An Inclusive Start To The New School Year

As a teacher, every year after having had some rest and relaxation over the summer holidays, I would look ahead to the new school year and commit to do better than the previous year. 

The commitments I made to myself were along the lines of:

  • I would make my lessons more fun
  • I would help my class make more progress
  • I would stay more on top of my paperwork than ever before
  • Above all, I made a silent promise to my class that I would do my very best to include and support each and everyone of them whatever their strengths and challenges.  

Needless to say I had this conversation with myself every August and never quite achieved the “perfect year” I was striving for, but I would like to think I became a slightly better teacher each year. 

Some parts of trying to run an inclusive classroom can be tricky, there’s no way around that. We face some challenges and limitations beyond our control. However, there are some general rules of thumb that can help, there are quick wins and there are some things you can do that take a little effort to bring into your normal teaching practice but, once you do, they become natural and can make the world of difference to your learners. 

In this post I am going to try to stick to tips that should be manageable for most classrooms and indeed most teachers. I’m also going to keep it broad in parts as there are some simple things we can do that are as much help to a dyslexic learner as they are to someone with autism or a severe learning difficulty or someone who has English as an additional language.  

Getting to know your learners

Of course any good teacher will take some time at the start of the year to get to know their class. You will want to have an idea of where their strengths and difficulties lie. You’ll also want to get to know a little about their characters.  I’ve taught both primary and secondary and in my own personal experience more time is given to this in primary schools than in secondary but it is absolutely just as important whichever phase you teach, this year more probably than ever! 

When it comes to your learners with additional needs you can do a bit of groundwork before term starts. Make sure you get in touch with your SENDCO to ask for information about these learners before term starts. Some schools have fantastic systems for transitions and passing on information and unfortunately, some do not. Whatever the case at your school,  take it upon yourself as their teacher to access this information. 

  • Who has an EHCP?
  • What are their IEP short term goals?
  • How will you play a part in meeting these? 
  • Is there a positive behaviour support plan (or something similar)?
  • Do they have any other documents you can access such as communication passports or a sensory diet?

It is at this point you can make some incredibly simple changes to your classroom set up or teaching practice that may pay huge dividends throughout the rest of the school year.  

Building relationships with learners

Getting to know a learner on paper is one thing. Getting to know them in person is another! If you have anyone in your class who is a reluctant learner, has a specific subject they don’t like to take part in, or exhibits behaviour which challenges, the most important thing you can do is to build a relationship with that learner.  It is easier to say than to do in some settings. That being said, it’s still possible. You just have to find the time; yes, that might mean giving up some of your lunch break but a little time invested now in building a strong relationship will be well worth it when you, as a trusted adult who “gets them” are able to push them to persevere during a difficult lesson or bring them back from the brink of a “meltdown”. 

Using their interest to engage them

An important part of getting to know your learners is finding out what they are good at and what interests them. I don’t mean what school subject they are good at. Are they a talented lego sculptor, an enthusiastic baker or a successful YouTuber?!  If you can show a genuine interest in the things that interest them you give it value. You say to them, what’s important to you is important to me. This has two incredibly powerful benefits. First of all you can use these interests or talents to engage them in learning. If you can connect learning to something that matters to them you’ll have a willing and maybe even enthusiastic partner in learning.  The second benefit is that (and I promise you this is true most of the time) it becomes mutual. i.e. “You give me (the pupil)  the time to tell you about Pokemon Go and show a genuine interest in it, maybe even have a go so we can discuss our experiences of it. Well, then maybe this lesson about World War One isn’t so boring. Maybe I’ll do for you what you did for me. I’ll give you my time and I might even have a go at it.” You are modelling openness and learning, you are showing them how to take part when someone else knows more than you do. 

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear an adult talking about a learner with autism and how ridgid they are (even if it is an understanding way). What is often meant by this is that the young person won’t do what the adult wants, the way they want it done, when they want it done, with no apparent reward or motivation.  Who’s really having issues with being flexible here? Some learners need flexibility, compromise and problem solving modelled for them.    

Embed good inclusion in your teaching practice

You may not be able to do everything at once but decide what you think is manageable and really try to change your habits so it becomes part of your day to day work. 

Use of technology: Technology gives opportunities to level the playing field. Whatever the needs of the learners in your classroom there is a good chance that effective use of technology could help remove some barriers to learning. This could be someone who is nonverbal using technology to communicate, to someone who has a physical disability using their voice to type. Exactly what you might use technology for will vary greatly depending on school policy, availability of devices, and individuals’ needs or your own level of training/understanding. 

