5 phonics games


As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique Read more


When numbers don’t add up

Have you ever considered the proportion of nursery rhymes that include counting and numbers? There are plenty. For many children, these are their earliest encounters with number concepts. My son (and I) endured many hours of 10 green bottles as his poor, sleep-deprived father  attempted to croon something undemanding in the small hours to get us all back to sleep.

NumbersOnce his sister came along, they were facing away from me in the double buggy, but while he was an only child, he faced me, and I would chatter, chant and sing number rhymes at him. He used to love it when I would push the pram away (often uphill) and clap and count until I had my hands back on the handle. Before he even started at nursery, he had learnt to count to and write to 20, though he had not mastered signing his name. Looking back it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has just begun to study maths at university, but he was my first child, and I did not train to teach until he had started school, so I had no idea that things do not come so easily to all children.

Maths anxiety

My memories of our maths sessions during teacher training are of a classroom where around 75% of the student teachers were very unsure of their maths skills. Our lecturer was a self-confessed survivor of maths anxiety. This puzzled me. I had clearly passed through school oblivious to others’ maths phobia. I had not studied maths post-16, choosing foreign languages and English. Undergraduate studies in applied modern foreign languages had involved some numeracy skills for the economics module, and I had had to deal with numbers great and small in my city career, but I had never considered myself a mathematician.

Number sense

When I was entrusted with my first class, I found eight year olds who routinely dotted their exercise books as they counted from one to complete each calculation. This was a mystery to me; I simply could not imagine that the students who did this were doing so because they did not have a way of visualising each number to hold it in their short term memory and perform calculations. But that is exactly what was happening.


Our text books (luckily) conformed with the government’s prescribed numeracy hour at the time, and I was able to adapt planning available online to suit my students. Occasionally, the textbook illustrations would include pictures of physical maths equipment such as cuisenaire rods, but our overstretched inner-city school did not have such luxuries. (The stationery cupboard was locked, and in a locked room. Our glue-stick supply was exhausted before Christmas)

more rods


One of the first courses I asked to attend after completing my NQT year was run by BEAM (Be a Mathematician) and titled How to help dyslexics and dyscalculics who struggle with mathematics. It was eye-opening. I had sympathised with my students, and used everything I could find or make to try to ensure maths was accessible, but there was so much more I could do. That course transformed my maths planning, teaching, differentiation and resourcing in ways that I could not have imagined before.

Early Years

Later, when I worked in Early Years, first as a classroom teacher, then in learning support, the manipulatives, physical props and visuals came into their own. These, combined with the explicit teaching of mathematical language and concepts, can unlock numeracy for many children. I would like to see this kind of approach and equipment in use throughout the primary years.

more manipulatives

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing ideas to support children’s maths skills development. Do post any specific support needs in the comments, and I’ll try to address those in the blogs.

More maths-related posts can be found here

Downloadable resources related to maths are here

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The National Education Show

I have to admit that after a fortnight including the Welsh Autism Show, ACAMH’s Dyslexia Conference and the TES SEN Show, I almost decided not to attend this one. I was busy working with university students in Bristol during the week and had an assessment booked for Saturday morning…

What can I say? The venue, Cardiff City Hall was simply magnificent. It is a splendid Edwardian building that manages somehow to be at once imposing and welcoming. I don’t know how vast halls can seem cosy, but there was an approachable intimacy about the place that I just can’t rationalise. Even the marble statues of Welsh historical figures from Boudica onwards seemed benignly indulgent rather than foreboding. (And yes, I do know that Boudica hailed from what we now consider East Anglia, but we Celts stick together!) But enough of my architectural crush…


I drove and (foolishly) took the top listing of an NCP car park on City Hall’s website as a recommendation. I had assumed that the venue parking would be full, and that the nearest NCP rates would be on a par with rates at the St David’s Shopping Centre, about 5 or 10 minutes’ walk away. I was wrong.  The eyewatering parking charges were not visible until I had driven too far into the car park to turn arund, and so I ended up paying as much to park as I would have spent on the train –  lesson learnt.


I had, of course, seen the full list of exhibitors but the full impact of quite so many stalls has to be experienced to be truly appreciated. It would easily have taken a full day to do all of them justice, so I tried to be selective. Inevitably, I will have missed some gems. Just a few highlights, then.

I’m pretty familiar with Nessy‘s programs that offer support dyslexia-friendly phonics, literacy learning, touch-typing as well as dylexia screening and training, and have keenly promoted their discounts and offers during Dyslexia Awareness Week.

It was good to see the National Handwriting Association represented at the show. This charity’s “aims are to raise awareness of the importance of handwriting as a vital component of literacy, to promote good practice in the teaching of handwriting and to support those who work with children with handwriting difficulties.” I frequently signpost parents and teachers to their website, which is a terrific source of research-based information, advice and resources for supporting learners who find handwriting effortful and uncomfortable. I would recommend membership for parents and teachers (school and clinic membersghips are also available).

When we begin research, we are taught to be critical, and to look for evidence to both prove and dispute claims. I know that the only certainty with so-called memory-boosting games/software, is that they improve the particular task or activity that is being practised, and that generalisability (that is, improvement across other areas of learning and performance) is extremenly hard to effect or prove. BUT, I do see real value in strategy games, particulary for confidence and attention. In my experience, if a game or activity is introduced, and the strategies employed are explicitly taught – not just practised – so that the student understands that these strategies can be applied to other areas of life and learning, this can be hugely beneficial. Mindsports Education offer individual and school/class membership to a secure online environment where skills games can be played against real oponents.

When I worked in early Key Stage 2, there would always be some students who had learnt to tell the time confidently (it features heavily in the KS1 maths curriculum), and others who just couldn’t get it. We always had physical clock faces that could be manipulated, and I invested in a cheap supermarket wall clock with the 5 minute steps marked by alternating arcs of blue and orange, which hung above a digital clock. EasyRead time teacher has gone a step further. Their clocks show past/to (also available in Welsh!)  and mark the individual minutes. I suspect that the sheer volume of information displayed would overwhelm a student with specific learning difficulties, but I can see that it could be a useful addition to some classrooms.

