UKEdMag: Two stars and wishful thinking by @JulianRLewis

How can children with limited communication skills and conceptual development engage with self assessment in a genuine way? This is the challenge faced by staff working with children with special educational needs.

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At the level of communication the obvious question to ask is whether the child has the tools to communicate about their work. Are they verbal? If not, what other means do they have – signing, assistive technology, expressive body language and more general vocalisation. Can you understand them, or indeed do they even communicate at all? The more constrained a child’s communication is the more important it is that those adults working with them know them intimately to be able to pick up on and reliably interpret their communication methods.

But more fundamentally, does the child have the conceptual tools needed to self assess? Thinking in the abstract, and to be able to distance oneself from oneself are precisely abilities with which most children with significant SEN struggle. Developmentally, most are still at a very concrete level – reality is what I can perceive with my five conscious senses, and it is what is here, now in front of me or perhaps what I remember has happened to me though the further away in time it occurred the less real it is (a sensation those of us advancing in years may relate to only too well!).

Thinking from within the SEN bubble about what self assessment may be like for mainstream children, it seems that it may be a discrete part of what they do. I believe that in special education it informs everything we do. It builds relationships through the time it takes to do properly. The adult must show that they are very interested in what the child thinks. The child with SEN has much experience of things being done to them, for them, without a great deal of consultation: the experience of time spent being listened to genuinely can be liberating … and challenging. Again, they will need more time spent learning about what good quality work looks like. They will need more exposure to and practice using the type of language needed, or learning how to respond in their own way.

Time needs to be invested in supporting children to engage with the process. Many teachers will be familiar with the use of traffic lights in assessment, a quick way of children saying how they feel they have done. We use these with our higher ability children, with simple statements about what each light means. No doubt this is similar to practice up and down the country. However we continually work with our children to retain the concepts, every time we use it going through the meanings of the colours and reflecting back to the children whether their assessment is sound. Very often a child will say they were on green, perhaps meaning they finished the work, rather than thinking about their independence. This is a concept that they need support with.

Looking at an example where two boys worked together building a Lego model, as a communication/partner work task, their self assessment was supported by referring back to the model, comparing it with the picture on the box and thinking about the words they used while they played. All the time the adult was mediating the discussion, prompting with closed then more open questions. This took about as long as the play itself, but supported the children well to think about what they had achieved and how they had done it.

The process is broken down further according to the needs of the child concerned. For children with PMLD or SLD we use class iPads to record them doing their work to show back at the end of the session. This builds skills of self recognition and agency, and helps to establish a sense of time. The work is celebrated to encourage the child to take pleasure in their experience.

I believe that pupil self assessment in special education is therefore an holistic and organic process which informs pedagogy in a most fundamental way. It is a vehicle for building relationships with a child, for enhancing their communication skills and for working with concepts in particular of time, future and improvement. It promotes a whole method of working, a virtuous cycle of feedback informing future – standard theory for all teaching and learning. Little of what we do in special education is theoretically different to mainstream. It’s just our steps are smaller, taken with a higher (though hopefully diminishing) level of support and take longer to achieve. The greater the complexity and severity of the needs the smaller again those steps and progress will be. But they are steps in the same direction as mainstream children, and moreover steps that infuse everything that we do with our children in perhaps a more intense way than for those in mainstream.

Previously a charity sector project manager, Julian took his PGCE at Chester after time volunteering and as TA at his children’s school. He has spent most of his career in special education, and now works with children with complex needs at Ysgol Pen Coch, North Wales. Find him of Twitter at @JulianRLewis.

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