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  • Writer's pictureNick Evans

SEN: Schools must adjust to pupils’ needs – not the other way round

Schools must apply the latest research in order to win back those pupils who struggle to access learning.

With record levels of emotionally-based school avoidance (EBSA), school exclusions, home education and demand for specialist provision, many are saying education has reached a crisis point.

And yet, we have never had so much information available to help us understand how we can best support children and young people to access learning in the school environment.

With an increased understanding of neuroscience, it is evident that traditional school environments and practices do not adequately support the diverse range of needs that children and young people present daily – we must adapt.

The latest research underscores the critical role of the school environment in supporting children and young people to regulate their emotions, therefore feeling safer to access learning.

“Traditional school environments and practices do not support the diverse range of needs.”

Neuroscientific studies also reveal the profound impact of environmental factors – such as stress, trauma, and lack of safety –  on brain development and functioning, hindering cognitive growth and emotional well-being in children.

Conversely, supportive, immersive and nurturing environments can promote resilience, productivity, and emotional and physical regulation. Thus, it is vital for schools to adjust their environments to meet the needs of today’s diverse and multi-faceted student population.

We are also still suffering the incredible impact of the pandemic. For many, sudden shifts to remote learning highlighted the inadequacies of traditional educational models in addressing the diverse needs of pupils, resulting in what many now claim is a mental health pandemic.

Interestingly, access for those pupils classified as vulnerable remained open during the lockdown, with school being seen as a basic need for this group. I would argue that all children and young people are vulnerable, and that closing schools was profoundly detrimental to the well-being of this generation.

“I would argue that all children and young people are vulnerable.”

If anything, what the pandemic presented us with was a learning opportunity. We now know that the current education system often imposes rigid structures and standardised approaches that alienate and marginalise those that do not “fit the mould”. It can contribute to feelings of insecurity, anxiety and disengagement in our student population, undermining their ability to thrive both academically and socially.

So, what is the answer?

In one word, bravery.

Are school leaders willing to place their head above the parapet and re-evaluate – or even redesign – their school environments and practices to foster what our children and young people actually need?

“Does your school environment really prioritise inclusivity, individuality and neuro-diversity?”

So, what do they need? Well, we must ask, observe and listen to them first and foremost. However, I would suggest an environment that fosters a sense of safety, belonging and well-being. This is one which creates physical and psychological safety, where all students feel supported, valued and empowered to learn and grow, regardless of age or ability. I suggest this involves embedding principles of trauma-informed care, relational and restorative practices and communication-friendly environments into the fabric of school culture and curriculum.

School leaders must ask themselves – does their school environment really prioritise inclusivity, individuality and neuro-diversity, and does it honour the diverse strengths, needs, and identities of every child and young person?

Does your school recognise the interconnectedness of physical, social and emotional factors on shaping student wellbeing?

Does your school prioritise investment in the resources required to address the holistic needs of students and their families, such as therapeutic support, counselling, mentoring, coaching, health and nutrition support, and community partnership?

And finally, are you truly listening to your children and young people? It is about them after all – they are the future, and they are telling us, in whatever form that may present, what they think of the world. We must stop, listen and adapt.

“Are you truly listening to your children and young people?”

To conclude; such an abundance of research and evidence-based practice has never been so accessible. This, combined with learnings of the post-pandemic era, means that we have never been in a better place to adapt our practices and environments to meet the needs of the children and young people that we support every single day.

As Alfie Kohn says: “If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow.”

  • Nick Evans


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