Just for fun – check out the technology behind Moe the Monkey. I’m not sure whether it’s the shape of things to come, but there are intriguing possibilities being developed in the fields of virtual reality and augmented reality. (They’re working on a game to test children’s eyesight, too.)

If you’ve read my blogs on supporting reading and writing, you’ll know that I believe well-taught phonics has its place, both in early years and support lessons but that I recognise it’s only part of the complex mix that goes into successfully mastering English literacy. That said, if the phonics scheme that has become almost ubiquitous in British schools has not unlocked early skills for reading and spelling for your readers, you might be interested in Phonic Books. Their range of books and games goes from Early Years to adult level and is designed to support both students with specific learning difficulties and those who are new to English. (Sample copies are available to teachers.)

The show was supported (among others) by nasen (National Association of Special Educaional Needs). Do check out their resources and conferences if you don’t already know them. Membership is tiered, and the first level is free.

There’s more, and I hope to have time to blog about some of the products I’m planning to trial having seen them at the show…

The seminar list was almost overwhelming in its offer, and I struggled to choose. I started by ruling out the speakers I had heard before, then the subjects covered in my masters study followed by the topics of any recent talks attended. This still left an awful lot of choice. I found that several of the talks that interested me most were happening at the same time, which made chosing even harder!

I finally decided to attend Nina Jackson‘s excellent seminar Practical Strategies for using iPads with SEND. I’m not going to go into detail here, as this has already gone on too long, but I have already downloaded the recommended apps and started practising. I will be using the strategies with students and sharing Nina’s ideas with teachers and parents alike, as well as alerting everyone who’ll listen to the breadth of accessible features included as standard. I thought I knew a fair bit about iPads and accessibility, but Nina has given me a whole new toolbox! Again, I’ll be blogging about all of this once I have tried it for myself and there’s time.

I’m really hoping I’ll be able to attend the next show, and have already started recommending it to friends and colleagues.

More blogs on shows and conferences can be found here

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The Welsh Autism Show

I’d previously attended the National Autism Show in Birmingham, at the NEC, so wasn’t sure what this nearby variant would bring to the table. I’m always keen to support local initiatives, and I had managed to keep the day free, so it made sense to make the effort and the 45 minute drive to see what was on offer for myself.

The venue was Cardiff City Stadium, close to Cardiff Bay, easily accessible from the M4, with plenty of free parking, and an easy walk from Ninian Park rail station.

There were plenty of interesting exhibitors, and the lineup of speakers was really impressive. I loved the TAD Talks (the show is organised by The Autism Directory): a series of presentations by autistic people talking about their own life experiences. I was additionally able to hear some excellent presentations including

  • Sinclairs Law about fairness and access, statements and EHCPs, and the coming changes to the system in Wales,
  • Seirrah OT on LEGO based play therapy
  • ASD info Wales on their joined-up approach to service provision across education, health and care, navigating the system and available resources
  • Michael Barton on surviving education and the working environment, and his brilliant books

The exhibitor space was ‘cosy’. This had a slightly discombobulating effect, in that it seemed to prevent the sort of strolling around that allows you to do a quick check of the stands before doubling back at a gentler pace to hone in on the stalls that have got your interest, and finally dawdling at the ones that mean most to you, picking up leaflets, buying resources and chatting to the exhibitors. I arrived at the beginning of the day, and found there was already a fairly strong current, encouraging walking in a certain direction and preventing much slowing, unless to deliberately insinuate my way to the front of a table to engage the exhibitor.

That said, I did manage to get to the front of quite a few tables. Highlights for me were:

  • ASD info Wales – do check them out if you haven’t already
  • Activise – apps for organisation and study skills (including simple sequencing and visual timetables, now/next, social stories)
  • Dyscovery Centre – check out their comprehensive Box of Ideas, for all ages through education to employment
  • OMI – motion activated sensory learning
  • The Autism Directory – it’s all in the name, a Wales-based charity providing UK-wide signposting, support, events and resources.

I’m conscious that my own reaction to crowds, the ‘flow’ of foot traffic and the art of approaching an exhibitor for information is mine alone, but a chance meeting with one a former fellow masters student confirmed my impression that a slightly different layout of the space and stalls might have produced a different result. There may be a reason why the lower floor was reserved for exhibiting and the upper floor for presentations but it occurred to me that unless the reason was related to noise from above impacting on seminar sound, it might be worth considering swapping the floors in future.

That said, I will definitely be back next year, and I recommend that friends and colleagues within travelling distance make the trip, too!

6 software solutions

Online resources, software and assistive tech at the TES SEN Show 2017

In previous years I had attended the show with my school-based teacher’s hat on. For four or five years I had chosen seminars to develop my understanding to support existing pupils and fill the gaps between experience and INSET. This year I was returning without a school, and with a very different perspective.

Before I might have had a tiny reclaimable budget from school, enough to maybe buy a book or game I’d wanted but only seen online or in a catalogue. I would invariably supplement this, as shelves and boxes at home testify. This year, though, I had promised friends and my students’ parents that I would look out for particular resources.

As I’ve collected rather a stash of brochures and information, I thought I’d share it while it’s still fresh!


Claro’s range of assistive software includes some free text to speech apps.


Clicker  (primary) and DocsPlus (secondary upwards) are from Crick Software. The programs are designed to develop writing skills and provide tools for planning and drafting as well as proofreading and editing. Traditionally considered a school-based option, a growing number of families are using Clicker at home.


Dynamo Maths is an evidence based programme that begins with a standardised assessment (for 6-9 year olds) to determine a clear profile of strengths and needs. This can then be followed with their intervention programme for 6-8 year olds. School and home versions are available.


Dyslex.io aims to be a one stop shop for information, advice and signposting. It’s still in development and for the time being only available as a website rather than an app, but is very accessible and has sections for dyslexic children and adults, parents, teachers and employers.

Kaz type

Kaz Type has a range of touch-typing training programs, and has just launched a new, dyslexia-friendly version produced in consultation with the Dyslexia Research Trust complete with coloured filters to minimise visual stress, choice of typefaces and font colours and sizes for optimum readability as well as a ‘speaking key’ function.


