An Interview with a SENCO…
Here at Tutorful, we understand that teaching students with SEND isn’t always the same as teaching students without. We spoke to Anna, a former primary school teacher and current SENCO, to get her take on issues SEND children face, teaching online & how to best impact their learning.
Hi Anna, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a SENCO?
I qualified as a primary teacher in 1988 and worked for 20 years teaching reception up to Year 6. I actually first became interested in helping SEND children at university when my placement was in a nursery for SEND children. The opportunity arose for me to become a SENCO in 2008, I learnt on the job, worked with SEND children and their parents, as well as liaised with the local authority. I have been a SENCO in lots of other schools and worked for Cheshire East council leading a team of five SENCOs working across 156 schools in East Cheshire including special schools & further education settings. I quickly found that concentrated effort can really make a change to a child with additional needs.
What do you feel are the main struggles that SEND children face in mainstream schools?
In mainstream schools, I have found there is a lack of understanding of needs & what drives behaviour. The pathway to diagnosis is also very long, it can take a long time to understand medically if there is anything feeding into the presentation of the child. Resourcing is difficult in mainstream schools as there isn’t enough funding to meet the needs of children in those schools. Needs are now more complex since the Reform Act 2014, and funding hasn’t changed in line with the increased demand. Teachers train as much as they can around additional needs but they often have a large class, so meeting those individually can be a huge challenge if some are presenting with behavioural needs.
How do you build rapport with SEND children in school?
The most important step to building rapport is talking to the children - we do work individually, talk about what makes them happy & what makes them sad so I understand more about them as a person rather than them as a pupil. Whenever I can, I will speak to their teachers, go into class & sit with them to see how they learn. It’s really important to have that presence and get them used to your face. Building the relationship is crucial, so to start I will always find the things they are good at, because everyone is good at something, and build on those.
How would you keep students engaged/motivated during a lesson?
I always find the things they do enjoy and tailor their lesson around their interests. It’s important to make sure that activities are short with a clear goal, then a break with a reward if appropriate. Short bursts of activities with a clear end and goal help the lessons to be structured and this means they won’t end up thinking about the time and how much longer is left. If I want them to work through a sheet, I use boxes & dots or bullet points to break it down into digestible sections. I’d also make sure that they have a subject toolkit that they can use during the sessions, especially for those more sensory learners. I always ask myself; how are you scaffolding their learning - what are they aiming for, what do you want them to achieve, how will they get there? I then make sure that I share the answers to these questions with the students so they know the plan and why we are doing what we are doing.
What do you ask of parents to support your work with their children?
I find that I really need to be flexible and allow parents to have a say in their child's learning. I make sure to find out what parents want from tutoring and how they think their child learns/should be supported & what works for them at the moment. The parent is always going to have the best insight into this and this will really help you at the start of your journey with a child. I always ask the child how they like to learn; visual, recording, hearing, writing etc. Writing is not always the right way and I think lots of teachers struggle to get past that because it is so ingrained as the first way to learn! I always have a video meeting with parents to establish rapport with them, as it is just as important as the rapport you will build with their child. If you can ask, family history is really important and lots of parents may have problems themselves. It’s so important to regularly update parents to let them know how things are going.
What would you consider the main challenges of teaching SEND children online?
I think the most difficult part, to begin with, is really understanding what the child actually can do & what level they are at. A pre-tutoring assessment is really important to help tutors grasp where the student is at. It always helps to get information from their teachers if you can, though I know this isn’t always possible. It is more difficult to establish rapport online versus in-person, but it is not impossible, you just have to be creative! You need to find out quite quickly how they learn and tap into that straight away.
What do you think about teaching SEND children online?
It can be done, lots of students now are better at technology than I am, so they are comfortable using technology as long as it is explained in a way they can understand. You do have to be more creative in rapport building and finding out their needs/current level they are working at. Make sure exercises are tailored to what they are good at to start with to get an early win, make them feel confident in you as a tutor and themselves taking part in tutoring. Ask parents to make sure they have the toolkit that they can use during your lessons. I always do a non-verbal reasoning test with SEND children early on, most of the time it will tell you what you already noticed, but it can sometimes throw up something you hadn’t realised.
We asked Anna for her advice on some issues that may be faced by Tutorful users when lessons concern students with additional needs.
Some students with SEND struggle with a lack of in-person engagement
It’s true, some students will struggle without the tutor being in front of them, but one way to overcome this is to make sure there is someone else with them in the room who can engage with the student and tutor to make sure the student stays on track. This can be a parent, guardian, older sibling or family member!
Students with SEND may get overwhelmed quickly by technology
In my experience, students are far better equipped to use technology than teachers are as they’ve been raised with technology in their lives! Loads of the children that I work with are amazing at using tablets, laptops and phones. I think it is all about taking small steps when introducing them to new technology and helping them learn to use it in a way that works for them. This is where I would really lean on a parent and ask them to get their child used to the classroom before your first lesson.
Routine is really important to a student with SEND
Routine is essential to SEND students, but it doesn’t mean that a routine is lost when you are teaching online. I would always send over a timetable for your lessons, so they know which day they will be happening on and at which time. Maybe their parents could print this out and stick it in their learning space or on the fridge in the kitchen. I would also clearly outline what each lesson will look like at the start so there are no surprises for the student.
It can be hard to know the students’ needs before a first lesson, so preparation may be difficult
You have to be a bit more creative in how you get the information you need to be able to prepare for a first lesson. I’d send a pre-lesson pack or form for parents to complete to give a tutor an idea of where they are at before lessons start. Have a chat with the parents beforehand, ask them if they can get some information from the students’ teachers before this chat as well. If your first session is shorter and is more of an assessment then that is fine! For example, if a student needed help with English, I’d get them to do a piece of writing as the first session, get them or the parent to take a photo and send it before the first full lesson together.
Tutors may struggle to build rapport with children with SEND online (it’s much easier in-person to build rapport)
Again, this requires a little bit more creativity to pull off when teaching online! I would always create a one-page profile of the tutor that is child-friendly that could be sent to them beforehand. This should include a photo of the tutor, some basic information about the tutor and then some fun, more personal things so the student can know you as a person. Send some video clips so the child knows how you sound and look, as well as how you are described on paper. Make sure that you build that rapport in a multi-sensory way. You can send videos to check-in, keep in touch via email/text too. I like to send postcards to their home with praise so that their work is recognised outside tutoring sessions. Building that relationship has to come from them as well, so I often give them the chance to ask me 3 questions about me, so they get to know what they want to know about you!
Tutors spend lots of time making resources
This is the nature of working with SEND children, you do have to do extra work to support them but it shouldn’t take over your life or mean that you can’t spend time on other students! I make some of my own resources, but very often I adapt resources that are already available to me. I use NASEN for resources, Twinkl and the Autism.org website, I usually adapt these to suit my students. You do have to pay for Twinkl, but there are loads of free resources out there to get you going. Make sure that you use SEND friendly fonts, including Comic Sans & Arial. Another huge resource that will really help and I think is vital is the lesson toolkit, which you can ask parents to make up. Below are examples of toolkits for Maths and English lessons:
- Number cards
- Number line
- Number square
- Number link
- Word banks
- Sentence starters
- Simple dictionary
- Pen/pencil grips