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Up-skilling in SEND as a Teaching Assistant: Tips for SEN TA roles

David Canning-England, Pastoral Lead in a Secondary School
19 Jun 2023
7 min read
Up-skilling in SEND as a Teaching Assistant: Tips for SEN TA roles

“…..the provisions relating to disability discrimination are different in that you may, and often must, treat a disabled person more favourably than a person who is not disabled and may have to make changes to your practices to ensure, as far as is reasonably possible, that a disabled person can benefit from what you offer to the same extent that a person without that disability can.” (Equality Act 2010 4.1)

Up-skilling is valuable in Teaching Assistant roles for support children with SEND.

SEND – which stands for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities – is a vast area in which we can always develop our understanding and learn more. This will help to land great jobs in SEN schools as well as in mainstream schools.

Now, take a moment to re-read the first paragraph, paying particular attention to the phrase "...and often must, treat a disabled person more favourably than a person who is not disabled..." Let's honestly reflect on how often we genuinely apply this principle as Teaching Assistants. In this blog post, I provide my top 5 SEND tips to enhance your skills and potentially transform your approach to working with children and young people with SEN.

1. Redefine how you view behaviour

Many students with SEND display challenging behaviours and are often labeled as "difficult" or "naughty." However, it's crucial to recognise that behaviour is just one form of communication. After an incident, take time to understand what's driving the behaviour. Ask yourself:

  • What message was the student trying to convey?
  • What were they unable to express due to the demands placed upon them?

To improve your ability to interpret students' intentions, consider exploring programs like the Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support (SCERTS) model, which specifically focuses on students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and related disabilities. SCERTS has a comprehensive website and a strong presence on social media. Additionally, you can benefit from online courses on Makaton and British Sign Language (BSL), which are available on platforms like YouTube. These resources can be invaluable when engaging with non-verbal students.

2. Educate yourself about the physical demands of SEND

While much emphasis is placed on meeting the cognitive needs of students and their ability to retain and reproduce knowledge in exams, it's important to recognise that students with SEND can only retain information if they can comfortably remain in the learning environment:

  • Are the lights too bright?
  • Is the room too noisy?
  • Are the seats uncomfortable?

Often, students won't directly communicate these issues, so it's crucial for Teaching Assistants to actively investigate and address them. To gain more in-depth training, consider accessing free courses offered by reputable institutions like The Open University, The University of Derby, The Skills Network, Continuum, and ACEs. These courses can equip you with the knowledge to create a learning environment that is more conducive to students with SEND.

3. Foster effective communication

The most powerful tool for teaching SEND students is effective communication. When you're struggling with communicating with a child, do ask for help. When I've done this before, I've sometimes been told the child I'm asking about doesn't behave in the same way in my colleagues' classes. This can be invaluable when it comes to understanding and supporting SEND students – if you come across this, take the opportunity to observe this staff member during lessons. Pay attention to their instructional resources and teaching methods. Many schools have 'one-page profiles' for children with SEND. I've even heard of a SENCo who displayed all profiles on a staffroom wall for regular annotations by the staff. Remember that students' needs and requirements change over time, so leverage the expertise of your colleagues to effectively implement necessary changes.

4. Diversify your resources

Often, it is the environment, rather than the diagnosis, that disables children. It is crucial to enhance your teaching practice by exploring the available resources that can assist students with SEND in communication, learning, and overall progress.

Adjustments you can make on your own include:

  • Increasing font size on worksheets
  • Providing printouts of board presentations to aid in word tracking
  • Offering cue cards with key vocabulary
  • Using sentence starters to prompt students

Additionally, there are websites and resources that have already done the work for you. For example, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) enables autistic individuals to communicate without relying solely on speech. PECS involves using cards with pictures, symbols, words, or photographs to express needs, comment on things, or answer questions. Coreboards are another useful tool, consisting of colourful boards with fixed symbols representing the "core vocabulary" that constitutes approximately 80% of our speech. By enabling effective communication, you make other educational requirements more accessible to SEND students.

5. Embrace technology

Considering how accessible great technology is today, where children often become adept at navigating YouTube before they are taught to hold a pen in their early years, there is a growing argument for fully embracing technology, particularly for empowering SEND students and giving them a voice.

Research various educational resources such as:

  • Motor Maths
  • Hungry Fish (a highly visual math resource that improves fine motor skills)
  • See. Touch. LearnPro (an app that teaches new vocabulary and enhances self-expression)
  • Articulation Station (developed by a speech and language pathologist to improve word pronunciation)
  • Proloquo2Go (a symbol-based app that provides a voice for students who struggle with speech)
  • iTalk Recorder (a recording app that helps students with concentration difficulties or recalling learned information)
  • Pacifica (a cognitive behavioural therapy app that guides students with mental health difficulties through daily challenges)

In conclusion, to better serve students with SEN, it is essential for TAs to prioritise this area, redefine their understanding of behaviour, educate themselves about the physical demands of SEND, promote effective communication among staff, diversify their teaching resources, and embrace the potential of technology. By incorporating these strategies, educators can create an inclusive and supportive learning environment that caters to the unique needs of SEND students.

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