Scanning Pens offer a range of reading devices that include models with built-in dictionaries and a simplified version that is JCQ approved for exams. Schools can (and should) buy these in bulk.



Sensory Needs

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique

Originally created and posted to mark Autism Hour 2017.

Sensory needs in Everyday situations

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DLD Awareness Day

It’s all very well trying to raise awareness, but what actually is DLD?


Developmental language disorder affects a person’s ability to understand and use spoken language. Like other learning differences, it does not go away, but, with support, it is possible to overcome many of the challenges that can be posed by DLD. It can co-occur with other developmental conditions or present in isolation. Although unsupported DLD can have a significant impact on academic results, it is not a indication of low intelligence and can occur across intellectual abilities.

Most teachers will be familiar at least with the terminology relating to ADHD, autism, dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. They are likely to have some experience of teaching pupils with learning differences and may have attended courses to learn more about relevant support techniques. Most teachers are aware of speech, language and communication needs (SCLN) as a general concept, and they will likely be aware of sound production dificulties, or stammering. However, although DLD (previously known as SLI – specific language impairment) is likely to affect 2 children in any mixed ability class of 30, it remains little known.

Friday 22nd September is DLD awareness day 2017. There is so much good information available that I thought it would make more sense for me to provide links than to reinvent the wheel.

I hope you will find it interesting and useful for supporting your students!

I Can factsheet

Afasic glossary

DLD fact sheet & case studies

Classroom visuals and displays

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique

Classroom visuals

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Why does he do that?

via Daily Prompt: Sympathy

Sometimes, a parent will quietly ask their child’s class teacher or another parent if what they see in their child is ‘normal’. Other times, a teacher might ask their student’s previous teacher whether a particular conduct or difficulty is typical for that chid, or they might seek the advice of a more experienced colleague or specialist.

Over time, teachers will see many behaviour patterns in their students. Most, if not all, are normal. Few, if any, are peculiar to one child, or even to one condition. Speech and motor coordination are two issues that can be highlighted as concerns by parents and teachers. Delays in either (or both) may mean nothing beyond the individual’s unique developmental timeline, but they may be indicators of possible learning difficulties such as dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, Developmental Language Disorder, ADHD or autism.


In previous decades, when teachers were concerned about a young child’s progress, but they could not put their finger on what might be holding them back, they would almost routinely refer to the local speech and language therapy service. Stretched services and mean that this is no longer viable or appropriate, but there are many reasons why a referral for speech, language and communication needs (SCLN) assessment and support might be the right thing to consider. Bear in mind that speech delays can be a result of a hearing impairment – concerned parents should ask their doctor for a referral to audiology or and ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

In speech, as with everything, children develop at different rates. For example one of the last phonemes that children learn to pronounce reliably is th -t he /θ/ sound. The expectation for this is from age five. Some children may pronounce the sound consistently in words by the the time they are four years old, and others may not master it until they are six years old. That gives a school year range from Nursery Year to Year 2, or four academic years, when the mispronunciation of that sound is within normal ranges. That does not mean that a referral is inappropriate if concerns are raised. If children are frustrated because they are unable to articulate a particular sound, or if they are unable to make themselves understood, or if parents are worried, a useful first step is to attend a local NHS Speech and Language drop-in clinic.

Often children will appear to stutter with excitement. This is quite normal. However, if this becomes more frequent and begins to impact on normal speech, seek the advice of a speech and language therapist. The British Stammering Association has a wealth of useful information on their website.

Sometimes, the way children put words together into sentences (syntax and grammar) can make them hard to understand. Again, it is part of natural development that children will put words together in different orders as they begin to discover the power of speech. Often they are learning and playing with language. Nevertheless, if speech patterns mean that children cannot be understood by unfamiliar adults or their peers, or if the speaker is distressed, professional advice should be sought.

It is not surprising that some children whose speech is delayed may also have delayed aural comprehension. The most obvious referral here will again be to audiology, but if hearing is within normal limits, this could instead indicate auditory processing disorder (APD), a language related condition such as developmental language disorder (DLD) or attentional difficulties (most commonly ADHD, but also seen in dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, autism and other neurological differences.)


Again, this varies hugely between individuals. Some children will sit or crawl early, others may develop focus and fine motor skills to enjoy simple craft activities ahead of their peers. Some children will love running, apparently aimlessly, or spinning until they fall over. Swings may be a delight or a terror, depending on each individual’s sensory appetite and balance (ENT again). It’s also worth checking whether vision has been tested recently – it’s called hand-eye coordination for a reason!

In countries where formal education starts later, there is little pressure to force short, chubby fingers around pencils to produce detailed work once considered the domain of a select few monks training to become scribes. In these countries, children focus instead on the types of activities that interest them, whether it is modelling with a range of malleable materials, cutting and sticking with no defined goal, sorting, threading and construction games and toys.

There is much discussion as to whether requiring children to master certain skills by a set time in a certain academic year is contributing to an increased need for occupation therapy or exacerbating children’s perceived deteriorating mental health.

I do not have the answers, but consider this:  your parents and teachers – and by extension you – know when you are supposed to be able to to complete certain tasks independently (according to goals set and imposed by lawmakers with little knowledge of child development or pedagogy). The task in question is beyond your current capabilities, whether this is due to slow skills development or another, physiological reason. Part of our role as educators is to provide adequate support before difficulties begin to impact on self-esteem, whatever the reason.

Falling over in the playground? Tipping a chair? Dropping stationery? Chewing on pencils? Occasional incidence of any of these is all part of normal behaviour. The key to recognising when it is something more is noticing frequency, triggers and any resulting impact on friendships, health and academic performance.

As well as the better recognised motor coordination issues associated with DCD/dyspraxia, some of these behaviours may be related to sensory processing difficulties. Some students may avoid sensory experiences as they are overpowering, others may seek sensory experiences. Some may seek certain sensory feedback and avoid others, and some may vary between the two. Talk openly with parents, take advice from experienced colleagues and professionals, and do not be afraid to refer to Occupational Therapy.

What next?

