Today marks the start of World Autism Acceptance Week. Educators and school leaders alike should use the next seven days to consider how they can help to build a world that autistic pupils and staff alike can navigate.
Autism is not just a spectrum of medical conditions; it marks a rich and meaningful span of experiences and perspectives that cannot be generalised or stereotyped.
For educators, World Autism Acceptance Week offers a natural opportunity to brush up on the methods we use to support children with different needs, abilities and talents. But whatever techniques you use should be rooted in something known as 'inclusive practice'.
Even if you’re not familiar with the phrase ‘inclusive practice’, you will almost certainly have had to work according to its tenets in your career as an educator. Inclusive practice rests on the principle that children should be enabled to participate in all facets of their education with the absolute minimum of barriers. In this sense, it can be thought of as a framework through which schools and teachers can make good on every child’s legal right to an accessible education.
Most teachers today will give some degree of thought to practices and skills that might come in handy when working with pupils with Special Needs. Yet for supply teachers tasked with educating several different cohorts of pupils every week, tailoring your teaching to the potential needs of every child you will come across might seem like a fool’s errand.
Yet inclusive practice isn’t about reaching a perfect end-state. It is a teaching philosophy through which educators constantly strive to remove impediments to learning while keeping standards high. In this way, it is no less achievable for a supply teacher than for any other kind.
Protocol Education has been placing supply teachers into all types of schools for a long time, and we have a lot of insight into how the most successful supply teachers run their classrooms. Here is a toolbox for incorporating inclusive practice at every step of the teaching journey.
When working out content for lessons with a new group of children, supply teachers will often have the average pupil in mind. While understandable, this is the wrong approach for inclusive education. Instead, you need to think about how your lessons will resonate with children who have different learning requirements.
Here, we can bear in mind a strategy called Differentiated Instruction (DI), popularised 20 years ago by American educationalist Carol Ann Tomlinson. DI is a teaching approach that responds to the plurality of abilities in every classroom by offering children distinct streams for learning that suit their needs.
DI stresses the importance of setting objectives for the end of each lesson, whether they involve understanding something new, knowing some new information or demonstrating a new capability or skill. These objectives must be achievable for all pupils, with the expectation that, while some pupils may be able to go above and beyond, every child will have had a good chance at meeting the baseline requirement.
A teacher will then tailor her teaching methods to the different children’s learning needs, working collaboratively with each of them in pursuit of that goal. This is where individualised instruction is particularly important, so supply teachers should ensure that they’ve left some space for one-on-one time with the kids who most need it.
Liaising with schools before classes
Prior knowledge of a class is a rare luxury for a jobbing teacher. Supply teachers will have to set up shop almost at the drop of a hat, teach a group of unfamiliar children, before heading on to the next one. This makes the task of effectively differentiating lesson plans more obscure.
This is where a bit of research goes a long way. Before arriving at the school, a supply teacher needs to gather as much information as possible on who (and where) they will be teaching.
The first step here should be to enquire with the school about the pupils in your class, and their particular disabilities, medical conditions or special circumstances.
Any child registered as having Special Educational Needs will have their own personalised Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, drawn up by the child’s local authority. If this applies to any child or children in your class, ask the school if you can take a look at the relevant sections. An in-depth knowledge of the challenges your pupils face will help you adapt your teaching style to their benefit.
It’s important to learn the ropes of the place you will be working in. Schools will often have their own disability policies that teachers should always adhere to. Similarly, a school’s general behavioural policy may also touch on their approach to ensuring inclusivity. These documents will typically be available on a school’s website.
Arranging the space
Something as fundamental as the layout of a room can have huge consequences for a child’s ability to learn. Many of the most important and obvious adjustments, such as access ramps for wheelchairs and appropriate lighting, will be within a school’s gift, rather than a temporary teacher’s. Nonetheless, a supply teacher can still do her part to make the learning environment more inclusive.
The first thing to remember is that aspects of a space that seem unremarkable to an able-bodied, neurotypical adult can seriously impede the learning experience for children with certain conditions. For instance, proximity to the hustle and bustle of a corridor, or a window looking out onto a busy street, can be highly distracting for a child with ADHD, and potentially overloading for pupils with autism.
These structural features of a school building are often insurmountable. But teachers can still mitigate their impacts by placing pupils in quieter parts of the room, preferably as close to you as possible.
Some pupils with autism may find lessons overwhelming at points and may need to take some ‘time out’. If there isn’t already an assigned area for pupils to do so, scope out the area beforehand and see if you can designate a less overstimulating space for pupils to go and sit if they need to.
Every educator has their own inimitable style that comes out when they’re truly in their element. We certainly won’t presume to tell you how to teach. Our recommendations here are simply intended to supplement your own teaching practices to make sure they’re as inclusive as they can be.
When dealing with children with special educational needs, patience really is a virtue. Some pupils will require you to explain things more than once, and it is imperative that you don’t get exasperated and accidentally knock their confidence.
A comprehensible structure for behaviour is also very important. You will be an unfamiliar presence to these pupils, and those of them who might struggle with social interaction will need to know how to act around you. That’s why you need to lay out the rules of the lesson clearly and promptly and ensure that they are enforced consistently.
Thirdly, providing positive reinforcement and regular praise to the pupils who need it can inspire the self-esteem and high morale that make for happy learning.
Putting together learning resources
You might have some favourite teaching materials or aids that have always come in handy when explaining certain concepts to a curious young crowd. Learning resources can add the texture and context that makes a lesson stick. But everything you bring with you should be configured to be as inclusive as possible. This applies to resources at every level of sophistication, from paper handouts to online ‘EdTech’ software.
As a rule of thumb, the more visual the better. Some learning difficulties can be mitigated by well-signposted, image-based content.
When using textual materials, ensure that you are using a sans serif font in a large size, with generous line spacing. Language used should, ideally, be at an accessible level, with sentences capped at around 15 words. If you play audio clips, always provide a transcript that conforms to these guidelines.
Digital resources are now an established fixture of many teachers’ classrooms. Yet awkward interfaces, bad design choices and obscure functionality can make learning more of a struggle for all pupils. When using software or online sources, make sure that it’s easy to use. This means large font sizes, big buttons and simple, intuitive workflows. The best EdTech products out there will have been designed with accessible principles in mind, so a bit of market research could save you a lot of time recalibrating your online materials!
Beyond the classroom
Inclusive practice is a project of continual optimisation. Teachers should always be seeking to understand more about how to respond to the needs of the widest possible number of pupils. A lot of this comes from practice ‘in the field’, but some expert guidance can help you bring out the best in the children you teach.
There are various qualifications that you can undertake to advance your knowledge of best practices around SEN, accessibility, diversity and inclusion. At Protocol Education, we give all our registered educators heavily discounted access to a wide range of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) training courses. Our Special Needs section contains a multitude of CPD courses, offering an in-depth perspective on responding to autism and other common conditions like ADHD and physical disability.
Inclusive practice has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few decades, but there is still so much further to go. Supply teachers have an important role to play in making education truly accessible for all.
Protocol Education finds positions for thousands of supply teachers every year at mainstream and SEN schools alike. Inclusion and accessibility are driving principles behind our work, which is why we equip all our educators with the skills and knowledge to fulfil every child's potential, whatever their background.
If you want to do your part to make inclusive education a reality for every pupil, register with Protocol Education today.