SEN case studies: A reflection

I recently ran an INSETT session on special educational needs (SEN). It involved work stations where case studies were presented from my own experiences or the experiences of colleagues I have worked with. I asked teachers to move from station to station and discuss their opinions and what they would have done. As an awareness raising and sharing activity, their ideas fed into a plenary discussion session.


Station 1

Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties

Read an account given to me by a friend. Please be mindful that some of the details are shocking, but sadly true. If you want to, please skip over this station.

I have a friend who works during the term time in a primary school in London which receives learners who have been referred from the state school system because of their behaviour.

When I was working with him a few months ago in an ELT summer school, he told me one story which really struck a chord. In fact, the story is truly shocking.

A 9-year old boy was referred to my friend’s unit after his primary school were no longer able to cope. The most acute problem revolved around his ability to control his own temper- the boy had been violent towards his peers and teachers.

The boy’s social situation was, and probably still is, heart-breaking. He has spent most of his life in the care of social services and foster families who have struggled to deal with his behaviour. Both of his parents are drug addicts with a litany of petty offences which have landed them a variety of fines and prison sentences.

In the first few weeks, my friend told me the boy was regularly violent to the point in which he would have to be restrained by possibly 3 or 4 members of staff. The precursor to any violent acts were hyperactivity often followed by the boy getting down on all fours and barking and snarling like a dog. It was not uncommon for him to rip off the clothes he was wearing and scratch and pull his own hair out.

For my friend, being of West African heritage, it was the language the boy used towards him which was really troubling. It’s absolutely unrepeatable, the worst type of racist, vitriolic filth you could imagine.

Over the months, the boy’s behaviour improved. The school provided a calming influence which helped control his emotions, although outside events would often cause a destabilising effect, triggering outbursts.

Prior to the end of the academic year in June, my friend announced he was leaving which triggered a surprising reaction. This little boy, troubled as he was, broke down sobbing and begged him not to leave. At this point, he realised that all of this was a facade which allowed this child to cope with the world. Here was a little boy who needed stability and guidance, which my friend provided in droves. At this point, he understood the boy respected and needed him far more than he had imagined and without his stabilising and consistent influence, the work that had been done could be easily unpicked.

This is not something you are likely to encounter but what are your thoughts?

Do you think the issue is beyond the control of the teacher or does my friend have a part to play in this boy’s development?


Station 2

Are SENs always disabling?

Daniel Tammet ( is an English essayist, novelist, poet, translator, and autistic savant. He has written and talked extensively about his life with Asperger syndrome and savant syndrome.

According to Wikipedia, ‘In his mind, Tammet says, each positive integer up to 10,000 has its own unique shape, colour, texture and feel’. He experiences numbers differently to most other people.

He holds the European record ‘for reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes on 14 March 2004’.

Tammet is a polyglot and can speak ten languages: English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Icelandic, and Welsh.

In the documentary about his life, The Boy With The Incredible Brain, his abilities were put to the test when he was given 1 week to learn an entirely new language from scratch, Icelandic, before being put to the test on television.

Here is the clip:

If you would like to watch the whole documentary, here is the link:

After watching, consider how your perceptions of SEN may have changed. We may broadly perceive SEN as disabling, when here it is clearly enabling. You are unlikely to have a learner as gifted as Daniel, but you may have some that seem naturally gifted. How do you accommodate for their abilities?

Station 3

Multicultural influences

I have one 9-year old French learner in one of my primary classes. Her father works in construction and has worked in North Africa for the last 5 years which means she has been in the Moroccan education system since starting school. She speaks French at home and with her school friends, she reads and writes in modern Arabic and also speaks the spoken vernacular, Darija. Having spoken to her father, the family intends to stay in Morocco for another 2 years before returning to France.

In terms of special characteristics, her linguistic competence is the same as her peers, in that they all speak, read and write in the 3 languages mentioned above. She is, however, very shy which means she often takes more of a passive role. This is especially true if her learner group become quite boisterous. Her father told me this is contrastive with her behaviour at home where she is less diffident.


Would you put down her difference in behaviour to multicultural differences?

How can multicultural differences shape the behaviour or thinking of a child?

Is the age of a child important? I think that when a learner is still young enough, the process of integration is far easier and less traumatic than it is with a teenager. I have a Polish friend who moved to Belgium when he was 13 years old to live there. He found the process utterly traumatic and really thinks had he been a little younger, his integration would have been much easier as younger children are less self-conscious. Their world view and areas of interest are smaller with greater overlap than those who have already reached their teenage years. Do you agree?


Station 4

We are not therapists. We are not doctors. We DO NOT diagnose conditions no matter what we feel.

So what do we do?

What do we tell parents?

Should we be mapping behaviour patterns to specific conditions?


Station 5

Behavioural problems

I had a situation a few years ago with a primary learner. He was very difficult to manage and upset many of his peers with his behaviour. What was motivating this boy deep down was hard to determine. I don’t think anybody knew, certainly not his parents who were in denial that there might have been a problem.

I tried to figure out what made this learner respond positively to at least take the edge off his behaviour by incorporating things he liked into our lessons.

He liked animals and… AC/DC!! I trained the whole class to stand up, push their chairs under the table as soon as Back in Black by AC/DC was played. You couldn’t get this lad to stand up for love nor money, but as soon as this music came on, he was the first on his feet!! Magic!!

Could you try a similar routine with music that your learners like? (Maybe without the hard rocking tunes!).


Station 6

Attention grabbers and fuzzy language!

There are some learners who crave our attention. If we are not careful, we may end up running backwards and forwards pandering to their every need, which can be time consuming and exhausting. Instead what could we do?