Plan and carry out support using all of the resources and information at your disposal. Review support regularly, adjusting and adapting, reflecting on what has worked and what has not. Remember, some things will work quickly – a wobble cushion or writing slope may bring immediate results, but therapy or specialist teaching may take time to have a noticeable effect in whole class situations. Adjust support to incorporate specialist resources and advice when this comes – it may take months for an appointment, and longer still for an assessment report or resources to arrive in the classroom. You may at times feel angry or frustrated that things take so long, but your students do not need your sympathy, they need your positive action.

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Colour Blind Awareness Day

via Daily Prompt: Elevate

It’s the start of a new school year in the UK, and we are gearing up for a series of important events and days (weeks/months) to foster inclusive practice in the education community as well raising awareness in the general population. But how much do you know about colour blindness and how it can affect daily life?

Colour blindness, also, and perhaps more correctly, known as colour vision deficiency (CVD) affects around 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women (NHS, 2016). This means that a mixed class of 30 children is statistically likely to contain at least one student who has CVD.

Over the years I’ve known colourblind colleagues – there was Nick, who, to much office hilarity, had no idea his wellies weren’t green back in the days when that was the pretty much the only colour available (snow day). My own godfather was colourblind. Classmates and pupils have announced their colour blindness, but then simply shrugged it off as something they simply had to deal with.

It was not until I met a student whose learning was significantly impacted by CVD that I realised

  • the prevalence of the condition
  • the effect that CVD can have on a person’s access to information

Here’s an example of how simple colour-coding can make a working adult’s life harder:


Top right is normal colour vision, and I have selected the maximum degree of each type of colour blindness on my filter.

These mop heads that have been colour-coded for specific use in public places such as schools and hospitals. Depending on the type of cleaning or spillage, a different mop must be used to avoid cross contamination. Sensible, but completely unhelpful if you have CVD. It’s not necessary to lose the colour coding, but adding an identifying icon or written label would make all the difference.

Colour-coded charts and tables online or in magazines are similarly confusing, and any weekend afternoon on Twitter will reveal sports fans who are unable to distinguish their team’s colour from the opponents’.

Particularly in primary classrooms, where life experience and developing reading skills may not be enough to unpick the intended meaning, colour can sometimes add confusion rather than eliminating it:


As adults, we have enough experience to know which continent is which. Imagine for a moment, though, how a seven-year-old might feel, moving into his (or her) first KS2 classroom at junior school.

Its a small addition to a busy workload, but if every teacher add simple wording, and icon or other clear illustration to classroom displays and objects such as coloured pens and pencils, then perhaps one chid in every classroom could have a better start to the academic year.

As well as this, and thanks to excellent advice from Colour Blind Awareness, I now routinely check any resources I use or produce with a free CV Simulator app. It’s a minor adjustment to my practice, and if it elevates a student’s spirit (not to mention access to learning opportunities) once in a while, then that’s well worth the effort.

Warning signs in the Primary Classroom

As with all my infographics, this one can be downloaded for printing. There’s a link at the bottom of the page. It’s completely free, but please credit Sarah Gillie – Beacons Unique


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Even more skills for writing

So far, we’ve looked at physical, fine motor coordination skills, phonic knowledge and orthography, which includes spelling conventions. All of these play an important part in learning to write and spell in English. Another aspect that is particularly useful in English is morphology.  Read more

More skills for writing


Orthographic knowledge includes the understanding of a language’s spelling conventions (as well as aspects such as capitalisation and punctuation). Some languages have regular spelling patterns, meaning that an unfamiliar word can be decoded for reading, or encoded for writing, with relative ease. Read more

Early skills for writing


Phonological knowledge is only one of the skills required for writing and spelling in English, but it is the one that tends to be taught fist, and the one that many literacy support programmes will focus on, so we’ll begin our exploration of strategies and resources to support writing and spelling here.  Read more

Fine Motor Support for Writing

Parents and teachers will often wonder why a tried and trusted technique for helping one child or young person does not always seem to suit another. Although we know that each learner is unique,  the cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all was for so long engrained in education and mass-produced materials and publications that it is sometimes hard to fully appreciate just how many processes must come together in a certain way for such homogenous learning to happen. Read more

Early Spelling and Writing

As with all aspects of development, most children will come to spelling and writing at different stages (more on pre-writing here). In countries where formal academic education begins later, children will likely have developed their hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills through self-selected play and craft activities such as LEGO, small world toys, play-doh, cutting and sticking, and use of chalks and crayons. Read more

Pre-writing and early literacy skills

Image source

From around the age of 3 children begin to ‘map’ symbols to meaning, so they may e.g. recognise prominent high street signs such as the golden arches. They start to know that print conveys meaning and might ask for it to be read, or for words to be written. Over time, their mark-making begins to resemble letters, perhaps those in their own name.

Read more


At the risk of sounding evangelical, if teachers are to properly support the students in their classes, they need at least one quality:

  1. an exceptional natural gift to understand each individual’s strengths and needs
  2. many years experience
  3. good training in recognising and supporting a wide range and varying degrees and combinations of needs

Since the first is exceptional, it is not possible for all to have innately, no matter how committed or gifted in other areas the teacher(s) in question might be.

Pupils of the second teacher will benefit from their experience, but what of the pupils who were taught before all that invaluable experience was embedded in the teacher’s practice?

By a process of elimination then, good training is the quality which can most easily be imparted to new (and existing) teachers. If all classroom teachers (still training, newly qualified or experienced) can regularly immerse themselves in training opportunities, they will begin to better understand that each individual’s needs, whether or not diagnosed, can be supported, and that diagnosis is only one aspect of the pupil: each individual is exactly that, a unique human being, with their very own combination of strengths that can be harnessed, and areas to support.


