A few thought on targets Read more
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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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.
You can share this using any of the buttons below
Have you ever considered the proportion of nursery rhymes that include counting and numbers? Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
Dyslexia awareness week 2017 runs from Monday 2nd October to Sunday 8th October, with the theme Positive about Dyslexia. Read more
For certain students, traditional teaching methods are not always sufficient, and sometimes not appropriate, no matter how sensitively planned and delivered. Read more
It’s all very well trying to raise awareness, but what actually is DLD?
Typical reading development might look something like this: Read more
Continuing the theme of recent blogs on literacy acquisition, here we focus on symbol-sound (grapheme-phoneme) correspondence and early reading. Read more
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
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
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
In the final stages of writing development, usually during British Key Stage 2 (age 7-11) and often into the first year or so of Key Stage 3 (age 11-14), typical learners are expected to consolidate the following skills: Read more
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
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.
At the risk of sounding evangelical, if teachers are to properly support the students in their classes, they need at least one quality:
- an exceptional natural gift to understand each individual’s strengths and needs
- many years experience
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
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.
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
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
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
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.
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Routines can be enormously helpful for anyone. Read more
One of the trickiest types of situation I have experienced as a teacher is what happens when someone loses face. There are all sorts of occasions when this can happen including, say Read more
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
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.
Executive function (EF) difficulties commonly co-occur with other learning differences and specific learning difficulties, and they can pose life-long challenges. It’s important for those affected, their families, educators and employers to understand how EF impacts everyday functioning and what can be done to support this. For more on EF difficulties see EF – an Introduction.
Many of the challenges faced (and sometimes posed) in school and learning situations by students with EF difficulties are similar or identical to those experienced by their neurotypical peers. This is one of the reasons why teachers and parents can easily miss the signs that there is a support need. Unfortunately, all too often, the behaviours that actually signs of EF difficulties are labelled as immature, impulsive or even plain ‘naughty’.
So what might these behaviours be?
The chances are that unless you have (or a family member has) a diagnosis detailing executive function difficulties, or you are an experienced clinical practitioner, assessor or special needs educator, you may not have heard of executive function (EF) at all. As part of a research project in the summer of 2016, I conducted an online survey of teachers to gauge their knowledge and understanding of a range of learning needs: executive function difficulty was the least well known by the 170 respondents. Research shows that students with specific learning difficulties are likely to have executive function challenges. Based on published prevalence figures it is statistically very probable that every mainstream class will include a number of pupils with executive function difficulties.
Perhaps this applies especially to teachers, but it seems to me that many people can look back on their school days and remember a particular teacher who inspired them to greatness. I am almost ashamed to confess that I am not one of those. Admittedly, it was Miss Roberts’ encouragement that persuaded me to study English rather than maths at ‘A’ level (I would have done better at maths and it would have served me better in my first profession in banking). And Mrs Price’s persuasiveness convinced me to apply for the degree course I eventually chose, rather than the more conventional options preferred by my parents and the careers advisor at school. There are many teachers I remember fondly, particularly late in primary school, early in secondary school and at sixth form, but the memories that really stick with me are not the rosy reminiscences of school success. They are the occasions when, even now, I shudder that an adult with influence on young hearts and minds could thoughtlessly say and do as they did.