Differentiation for SEN students: tips for boosting attainment

This article was originally posted in The Guardian 9/4/14.


Special educational needs experts present three common scenarios where a learning difficulty could be stifling progress – and explain how you can adjust classwork.

Over recent years there have been plenty of innovations aimed at addressing the needs of Special Educational Needs (SEN) students: among them is the radical shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

Rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach, where a teacher simply imparts knowledge, schools have become more focused on differentiated teaching, which focuses on addressing the individual needs of students.

The draft New Code of Practice for SEN, for example, which is currently open to consultation, proposes that schools must teach students of all abilities in a mainstream setting by personalising and carefully structuring lessons. Under the code, both tutors and subject teachers would be expected to work alongside the special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco). At the moment, the Senco might identify students with learning difficulties and then, with other SEN staff and outside agencies, provide strategies for teachers to follow in order to help particular students access the curriculum. But if the new code is introduced in its current form, teachers may need to regularly assess and develop students’ progress and identify the point at which they should receive additional support.

Given these new proposals, how can teachers improve their lesson personalisation? The key to excellent differentiation lies in observation. Here are three easily identifiable characteristics that may suggest a need for further investigation:

1. Continually disruptive behaviour

It might be the case that a small number of students disrupt for the sake of being disruptive – to oppose staff, for example, but look behind the behaviour for a deeper cause. If work is too challenging or too detailed, some students may feel threatened and disillusioned because it is beyond their ability. If they feel the challenge is too great, work becomes “boring” and any effort is “a waste of time”. They may become disruptive to gain attention in a different way. Ask yourself why the student is performing in this way, check their files and then consider ways to re-engage them with the lesson.

A good example was Steven*, a pleasant, polite student who had a tendency to temper tantrums. He would clash with staff and storm out of classrooms when things were not going his way. Detentions did not help the situation and his parents were at their wits’ end as to why he was behaving in such a way. Eventually a specialist teacher assessed him. It quickly became apparent that Steven had significant memory difficulties which prevented him from remembering information from one day to the next. Every time he went back into the classroom he was expected to consolidate and build upon the knowledge he had gained during previous lessons, but for Steven this was impossible. As a result, he would lose interest in the lesson and misbehave to get the attention he craved. Soon, initiatives and strategies, including personalised differentiation, were put in place, and Stevent began to make progress. Eventually he achieved some good GCSE results and went on to college.

Teacher’s top tips for differentiating for this student:

Use supported self-compiled visual dictionary for subject-specific vocabulary

Break work down into smaller chunks disregarding superfluous content

Use visual cues to support written text

Use a lesson menu to write down instructions

Tick off each one as the student completes it so they can identify their own progress.

2. Lack of concentration or focus

The special needs of some students leave them unable to focus for long periods of time in the classroom. They might be engaged, intelligent and keen to learn, but they find it difficult to maintain focus during a normal class.

Lucy* was such a student: although bright and engaging, she rarely concentrated in lessons, nor completed homework on time. She preferred to fiddle and fidget rather than complete a given task. She occasionally missed school, but her parents could not provide a reason for her absences. Teachers were both puzzled and exasperated as they felt that if she concentrated better and attended school on a more regular basis, she would be a high-flier. Luckily the school decided, with the consent of her parents, to make a referral to an educational psychologist. He identified Lucy as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which meant that every time Lucy was given multiple tasks to achieve she felt too pressurised and quickly lost concentration. What was perceived as disruptive behaviour was merely her frustration at being unable to absorb excessively long instructions, coupled with the pressure to perform. With the right strategies in place, based on the advice of the educational psychologist, Lucy began to make progress.

Teacher’s top tips for differentiating for this student:

Class work should be broken down into small sections which can be worked on one point at a time

Introduce “time out” as a calming measure

Use realistic timed targets to promote engagement with a task. You can also use these to monitor student progress

Homework and classwork should be phased so that your student is not overwhelmed by quantity

3. Lack of written work

There is often an expectation in schools that students are naturally able to read information from a whiteboard, absorb and then regurgitate it as evidence that they have understood a given task. For some SEN students this is not the case, causing them great anxiety and frustration .

Imran*, although able to disseminate sound subject knowledge verbally, was unable to translate his ideas into writing. He rarely completed more than two or three sentences in his exercise books and when he did they lacked structure and clarity. His reading was slow and hesitant; he never volunteered to read out loud in class, and would become flustered if asked to do so. Those teachers who had been trained to identify indicators noticed this pattern of behaviour fairly early on in Imran’s secondary school career and flagged it up with the Senco, who suspected he was dyslexic. She referred him for further specialist assessment and her diagnosis proved correct. The school was able to apply for additional funds to support him and to buy a laptop for use in lessons. These steps helped Imran to feel more comfortable in class and gave him access to the specialist support he needed to progress.

Teacher’s top tips for differentiating for this student:

Use coloured overlays, following advice from specialists to reduce glare and jumping letters

Keep instructions simple and break down into short, well-spaced out sentences

Facilitate 1:1 tutorials to engage your student in letter/word games that encourage phoneme blending

Use alternative means of recording such as dictaphones or laptops

Use visuals to support written text

Colour code books and equipment, using different colours for each subject

Behaviour problems can often be solved by identifying underlying issues and introducing differentiation. The biggest challenge is ensuring that all teachers in a school personalise their lessons. If teachers can be trained and supported in doing this by SEN specialists, then the more needy in our school communities will feel less ostracised. Rather than being perceived as having to be “babysat” and catered for separately from their peers, they will naturally be absorbed in lessons. Being catered for in a non-discriminatory way, in an inclusive environment, can only enhance the self image and self worth of these young people.

*Student names have been changed to protect their identity.

This article was amended on 11 April to clarify that the special educational needs (SEN) code of practice and regulations is a draft and open to consultation.


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