Image: pixabay.com

Over a decade ago the U.K. Government began commissioning a series of reviews and reports by Sir Jim Rose, covering the primary school curriculum and literacy intervention, including the The Rose Report, in 2009 which gave some hope, proclaiming

Encouraging initial teacher training providers to build on their coverage of SEN and disability by offering specialist units for primary undergraduate initial teacher training (ITT), launched in June 2008, with £500,000 funding to aid dissemination. These include a Unit entitled “Learning and Teaching for dyslexic pupils”;

Similar units for secondary undergraduate courses and for post graduate teacher training (PGCE) courses will be rolled out in September 2009;

Developing materials enabling subject/ curriculum tutors to check their knowledge of SEN and disability in relation to their subject area;

Promotion of enhanced opportunities for student teachers to gain experience of working in special schools or other specialist provision;

Promoting the use of specialist materials for the induction of new teachers’;

Developing nationally approved training for Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs), who have a key role in each school in ensuring effective provision for children with SEN and disabilities, and are an important link with parents.

The Teachers’ Standards state that

A teacher must:

know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively

have a secure understanding of how a range of factors can inhibit pupils’ ability to learn, and how best to overcome these

demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development

have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

When I enrolled in initial teacher training (ITT) in 2003, there was only limited instruction in learning differences, (more on that here), but these documents suggest that the situation must have changed in the intervening decade and a half. I know that there are ITT providers trying to address theses requirements, having played a very small part in the design, delivery and assessment of one such module.

As part of a research project last year, I polled 170 teachers across the UK and found that less that one third of teachers had received a more in depth introduction to SEND that I had in ITT, including training reported by teachers who had qualified in the previous two years. In fact, often where such training was available, it was described as optional rather than a compulsory module. I asked teachers whether they had received SEND-specific training at school: around half had received training to support dyslexia (55%),  ADHD (49%), Autism (52%). Reported in service training (INSET) to support other needs was rarer. In fact, for other diagnoses listed, whether during ITT, INSET or external continuing professional development (CPD), less than half of teachers polled had received any training at all.

I count myself fortunate that my early teaching career brought me into contact with a diverse range of students, and that, as a result, I had amazing support from our SENCo, from Advanced Skills Teachers with SEN expertise and from external professionals. Without this support and experience, and the many courses I enrolled on in my effort to better understand and support the pupils in my class, I might not have realised how rewarding and fascinating this area of education could be.

I strongly believe that neither our children’s futures nor our teachers’ training should be left to chance. I’d love for you to share your experiences with me, from any perspective.

Daily Prompt: Immerse

Celebrating achievement

via Daily Prompt: Record

When children are small and make their first tentative steps into the world of education, often semi-informally in a play-based setting, each day can seem to bring with it another small trophy of the day’s activities: some small, sticky objet or crinkled artwork that must, for an unspecified period, at the very least grace the kitchen shelf, mantlepiece, front of fridge or other ‘boasting wall’. Certain pieces do not come straight home, they are painted, glazed, mounted or laminated and showcased in the classroom, sent home at the end of term or academic year. Some of these, in my family, have been known to survive decades, and I recall another mother going out specifically to buy cheap luggage in which to store items that were no longer on display, so keen was she to preserve these records of her children’s early achievements.

We accept and expect that much will be made of our children’s and students’ early efforts, as they gain experience and confidence through copying and experimentation. Why, then, does this change at the very time when young people’s burgeoning maturity and self-awareness make them most vulnerable, do we begin to expect them to simply produce schoolwork on demand with growing independence and diminishing rewards?

A quick scroll through social media or blogging sites reveals tales of 7-11 year olds who have become first disappointed, then disempowered, disaffected, disenfranchised, some manifesting frustration in word or deed, gaining a reputation for being disruptive, others withdrawing into a shell. Both of these groups may reveal the extent of their distress only in the safety of their home environment.

Too often, parents report teachers’ response that,”Everything’s fine at school.” Perversely, this can be followed, sometimes only a matter of days later by a note or phone call asking them to attend a meeting to discuss behaviour, progress or both. We need to break this cycle.

I’d like to propose two small changes we can consider in our day-to-day school interactions.

  1. Continue to value every contribution and celebrate students’ achievements, so that our students can take pride in their efforts and gain confidence to  keep trying.
  2. Keep the communication lines open: teacher – student, teacher – parent, teacher – colleagues and management. By nurturing mutual trust we can begin to break down barriers, and maybe even prevent them. It’s quite possible that students may perform, behave or feel differently at home and at school, and through understanding the differences, we may be able to tease out aspects of tasks and environments that pose a threat (to avoid them) or factors that support (to promote across settings).


Warning signs

We hear this regularly, particularly before moving into secondary education: a student appears to cope well in one class, then at transition to the next academic year, and a new teacher, certain tasks become overwhelming. Such hiccups can typically occur between Key Stages in the English school system, when the increase in pace and formality are most pronounced, at rising ages 6, 8 and 12 (and sometimes between lower and upper KS2, age 9-10). This is perhaps unsurprising – the increased demands of more complex instructions, longer and denser texts, extended writing, the expectation of increased self-reliance – any one of these factors could be enough to set back a learner who is already working harder than most peers to meet daily classroom challenges.


Image: ccPix.com

Around the age of 7, many students with learning differences can find meeting everyday school requirements exhausting if not, occasionally, apparently impossible. This is often when parents will talk to people like me, specialist teachers or SEND co-ordinators, as they seek to find a way to ease their child’s path through school and the education system, a system designed with limited consideration for those who fall outside the ‘typical’ range in their approach to learning, socialising and conforming.

What is not so often reported, but what can also happen, is that such learners can thrive in the care of particular teachers. Parents will sometimes relate how their son or daughter appeared to first struggle in, say Year 2 or 3, then do well with their next teacher, allowing both pupil and parent a sigh of relief, but return to the cycle of difficulties and differences after that year is past. It is possible that in some cases the cycle reflects that student’s learning profile and the relative academic demands faced, but in my experience, it has at least as much to do with the teachers in the ‘good’ years recognising a pattern of events and challenges for the student concerned and implementing supportive practice to alleviate those demands.

