West Specialist Inclusive Learning Centre (SILC) is a special school based in Pudsey. It is catered for learners from ages 2 – 19 years old and currently have 184 children who attend. These children all have a wide range of moderate to severe learning difficulties due to both mental health and physical disabilities ranging from disabilities such as Down’s syndrome to Prader-Willi syndrome. During my time at West SILC, I worked in a class of 8 students aged 14-15 years old. Within the class were 2 special needs teaching assistants as well as the main practitioner which made the ratio of children to adults 2 to 1. The position I held was similar to a teaching assistant, supporting and working with children one on one during teaching as well as keeping behaviour in check by reminding children of the rules in the classroom if they were disruptive and updating the main practitioner on vital information on progress and behaviour when conducting 1:1 teaching sessions with children.
The first difference between a mainstream school and a special school that I noticed when assisting at West SILC were how the practitioners assess students to evaluate their abilities. With the small class sizes and specialist teaching strategies, this was found to be more individualised and more routine than what I observed in a mainstream setting. Practitioners in special schools are found to be more flexible and adaptable with their teaching and assessment methods due to the awareness that one child may not react well to the strategy the practitioner is using in comparison to another child. [Refer to reflective log – 12/11/2015] The lesson plans observed in West SILC were made to fit each child’s individual needs with strategies marked out for each child with a considerable amount of detail whereas lesson plans that I had viewed and observed in a mainstream setting in the past were designed for the entire class and did not plan for every single child separately.
Another distinction between the mainstream and special school setting was that as well as teaching the main subjects, special schools also teach a functional curriculum, which is one of the biggest differences that I picked up on when assisting at West SILC. A functional curriculum is a curriculum that focuses upon developing independent living skills and vocational skills, emphasizing the development of key communication and social skills. To support the learning and understanding of these social skills, the need for utilizing and recognizing these taught skills in the community is crucial, so as well as the classroom, outdoor and specialized spaces are just as essential for the development of the children in special schools. Special schools regularly arrange trips to the local area and community to familiarize children with tasks that help them develop their social skills, trips such as weekly bus rides and coffee shop visits help children socialize with local community members and supports them with tasks such as handling money which would be a regular occurrence in their adult life. West SILC’s specialized spaces include a hydrotherapy room and a multi-sensory room which sometimes are used as rewards for productive work or relaxation therapy for agitated or distressed children. [Refer to reflective log - 13/11/2015]
Most lessons that are taught in mainstream schools such as English, Maths, Science, Sex Education and P.E are also taught in special schools, the context is the same but the way it is taught may differ due to the way the children are able to comprehend the information and the amount of support that is needed to facilitate their learning. The length and the resources used to teach these sessions are wide ranging in comparison to mainstream schools due to the complex needs of the children and the amount of support and reinforcement needed to help children understand. /// Resources such as books, videos and games are also very valuable in special schools as well as in mainstream because of their uses as stimuli and support for the children. They can help children get involved and become engaged in their learning. [Refer to reflective log - 11/11/2015]
Another variation between both settings are the way the children are grouped. In mainstream schools children are often grouped according to ability which can caused varied group sizes of pupils in each class. In a special school, children are more likely to be organized according to their needs so that specialized practitioners and levels of support in each classroom is balanced on the needs of children. Mainstream schools usually have between 26-31 children in each class, however in special schools this can vary from 10 in a class to even 4 in a class due to high level needs and higher need of assistance and support. During my time at West SILC, I worked in a class of 8 students aged 14-15 years old, the students did not have complex needs resulting in the larger sized group but still had 4 adults to support and oversee their learning. Mainstream schools usually would have 1 additional staff member maximum assigned to each class whereas in special schools the need of teaching assistants and support staff is much higher due to the individual needs, supervision and support needed as some children require a great deal of assistance from a large number of support staff. [Refer to reflective log - 19/11/2015]
During my time at West SILC, I experienced many challenges and obstacles that I did not expect to face. Before beginning my placement at West SILC, I believed that the experience would be difficult due to the pace of learning and the extra support and time that would be needed to be spent on each topic being taught to the children and believed this may be quite strenuous. I found this to be true but did not realise that this would be the least difficult part of working within a special setting. The poor behaviour of some pupils in the classroom I assisted in were very severe which resulted in day to day physical attacks with various different objects. I discovered how support staff and practitioners had specific training on how to physically restrain pupils from attacks and outbreaks of anger as well as how the staff received day to day support from parents and leadership staff on specific pupil’s goals and behaviour. Every morning the leadership staff and main practitioner of the classroom would reflect on each child’s previous day’s behaviour which would require further steps to be taken to prevent this from re-occurring. [Refer to reflective log - 19/11/2015] My experience within West SILC taught me how resilient, focused and stern practitioners need to be due to the inability to predict what may set off a child’s outbreak and what they may do once this has begun. This is a skill that I believe I need to develop to be able to improve my assistance and support in a special setting.
I have many positive experiences that I can take from my time at West SILC and picked up many positives of working within a special setting. One of the positives of working within a special setting were the amount of staff that were available to assist and support teaching. As well as the requirement of extra staff to assist children with special needs, having extra staff also allows support children and young people with SEN or disabilities to be in a safe and comfortable learning environment as there are always staff available in case of unexpected situations such as anger outbreaks or medical interventions. With the extra trained staff, the school is able to deal with each child’s need in much more detail by spending time to develop an understanding of how children learn resulting in children being able to reach their full potential.
Another positive of the special school setting is the time spent on children’s learning and progress. As work is geared to the child’s individual needs and linked carefully to their own targets, children are able to develop at their own pace. Progress is carefully tracked and monitored. In regards to target setting for the children, the practitioners understand that due to the children’s learning disabilities that it may take longer for them to achieve their targets within a short period of time so there is no pressure to hit these targets within a short period of time, just encouragement.
Special school practitioners are responsible for looking after children’s emotional and physical health as well as their learning when they are in school which can become quite difficult when children have complex needs. As children with complex disabilities are likely to have time off due to regular check up’s or illness, this may affect the practitioner’s ability to regularly assess and help children reach their targets and goals, this can put extra strain on practitioners due to the high amount of paperwork needed to be completed such as progress reports, IEP’s and diary entries for parents. These complex needs may require practitioners to receive regular training on how to deal and support children with these disabilities. Special needs practitioners have to balance teaching, planning and supporting children as well as other responsibilities such as making sure children have taken medication, have eaten and have gone to the toilet. From my time in West SILC, I experienced verbal and physical abuse from children on a day to day basis which can also affect practitioners esteem and efforts to support the children.
My time in a special school setting and mainstream setting both have provided me with very different and distinct experiences with both of them carrying negative and positive experiences that I will use to improve and develop as an individual during my journey to become a qualified practitioner. My experience within a special school setting has taught me the importance of spending time with each individual child to provide informative feedback and emphasized how children all learn in different ways and time lengths. It has also taught me to always teach in a way that fosters understanding for all children rather than the majority as just the addition of a teaching assistant can cause an additional social and emotional deficit by inadvertently being exclusive. This can be combatted in various ways by taking special consideration for children that are falling behind by putting steps in to place such as including a more detailed lesson plan to include children with problem areas. There are various techniques that are used in special schools that can be taken into mainstream schooling to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Though my time in West SILC did carry some negatives, it would be a role that I could definitely see myself doing in the future after further development and training.
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