. If differentiation takes up too much time, regardless of training, it is unreasonable to ask staff to do it. But I don’t believe this is the case. In fact, I think part of the perceived difficulty of differentiation arises simply from seeing SEN in the wrong way.

Problems vs ‘presenting behaviour’

SEN departments, and therefore teachers, tend to work with labels. A student’s particular needs are diagnosed and linked to a condition. In line with the extent of the needs, appropriate streams of support and funding are unlocked.

This is a crucially important process, but what it tends to mean in the classroom is paperwork: teachers must navigate files of detail on every SEN student, followed by the mammoth task of mapping out parallel goals and work for each.

Several things become simpler if we focus instead on “presenting behaviour”: the needs a student presents with at a given moment.

Identified “presenting behaviours” are not labels, like autistic spectrum disorder or dyslexia, which describe a condition with specific linked symptoms.

A student may well have a condition, but if so, it is a matter for qualified professionals to diagnose. What matters in the moment is that the student is presenting a need: like difficulty following complex instructions, reading the emotions of a peer, or ordering and sequencing.

“Presenting behaviours” are immediate needs which require subtle, flexible on-the-spot intervention. A student who appears to struggle to follow complex instructions, for example, could have instructions repeated to them one or two steps at a time, or have them written down as steps, each ticked off on completion. A student who struggles with sequencing could be taught simple mind-mapping techniques such as colour-coding.

Once a student is labelled in your mind they are limited: the difficulty with saying that a child is hyperactive is that they may be hyperactive currently, rather than always, or even hyperactive in reaction to you.

One autistic spectrum disorder student is not the same as another, just as goes for neuro-typical students, and the label tends to misdirect understanding of the individual.

Do note that for some students, perceiving that their teacher thinks they “have a problem” can lower their self-esteem and lead to a worsening of behaviour as a coping strategy.

Focusing on the needs presented at any given moment makes SEN support less a matter of arduous preparation and more one of understanding.

Teacher training stages fail to convey enough in-depth knowledge of needs and the processes of child development and language acquisition, and there is a deep need for targeted CPD.

However, if teachers work on developing good “teaching reflexes” when it comes to SEN support – the ability to notice “presenting behaviour” and respond quickly with subtle and flexible differentiation – the demand on their time is significantly reduced.

Beyond worksheets

I worked with a teacher who was really struggling to differentiate for a particular student with a range of social and learning needs. She prepared alternative worksheets for nearly every lesson. This either took up a great deal of her time or (to make them quicker to produce) followed a simple repetitive pattern that bored the student.

I worked together with the school’s SENCO to suggest a number of on-the-spot techniques the teacher could use to respond to the student’s needs.

First, we suggested that she sit the student with a more able peer for parts of the lesson. With this peer’s help the student was mostly able to engage with the same material as the rest of the class. The sociable aspect of the pairing also gave him a chance to work on social skills at the same time.

We also suggested that the teacher break down instructions into smaller chunks on the worksheets that she prepared for the whole class. This helped a number of students and saved her preparing and printing two sets of material for every lesson.

Finally, we suggested that when she planned a lesson which was going to introduce a number of keywords or concepts, she set the student an alternative homework of researching these beforehand.

This small element of pre-learning saved the teacher from having to spend a chunk of time each lesson working one-on-one with the student explaining new ideas and vocabulary.

Pre-prepared differentiated worksheets do of course have a role to play in SEN support, but it is important to think beyond simply producing the sheet itself.

For example, to support a student who presents with hyperactivity it may be necessary to prepare work that is more broken down than the work for the rest of the class. But rather than waiting for that student to come into the classroom and settle down with the rest of the class – a process they likely find difficult and will take lots of time over – their worksheet can be handed to them as soon as they come into the room.

This gives them something to sit down and focus on immediately. Although the teacher still has to take some time to prep the extra sheet, they save the time within the lesson that they might have taken fighting the need: struggling to get the student to settle before handing work out to the class.

It’s our problem

Effective support is not only about differentiation techniques. Relationship is key and will have an impact on all interventions – even the most thoughtful support can be undermined by a negative teacher-student relationship.

Thinking in terms of presentations reinforces this. Labels describe students in terms of complex and permanent problems. But the needs a student presents in a given moment – including challenging behaviours – are the combined result of their needs and the situation and will be linked to the relationship they have with the teacher and the atmosphere that teacher has created in the classroom.

Regardless of a student’s presenting behaviour, the issue is ours to deal with. This is nearly always possible. While some students will need the specialist interventions that a non-mainstream setting provides, the good news is that the majority of students will be helped significantly if staff are trained and supported to include them. For many this will include avoiding their school placement failing.

Focusing on success

Among urgent discussions about classes or teachers with which a student has failed to engage, successes tend to get lost. But even comparatively small successes can be the key to challenging situations. Students who are permanently excluded frequently reach that stage because they have “failed” in most classes, but if the one or two classes in which the student succeeded could be recognised and replicated, this outcome might be avoided. It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel where, as in most cases, there are individual staff who have succeeded with the student.

Moreover, of course, it is important to recognise the successes of the students themselves. Students with SEN have often spent large amounts of time sitting in detention thinking about how “naughty” they are, or feeling they can’t possibly keep up with classes. Recognising and rewarding small achievements can help foster change in their attitude to learning.

Best practice

Without the requisite training or understanding, differentiating en-masse is a potentially impossible burden for teachers. But ultimately, although it takes time to develop the skillset, the most time-efficient differentiation is also the most effective. It involves continuous awareness of and subtle responses to the needs a student presents with in a particular moment.

It involves a shift in attitude, from seeing a student as having (or being) a problem, to understanding the needs with which they present and knowing how respond.

With praise, encouragement and the right support, all students can achieve. Specific SEN can sometimes bring about amazing advantages, which can be sought out: dyslexic students, for example, sometimes develop fantastic memories, autistic spectrum disorder students can be highly focused and react well to learning through extended projects.

The goals of fostering aspiration and rapid progress must apply to all students according to their ability. All students deserve the opportunity to achieve. Only the energy, focus and training of their teachers can offer it to them.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEN and Pupil Premium Reviews, training and support with all forms of inclusion.


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