Reflecting on … mistakes I’ve made when trying to support SEND students.

I have come to understand that some of the ways I’ve taught SEND students in the past have not been helpful.  In some cases, I think I have adopted strategies that would have actually hindered learning for some students.  I have had to think carefully about how to develop my practice in this area and challenge some long-held preconceptions about how best to help students.  Here are 5 things I have come to believe I was doing wrong and the changes I’ve made to my teaching.

Differentiated learning objectives… at one stage this was quite standard and my planning would reflect different expectations of students with different needs and prior levels of attainment.  This could be in the form of “Must/Should/Could” or “All/Many/Some will…” or simply in my own planning.  I anticipated SEND students achieving less, thinking less deeply and struggling to access complex tasks.  With more experience, I have increasingly come to understand that if my planning places a ceiling on what my students can achieve they are unlikely ever to excel or to achieve their full potential.  When planning today I aim for all students to achieve the same outcome which (over the course of a unit) includes secure knowledge and the ability to use this to analyse and evaluate the material we’re considering.  If a student has barriers that make this challenging, my main aim is to work out how to scaffold and support them towards the outcome, not how to change the goalposts and give them something easier at which to succeed.

Overloading students with support resources…  When planning challenging activities, I find it very tempting to “support” SEND students with different and additional resources; key words lists, prompts sheets, dictionaries or thesauruses to help with vocabulary, not to mention my own helpful “drop in” to chat to them about what they were doing, normally just as they were getting started.  Perhaps unsurprisingly they were normally more than a little confused… prompting me to offer further “helpful” resources.  I am not saying any of these are inappropriate in and of themselves; each has a valuable place in my classroom and I use them all and more.  But they are workload intensive and do not always seem to do the job.  Reading about cognitive overload has helped me to understand that, far from helping, at times I was making a challenging situation worse, overloading rather than supporting my students.  Sometimes additional resources or support will help them to achieve.   Sometimes an early conversation will help.  At others, they may need a little extra time to get to grips with instructions and have a try at activities, rather than leaping in with further support and models, which they may not necessarily need.  My core focus now is on planning exactly what thinking I wish them to engage in during an activity.  I then find it a lot easier to think of ways to strip away barriers to learning.

Oversimplifying reading materials… literacy barriers can be some of the hardest to overcome in the mainstream classroom.  Even relatively small gaps in literacy levels can damage students’ confidence or ability to access written materials in the time we have.  There is an added challenge in the history classroom where students often have to grapple with archaic language use and unfamiliar sentence structures.  In the past, I would often spend a great deal of time simplifying source and written documents or removing several examples to allow them to focus on one or two sources whilst others would have more.  Sometimes both.  (I’d then replace much of what I’d received with other additional resources such as word lists … see above!)  An article in Teaching History helped me to reflect on this, arguing that it was fundamentally unsound to expect students to do more with less … to build a picture of the past, analyse evidence and evaluate interpretations with less evidence upon which to base their judgements.  I am now extremely careful to think about how I support students to access complex text.  Whilst I may trim the overall word count, I now focus on teaching students techniques to access material that, in the past, I would never have shown them.  For example, highlighting familiar words and phrases, circling difficult passages, reading to get a “sense” of the document and comparing their understanding with peers.

Expecting students to know how to use extra time… In the past I have often treated “extra time” as a sort of universal panacea without really thinking about what it meant for the student, especially in terms of their cognitive processing.  If asked, I would generally have assumed it meant more time to write and thus bring up the word count.  For many years I diligently gave students their extra time in assessments without ever discussing with them how they used it or whether it was working.  In recent years, colleagues have helped me to understand that “extra time” can mean different things in different subjects and for different students.  Do they need longer to plan?  To process instructions?  To check their work?  This can involve paying close attention to them during class assessments and then discussing with them where the sticking points arose very soon after the assessment (while they still remember) to suggest strategies for the next assessment.  A similar approach is needed for other concession including rest breaks and access to technology.  Unless students are trained in how and when to use deploy these supports, it is very wrong to assume that students will know how to use them to best effect.   I now invest a lot more time working with students to understand how they can best use their extra time and training them to deploy it strategically. 

Over marking and unfocused marking … Especially when there is a “gap” to “close” I have found it very tempting to thoroughly scrutinise the work of some student groups, including SEND in a well-meant but ultimately ineffective attempt to fix everything at once.  Some general comments on skills deployed to reinforce these, reflections on the target set and a new development points and, of course, some literacy feedback … so much to choose from, so why not a good selection?  Positive as well as developmental of course, to keep up motivation!  Of course, in terms of cognitive processing, this approach was doomed to failure.  Much like the over-load in lessons, the over-load in marking did not help students to focus on a particular development area for improvement.  There was often a disconnect between target and feedback; or at least the connection was hard to find in a sea of red pen.  In fact, it makes perfect sense that if you’re struggling with one area other things might slip.  What you most want is  to achieve a level of competence in your target area and then go back to the other, slowly integrating your skills with practice and increased confidence.  I now ensure that my feedback is very closely focused on the relevant target for the piece of work I’m looking at to help create a coherent cognitive experience for my students.

I am sure that there are changes I have yet to make and that my current ideas may yet change further in the future.  If there is one area of teaching that calls for regular and honest reflection on the impact of our actions it must be this:

Hendrick and MacPherson (2017) “it is the one and only [area] where we will depart from our mantra on reducing teacher workload and tell you to up the effort.  It always reaps rewards for those who need it most.”

At the moment, though, I use the questions below to help me reflect on my practice in this area:


What is it that I want my students’ brains to be focused on during this task/section of the lesson/experience and how to do remove distractions that could cause cognitive overload?

Do I really understand what they’re struggling with at a cognitive level?  If not am I ready to start firing out solutions and adjustments?

Did the action I took, however laboriously planned, actually have the desired outcome for students?  If not, do I understand why not?

Where is this student succeeding and what can I learn from the practice of my colleagues in terms of supporting them?


I have read widely in this area over the last two years, but it is not just texts on supporting SEND students that are helpful.  Better understanding of memory, processing and cognitive load help with my planning and thinking about how to support all students.  However, if there is one recent read I’d recommend it is:

Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson, What Does This Look Like in the Classroom: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice, (2017).  Chapter 4, ‘Special Educational Needs: Maggie Snowling & Jarlath O’Brien’.

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