“I don’t feel that I’m experienced enough at working with learners with SEN, I’ll only end up letting them down.’’
‘’Having learners with SENs in the classroom takes a lot of extra planning time’’.
‘’How can I spend all of my class time supporting one or two learners when the other students need my time too?’’
Do these thoughts sound familiar? Often, teachers perceive special educational needs (SEN) students as being more work. This attitude is all the more prevalent amongst new teachers who have no experience working with SEN learners. After talking to a variety of teachers in the capacity of a teacher trainer and asking them about their experience of special educational needs, a common theme seems to be that teachers often feel inept. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have heard that teachers feel that they need to have a specialist qualification or specialist training to work with children who have a special educational need.
The issue is not a straightforward black and white one. Whilst one would expect a teacher who specialized in teaching learners with SEN or a teacher who works in a school for learners with SEN to be trained and qualified, nowadays there is a much bigger focus on inclusivity. Whereas before, learners with special educational needs were often taught separately from other children in mainstream educational settings, nowadays it is recognized that these practices can cause feelings of exclusion and segregation, leading to low self-esteem amongst children and leading those in mainstream education to perceive SEN learners as ‘others’. The consequence of inclusive policies is that most teachers these days will probably have at least one or two learners with SENs in their classroom, yet may not have received any specialist training. In an ideal situation, schools would have a provision for SEN and SEN training, which is the case in some countries. There are, however, still countries where there is no provision for SEN training in the public sector and if a parent wishes for their child to be taught in a school which has SEN-trained teachers, they may need to send their child to a private sector school.
The starting point, however, is in the willingness to learn. A teacher may feel that they don’t know a lot about a specific SEN or suitable strategies for supporting the child, but there is actually a lot that teachers can do to gain extra expertise. The starting point should always be observing the child in his or her surroundings and noting what he or she responds well to. Parents are undoubtedly the experts on their own children, and can often supply information about strategies that work for the child. Teachers should try to have frequent meetings with the parents in order for both parties to keep each other updated. Care should be taken by teachers, however, to avoid labelling the child. Phrases such ‘I suspect your child might have dyslexia’ are inflammatory and may cause unnecessary worry for parents. Instead try something like ‘‘I’ve noticed when Johnny / Molly / Sarah etc writes in class, she has trouble forming some of the letters. Have you noticed this too?’’ and letting the parent open up.
In some schools, there may be a SEN coordinator or SENCO who is responsible for ensuring that the school meets the needs of SEN learners. This is a valuable point of liaison for teachers in terms of finding out about specific educational needs and how to incorporate task types and assessment in a way that makes content accessible for everyone in the class. Teachers can be proactive in their own development and take a course in SEN, which would help to supply them with additional information about what the indicators of specific SENs may be and how these needs can be incorporated into a lesson in an inclusive manner. The British Council offers online courses which cover a range of different SENs, whilst Future Learn offers free courses on inclusive education and dyslexia and foreign language teaching. Quite often these can be taken on a flexible basis allowing you to balance teaching with study.
Teachers will undoubtedly find that if they are open to learning, a little effort goes a very long way. In addition, a good teacher should display elements of teaching practice such as strong classroom management, the ability to differentiate and ensuring that learners feel valued and cared about anyway. Working with SEN learners and honing these skills has a knock-on effect in terms of benefiting the rest of the learners in the class.
Next week, we will look at some of the more common SENs that might be present in your language classes, strategies for supporting these learners and how to incorporate a multi-sensory approach to language teaching.
Eve Conway is our TYLEC and CertTESOL trainer. She has worked in Spain, Vietnam and Mexico as both a teacher and TYLEC trainer as well as having worked on shorter projects in the UK, Italy, Azerbaijan and Peru. She worked for over 6 years for the British Council, where she discovered a love for working with children, particularly Early Years learners. Eve holds a bachelor’s degree in English language as well as an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Trinity DipTESOL. Having always loved languages, she is a fluent Spanish speaker and is keen to learn more languages. Eve is a keen conference speaker and occasional writer for ELT magazines and publications.