Putting the Special Back in Special Needs

In this passionate and insightful blog, Rena Johnson, English Teacher and SEN Subject Leader, shares her thoughts on how to better support children and young people with Special Educational Needs.


As an English teacher, my bread and butter largely consist of encouraging my students to consider the effects of language in their analysis of texts. “Consider the writer’s intent” I implore. “How might the specific language choices of the playwright affect an audience?” I query. For the connotations of language are significant for those who choose to consider them.

When I asked colleagues at a whole school INSET at the start of the academic year to think about what the word special means to them contextually, the responses showed they were enthused if they were being invited to a ‘special dinner’ or had to wear ‘special’ attire; special conjures images of a treat, something extraordinary or better than is what is considered the norm - where extra effort is needed. Yet within the special educational needs (SEN) landscape, it feels as though this could not be further from the truth if one tried to imagine.

Granted, we have come a long way from the deplorable and derogatory labels of retarded, spastic and the like, however, the language that is employed still remains largely negative. Disorders. Deficits. Difficulties. The very nature of this semantic field conjures images of conditions that need to be cured. Whilst labels are useful for a diagnosis, it is imperative that the label is not attached to the child or young person as an absolute of their existence. My youngest child, after watching the Paralympics, concluded that people with disabilities ‘just have different abilities’ as he watched the Paralympians share their superpowers with the world in complete and utter awe. Yet the provision for pupils with SEND remains an underfunded and neglected one as they are continuously treated as a forgotten group by a large majority of those in power. Government statistics, as of 2020, report that 1.37 million pupils have SEN. Yet parents and carers across the country are exhausted, exasperated and losing faith in the system that is supposed to ensure that their children receive the best possible outcomes in life. A delayed SEND Review has only added further fuel to the raging fire that burns from the frustrations of the parents, carers and practitioners who tirelessly fight for the rights of our students with SEND.

Having worked in education for 19 years, the general consensus is that educators feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of all of their learners within the classroom, ergo, their needs are likely to be best met by a specialist – outside of the classroom. The Teachers’ Standards 2021 clearly states that we must ‘have a clear understanding of the needs of pupils, including those with special educational needs …and disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.’ We are all teachers of SEND. Yes, expertise from specialists is a necessity but we should offer the first wave of interventions within the classroom. Author Rene Caryol states that inclusive leadership must embody the notion of ‘Everybody in, nobody out.’ This extends to our classrooms. So how is this achievable?


Talk to your students and ask them to give you feedback on your practice. The most useful feedback I have received has not been as a result of a formal lesson observation or an unnannounced learning walk. It has come from students who have said “Miss, sometimes you talk too fast and it’s hard for me to remember what you said,” or “The lesson would have been better for me if you had explained the task more than once.” One would argue that encouraging students to reflect both on their learning styles and our pedagogy is the epitome of best practice. Invite your students to have the opportunity to deliver your feedback both verbally and in their books. Give them a voice. For those in the primary sector, it is simple to tweak this and give them the option of smiley faces to choose from – have fun with feeding forward!

If you are fortunate enough to have a teaching assistant (TA) in your classroom, I urge you to see and treat them as your equal. Bizarrely, gaining QT(L)S is not synonymous with omniscience…Having become a TA after leaving the Early Years sector, it soon became apparent that in some schools, there is an underlying, hierarchical snobbery that teaching staff exhibit towards TAs. Speaking with friends who are still TAs, tales of not being acknowledged in the classroom or no verbal exchanges being made unless there is a behavioural issue still exist and it needs to stop. Our TAs have so much to offer when given the chance. Arguably, they spend the most time with our students and if they deliver intervention classes, they should be given opportunities to transfer their knowledge of strategies into mainstream lessons. Ask them their thoughts and views during the lesson. Encourage them to reiterate the task instructions. Give them a voice. We teach more than just our disciplines – if we are unable to model the essence of inclusion, what example is being set for our pupils on how to treat others when ‘Sir’ does not even speak to his TA?

We are the experts in our fields, parents are the experts of their children. It would be remiss of me if I did not admit to ‘schooling’ parents in the early stages of my career. Advice for how they could best support their child/ren dictated the tone of parental meetings with a retrospective arrogance. On the off chance that any of those parents are reading this, I humbly apologise. One of the things I would tell my twenty-something year old self would be, speak with parents, not at them. For these are the very same people who pick up the pieces of a child’s broken day at school. Their primary caregivers. They too, have much to offer. We must give them a voice. Not just at parental meetings but throughout the year. Co-production will only ever work if we make it. Set up SEN forums for parents where they teach staff about strategies they employ in the home. Allow them to connect with other parents and share their experiences. The jump from secondary to primary is massive and not only for children. Primary school offers chats at the school gates and play dates at half-term but secondary can feel very different and isolated. It is likely you know neither your child’s friends nor their parents. Let us change that narrative and truly practise inclusive practices.


Always start from the end goal. It sounds counter-productive, I know. Even if you are not involved in curriculum design, there is value in working backwards. When you know where they need to get to, it is your job to decide how they will get there. If you were hosting a soiree and your guests had dietary requirements, suffice to say, you would find a suitable alternative to ensure that everybody dines. You would not send them to your neighbours with a take-away menu…It is no different with lesson planning – does your lesson cater for every requirement in your classroom? If not, you simply need to adapt the diet you are providing. As an example, for pupils with cognitive challenges, giving them the task at the start of the lesson can help give meaning to the reason behind starter tasks and the learning journey of the entire lesson. It can also aid with alleviating anxiety as you remove the ‘big reveal’ of the main task just before they attempt it. Knowing your pupils can help to encourage raised levels of confidence and better learning outcomes. When you know the strengths and interests of your SEN students, you can create a useful dialogue that conveys you are invested in helping them become the very best versions of themselves. Make a special effort to make them be and feel included in their learning.

The student who does not understand the theorem of Pythagoras, could be the most amazing artist. The pupil who resents reading aloud may very well be a musical maestro. For you see, every child is gifted and talented – they are not an elite group of super children as society would have us believe. Every young person who walks through the doors of our classrooms has a talent, a skill, a purpose, that we may have to nurture to the surface. Thus, when planning for your students with SEN, do not let what they find challenging be your starting point, ask yourself, what are they especially good at?


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