8 Ways to Overcome the Barriers to Learning for SEND Students

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8 Ways to Overcome the Barriers to Learning for SEND Students

In the UK there are around 1.4 million children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Children and young people are categorised as having SEND if they have a learning difficulty and/or a disability that means they need special health and educational support. 

The severity of a learning disability varies widely from person to person, from an extreme diagnosis of both physical and mental disabilities such as Down Syndrome, to a more minor diagnosis of less severe learning disabilities such as Dyslexia. All forms of SEND can affect a child’s:

  • behaviour or ability to socialise
  • reading and writing skills
  • ability to understand things
  • concentration levels
  • physical ability

SEND pupils have the greatest need for high quality teaching, in the UK they are entitled to provision efforts that support achievement in school. Shockingly, the attainment gap between pupils with SEND and their peers is two times as big as the attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.

Graph showing average attainment 8 score per pupil

Government support includes an education, health and care (EHC) plan, which provides children and young people up to the age of 25 suffering with more complex needs with a plan of care. The Department for Education (DfE) provides funding for SEND training in schools and colleges, offering professional development in supporting children and young people with SEND that attend their schools. However, many people are of the view that the government doesn't do enough for SEND students in terms of meeting their complex needs through funding and care. 

Barriers SEND students face in school

Insufficient Funding 

As mentioned, funding is very limited for SEND children and young people. Most schools don’t receive enough funding to provide disabled students with the appropriate conditions to meet their complex needs. 

Regardless of having SEND students, financing issues are typical among many public schools in the UK, hindering students' school experience by limiting their capabilities. The consequences of which are worsened for those who suffer with learning and/or physical disabilities. 

Inaccessibility 

Accessibility for SEND students would require schools making adjustments to the school setting to include ramps, wider corridors and disabled toilets. All of which require funding and money that many public schools across the UK simply don’t have. 

If a school cannot provide students with proper and adequate conditions to move and study with ease, then it is likely to impact their learning. For example, if the school does not have ramps installed for wheelchair access, these students will need longer to get to their classrooms, more assistance in getting to the toilet or just simply moving around. 

Another aspect of inaccessibility for SEND students is the lack of help outside of the school grounds. Absence in SEND students is proportionally larger than that of their peers, some students will often struggle to maintain attendance in school due to their impairment or health conditions.

To ensure all students have equal opportunities of achieving their full potential schools and governments must work together to provide a plan of action to aid the absence of SEND students in school, at home. 

Lack of inclusivity 

Another typical barrier for SEND students is an inadequate school curriculum, and the lack of inclusivity to cater for those with learning disabilities. Schools will often create a curriculum based on what their ‘usual’ students can do, excluding the complex needs of disabled students who, on many occasions, will require individual learning. 

To ensure all students have equal possibilities to learn it is absolutely vital that the curriculum takes into account all categories of students.

school children in uniform in class working together

Bullying/Communication with Peers

Sadly, physical and learning disabilities act as a huge barrier for children and young people for making friends. SEND students are significantly more likely to experience bullying - including online bullying - than their peers. Research has found that children who have learning disabilities and autism are at higher risk of being bullied by their peers who cannot understand or accept them because of their health issues. 

Being bullied may be one of the biggest problems that SEND students face when coming to school, 1 in 3 SEND students say that bullying is the thing they worry about most when going out. This can cause a real disruption with their education as they may react with behavioural problems, or seriously hinder their attendance at school. 

Lack of Specialists

An Ofsted report has found that many SEND pupils in mainstream schools are not getting enough help to support their learning and development. There are many schools and colleges across the country that simply don’t train their staff to have interactions or to teach SEND students. Thus, education becomes almost ineffective as the teaching strategies are not adjusted to meet the needs of a SEND student.  

A lack of specialists also means a lack of understanding, SEND students have very complex needs meaning they will not respond in the same way to learning as many other students. The Department for Education published data showing that SEND students are 5 times more likely to be permanently excluded from a school than pupils without SEND. 

SEND students and socioeconomic status 

One of the biggest barriers to learning for all students is their socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, SEND and poverty are closely linked - the causes of SEND and poverty are interrelated, working both ways. Children with SEND are likely to become poor, whilst children living in poverty are likely to develop SEND. 

The Department for Education statistics concur that there is a clear link between SEND and children living in poverty. Of the pupils who are eligible for free school meals in England, 28.7% are identified as having SEND. Thus, SEND students are more prevalent among disadvantaged pupils than among their less disadvantaged peers. 

graph showing intertwined issues of poverty and SEND

The following statistics further emphasise the pressing need for government and school interventions in the UK to reduce the detrimental impacts of being a SEND student, or being a child in poverty:

  • 7 out of 10 excluded pupils in England have SEND.
  • Of the pupils who are eligible for free school meals in England almost a third are identified as having SEND.
  • Almost half of all pupils who are eligible for free school meals in Northern Ireland have SEN.
  • In Wales, pupils eligible for free school meals are twice as likely as pupils who are not eligible to have ALN (additional learning needs).
  • In Scotland, there is a notably higher prevalence of ASN (additional support needs) among children living in the most deprived 20% of families. For example, six times as many children in the most deprived families are identified as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties compared with the least deprived families.
  • One major study found that difficult family circumstances can mean that children are more likely to develop some forms of SEND, such as Social, Emotional and Mental Health difficulties.
  • Families of children with SEND are more likely to be pushed  into poverty - perhaps as a result of the costs and/or family stress associated with their child’s SEND status.

