Inclusion advice: Moderate learning difficulties

Written by: Daniel Sobel and Wendy Knott | Published:
Photo: iStock

Including students with moderate learning difficulties in the mainstream secondary school setting can present challenges. Experts Daniel Sobel and Wendy Knott offer some solutions

To what extent students with moderate learning difficulties (MLD) should be included in the mainstream secondary setting is a question that touches on ideology and politics and will rapidly divide an audience.

MLD refers to students whose attainment is significantly below the expected levels for most curriculum areas despite appropriate interventions.

The needs of these students cannot be met without additional strategies and levels of differentiation above that which is classed as normal for their peers.

MLD students are often known by their special need name, such as autistic spectrum disorder, speech and language difficulties, Down Syndrome etc.

Including MLD in the mainstream is really hard – it requires time, thought and knowledge. Many secondary teachers simply do not have the training to be able to teach a student who is learning significantly below the national average. This article lays out a number of common difficulties encountered with trying to integrate MLD students and some recommendations to support their inclusion.

Consistency is key

Most schools have access to the services of specialists but if disseminated strategies are only engaged by one or two teachers then the school will often see bad behaviours because of frustration and lack of engagement. The first step behind adequate training around the general needs of MLD children is consistency of approach.

In one school, the SENCO was determined to make the integration of a challenging MLD student work. She embraced the expertise of specialists and ensured that there was healthy communication and mutual support between home and school, and a consistency of approach from teaching staff.

The student began to make progress, until the SENCO moved schools. After that consistency dropped and slowly the student began to feel isolated and frustrated. Without the direction and understanding of inclusive practice, subject teachers began to complain about the disruption caused by the student and eventually the student was removed from the school entirely.

Suggested solutions

In the above example, we see that it was the SENCO who supported the staff in how to include the MLD student and maintain a consistency of delivery and practice.

If there is a lack of swift feedback from teachers (to support staff and SEND services) about students who are struggling then progress of particular MLD students will fall by the wayside. It is imperative that difficulties are addressed quickly so that strategies can be redesigned or tweaked.

Transition is half the battle

Transition between primary and secondary poses challenges to all students but particularly for those with MLD around their more practical and emotional needs, such as knowing how to navigate around the school and who to go to if they have a problem.

Sometimes issues that have surfaced in primary may simply disappear as a student subconsciously sets themselves up for a new start, but often if the students’ difficulties have not been adequately addressed, however good the intention of the primary school, then their perception of that student and the resultant learned behaviours will follow the child to their new school and will have a negative impact from the out-set.

For example, a boy with MLD who was withdrawn from most lessons at his primary school was required to move from classroom to dining hall at a different time to his peers because he was deemed unmanageable for several reasons.

Rather than address the needs through personalised strategies and targeted differentiation, the school took the easiest route – preventing him from interacting or engaging with his peers at all. When he was allowed back into a lesson or assembly he had no positive examples or role-models to adhere to and sought attention by perpetuating the negative responses that so badly needed addressing.

When the student eventually started at his new secondary school they had to retrain the student away from his habitualised patterns of behaviour.

Suggested solutions

Doing a staged integration is a positive first move. Liaison between schools is extremely important as is the sharing of more nuanced information about the student, such as which peers the student may best be separated from in class or which peer the student may wish to be seated near.

Secondary schools should plan individual meetings with parents of MLD students when they are in year 5, way before the student begins at the new school, in order to build a rapport, look at the Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), and consider some of the barriers and hurdles to overcome collectively. Will a “buddy” system be instigated or will a number of teaching assistants be tasked with the responsibility of showing the student around the school during the staged transition?

If the student finds change difficult then meeting their new teachers, including nominated teaching assistants, beforehand and becoming familiar with new classrooms, dining halls or sports areas before the “big day” will be another aspect to consider.

Getting the right advice

Reports written by doctors and specialists are supposed to be authoritative but this doesn’t necessarily make them right or pertinent. For example, quite often a specialist will garner a momentary snapshot of the needs of a particular student and base their strategies accordingly.

The students’ behaviour at that time may have been mood dependent or led by an event or response to something that had happened that morning or during the previous lesson. It is not unknown for reports to be generic rather than personalised which will have limited use.

Suggested solution

Specific training about the individual student’s learning needs requires time and practice – and eventually a nuanced understanding may emerge.

This is a process that requires updating and reviewing as the student progresses and matures. Prioritise the view of your own staff – especially your teaching assistants, who work more closely with the student than anyone else – and ask them for their views on any specialist advice you receive.

If a report is generic, you should also insist that a specialist re-submits a report that is specific and personalised.

Teaching assistants

Gone are the days when MLD students could simply be placed in a lesson with a teaching assistant “stuck” to their side with no communication between them and the teacher.

Quality first teaching means that teachers are now expected to collaborate with teaching assistants to provide a place for every student in the lesson and not in a “class within a class” with the teaching assistant doing nothing more than babysitting.

Even when teaching staff plan well for MLD students, there is often an over-reliance on the teaching assistant on the part of the student to help them access work. Problems also emerge when that key teaching assistant is absent or on long-term leave: how will their key student cope in their absence?

Suggested solution

Promoting independent learning should always be an aim for MLD students, which includes not being entirely dependent on the teaching assistant for their learning. Appointing a key worker with at least one or more “deputies” is accepted good practice.

For the welfare of your staff it is important to establish a bond between the key student and more than one teaching assistant so that support can be shared.

Time could be made for a department meeting where support staff are encouraged to discuss problems and issues and promote skills through sharing experiences and best practice.

Other considerations

All of the usual educational markers should come under close scrutiny for MLD students, including:

  • What does rapid and sustained progress look like?
  • What is aspiration for MLD students?

Furthermore, logistical and timetabling questions emerge in year 9 for planning key stage 4, such as entry level exams which have separate teaching demands or other courses and qualifications which require qualified providers/instructors. These problems are just extensions of the usual challenges for students, but more complex.

There is one rule of thumb – plan way in advance. It is difficult to find timetabling solutions at the end of year 9 – this should have been planned for back in year 8. Stay one year ahead of planning wherever possible.

Concluding thoughts

The real success stories of MLD students in the mainstream are not as common as one would hope because of the points we have outlined above.

For those of us who have had the privilege of seeing many specialist schools, we know that they can be wonderfully nurturing environments that are so much better set up to manage the needs of the more challenging MLD students.

Maybe this broad debate has to be settled according to the individual child and what they and their parents want – perhaps a one-size-fits-all solution should not be imposed upon anyone.

One case springs to mind that illustrates this: a parent was advised by all specialists and the primary and secondary school that their Down Syndrome child would be better off in a specialist school. The mother defied the advice and even defied other parents who complained about a child with such needs mixing with their own children.

Five years later, the student left the school with the friendship and support of her peers, teachers and other parents. She got up on stage and sang “I did it my way” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. Her learning and socialisation had been remarkably more advanced than if she had gone to the specialist school.

However, for every story like this, there must be five or 10 students who scraped by, and many who did not complete key stage 4.

We hope this article has contributed something positive to the debate and offers some insight and guidance for schools around the common issues.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND and Pupil Premium reviews, training and support with all forms of inclusion. Wendy Knott is an SEN specialist teacher and expert on differentiation.


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