10 Top Tips for Teaching Children With Special Educational Needs

Updated: 05/04/2024

For both new and experienced teachers, teaching children with special needs can often feel quite daunting. If you need a refresh or some new ideas, then please read on and find out about our 10 top tips.

Know your students and address them by their name

As a teacher, it is always incredibly important to know the strengths, weaknesses and character of your pupils, but when teaching a young person with learning disabilities, understanding their needs will be essential to help you understand how to plan, teach and behave in the classroom.

The most effective way you can get to know your pupils is to observe and interact with them regularly throughout the day. This interaction will have to be unique to the sensibilities and comfort-level of the student, but by doing this you will both be able to transition towards each other's character more gradually and not feel overwhelmed or ignored. Make as much eye contact as possible and address the child by their name, setting up how they can expect to be interacted with by the rest of the school.

When you are able, talk to the child's parents, former carers or teachers, and with their therapists to build up a three-dimensional picture of their life and behaviours. Become familiar with the child's goals and objectives from their Individualized Education Program (IEP), and then, where possible, reflect on and make notes on what has worked well and not so well in class. This will help you to understand what the best ways are to support your SEN pupil right now on a personal level, and for future IEP plans.

Once you have done this you will start to find the child's strengths, weaknesses and motivations, and so can tailor the lessons and resources to their needs, whether that means using approved software to encourage a willingness to learn, or to provide break out times to help the student process what they have learnt in their previous lesson.

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Acknowledge success and praise achievement

Throughout the day, make specific goals and the possibility of praise for achieving these goals an integral part of a SEN child's learning. No matter how small or simple to you, by acknowledging the pupil's success they will gain confidence, resilience to keep going, and a willingness to learn new things. This praise does not need to be ecstatic or unrealistic, but positive and manageable for you to incorporate into your lessons.

To help work out what the goals could be beyond those you expect from the lesson in general, you should involve the student and act as a learning partnership:

  • Develop together a list of their strengths and weaknesses, and talk about your own strengths and weaknesses too.
  • Encourage the student to ask other children and staff about their challenges, as well as their strengths.
  • Work with the child on activities that are within their capabilities. This could be designed to follow a stepping-stone model.

As a general rule it is helpful for the progress of the pupil if you can make your teaching play to the strengths of their needs, integrating their unique way of seeing the world into your teaching techniques. Also, although being critical can help to clearly define faults, any criticism must be made from a foundation of positivity because negative comments can cause children with special needs to shut down, or become worried about being in the classroom. Reminding pupils what they have done well first, shows them that what they still need to work on can be achieved.

Assess the classroom layout for a positive learning space

Knowing your SEN student well means that you can look at the classroom through their eyes, and develop the space into one that feels more comfortable and accessible. Assess the classroom layout to ensure the pupil is optimally placed, carefully considering visuals, sensory stimuli, which pupils will be positive learning role models, and how you can create break out spaces for periods of anxiety. On the whole, think in great detail about the levels of possible distractions the student might encounter in their learning spaces, and how you can reduce or plan for such interruptions.

For more ideas on how to make your classroom SEND ready, then please check out our previous blog post here.

Be consistent

Consistency in teaching can be applied on many levels, including teaching techniques, behaviour management, resource use, position in a classroom, group work partners and lesson scheduling. Trying to keep these elements as familiar and expected as possible will help any child with SEN to focus on their learning rather than anything else, and will increase their chances of making progress. Avoiding big surprises will help students to feel confident and comfortable, and so will be much more willing to learn and to try their best.

To help your classroom be consistent you can consider:

  • Breaking down instructions into small manageable tasks and goals.
  • Using mind maps religiously when teaching new topics, supporting the brain with memorizing keywords and images that can be followed at everyone's individual pace.
  • Using colour coded folders or files to separate different subject topics and encourage pupils to implement and follow a daily routine.
  • Repeating information regularly and trying to divide up lesson time with short breaks to include learning games, discussion and active learning techniques.
  • Focusing on verbal reasoning and discussion rather than relying on handouts which could be misunderstood or a barrier to asking questions.
  • Setting time limits for learning sessions.

