In this episode of the Pearson English Podcast, the panel speaks with James Laidler about his insights into how to plan lessons for neurodiverse students. James is a teacher and has been a Special Educational Needs (SEN) Coordinator for the past 18 years.
Let’s explore his views on special needs education and what teachers can do to ensure their lessons are inclusive for all.
Defining Special Educational Needs
According to Britain’s SEN code of conduct, a child has SEN if they have a learning difficulty or disability that calls for special educational provision. Learners with conditions such as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia or anxiety disorders, come under this framework.
Yet, according to James, this definition and the language used to talk about SEN leads to negative connotations. As a consequence, this may cause SEN learners to think that they have something wrong with them. Through his work, James tries to change this notion. He wants to help both teachers and students recognise the strengths that SEN students can bring to the classroom.
For example, he argues that something as simple as using different terminology can help to break down negative stereotypes. He suggests that we use phrases like ‘special learning powers’ with younger learners, or ‘neurodiversity’ with older students.
Creating inclusive lessons for neurodiverse students
Although teachers want to create inclusive lessons, many feel ill-equipped to support neurodiverse students.
To help, James offers some tips for lesson planning which aim to turn learning diversities into strengths.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is a condition that includes symptoms such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Students with this disorder may have a short attention span, constantly fidget, or act without thinking.
You can include the following activities in your lesson plans to help students with ADHD:
- Movement breaks – Students with ADHD may struggle to sit still for an hour. Include short breaks in your lessons that offer them the opportunity to get up and move around at regular intervals.
- Group work – To keep learners active and engaged, include group work in class. This means they don’t have to focus on the board for too long.
- Dramatize lessons – A really effective activity is to bring drama into the classroom. For example, students can act out role plays or other fun drama-based activities. It keeps them motivated, holds their attention and can be fun for all of the class.
Aside from being helpful to students with ADHD, all other students in the class will benefit from these practices, too.
Dyslexia primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent reading and spelling. It may affect a person’s phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
James recommends incorporating the following exercises into your lessons for students with this condition.
- Visual aids – Learners with dyslexia tend to have excellent visual memories. Try bringing in pictures to illustrate ideas or add them to lengthy texts to help students when doing reading comprehension exercises.
- Font and spacing – When setting reading tasks, simply changing text font, enlarging font size and double spacing is hugely beneficial to dyslexic students. Simply adapting the text can make their learning experience much easier.
- Text to speech software – Using a text to speech specialized software often provides significant support to those who struggle with reading or digesting text on computer screens – try ClaroRead or Kurzweil 3000.
You might also like to read Dyslexia and ELT: how to help young learners in the classroom.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
ASD is a developmental condition that involves challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. The severity of symptoms are different in each person.
Try these activities in class to help students with this disorder:
- Encourage systematic skills – Often students with ASD may be more systematic than other students. This means they favor routines, regular processes, and predictable activities. Try bringing out these skills by asking students to spot patterns, analyze numbers or evaluate data.
- Talk about interests – Autistic students may have specific interests that they love to research. Engage them by getting them to talk about their hobbies or ask students to create projects on a topic of their choice that they can present to the class.
- Teaching online – If you have a learner who is struggling socially at school, it may be an option to include hybrid or blended learning. This takes away the social and emotional challenges of school and people interaction, which can really benefit ASD students.
Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness, but rather involve intense fear or anxiety. This condition is becoming increasingly common in young people since the onset of the pandemic and greatly affects their ability to learn.
James suggests a number of activities that teachers can use in the classroom to help students struggling with anxiety:
- Changing language and terminology – Our education system is very exam driven, which can cause students to experience a lot of stress. By simply offering reassurance, guidance and motivation, you can help to reduce their feelings of anxiety.
- Talk openly – Encourage learners to talk about their feelings if they’re struggling. They can do this with you, a classmate or a support worker at the school. If they open up to you, focus on strategies to combat negative feelings and emotions.
- Mindfulness techniques – Try adding five minutes at the start of the day for guided meditation or breathing exercises. It may help students to begin the day in a calm and relaxed manner.
These activities will also benefit students without anxiety disorders.
SEN support for teachers
Some teachers may feel that they do not have the experience or expertise to help students with different learning needs. James suggests a number of strategies and resources that teachers can use to find out more about neurodiverse conditions:
1. Talk with your students
If you feel able to, try communicating with your students in a compassionate way. You may find a quiet moment with them before class or at break. Give them the opportunity to open up to you and tell you what they like and dislike in class, what might help them, and how they’re feeling. From this, you’ll have a clearer idea of what you can do to help.
2. Research neurodiversity online
There is a great deal of information online. For example, you can look at the British Dyslexic Association, National Autistic Society and ADHD Foundation. These bodies have published research papers, training tips and advice for teachers.
3. Talk to the school Special Educational Needs coordinator
Your school’s SEN coordinator may be able to provide you with background information on the students and their particular conditions. In some cases, they might also have access to educational psychology reports that can help you understand your learners better.
4. Use Pearson resources
At Pearson, we have a Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) resource area. This supports education professionals working with students of all ages, in mainstream and special education settings. We have resources, training and support available for all teachers.
To find out more about Special Needs Education, listen to the full podcast episode.