This guest blogpost is written by a friend who has worked with children with additional needs for a number of years.
When I first starting teaching children with autism and/or children with special needs, I always remembered something one of my lecturers said: ‘Every child is first and foremost a child’. This is so important. They are children with special needs and so are children first.
I worked as a special class teacher for the first 6 years after I finished college. Of course it was very challenging at times but extremely rewarding and often these rewards outweighed the tough days.
Children with special needs need extra consideration when it comes to the day to day running of the classroom. They may need additional help due to sensory or emotional needs etc.
Here are a few tips and tricks I figured out along the way:
Get to know the children
It is so so important to get to know the children in your class- what are their likes/dislikes?, any sensory issues?, food intolerances?, what kind of learners are they? etc. I always send home a note to the parents at the start of September asking these details.
Chances are the children in your class will be operating at different levels and have different learning styles. It is crucial to have the resources are readily available and ready to go as needed. Children with autism, in particular, need structure in their school day to ensure the best learning outcomes. Have a visual timetable in the class and encourage the class to look at it to show what is coming in the day.
Children with autism work from the left to right. Have all the work to be completed on their left hand side in order and once completed move it to the right hand side. If you are lucky enough to have a big enough classroom, each child should have their own table for their daily tasks, their own visual schedule (using PECS pictures) and boxes for their resources. A barrier, even as simple as a folder, to block off distractions is important.
Social Skills and Independent Life Skills
Building up their social skills is vital to build up their independent life skills. Allow them to hang up their own coat, putting away their lunch, opening lunch box etc. Encourage social skills through cooking, social outings, social walks etc. Children with special needs may need some hand over hand help or prompting to complete these tasks but I really believe these skills are just as important as academic work.
Reward systems work very well for children with autism. Find out what the child enjoys and use this as their reward once they complete the task. Use their visual schedule to show this. For example, first maths then teddy. As an additional incentive, take a picture of the real object and add it to the schedule.
Working with an SNA
Special needs assistants are an invaluable resource to teachers who are teaching children with special needs and to the children themselves. At the start of the school year, sit down with the special needs assistants and chat about your goals, roles and anything else you need to discuss. Both teacher and SNAs need to sing off the same hymn sheet; both are aiming for the same goal, following the same routine and procedures. In a special class, when doing academic work, I colour code the timetable to ensure that teacher and SNAs move around to different children each day. This allows for all staff to get to know each child and also prevents the over-reliance by the children to one staff member.
Individual Education Plan (IEP)
Each child in a special class needs to have an IEP. Usually, this is discussed at the parent/teacher meetings. Gather information from their assessments, SNAs, parents and any other agency (O.T/S.L.T/P.T). Set SMART (smart, measurable, achievable, realistic and time based) targets- max. 5 and a mix of academic and social targets.
Use a communication diary (depending on school policy): Each day write down how the pupil got on in school- what work they did, any minor injuries, social skill work etc. Encourage the parents to note down anything that may occur at home that needs discussion or any stories that could be spoken with the child about in school. If you feel you need to make a phone call home rather than writing in the diary then do that.
Parents are a wealth of knowledge about their child. They are the child’s primary educators. Do not be afraid to ask parents about certain things you may notice or to tell them about the good days as well as the more challenging days.
Praise and Celebrate
Lastly, the most minor step forward needs to be praised and celebrated. For example, a child zipping up their own jacket for the first time or sitting in their chair for 2 minutes longer than yesterday. It can seem like such a minor thing but it is a major accomplishment to the child and to their parents.
Never ever be afraid to try something different in the classroom. Yes, it may cause upset due to the change or it might work out to be the best thing you do!
Do not let a child’s diagnosis stop you or them from achieving all that they can achieve.