As part of a series of blogs showcasing what we do in our English learning centre in Paris, we are delighted to interview our Special Education Needs Coordinator (SEN) Mary Anne Wilson, who tells us about her role and how she helps our students.
What is your role here at the British Council?
My job as SEN (Special Education Needs) coordinator is to inform teachers of any students with additional educational needs in their classes at the beginning of the academic year and to advise them throughout the year as of the best ways of helping these students to access the materials used in the classroom, and how to ensure their active participation in group activities.
Our aim is to provide, as far as possible, an inclusive classroom. A big part of my job is to liaise between teachers, parents, and the students themselves, to ensure that there is an open line of communication between all those involved in the learning process.
What training do you need to do this job?
I think I’ve always been interested in the different ways children learn. When I lived in Northern Ireland I worked as a teaching assistant, helping with students’ dyslexia, general learning difficulties and, later on, students with autism.
I did a Masters in Special and Inclusive Education and that gave me a great academic grounding in the field.
How do you find out about students who have additional needs?
I have been the SEN coordinator for many years, so I have been able to gather a lot of information on students who have registered with us.
For new students registering for our classes, parents are asked if there are any special education needs that we need to be aware of, in order to give these students the best possible learning outcomes.
Of course, it is the prerogative of parents to share these details with us, and they should be reassured that we store all details in a secure place and only a limited number of people, those with permission, can access these files.
By sharing this information, we are trying to help their child and not to exclude them.
What do you mean by inclusive?
We aim to provide a positive learning environment which is accessible to learners with diverse needs, may they be physical needs or in terms of neurodiversity.
Inclusion is a lot more than just the physical integration of a learner into our classrooms. There is a responsibility to ensure learners can participate in activities and that barriers to learning are removed. It also includes our commitment to monitor and review provision.
There may be some rare situations where it is felt that the adjustment a learner needs is not feasible within the specific context and that it is therefore not possible to offer them a place on a course.
Can you give us an example of how this works in practice?
Well, I could give you countless examples. Our teachers are extremely experienced in planning lessons which cater for a wide variety of diverse learning needs.
We are adaptable and we understand that all students have different learning styles, not just those who have specific learning needs. We adapt materials to incorporate this differentiation all the time.
If I were to give you a specific example, I could tell you about a student we have who has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). They began classes with us when they were in primary, and they are now in our lycée classes. Thriving is the only word I can use to describe their performance with us!
So, how has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affected their academic performance?
ADHD is a conglomerate of neurocognitive deficits that contribute to developmentally inappropriate symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Additionally, there are difficulties in planning, poor organisational skills and self-monitoring difficulties associated with the diagnosis. As you can imagine the demands of a typical classroom, being in a room with a multitude of distractions, having to sit still, listen, follow sequences of instructions, can prove to be very trying if you are already struggling. And the stress involved in trying to function in a classroom also affects the working memory, which in turn impacts academic performance and, ultimately, progression.
It was important that we could all openly discuss the difficulties the student was experiencing at school. Together with the mother, the teacher and I, we devised a plan that we could implement in class. It included simple adjustments like the being able to stand when writing, having a little notebook to write down thoughts they wanted to impulsively shout out, and being able to use a little fidget device under the desk when feeling stressed.
They had a little card that could be left at the top of their desk to signpost discreetly the need for help. Just the fact that they were being asked what they were experiencing and what they needed, made them trust us and keen to do their best in class. They knew that the teacher was there to help in any way necessary.
That sounds very sensible, and it was good that this student has had such a positive experience with us. I know that there are some students who have an assistant to work with them in their school. How do we accommodate these students?
If a student has been diagnosed with a learning disorder which necessitates the aid of an assistant in their school, then that student will need one in our classes too.
That child will have become accustomed to that extra support, and it would be unfair to ask the child to work completely independently.
What we advise is that the parents arrange for someone to accompany the student. Usually these assistants are psychology students and are interested in the different ways people learn. They would, of course, need to be bilingual in English and French in order to communicate the curriculum effectively.
What impact is there on other children in the class? How do you accommodate disability with other children?
Due to the systems and processes we have put in place and excellent classroom management skills of our teachers, there is generally no impact on other children and students with additional needs do not stand out in any way.
If there are students with visible special needs we do a lesson at the beginning of the year on inclusion and diversity, stating how we, we value and embrace students with all styles of learning.
Children are very accepting of difference, and some of our students have given presentations on the way they learn.
I can see from what you’re telling me that it’s really important that we are informed of any special needs.
It’s essential. Both from the students’ point of view and from the teachers’. The more information we have, the better equipped we are to deal with it. It’s easy to tell me.
Just send an email to email@example.com. If I feel there is any further information I need, I’ll be in touch. If I know then the teachers concerned will know.