Slow learners, children who find it difficult to learn and remember things, are a challenge experienced by all teachers at some point in their career. Here we consider this group of pupils and some general strategies for helping them

Support for SENCOs
There are significant numbers of children in mainstream schools who have difficulties with all sorts of learning. Sometimes referred to as having ‘general’ or ‘global’ learning difficulties, these pupils may also be categorised as having moderate learning difficulties (MLD). They have much greater difficulty than their peers in acquiring basic skills and understanding new concepts and their attainments will be significantly below the expected levels in most subjects, despite having been given appropriate support.

As SENCO, you’ll be familiar with the names of these children in your school; they are the ones in various intervention groups, perhaps receiving Wave 2/3 support. There may be other children though, who have not be identified as needing support simply because they are ‘quiet’ and do not make a fuss; conversely, others will mask their learning needs with challenging and disruptive behaviour . Good assessment for learning should identify these children, and although you won’t be looking for more candidates for extra support, providing timely intervention for these individuals is very important.

The types of intervention support are now well documented and evaluated (see Leading on Intervention: Monitoring and evaluating particular provisions ), but just as important is the quality of ‘first teaching’ provided in the classroom. Helping colleagues to cater for these children and young people with cognition and learning difficulties is an important part of the SENCO role. Effective classroom provision can, after all, minimise barriers to a child’s learning and prevent the need for additional help and intervention.

Each learner is an individual and particular strategies will work better than others in different situations. But there are some generic approaches to share with colleagues which may help them to differentiate effectively for children who find it hard to learn. If you are planning to deliver some staff training next term, take a look at the National Strategies site – there is some really useful material there.

Support for teachers
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 should mean that all children and young people can participate and achieve in classroom activities and make progress. The following headings can be used for discussion at staff meetings or in departments, to encourage teachers to reflect on their own ‘inclusive practice’.

Baselines: 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 and help the pupil to make connections with other learning by breaking large tasks into manageable steps and demonstrating the relevance of what is being learned, now and in the future.

Multi-sensory approaches: children with cognitive difficulties need as much stimulation as possible and the benefits of VAK teaching (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) are widely acknowledged. 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.

Metacognition: learning how to learn is important for all children. 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. The principles of ‘Plan, Do, Review’ can be modelled and applied to whatever stage a child is at.

Recording: ‘getting it down on paper’ is often the area which causes most problems for children with learning difficulties. Sometimes the real learning objective of a lesson is not achieved because pupils have struggled so much with the ‘writing down’ of the problem, the table of results, etc. Consider using a TA as scribe, or pairing pupils so that an able writer can make the notes but the less-able child can still take part in the practical work and ‘think’! Find out about technological aids and appropriate software; consider the use of writing frames and different ways of recording such as diagrams, posters/pictures, tables, digital photos, audio recordings, voice recognition and video.

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’.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2009

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.