Overcoming the barriers to learning

Some barriers to learning cannot be overcome without government action, such as sufficient funding and accessibility, leaving teachers and parents faced with the difficulty of trying to create ways for SEND students to overcome the numerous barriers to learning that they can control. 

It’s certainly not an easy job to take on, but every child deserves the same opportunities and to have a high quality of life - so let’s see some of the ways both teachers and parents can help their students and children to thrive in school:

1. Building positive relationships

Teachers having a positive relationship with students is at the forefront of making a big difference in the classroom. If a teacher doesn’t take the time to build a relationship with students they will never fully understand their individual needs and requirements. This then leads to the teaching and learning not being as effective as it could be, particularly for SEND students since they often require a little more attention. 

Teachers should take the time to build a connection with students, getting to know what they aspire to be, their hobbies and interests, their academic strengths and weaknesses - all of which will help you to tailor your teaching strategy to fit the exact needs of each student. 

2. Regular communication between teachers and parents

Parents of SEND students are responsible for ensuring that any progress made in the classroom is carried on into the home. To ensure that this is done with ease and efficiently, parents and teachers should touch base with one another once a week to ensure that both parties are aware of any issues, as well as to notify parents of any significant progress or achievements of their child. 

By doing this the teachers are able to tailor their lesson plans and teaching strategy to each individual's progress knowing that the work is being carried out at home to keep up with progress made in class.

3. Encourage them to ask for help

More often than not, children with SEND have low confidence when it comes to learning and social situations. This can discourage them from asking questions or reaching out for help. 

Both parents and teachers can help to combat this by giving constant reassurance and encouragement, making them feel confident enough to put their hand up in class or ask their parents for extra help at home. Taking the time to listen will be reassuring to them that their feelings and thoughts are valid, it will also be helpful for parents or teachers to gain a better understanding of how they process information. 

4. Set realistic goals and targets throughout the school year

This is a really important one for teachers to get right. SEND students' learning capabilities will differ for each child, and will be proportionally different to their peers. 

The expectations of a SEND student must bear this in mind, rather than setting academic goals and targets, it may be more beneficial for the student to have behavioural targets set. For example, focusing on concentration in class, limiting disruptive behaviour, respecting classmates and teachers. 

Parents can use the goals and targets set at school to set boundaries and expectations for their children's behaviours at home. Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage them to stick to their targets and work to reach their goals. Many parents and teachers used reward systems such as star charts to encourage good behaviour.

5. Create a safe and engaging environment 

A well thought out classroom with adequate lighting and space is something that benefits all students, but SEND students require a supportive environment with minimum distractions in order to concentrate and learn. 

school children in uniform in classroom playing


Things to consider both in school and at home to create the best environment for SEND students to thrive in are:

  • Light: Ensure there is sufficient natural light into the space
  • Temperature: Working when too hot or too cold is a distraction, ensure appropriate temperatures are set before class
  • Colour: Too much colour in a space can be a lot for SEND students to process and can be very distracting. Stick to simple whites and beige for the wall colours 
  • Organisation and cleanliness: Having a messy classroom or room at home to work in can cause too many distractions for SEND students, ensure there is an organised space for them to work in

6. Deal with attention-seeking and disruptive behaviours

As difficult and frustrating as it is, staying calm in situations where students are being disruptive is the best response. SEND students are more likely than their peers to show disruptive behaviour in classrooms and in the home, completely ignoring their behaviour won’t stop it so dealing with it firmly but calmly should avoid repeated behaviour. 

Here are some tips to deal with any attention-seeking or disruptive behaviour:

  • Acknowledge the feelings of the individual.
  • Do not blame, ridicule or use sarcasm with them.
  • Address the disruption individually, directly and immediately.
  • Be specific about the behaviour that is disruptive and set limits.

7. Be enthusiastic and excited about learning

Have a positive and enthusiastic attitude towards learning, even on days where your own personal life may be getting you down, don’t let your teaching be a reflection of this. Being excited about teaching will hopefully make the classes more enjoyable for students too. SEND pupils tend to get bored quite quickly, so ensure you are constantly looking for ways to change things up in fun and exciting ways. 

Praising all of their small strides as well as giant leaps will help massively with building their self-esteem. As aforementioned, positive reinforcement works extremely well with SEND students; gold stars, rocket charts and target boards can be as motivating as treats and prizes. Providing instant rewards will help a child to associate the reward with the task.

8. Help to encourage and build friendships

Bullying and poor communication between SEND students and their peers is one of the biggest barriers to learning as it decreases self-confidence and discourages SEND students from attending school. 

What teachers and schools can do to help:

  • Train all staff to model and support social skills development and communication. Ensure all staff are informed about children with SEN and how to meet their needs.
  • Regularly observe what is happening in playground
  • Establish a recognised whole-school ethos, supported by visual and verbal reminders, valuing diversity, kindness and friendship. 
  • Introduce a buddy system for the playground and in the classroom

What parents can do to help:

  • Encourage your children to accept responsibility for their relationships, share their concerns, listen to and support one another
  • Model positive social behaviours
  • Encourage social interactions regularly, don’t avoid the problem
two Learning Cubs students high fiving showing their friendship

Supporting SEND students in after school clubs 

Here at Learning Cubs we want our students to know that we have a safe space for them to come and learn and have fun. 

At one of our Learning Cubs branches we already have a SEND tutor working with students to ensure we are helping them to get the most out of our classes and acting as a support system to meet their needs or requirements. 

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