The Teaching Assistant College Blog

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5 mistakes to avoid when working with learners with Special Educational Needs

With approximately 1.1 million children with special educational needs being educated in mainstream schools (that’s approximately 10%) it’s important that TAs understand how to support SEN in the classroom, as it’s highly likely you will need to do this during your career. You’ll often hear TAs talk about how much they like this aspect of the job and it can certainly be very rewarding.

Whilst you should receive specific training and professional development to support specific special educational needs, disabilities and medical conditions, there are some more general guidelines we can follow to support all children with SEN. We need to be aware that it can be all too easy to make mistakes regarding SEN children. Here are the top 5 mistakes we see TAs make when working with SEN learners.

Focusing on what they can’t do rather than what they can

It can often be tempting with SEN learners to focus on their limitations rather than their strengths. This is a problem as it immediately puts them in a position of constantly needing support, which can lead to issues with learned helplessness and independence. It may also unconsciously teach them to focus on these themselves, rather than their strengths which can boost self-esteem. For every SEN child you work with, you should consider their strengths and how you can use these within learning, rather than trying to avoid their limitations. This extends to how you discuss the children with teachers and colleagues too – be as positive as possible and you’ll notice a difference in how everyone responds to them.

Doing it for them, and being there all the time

Leading on from this, if we have unconsciously positioned SEN children as needing help all the time, we are likely to offer this. This can veer into being with them all the time, and ultimately, although not intentionally, doing their work for them. For SEN children it’s important that they’re given opportunities to do things for themselves, in line with their personal learning targets. This means that sometimes we must take a step back which can be difficult – it can be emotionally draining to watch a child struggle, but just remember that it is for their benefit in the long term. If we don’t give them opportunities to work by and for themselves, they will only come to rely on others even when they don’t need to.

Having low expectations and not challenging them enough

As with all learners, it’s important that education is about challenge. We need to ensure that every child, whether they have SEN or not, is appropriately challenged as this is where they will learn. This means having high expectations. Again, this can link to point number 1 – if we focus on the negatives, we are likely to have low expectations. Setting tasks and activities that we know learners can do doesn’t challenge them and they don’t learn. We need to make sure we’re stretching them in an appropriate way. This is also one of the best ways we can ensure equality – by having high expectations of all learners we are treating them all equally, even though the expectations are different.

Being afraid of letting them get things wrong

Whilst it’s important to support the confidence and self-esteem of SEN children, and for them to build up positive self-images, we can’t do this at the expense of not letting them experience things like disappointment or frustration. Sometimes getting things wrong is a learning experience and being able to talk through and handle these emotions can be beneficial to the child and prepare them for later life. It can be tempting to wrap children up in cotton wool, but ultimately this is detrimental. You should discuss with your teacher how you can provide opportunities like this, and don’t be afraid to let a child make a mistake during a learning activity – just make sure you use this as a further learning opportunity.

Not being honest regarding progress

Whenever we work closely with a child, we obviously want them to do well. We want them to succeed, to meet their targets and to make progress. However, we need to be honest when it comes to reporting on this. Whilst you won’t do this consciously, it can be very easy to report things with bias. For example, if a child can do one of their targets with your support, you may be tempted to think they can do it, but you also need to explain what level of your support they need. Also, if a child has done something once this doesn’t indicate they have met a target – you should look for a child doing something 3-5 independently before being able to confidently say they have achieved that target. In order to thoroughly track progress and make sure learning targets are appropriate and purposeful we must make sure that our progress reports are as clear and honest as possible.

For more information, guidance and resources on how to effectively support SEN children check out our Endorsed Learning Programme in Supporting Special Educational Needs