Supporting SEND learners by taking a neurodiversity approach

Simon Beer, Head of Service for Haringey Adult Learning Service, explains why he believes in the value of taking a strengths-based approach in the classroom to support SEND learners and why he is heartened by the attitudinal shift of employers in the fight to challenge stigma in the workplace.

Haringey Adult Learning Service (HALS) is a council learning service for adults aged 19 and over. We deliver a programme across five main areas, including: English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), Functional Skills (English and maths, digital), family learning, wellbeing, and vocational courses, such as business administration, counselling and teaching.

Haringey is a classic London borough with areas of considerable affluence in the west of the borough and areas of real disadvantage in the east. We focus nearly all of our work on the east, where one in 11 residents have no qualifications. In addition, we also know this population group has a higher risk of mental health problems due to a range of social, geographical and biological factors.

I think the first main challenge we have faced for facilitating high quality provision for SEND learners is due to a lack of resources. There has been pressure on core budgets over the last 10 years and SEND support can be costly, so this can have a strong impact on staffing, particularly with a small service like ours.

Secondly, I think there are challenges when it comes to managing workloads and keeping staff up-to-date with new initiatives. Insularity can also be a factor, which means we don’t always pick up on what is going on in other sectors. For example, there is some really good work going on in schools and higher education (HE), but we don’t always share that knowledge.

The benefits of taking a neurodiversity approach

I believe that in the past there has been limited scope for learners with SEND to progress because too many employers and learning providers have taken a disability, rather than a diversity perspective. That is the key change we are attempting to make, meaning that we are taking a neurodiversity approach. In order words, one that doesn’t see a disability, but sees a normal human difference that should be respected in the same way as any other human difference would, for example, the colour of someone’s skin. It all sounds very simple, but it’s a profound attitudinal shift in the way we work with learners.

I think learners have too often experienced a tick box culture on their way into both employment and learning. In other words, “here is a screening, a form, an initial assessment, some software, reasonable adjustments we have to make by law… and here is a referral to something that may help you”. I am not saying those things aren’t important, but they are not enough. They can also be experienced in a negative way, and if done badly, can act as a barrier rather than a tool for increasing and improving progress.

For the adults we serve, it is about understanding their prior experience of learning. For example, a lot of our adults with SEND are people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have had a negative experience with statutory education. They may have been diagnosed late with a learning disability or have not been diagnosed at all, and they may have had years of being labelled, stigmatised and marginalised, and have a consequent fear of failing, as well as having low self-esteem. In addition, they will often have a lot of shame. Some interesting research led by the psychologist Dr Kaufman revealed that adults who can’t read or who have difficulties reading experience the same levels of shame as someone who has committed incest. This is quite a shocking statistic and is very much in line with our anecdotal experience of talking to learners about their prior experience. Overcoming that, raising self-confidence and self-esteem, taking a strengths-based approach and seeing the strengths that people bring, rather than the problems, weaknesses and disabilities, is crucial.

Recognising and championing the benefits of a diverse workplace

I think one of the positive changes in recent years is that barriers do seem to be lifting in the workplace. If you look at recent guides that organisations, including the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), have produced on neurodiversity, they are enormously positive, well written and current. They recognise employers who are becoming far more open to recruiting learners with specific learning difficulties, because they recognise that if they are going to survive and have the cutting edge in a given market, they need people who think differently.

I think another positive step forward has come from the growing awareness that people are now seeing the significant cognitive advantages that SEND learners can bring to certain subject disciplines and vocation areas. For example, research has shown that people with dyslexia genuinely thrive in four work sectors: entrepreneurship, engineering, architecture and the arts. That’s tremendously important – for us as educators, because it helps us plan learning and support learners, but also for those learners in terms of challenging stigma.

At the same time, I still think the sector can do better when it comes to raising awareness and listening to people with learning difficulties and disabilities. There are a number of campaigns that have been launched recently and I believe we can, and should, engage with them better. First-person perspectives can really show and illuminate the lives of people who think differently.

I think the sector can also do a lot better when it comes to thinking about its use of language. We know we overuse acronyms and educational jargon, and those things can be dehumanising to learners with SEND. Language can be used to shame or empower in education and we really need to make sure that when we use language it’s for the latter. For example, we tend to use words like ‘impairment’ and ‘condition’ and these are incredibly loaded and experienced as such by learners. Instead, I think we should be using simple language and talking to people about their experience and recognising that everyone is different; what works for one person may not work for another. When I talk about language it isn’t about an exercise in political correctness. It’s about being able to talk in plain simple English to a learner and use the words they would use about themselves.

Supporting our learners in the classroom and sharing good practice

At HALS we have changed the way we approach writing and memory in class by encouraging and sharing different ways of planning, for example, showing learners mind maps and making sure they have a folder with specific contents pages or talking to them about colour coding. These may all sound straightforward and good practice for all learners, but learners with SEND are less likely to be able to organise themselves independently and autonomously, so making sure that support is there in the classroom is crucial.

We also have an open learning centre with specialist staff, volunteers and mentors, most of whom are learners or ex learners. We find that learning from another person with similar experiences and backgrounds is incredibly powerful. We support learning through different modalities, so we encourage our tutors to not rely on presenting or communicating through text, but instead to look at how they can encourage learning through video, audio and graphic representations.

I think there can be a lack of collaboration in the sector, but that is changing. We are also encouraged by the work the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) is doing with its strong focus on inclusion and the launch of the SEND Workforce Development Programme. Having identified SEND as our improvement priority for this year, being part of the ETF’s SEND Sector Development Group is a fantastic way of sharing our learning with other providers and different types of providers across the sector. As we are London-based, it’s also heartening to see that the challenges we are facing are being met head on with the devolution of the Adult Education Budget in 2019, which is focusing on effective collaboration.

We could always do with more CPD in this area because it’s a fast-moving area of expertise, but at the same time there are things we can do that are quite cheap and easy to implement. I think one of the real problems with SEND is it’s very easy for it to become siloed, and in a small organisation such as ours, you can appoint someone and leave it to one hard pressed SEND officer to take all of the strain, but if you have a siloed approach that’s never going to work, however good your SEND person is. To avoid this happening, we have set up informal groups and groups on apps to try to get staff to share as much as possible.

In general, any CPD that helps that on a sectoral basis or cross sectoral basis can only be a good thing. I think as a sector we need to understand people with learning difficulties a lot better, and there are various ways we can do that, by reading first-person accounts or following some of the many neurodiversity focused Twitter feeds offering honest perspectives on what it is like to live and work with a particular learning difficulty or disability. The more understanding we can achieve through CPD the better, and CPD that encourages staff to set high expectations and work in partnership with one another is something that should be welcomed.

For more information about the ETF’s SEND CPD offer and support available, please visit the ETF booking system.

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