So why can’t all teachers spot these signs? And why does it seem that some teachers aren’t able to access the support and resources that would make the difference, even if they are able to spot the signs? I do not claim to have all the answers, but I have two or three ideas to share:

  1. Training – if teachers are to recognise support needs, they need more, and more in-depth, training in a wide range of learning differences, support needs, support techniques and adaptive practice.
  2. Culture – if teachers and schools are to promote and celebrate equity and diversity and allow all to reach their potential in a supportive, well resourced environment, then the rights, roles and responsibilities of pupils, parents and teachers need to be clarified and crystalised so that no-one can mistakenly believe that it is not in their remit to ensure this common goal is attainable.
  3. Funding – as long as we cannot afford to implement these changes in the earliest years of schooling, we will be paying the price later on, with children leaving primary school unable to read, or with their self-esteem in tatters, or both. Such students rarely go on to thrive in secondary education. History has already shown that such children’s life chances are measurably adversely affected. We cannot afford not to afford these changes any longer, if, indeed, we ever could.

I’m in the process of writing up the findings of a teachers’ survey I conducted to better understand the current extent (or lack of) of SEND training. In the mean time, I’d like to hear your stories and experiences, whether positive or negative, and from teacher or parent perspective.

Daily Prompt: Pattern

Emerging, expected, exceeding…

via Daily Prompt: Quicken

This post is named after the ‘levels’ children are assigned as they progress through the early years of education provision in England. I wonder whether the obsession with quantifying and labelling our children from the moment they enter an education-related environment is at the rotten core of a mistrust and blame culture promoted by the popular press. It’s a culture we need to change if our children are to thrive as education evolves.

A fairly cursory search through education-related ‘news’ articles will suggest that schools are failing our children. This is not a new phenomenon, though it may have its origins in that misguided concept of the late 20th century that schools would improve, and that families would be able to make informed choices as a result of a sort of league table for schools. Here it is in its most recent incarnation.

Just a couple of examples:

Are schools failing white, working-class children?

Most boys leave primary without basic numeracy and literacy skills, figures show

One in 10 secondary schools in England are failing their pupils – with one area doing much worse

I count myself fortunate that my children have had supportive teachers, willing and able to adapt to their needs, and that my own experience working in schools is generally excellent: colleagues are well-informed, proactive, caring and genuinely in the business of helping every learner to achieve. In my most recent school-based incarnation as a learning support teacher, I would act on concerns raised by teachers, parents or assessment data (not just summative). Working in partnership with colleagues and families, we would navigate the process of referral and diagnosis together, adjusting support and intervention based on current needs and professional recommendations.

Over recent decades across the UK it has become accepted and expected that, wherever possible, learning at school should be facilitated through appropriate differentiation and support to suit each pupil’s age, stage and needs (Rose, 2009; Great Britain, Department for Education and Department of Health, 2015; Wales, Department for Education and Skills, 2015). According to the Teachers’ Standards (Great Britain, Department for Education, 2013) “a teacher must…know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively.”

Reasonable adjustments are often needed, and the time, space and resources of the classroom can sometimes make these alterations seem major, if not unattainable. Usually, though, a way can be found to adapt the space, timetable or plan, etc. for the sake of the student. Sometimes there is a windfall benefit to other members of the class or the teacher, whether through the introduction of a support technique, improved differentiation or adults in the class having more time to spend with all pupils. I’m not claiming that it is always like this. There will always be some teachers who resist external advice, and for a multitude of reasons,  just as in any walk of life.

“Early intervention is key” – it’s one of those phrases used so often that it should have become unthinkable that prompt support is not available to all children, regardless of  age or geographic location. Surely early intervention in education or health should mean at the point when difficulties occur; any experienced teacher will tell you that students can begin to show signs of struggling at any age or stage.

There is still, all too often, a cut-off point at age 5 despite the supposed integration (or at least co-operation and communication) of health and education support services to age 25 through the 2014 SEND Code of Practice. A child who has received NHS Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) or Occupational Therapist (OT) intervention can abruptly  cease to qualify, or one whose problems are masked or only emerge later can simply fail to qualify for support. What is harder to prove, but what many realise, is that children whose needs are not manifested extremely enough to qualify for support between the ages of 5 and 11 may be the very children who are later referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) – there’s an example in one of I Can‘s latest blog posts.


Last week, my interest and my heart quickened for all the wrong reasons as I waded through the multitude of articles written as a result of GL Assessment’s survey conducted with YouGov. Pushy parents causing children to be misdiagnosed with special needs, research suggests, is just one of these. The article, and several others, suggest that current diagnosis rates are manipulated by parents, and that some of the 1.2 million children in England who have a diagnosis of learning needs have been misdiagnosed.

Local Authority educational psychologists exist, but pressure on funding means that there are huge waiting lists and children sometimes do not ‘qualify’ for observation or assessment, let alone additional support, because their needs simply aren’t ‘severe’ enough, they are not unmanageably disruptive or refusing school. But failure to provide for these pupils can lead to far greater problems later on. How many of the students discussed in the articles at the top of this page fall into that category?

It is a sad fact that for many, access to appropriate support may be limited to those who are able to afford private diagnosis. These are the children of so-called ‘pushy’ parents. I have to ask: if a private diagnosis is sought, what professional of integrity would risk their reputation and certification, let alone the well-being of the student concerned, to appease a ‘pushy parent’? The battery of assessments and corroborating evidence required to establish a reliable diagnosis should preclude this. In my experience, parents are seeking answers and support, not excuses. Any headline suggesting otherwise is, in my opinion, little more than attention-seeking… (Yes, I did just post a link to Wikipedia!)

To say that I am at a loss to understand the motivation of a company, whose products include numerous screeners for learning difficulties, including their WellCom and Lucid ranges, to promote such inflammatory, divisive and emotive statements is an understatement. (Not providing free footfall with a link to those, sorry.) Perhaps in this new world of  ‘alternative facts’ the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, has come into its own.
To put the survey results in context, it’s important to know the actual questions asked. These were:

“Do you think that there is currently a misdiagnosis of special educational needs amongst school children?” (57% of those polled agreed)

“Do you think that pressure from parents has led to some children at your school being categorised as having special educational needs unnecessarily?” (54% of those polled agreed)

“I worry some genuine special needs children don’t get as much help as they need because resources are being diverted to children that don’t really need the help.” (62% of those polled agreed)

“I think some parents who push for their child to be recognised as having special educational needs label do it to try and help their children gain a competitive edge during tests and exams.” (39% of those polled agreed)

“I think some parents who have a child with a barrier to learning that could be addressed by a teacher are too quick to want a medical or psychological explanation: How strongly do you agree or disagree?” (64% 0f those polled agreed)

I’ll just leave those questions there for you to consider their wording and intent.