Be a great role model

Children learn a great deal more from their teachers than just a new skill or piece of knowledge, and it is always important to remember that the way you behave and how you respond to others is just as readily picked up by your class. This can mean that pupils with special needs will begin to copy your reactions to help regulate their behaviours, or it can mean that the students in the rest of the class will replicate how you treat children with SEN. Therefore being a great role model is key to helping children with learning disabilities on many levels, and is something to be frequently reflective of.

Students with a disability are often entitled to ‘reasonable adjustment' in the learning environment to fully access the curriculum, so consider how you will react to this, and how you can make this feel positive and acceptable.

If any physical or verbal aggression arises from frustrated students across the classroom, then it is better to treat this in the most productive way possible. Ensure that consequences are faced and that apologies are given as soon as incidents occur so that children can learn from their mistakes and move on.

Use visual prompts to help with learning

As language and social skills can be a big barrier to learning for those with special needs, teachers should try and incorporate as many visual prompts and resources as they can into the classroom. This could be pictorial or visual prompts to support independent task completion, using diagrams, pictures and flow charts to break down complex information, using visual timetables to display what is going to happen throughout the day, making simplified and colour-coded lesson notes, making active displays which can be used and added to by students, using flashcards and PECS to support conversation and discussion, and using visual social stories to reflect on or prepare students for change.

Effective visual prompts are simple and designed to the needs of individual SEN children, so be prepared to improve and develop them further, as the terms go by.

Have a quiet space for students who become stressed

Giving children with learning disabilities the opportunity to learn how to regulate stress and calm themselves, will help them to be much better equipped at dealing with their emotions and to overcome challenges with their social skills. To help them do this, teachers can make a quiet and sensory-neutral space where children can calm down, reflect and regain a sense of confidence to return to learning. This space should be made as comfortable as possible, separate from others in the class, and contain resources such as social stories, paper and crayons, and stress toys.

Establish trust with students

Establishing trust with students can be difficult regardless of whether they have a learning disability or not, but building bridges of communication, honesty and belief between yourself and SEN pupils is key for supporting their self-confidence and learning resilience. One of the most important ways you can encourage trust is to be confident yourself, and to try and keep a clear head when students get stressed or worried. If SEN students can see you behave in this calm and careful way then they will know what to expect, and feel fairly treated when they struggle or succeed.

But what can the child do to build up your trust in them?

An effective strategy is to give the child a sense of control over their own learning. Enabling your student to do this will mean that they can show you how responsible they can be and that they can be independent. As previously discussed, set a goal together and then give the pupil the time to meet it. Maybe you could give them an important role in the classroom, such as a monitor, reading area librarian, study buddy, timetable updater or register taker. Also if you can encourage them to create a new game that the class can play together, and then allow them to host it as you watch from afar, then not only will they develop the whole class's feelings of trust towards them, but also the child will trust that you believe in them too.

Be a good listener

When being a good listener for children with special needs, you not only need to listen to their concerns or worries, but also to their tone of voice and what they are not saying. With some learning disabilities, pupils have limited speech, and then just like all children, may feel unable to talk about other issues that are having a damaging impact on their learning or wellbeing. As a good listener you can act as a detective to decipher and react to these possibilities, and so as well as solving misunderstandings or praising newly developed knowledge, you can also be prepared for any language, or lack of, which suggests frustration is on its way.

Help children build friendships

Teaching children with SEN does not just entail core curriculum skills, but relates to the wider pastoral care of that child. Making friends and learning how to keep them is something that you can be a part of, and when done well and designed to the student's needs, will not only help them to feel more confident in class, but also deepen their learning, as they can both support and lean on others to develop their understanding.

After getting to know the student you will know what tactics might work best and the level of interest they have in making a certain number of friends. It is always important to remember that making these connections can often be the most confusing and frustrating part of a SEN child's needs, and so try not to push them to make friends but make it an ongoing and open objective that they can work on at their own speed.

Where possible, model what it means to be a good friend, and how it can be both fun but also a game of patience and understanding. Also it may be more effective to encourage the children in your class to do the same, and to allow for unpressurised situations where the SEN pupil can get used to turn-taking, such as through tabletop games.

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We hope these tips have been helpful and that your classroom can become a fantastic model of special need support and care. For more information, please check out these links:

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Updated: Feb 2024


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