Practical strategies to help you support pupils with cognition and learning difficulties

Children with cognition and learning difficulties make up the largest group of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools. Each is an individual and particular strategies will be valuable, but there are some generic approaches to share with colleagues that may help them to differentiate effectively for children who find it hard to learn.

Support for SENCOs

Part of a teacher’s skill is in understanding that pupils learn in different ways and at different speeds, and being able to accommodate their needs in a way that guarantees success and enjoyment in every lesson. Effective differentiation will mean that most children and young people can participate and achieve in classroom activities and make progress. You may find, however, that teachers don’t always go far enough in thinking about and planning for different ways of supporting learning. The following headings can be used for discussion at staff meetings or in departments, to encourage teachers to reflect on their own ‘inclusive practice’.

Firm foundations: understanding what a child already knows, understands and can do is essential – do you know learners well enough to be sure of this? Are observation and assessment systems effective? For example, trying to teach a child about using standard measurements of weight is not going to succeed if s/he doesn’t yet understand the difference between weight and size (‘it’s bigger’ instead of ‘it’s heavier’). So while some pupils are using scales and estimating/adding weights etc. others will be learning that size does not always equate with weight, and becoming secure in their understanding of terms like ‘more, less, bigger, smaller, heavier, lighter, size, mass, weight’. Lesson objectives will be different for different children – but all on the same continuum. Use concrete experiences, practical and relevant starting points for all new learning.

Multi-sensory teaching and learning: children with cognitive difficulties need as much stimulation as possible and the benefits of VAK teaching (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) are widely acknowledged (incorporate the senses of taste and  smell as well wherever possible). Some schools have introduced daily exercise classes that include balance and awareness of place, resulting in improvements in pupils’ behaviour and basic skills such as reading.

Sensory rooms or corners stimulate through sound, sight and touch. They are in place in most special schools, but increasingly, mainstream schools are realising the benefits that a sensory environment can offer to many children.

Over-learning:  in order to ensure that new learning is consolidated, there is often a need for a great deal of practising. The challenge to the teacher is how to vary the activity and prevent boredom setting in – for all concerned! This is where games of all sorts and computer software can be invaluable. It is important to share any techniques with parents/carers so that the children realise that learning goes on everywhere, not just at school. 

Metacognition: learning how to learn is important for all children, but particularly so for those children with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia. Explicit demonstration and explanation of different learning styles can help children to make the right sort of choices in their work and the way in which they approach a task. Children are being taught to make choices from a very early age through the early learning goals and the same principles of ‘Plan, Do, Review’ can be applied to whatever stage a child is at.

Presentation of text: schools are print-rich environments and this in itself can present a problem for children and young people who find reading difficult. From notices in the corridor to individual worksheets – there should be a system in place for assessing readability and making text as accessible as possible. Colour (of print and paper), font style and size, and space on the page can all make a difference.

Recording: ‘getting it down on paper’ is often the area which causes most problems for children with learning difficulties. Help teachers to be aware of technological aids and appropriate software (see the news item at the end of this ezine if you need more input yourself in this area). Make sure they know about writing frames and different ways of recording such as diagrams, posters/pictures, tables, digital photos, audio recordings, voice recognition and video.

Risk taking: it’s vital that a positive, secure and accepting ethos is established where children are able to make mistakes – and learn from them. There is a place for ‘errorless learning’, especially for building confidence, but seeing and correcting one’s own mistakes (with help) can be an empowering experience. 

Technology:  a variety of ICT equipment can be used to help pupils with learning difficulties, but each option should be considered in terms of the individual learner and consideration given to the educational objectives to be addressed. The use of ICT can be highly motivational: it is endlessly patient, can provide error-free learning and gives instant rewards.

Working together:  one of the important skills all children need to learn is that of working with and learning from others. This may have to begin with a child working with a supportive adult and built up to working with a ‘buddy’, then in a small group.  Groupings will depend very much on the nature of the children involved. Peer coaching can be very effective where pupils are appropriately trained/supported and understand both roles – ‘tutor’ and ‘tutee’.

Praise: this is a powerful tool for encouraging pupils who find things difficult, and building up their confidence and self-esteem.  Remember to be genuine, praise for effort as well as achievement and make the praise explicit; for example, congratulating a child for finishing a task, asking for help, answering a question, rather than simply saying ‘well done’. 

TA support can be invaluable to the teacher and pupil alike, but the support needs to be planned and regularly evaluated if it is to be most effective. John Liddle (SENCO Update issue 70 – click here for more details) eloquently raised the issues surrounding this subject and made excellent suggestions for using assistive technology to complement the work of the TA/LSA. Teachers should manage other adults in their classroom and plan to maximise their effectiveness.


SEN News Make sure you attend Every Child Matters for SEN, on the 13 November 2007 (Birmingham). This event will help you to use techniques for encouraging your SEN pupils to enjoy school, take an active part in their education and become productive members of society. Click here to find out more details.

Go to ‘Special Needs London’ held at the Business Design Centre, on 19 and 20 October 2007, if you possibly can. This is the most comprehensive SEN event on the national calendar and provides opportunities for looking at resources, attending presentations and workshops and seeking specific advice, information and support on a huge range of issues. Entrance is free but seminars have to be booked and paid for – so look at the programme and make a plan!

Special Schools Matter (19th October) is one of the presentations on the programme and will be of particular interest to providers of specialist care for children and young people. The event brings together a range of esteemed speakers who will look at the changing role of special schools and the changing pattern of disability that has occurred worldwide.

Find out more: > Articles on special educational needs
> Special educational needs publications
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This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2007

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.