In 2011, I attended a Victorian experience day with my year five class where my classmates and I got to experience a day in the life of a Victorian schoolchild. I recall sitting in perfect silence in rows with our backs ramrod behind our securely bolted wooden desks. In unharmonic unison, we only dared to open our mouths to recite our six times tables. All were eager to avoid the dreaded  ‘dunce hat’ and the accompanying shame.

Ironically, over a century later, I am unconvinced that much has changed. While interactive whiteboards may have replaced blackboards and chalk, the modern classroom has only undergone superficial changes. Unfortunately, for young learners nationwide, classroom learning remains a predominantly passive experience.

The Need to Help Special Needs Kids

Recent years have seen an exponential increase in diagnoses of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This has resulted in a corresponding surge in requests for Educational Healthcare Plans (EHCPs) which outline a young person’s educational and support needs to ensure they receive appropriate assistance and access to specific support services. However, there is a disparity between the number of identified SEND pupils and those receiving support. Of the 114,500 initial requests for Education Healthcare Plans in 2022, only 66,700 were issued. Even successful applicants for EHCPs often face delays exceeding the statutory 20-week timescale to produce a Final EHCP.

As a result, SEND pupils in mainstream schools who are unable to access adequate support provisions frequently struggle to cope and fall through the cracks.

A 2022 study on the ‘Educational experiences of young people with special educational needs and disabilities in England,’ found that ‘teachers and (…) educational staff misunderstood young people with SEND and held unjust and inaccurate preconceptions of them.’ Frequently, the ‘negative emotional and behavioural consequences of young people not having their needs understood or met’ were dismissed as ‘messing around,’ and ‘distracting others,’ further perpetuating the association of SEND pupils as ‘naughty.’

Educators have expressed a need for better training in identifying and supporting the needs of SEND pupils, as they often lack adequate support and training for managing them.

Special Educational Needs and Isolation

Mainstream schools attempt to cater to the learning needs of SEND pupils by offering specialized support, which differs from the methods used for their mainstream peers. This includes providing alternative materials, assigning a teaching assistant, and even temporarily separating SEND children from the rest of the classroom.

Worryingly, SEND pupils have reported that this approach can unintentionally isolate them from their peers, creating a sense of division and stigmatization that marks them as being different from their ‘normal’ non-SEND peers. This can hinder a SEND pupil’s ability to successfully integrate with their classmates and cause them to resent their differences.

‘My teacher just set me a textbook and I was there to work out of that, which again made me feel like an outsider because everyone was learning off the board, and I was learning off a book. I just felt dumb.’ — Andy, aged 14 to 16 years, EHCP, mainstream school.

Many parents and caregivers also take issue with the term ‘special’ when referring to SEND pupils. There is concern that the acronym further deepens the division between SEND and non-SEND pupils, portraying the latter as ‘normal’ while labelling the former as ‘abnormal’ in comparison.

Towards an Inclusive Classroom

Local authorities are inundated and unable to adequately support the rising number of SEND pupils. Meanwhile, teaching staff lack the tools needed to provide the specialist assistance that is often required. Perhaps then, it is high time that the classroom environment was modernised and made to cater for all types of students.

Current teaching methods heavily rely on extensive reading and writing, often displayed on the board and without sufficient consideration for learners who require movement or visual stimuli to stay engaged. Many SEND participants expressed feeling disconnected when they had to focus on the board for extended periods, and this disengagement often resulted in disruptions.

‘You can stick stuff up on the walls in like English and find the missing quote or something. It’ll be more fun for students (…) Instead of just [sitting] there for an hour, just looking at the board and writing down stuff, which, if I’m being honest, it doesn’t really get along well with me.’ — Chris, aged 14 to 16 years, SEN support, mainstream school.

To establish an inclusive classroom, educators should embrace a multimodal approach that incorporates the three main learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic in order to accommodate the diversity in student needs and preferences.

This might involve using sketch notes instead of written notes and creating visual presentations, such as posters and mind maps to accommodate visual learners. The use of storytelling, group discussions and lesson recordings can help facilitate understanding for auditory learners who may have slower reading speeds and require repeated verbal instructions. The use of collaborative projects, role-playing, and interactive activities can also support kinaesthetic learners.

Achieving full accessibility in education goes beyond flexible teaching methods. It involves meeting pupils at their level and accommodating their particular needs for successful learning. This may include allowing doodling, scheduling movement breaks, or permitting a fidget toy to help with concentration.

There are numerous methods to facilitate a young person’s learning experience. For instance, providing access to sensory rooms and relaxation spaces can promote emotional regulation. Classroom-related anxiety can be overcome by increased emotional sensitivity from staff. This can also help avoid situations where students, as reported by participants in mainstream schools, feel anxious when teachers unexpectedly question them.

Having special educational needs or disabilities need not be an obstacle to learning. It’s time schools became more inclusive by broadening their teaching apparatus and embracing new methods.

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