Bizarrely, the report detailing these survey results also includes some thoughtful and well-considered articles by real experts. I must be missing the point.

Long before teaching, as a student and for a short time after graduating, I worked in market research. This was before the internet had become the ubiquitous tool it is today, and so actual calls had to be made to actual humans at actual businesses. We knew that the phrasing of questions was key to getting the answer that would most help our clients. I simply cannot understand what possible positive impact the GL Assessment exercise was meant to have.

At best, it’s arguing that we should not need a diagnostic label to provide the best and most supportive education to all our children. What teacher would not agree?! The issue, then is one of funding: sometimes the only way that truly adequate support can be given is though the provision of human time or other resources and equipment that cost money.

Let’s assume (which we would never do) that what these answers really are telling us is what the press have rather lazily taken from the survey results. I would like to know how long they believe this misdiagnosis has been going on for…

Each September, the Department for Education publishes figures from the previous January. The latest show that there were 8.56 million pupils in school in England. For a research paper I wrote last year I found that reported prevalence rates in the UK at that time for various learning difficulties were estimated  at up to 15% for dyslexia (Rose, 2009;), up to 5% for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, NHS, 2016), around 1% autism spectrum disorder (ASD: NHS, 2016), and up to 5% for developmental coordination disorder (DCD: NHS, 2014). The Rose Report was published in 2009, but the data were gathered in 2008. Assuming (again) that trends in prevalence and diagnosis rates have remained unchanged over the past decade, 15% of 8.56m would be 1.284m. These figures do not account for other learning differences, such as developmental language disorder, sensory processing disorder and auditory processing disorder, to mention just three. We know that many people with neurodevelopmental differences have co-occurring difficulties, but even assuming (again) that EVERY student with autism, ADHD or DCD/dyspraxia also has dyslexia, it seems to me somewhat unlikely that the figures are grossly exaggerated, or even exaggerated at all.



10 books on Executive Function and Related Learning Needs

To close the series of recent posts related to executive function, it seemed sensible to share some of the texts that I have consulted when working with students to develop tailored support for executive function. The list is not exhaustive, and if you would like more information or suggestions for where to go next, please feel free to get in touch via the comments, contact page or sidebar .

For Parents and Educators

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Displays and visual prompts

Anyone who has visited a mainstream primary school classroom cannot have failed to notice the plethora of displays decorating the walls. Sometimes these expand to cover doors, windows and may even be suspended from the ceiling or pegged out overhead, washing-line style. Often these consist primarily of presentations of the children’s work, perhaps each pupil’s version of a particular activity, or a different noteworthy piece from every child. These adornments may boost young learners’ self-esteem, which is important to developing confidence in a learning environment, and teachers may, from time to time, use them to remind their pupils of previous accomplishments to encourage efforts on the task in hand.

Such adornments have their place, serving to acknowledge and celebrate pupils’ efforts and to showcase the learning that has been taking place for the benefit of carers and parents on open days and at pick-up or drop-off. Most children are only too delighted to point out their masterpieces with great pride. However, for some students, these colourful exhibits can serve as a distraction. For others, they might bring back almost painful memories of seemingly endless toil and disappointment. Teachers must keep these scenarios and others in mind when planning their displays to create a safe and enabling learning environment.

Other displays can be lost on adults as they tour these joyful looking spaces, but it would be surprising if the classroom did not also contain visual prompts, designed to ease the smooth running of the school day or to provide information and reminders on any number of subjects, from simple colours, shapes, letters and numbers to historical timelines, foreign languages and complex scientific formulae and data.

The further children progress through education, the more likely it is that wall displays will consist predominantly of such prompts rather than their own work. As they progress through school, they will probably find themselves in different, subject-specific learning spaces for each lesson, making the job of filtering out what is relevant to each lesson somewhat easier, though they may still occasionally be confused by posters related to topics not yet covered, which are nonetheless relevant to older students using the same space. Ironically, in this way we make the displays easier to access only after most of our learners have already – possibly independently – developed the skills to benefit from them. By contrast, an infant classroom may be decorated with multiple displays of past work, with information relevant to multiple current topics squeezed into the remaining available space. These are at best developing readers, yet we risk overloading them with visual stimuli.

Children’s attention and focus develops over time, being intimately linked with their evolving executive function (EF) skills. Although teachers have their learners’ interests at heart when planning and setting up displays, the learning prompts intended by the provision of e.g. a visual timetable can be inaccessible for younger pupils, especially for those with learning differences and EF challenges, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. Classrooms can have excellent age-appropriate displays, with clear potential to enhance learning, but if the pupils do not benefit from referring to these displays, then they are simply ‘noise’ on the walls.

This does not mean that we should not make use of posters and other appropriate visual cues to support classroom or home learning. It does not mean that classrooms should become dull-looking spaces whose walls are bare. It means that displays should be selected for their suitability to the students, their learning needs and the lesson’s objectives. It also means that learners should be taught how to use the displays to support their own learning. It is not enough to simply put up a poster and assume that all children will instinctively know where to look and what to look for, let alone process the information in their schoolwork.


To go back to basics: if the youngest children are explicitly shown where the visual timetable is in their classroom (or individual, home or other learning space), if it becomes part of the everyday school (or home etc.) routine to refer to the images, to note which have passed, perhaps cover or remove the icons for activities that have been completed, then they will develop a better sense of how their day is progressing. Visual timetables can be bought, made or downloaded from the internet; I would recommend a whole school approach, where the same images are used throughout. The timetable itself can adapt to suit the age and development of each class, from large images and velcro to a daily or even eventually a weekly poster, so long as there is continuity and the timetable is referred to regularly enough for it to be part of every pupil’s working understanding of the classroom.