  • If your school are looking to make better use of technology it’s worth checking out the DfE’s Ed Tech Demonstrator Programme. This is offering peer to peer support to help schools improve their use of technology and is funded entirely by the DfE. 
  • If your school are looking to invest in technology you should also check out Bridge The Divide to see how LGfL have agreed deals to offer devices to schools at a fraction of the usual cost. 

Meeting sensory needs: We all have sensory needs, everyone of us. By adulthood most of us have found practical ways to meet our own sensory needs but many of our learners have extra difficulty regulating the information they are receiving via the senses. There is a lot you can do to support your learners with sensory processing difficulties:

  • From conducting a sensory audit of your learning environment to putting in place practical and affordable measures to meet sensory needs LGfL’s Multisensory Learning offers information and resources to make sure you are doing your best to meet your learners sensory needs. 
  • Some learners will have other difficulties that fit under the heading of sensory, motor and/or physical such as struggling to focus for long periods of time or finding handwriting difficult or even painful. Learning Through Movement offers some techniques which can be used at school with a whole class or at home to support everyone to do better, not just those with a diagnosed difficulty. 

Meeting communication needs: Whichever group of learners you are working with, communication is key. Exactly what is required for effective communication will depend on the individuals you are working with but there are some simple rules of thumb that can make a big difference.

  • Use visuals: Spoken language is transient. You say the thing and in an instant it has gone. Visuals offer the opportunity to give more longevity as they can stay in vision for minutes, hours or days. Some learners will also find it easier to understand the meaning of a word if it is represented by an image or symbol rather than spoken or written. Visuals can also help provide some clarity and remove ambiguity with written words.  LGfL users have access to a large library of Widgit Symbols as well as a vast catalogue of ready made symbol supported texts, templates and activity sheets
  • Communication is a two way street. When thinking about effective communication in your classroom it isn’t just about how you communicate with your learners but also how they communicate with you. Do they find it hard to respond verbally during lessons? Would they find it easier to use visuals to indicate a response, maybe they would rather write or type. Do they simply need much more time than you are used to giving to process and deliver their response. It can seem like an age if you ask someone a question and they take 10 seconds to think about it and then another 5 seconds to respond. Most of us are not used to waiting this long for a response. We assume we are being ignored or that the person does not understand the question. It might just be that you need to give more time. Be creative, understanding and find out what will work for your learners.

Learn about Universal Design for Learning (UDL): If you don’t already know about UDL then you should certainly look into it. 

 The point of using UDL is to make sure that by designing the learning well, it is accessible for everyone and this could mean you don’t need to create separate work for each different need/ability within your class. The learning is flexible enough that everyone is able to access it in their own way.  To massively oversimplify what UDL could mean to your teaching practicewhen you are designing a curriculum/learning activity try to ensure that you use:

  • Multiple means of representations – represent information in as many different ways as possible. Are you learning about volcanoes? Then try to show a diagram, a video, an animation, talk about it, pass around different types of volcanic rocks, demonstrate with a model and so on.  If you are musical maybe you can create your own song but if not, many have shared their work on the internet. 
  • Multiple means of action and expression – Offer some choices about how your learners show their understanding. Can they create a model volcano in Lego or in Minecraft, can they create an animated diagram using Scratch or PowerPoint, draw their own big diagram, create a web page, blog or social media post all about volcanoes. Some might be able to deliver an engaging presentation to the class. 
  • Multiple means of Engagement – What is interesting to one learner might not be interesting to another. Some might find volcanoes fascinating but others really might not. But if we are giving options for how we work then the musicians may be excited to compose a song about how volcanoes are formed, the coders can sink their teeth into the subject while programming an animation and the artists may create highly detailed drawings, paintings or sculptures of the inner working of volcanoes. 

This might sound like a lot of work, but actually, once you are in the habit, it can be really efficient. Technology can play a huge part in providing a more universally accessible learning experience. Resources such as those in Busy Things and j2e Tool Suite make it easy for you to offer some of the multiple means of representation and multiple means of action/expression mentioned above.

The upcoming school year may offer many challenges and opportunities but try to keep in mind that it is within your power to make sure your classroom is as accessible as possible and that EVERYONE can enjoy learning and be successful.