By Anna Kettlewell

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Remote learning and engaging SEND students

Tuesday, 10th November, 2020

Anna Kettlewell is an Advanced Practitioner, Quality Improvement at the LTE Group. Anna’s background working in FE includes teaching within offender learning, delivering creative vocational qualifications from entry level upwards, and most recently working with SEND students within a bespoke provision. Anna specialises in Inclusion & SEND within her current role.

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There is absolutely no underestimation on my part as to how challenging remote learning can be, and how this can impact our SEND students if the logistics are not thought about carefully. It isn’t all bad however, and the prospect of online delivery can also allow some of our students to really flourish in an environment where they often feel most comfortable, we just have to try our very best to create such an environment.

In this blog I will share some ideas on ways we can adapt, things we should consider, and how best to support students at this time - whether you are providing synchronous or asynchronous remote delivery. This isn’t a wave of a magic wand, nor an exhaustive list, more an opportunity to share some useful, tried and tested strategies that I hope you will find helpful. It is also key to remember here that by adjusting lesson content and delivery to better meet the needs of students with identified SEND for example, this will not have any kind of detrimental impact on the learning of others - quite the opposite in fact!

Planning is key, students with additional needs are very much part of the class so please always plan your lesson with them in mind. Under no circumstances is it ok if students can’t access your lesson because it isn’t appropriately planned, resourced or scaffolded.

  • Ensure you know your students, have read their student profiles, and clearly understand yourself what their needs are and crucially, how these can be met through your delivery of the curriculum. This is the most vital piece of preparation you can do. SEND students are not simply the responsibility of any in-class support you may have, and you may find that support is very different remotely anyway.
  • Think about the activities and resources you use in a face to face classroom and explore if there are similar alternatives online - ask your colleagues, share good practice, and do some research. Twitter is a fantastic source of ideas, collaboration and inspiration and makes us all realise we are not alone.
  • As part of your planning, it may be wise to do a technology audit, and establish exactly how your students are accessing your lessons. This directly influences the resources you will choose and the overall inclusivity of your lessons. It is also helpful to ascertain the levels of IT skills students have, do these match their academic skills, or is there some disparity? All of this is relevant information and without it, could lead to unintentional planning of inaccessible learning. You wouldn’t want to plan to use a complex interactive mind mapping tool if all your students were accessing the lesson via their phone or if they have exceptionally basic IT skills, irrespective of their academic level or ability. Situations like this can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety for both teachers and students so are best avoided by forward planning.

As human beings, we thrive from organisation and structure. We like to know what to expect and when, and often students with SEND and additional learning needs really need this, particularly when the world we are living in right now is about as far from predictable and structured as it can be.

  • Do not underestimate the power of sharing your plans with students in advance.
  • Why not share a student friendly scheme of work, so they can not only see what to expect and when, but also see how their learning links?
  • Give clear timescales and deadlines, and document expectations through checklists, schedules or visual timetables.

In terms of engagement, remote learning environments present obvious challenges when it comes to keeping students engaged. We rely so heavily on human contact, but also on non-verbal communication, on body language and on facial expressions, and unless all parties have unlimited bandwidth and their cameras on at all times is an impossible ask. We get to know our students in a face to face classroom through our prior knowledge coupled with careful analysis of their behaviours over time, and as such we can really read them. In doing so we are able to be reactive, helping to remove any barriers and clarify understanding as we go along. More often than not, we do this without them having to utter a single word. Remote delivery requires a different approach, and plenty of trial and error, and the reliance on interaction.

  • We need to rely more on directed questioning to monitor engagement and participation, and to check understanding. Without this, it is easy for students to be left behind, particularly those who will not volunteer an answer.
  • Learning activities need to be engaging with careful consideration of appropriate high-quality learning resources that meet the needs of students.
  • Undertake regular assessment of knowledge through mid-session plenaries, to really clarify if students are engaged, if they are understanding what is taught and making progress.
  • Ensure learning is chunked, so you do not overwhelm your students, avoid a complete reliance of teacher-led facilitation and wherever possible plan for independent learning activities and collaboration with peers. This will also allow you some flexibility to support those who need it, whilst the majority are working independently of the teacher.
  • When delivering content or checking understanding, it is key that you avoid information overload and keep it simple. You will need to leave slightly longer wait times than you’d think, just the presence of technology takes extra time.
  • Offer clarity within your delivery by speaking slowly and clearly and repeating key information or questions.
  • Ensure your range of assessment methods are appropriate to meet the needs of all students – variety and flexibility will be key here.
  • A good idea is to record live lessons or pre-record key content so that students can revisit this in their own time if they need to. This will help those who find the online environment challenging.
  • Provide visual support wherever possible and ensure that all resources are available for students during and after lessons. It is key that if you are going to be delivering some of the content verbally, that there is a written copy of this information, and remember to add subtitles to any videos too. Try to make learning visual too, and don’t forget the power of images coupled with text in terms of supporting memory and knowledge retention.
  • Remember that tasks like copying from the board impacts cognitive load, so don’t expect students to do too much of this in a remote session, as using technology alone is also bearing weight on cognitive load. Make sure that all your activities are really worth it! A way to help with this is, and general engagement, is to ask students to limit potential distractions around them, which is sometimes easier said than done, but if possible, will make a huge difference to the volume of information they can take on board.

Communication is more important than ever.

  • In terms of the way’s that students can communicate, try to keep options as broad as possible and make all options available for everyone. Will they answer a question in the chat box? Will they unmute their microphone and speak? Will they private message their teacher or in-class support? Will they complete a pair share and share with a peer then feedback? Will they send responses in an email? Will they work in a small group and document answers on a live document? Will they contribute to a group activity such as a Padlet or interactive mind map?
  • The more communication channels and options you have, the more likely you are to be providing inclusive communication opportunities and improving engagement and participation at the same time. Everyone wants to feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and by giving a range of options, you are most likely to achieve this.
  • By providing a range of communication options, you are also allowing for the very real possibility that a percentage of your students will be accessing remote learning through a mobile phone or a tablet, and as such will have varying levels of functionality. Test any apps on a mobile phone prior to using them in remote delivery, to try and ensure participation will not be hindered through your choice of resource.
  • If you have the capacity to have a 1:1 session or chat with students – do! This allows you to get to know them better and gives them a safe and private space to express any concerns that they may be having, allowing you to address these quickly. The build up of any problems can quickly escalate and lead to longer terms problems so it is key to nip these in the bud.
  • Feedback is an essential tool, so encourage your students to regularly share what is working, and what can be done to improve any issues they are facing.

There have also been many positives emerging from the world of remote learning, and we should celebrate these little wins when they arise! Remote learning has really helped some students who would ordinarily find contributing in a classroom overwhelming. This has boosted their confidence and many students reflect that they now feel a new sense of belonging, sometimes for the first time. The ability to use a chat box to type answers or participate independently in an activity that then feeds into a collaborative piece is boosting the self-confidence of many and is such a simple thing for teachers to implement.

To summarise, my key messages are: 

Be patient with yourself and your students.

Be kind, to yourself, your students, and your colleagues – we have never gone through anything like this before, and every single one of us is learning and evolving constantly.

Be accepting that there will be a lot of trial and error coupled with realisations over what works and what doesn’t, as all students needs are different. Some of these suggestions will work for you, some won’t, and that is ok.

Collaborate with colleagues and share your successes and challenges. Ensure that you are doing all you can to make sure your remote delivery is accessible, and inclusive, of all students.

Above all, it is vital that you remember that what works for students with SEND, will work for all your students so always plan with them in mind.