Why choose to work in a special school? Olivia, our SEND Lead and former SEND Support Worker, discusses opportunities to upskill and develop your experience in the special needs sector.

Many teachers and teaching assistants find truly rewarding work in special schools. Zen supports the placement of staff in a wide range of specialist settings — including Pupil Referral Units (PRU’s), Hospital Schools and Special Needs Schools — to help young people with special needs to realise their full potential.

We try to live in an inclusive world, but mainstream education can’t always be made accessible for students with additional needs. Special needs schools can help provide an educational environment that is tailored to meet the specific needs of students. The Village School and College Park School offer virtual tours to explore how their schools are adapted to meet the needs of pupils, but what can you expect from working in a special needs school?

The opportunity to make a real impact is profound

“All their lives, they’ve been told what they can’t do. We’re here to show them what they can do” — Headteacher on BBC’s Life in a Special School

Immersing yourself in the values and ethos of a special school helps you to effectively support the most vulnerable children in society. Specific qualifications are not required for TA roles, but you’ll need a passion for education and a willingness to grow and partake in free, often weekly, CPD Training — such as Makaton sessions, manual handling training or support planning sensory activities.

It’s a very hands-on role where you will help the social, physical and academic development of children in line with their individual targets. This could involve helping to annotate and document a student’s work, getting involved with class activities, giving feedback to class teachers and working with therapists to help deliver interventions in Speech/Language, Occupational Therapy or more creative ones such as dance and art. You’ll see children grow, develop and make breakthroughs, which is incredibly rewarding!

How do special schools differ from mainstream schools?

The role of a TA in a special school is not fundamentally different to that in a mainstream school. They aim to promote the safeguarding and wellbeing of children and young people. All Local Authority maintained special schools will follow the National Curriculum, but have the freedom to individualise the curriculum for each pupil. Other notable differences may include:

  • Specialism of SEN condition e.g. Autism specific schools
  • Higher staff to student ratio (as many as 2 staff to 1 child)
  • Smaller class size (6–12 pupils)
  • All-through schools, from EYFS to KS5
  • Independent living/preparing for Adulthood skills — featuring commercial cafes run by students, life skills flats, community work
  • Sensory rooms for students to relax (sensory rooms, pools and soft playrooms)

Sensory rooms are quiet spaces dedicated to stimulating, developing and calming the senses

To manage resistance to engagement, staff typically deploy the use of shorter, sensory-based activities and predictable routines reinforced by visual calendars and timers. Staff participation is a powerful tool, too — in my former school, staff and students did yoga together at the start of the day, relaxing for everyone involved!

Research indicates that promoting social and emotional wellbeing can help students negate anti-social or aggressive behaviour. Special schools place an emphasis on PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education) and positive wellbeing. By educating students on identifying their emotions, they can re-channel their feelings into prosocial behaviour and navigate independent life more confidently.

Best practice in special schools

Apply simple but not patronising language: It’s good practice to use simple, accessible language which communicates the basic need of what you need students to do. Break down instructions; ‘come in’ and ‘put your coat on the peg’ rather than ‘please come into the room and put your coat on the peg.’

Help students unlock their communication potential: It is every child’s right to communicate. There will be children who might seem like they have low functioning abilities, but can communicate effectively if provided with tools such as eye gaze boards or iPads. I once worked with a young person who was often frustrated and displayed challenging behaviour, but by using an iPad he made a breakthrough in communication at the age of 17!

Use visual aids wherever possible: Children may respond better to non-verbal communication. Introducing traffic light systems or emojis to assess understanding of learning can be really effective. It can help with total communication to apply the use of Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS), British Sign Language or Makaton; this helps ensure every child can communicate in a way that suits their needs.

Utilise pupil profiles: A summary of educational and medical needs, and procedures in emergencies. A profile on a child with challenging behaviour would signpost their triggers, such as loud noises, and include information on when to move them away. It’s good practice to arrive early, read the profiles and speak to staff to see if there is other behaviour worth noting – these profiles aren’t always updated daily!

Understand the power of motivators: Pupil profiles will also indicate what individual students do and don’t do well, and ways to build their self-esteem and improve their learning journey. Motivators help children engage in activities they find difficult. One standard practice is 5 minutes reward (i.e. iPad time) after 5 - 15 minutes of focused learning.

Don’t take challenging moments personally: Some children can demonstrate feelings by hitting, screaming and crying. They are trying to express something to you and may not apply the appropriate communication tools. Your team will support you through these moments!

Realise conditions are not linear: SEND TAs frequently work with children with autism who might struggle with communication and flexible thinking, and rely on routine. However, as observed in the diagram below, one behaviour does not indicate all behaviours. It is important to understand the specific profile of each individual child so that activities can be tailored to their needs.

Visual representation of how people may think symptoms of autism appear vs how symptoms may actually present

I’m interested — what might my journey to SEN TA look like?

Working in special schools means helping some of society’s most vulnerable children to explore ways of learning previously unavailable to them. In my experience, a supportive team is always available to answer your questions (don’t hold back!) and SLT tend to be very approachable.

Educating students with SEND was the most rewarding part of my career, with some amazing highs. It was also, at times, emotionally laborious. Sadly, some children may have life-limiting conditions, but you’ll be helping to improve their quality of life while they are with us, with therapy and wonderful sensory experiences.

Experience is the key to maximising your impact in a special school — you can refer to documentaries such as ‘A Special School’ and Twinkl for free insight and resources. We also have our 10 with Zen podcast on supporting students with SEND remotely and workshops on positive mental health to help you upskill.

We’re always looking for committed and passionate teachers and TAs to place in special schools. If you’d like to find out more, do sign up and search for SEN Jobs in London, Birmingham and Manchester.