Visual prompts can be brilliant for supporting everything from letter-sound correspondence and number recognition to grammar rules and mathematical techniques. They can provide factual information and technical reminders for every subject. They can be anything from large, commercially produced or teacher- or student-made posters to personal cards. The important thing is to teach students how to use them. So, if you are teaching a creative writing point, or a mathematical rule, or a foreign language, or… (you get the point) incorporate the poster/prompt you are going to provide into your teaching. Refer to it explicitly and frequently. In a classroom where multiple subjects are taught, have topic-specific areas, possibly colour-coded. Start with the youngest children, but do not assume that the routines learnt in one academic year or subject will automatically be generalised to the next year or another curriculum area. The key is over-learning.


Do not worry that this will hold back your most independent pupils. If you are using the prompt to teach a new point, they are still getting fresh input. They may not need to refer to the prompts after you have introduced them. Others will gain greater independence through confidence and familiarity with using the prompts. This will allow more time to be spent consolidating the points and reinforcing the use of prompts with those who still need support. Judicious inclusion of prompts in homework can also help.

Some learners who struggle with visual processing may need more support and other opportunities to consolidate learning. Look out for that in another post.

This article is based on training presentations for schools and parents. Please feel free to contact me for more information.


Graham, S. Harris, K. and Olinghouse, N (2007) ‘Addressing Executive Function Problems in Writing: An Example from the Self-Regulated Strategy Development Model’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 216-236

Johnson, J. and Reid, R. (2011) ‘Overcoming Executive Function Deficits with Students with ADHD’ Theory into Practice, 50 (1) pp. 61-67 [Online]. (Accessed: 22 January 2016)

Kaufman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Meltzer, L., Pollica, L. and Barzillai, M. ‘Executive Function in the Classrooms: Embedding Strategy Instruction into Daily Teaching Practices’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 165-193

West Gaskins, I. and Pressley, M. (2007) ‘Teaching Metacognitive Strategies that Address Executive Function Processes within a Schoolwide Curriculum’ in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 261-286


Mathematics and Problem-Solving

Where learners’ EF (Executive Function) is underdeveloped and/or working memory is overloaded, mathematics can pose real challenges that go beyond understanding numbers or carrying our calculations. It’s common for EF to impact maths, not least because of the importance of sequencing, and EF difficulties can co-occur with dyscalculia as with dyslexia. Read more

Language and Literacy

It may be obvious, but, for best results, start at the beginning! Even children whose executive function (EF) is developing well do not begin to visualise and verbalise until they are at least pre-school age. At this point, some whole class or group activities and tools might be reading a book or telling a story together and discussing it to clarify the language and expand on the detail. This can be built on by asking children to close their eyes and give a single word to describe a character/object from the story. Develop this further e.g.

  • Taking a single page in a picture book and finding words to describe an image
  • Discussing characters’ feelings
  • Finding different ways to describe the same thing
  • Taking the story’s theme and making
    • Imaginative play in a corner with child-size props and dress-up
    • Small world table-top activities
    • Creative activities, including cutting and sticking, malleable, construction
    • Playground adaptations of all of the above


  • When supporting children in any of the creative tasks individually or in small groups, revisiting the language building activities (gently and appropriately – if it’s forced and slavish, they’ll know and you will all be bored)

Later, when children are becoming independent writers, talk about language, find alternative words and more descriptive choices, discuss words and their origins and meaning (can also help with spelling, but more on that another time). This needs to become second nature to your teaching as well as to their learning, part of the fabric of any lesson, with visual and physical props and prompts to stimulate and extend talk and written work.

If this important groundwork happens in the whole class (or family) setting, then children with well-developed skills have a chance to shine and their expertise can boost peers’ understanding and progress. More importantly, if some children are left behind despite these efforts, we can see who needs help. In some cases, this may be the time to call on a qualified and experienced speech and language therapist or other professional, if one is not already involved. Other children may benefit substantially from smaller school-based group, paired or individual intervention, taking a step back to consolidate earlier skills in a quieter environment. (Talk Boost is great for this!)

Bear in mind that the brain’s executive functions, which facilitate processing of instructions, are still very much in the developmental stages throughout primary/elementary school. At home, in nursery and pre-school, children learn to follow simple commands, consisting of words and gestures. Gradually they begin to interpret more complex instructions, with perhaps two or three steps, sometimes reading cues such as facial expressions to be sure they have complied correctly. EF weaknesses can mean that these skills are underdeveloped. If following verbal instructions poses challenges although it’s been a requirement for most children since toddlerhood, then it is likely that the demands of a written comprehension task or multiple step maths problem will be exhausting, frustrating and demoralising.

This kind of interaction with books and language, as already discussed, is a real boost for early aural and reading comprehension skills. If students have learnt the conventions of written language through listening to texts read, they will have an easier time when they come to read them independently.

If a learner’s difficulties here are due to difficulties with reading and writing such as co-occurring dyslexia, then that must be addressed separately, but EF-supporting strategies can still be useful for such students as an additional tool. Support for learners with dyslexia deserves to be written about in detail. Look out for that in a future post.

More blogs on reading and writing can be found here:

More blogs on executive function can be found here:

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Lightening the Load

overloadLast month I began a series of posts about executive function (EF) and how it can affect students’ learning, starting with an introduction and following with thoughts on classroom and homework situations. It’s time to look at some of the strategies already touched on in a bit more detail.

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Executive functions (Explained in more detail here: EF – an introduction) develop from early childhood and are seen as key predictors of academic outcome and life chances in the modern world. I discussed how EF difficulties might present or be supported in the classroom in EF and Learning – Classroom Survival.

Some students with underdeveloped EF find the demands of school overwhelming from the very start, whereas for others, classroom routines, resources and support can be a benefit. In both cases, homework is likely to pose a challenge, particularly as they grow older, since such independent tasks place significant burden on EF.

When a child or young person has underdeveloped EF they

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What to do?

Over the years, teaching colleagues, students’ parents and my own family and friends have often asked what the ‘best’ way is to promote this or prevent that when it comes to behaviour, development or learning. Sometimes, but not always, the question is one that I’ve handled before, or frequently faced myself. We all know that every human is a unique individual, and that no two combinations of personality and circumstance are likely to be completely identical, so I must suppress my impulse to respond immediately in an effort to please.

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