If I’m honest, I have a tendency to say things like I’ll be with you in one minute, or even worse, give me one second. Why might this be a bad idea?


Here’s another confession, I always say, I’ll see you later, when saying goodbye to my learner group. But really, I won’t see them later, will I? As a young child, I was always confused by this, as I knew instinctively I wouldn’t be seeing them later! Who might be challenged by ambiguous language like this? What other opaque language do you use?


Station 7

Gifted and talented

A number of years ago I had a 14 year old learner who was extremely bright and capable but did his best to push everyone away from him and made it abundantly clear that he was there in my class under some duress. As far as he was concerned, all formal education was a complete waste of time as he alone was the best teacher he could have. Everyone else, his teachers (including me), his parents and peers were not as intelligent as him, nor able to understand his needs.

He was generally passive during class, spending his time drawing in his notebook and not really paying much attention to what was going on. If you asked him to do something, he would do it as quickly as possible and then get back to drawing. When I encouraged him to extend the given task, think about it in more detail or engage more with his peers, he would always respond with, why should I?. His tone, confidence and cynicism were something you rarely see in young learners.

I called his parent in and they were at their wits’ end. The conversation they had with me, they had had with teachers and psychologists in the recent past. The boy had no friends, had an inflated sense of his own importance, and would never relent or allow anyone to reason with him.

As far as his abilities were concerned he was extremely gifted and talented. He absorbed lots of language and was able to personalise and produce utterances using a variety of idioms and syntactically varied structures which were both cohesive and coherent and stylistically appropriate. However he would never be forth coming with this, you really had to push him to talk! Similarly, his writing was both coherent and cohesive with a style which was appropriate in terms of conventions and register except… most samples of his writing would be nothing more than a cynical joke. As an example, we looked at report writing in class and for homework he wrote a report about why writing reports was a waste of his time. I think you can get the picture…

I never managed to crack this situation. There were glimmers of hope but unfortunately I never had much success. He left after two terms because he decided to concentrate on FCE. I heard he took the exam soon after and did very well and, that was that.

I found this situation very frustrating. What would you have done?

In hindsight, I wonder now what I could have done. There were clearly other quite acute special education needs but he was so bright, it seemed to override these factors. What I should have done was to start by looking to differentiate tasks and allow him to have more control of his education with me as more of a coach than as a teacher.


Station 8


Last year I taught a group of intermediate teenagers (14-16 years old) for a full academic year. Fairly small in number, they were a close-knit bunch who I met at an off-site school twice a week.

From the beginning, I noticed that one chap had a speech impediment which often made it tricky to understand what he was saying, at least without asking him to repeat his message. Having taught the group for about 8 months, I was surprised to see in the final month, prior to the summer holidays, he was wearing a hearing aid.

Nobody had mentioned this to me, neither the student or his peers, nor were any formal notes submitted by the school. His long hair was covering the hearing device and had I not spotted it from the corner of my eye, I would have never known.

Of course there were people who obviously knew. Should they have informed me, the teacher? After all, the learner had a disability.

I spoke to my line manager who suggested that the issue would have been broached earlier had there been a necessity. As for my course of action, I did nothing. His peers clearly knew and had it been pertinent, it would have been brought to my attention earlier. It was also, practically the end of term.

In hindsight, I realised that his speech was almost certainly affected by hearing loss. It also explained why he would often not respond without direct eye contact or that sometimes, instruction were lost on him prior to starting an activity.

Did he just assume I knew he had an issue with his hearing? I genuinely don’t know. What I can be sure of is he didn’t want any special dispensation given to his disability as he was able to cope without special needs being put in place.


Station 9


I was working as a DoS in a summer school several years ago when a teacher had reported that he had a rude student who was misbehaving. I gave him some tips but the situation came to a head when he sent the student out the class for not listening to his instructions, shouting and talking over him.

What was the problem?

In the office, this learner was very clear that the she was not to blame but the teacher needed to be more understanding. Reluctant to explain why, she eventually revealed hearing aids in both ears, which had been covered by her hair. The fact that she had to reveal her disability made her quite angry. She was also quick to point out that she didn’t want anyone knowing, nor wanted any special support given.

What would you have done in this situation?


Station 10


While taking an initial placement test in a summer school, I had a teenage learner break down in floods of tears. I immediately withdrew her from the room, and tried to find out what the problem was. She couldn’t explain for herself as she was a beginner so I went back to the tour agency via my HQ to find out what the problem was. It turned out the learner had acute visual impairment. The worst thing about this was her medical notes had been passed from the tour agency in Italy to my HQ in England but had not been handed over to me.

I was very angry and felt I had let this learner down. What systems should have been in place to flag any potential problems before anything embarrassing and potentially damaging could have taken place?


Station 11

Spinning top

I teach one young learner who has an endless supply of energy which he is never able to discharge even during break times. During class, he is often restless; he will not sit still even for short periods of time and impulsively shouts out and interrupts or disturbs other learners. This is often contrasted with periods of inattention when he becomes so self-absorbed; it takes some perseverance to bring him ‘back into class’.

It often takes him an inordinate amount of time to focus enough to get on task and without breaking a task up into stages, presenting it a variety of multi-modal ways to give him some accessibility, he would never reach the end of a given exercise.

Interestingly enough, some of the warmer activities we do to wake children up at the start of a class are often too much for this young chap. I have to be mindful that activities which are designed to inject a bit of life into the group as a whole can lead to this learner losing self-control.

A while ago, he was absent for one lesson which meant he had not taken part in the previous lesson’s main task, which formed part of the first 10 minutes of this class, nor had he completed his homework. Even though I tried to integrate him into a learning pair to share their experiences, he was unwilling and felt singled out and victimised. Instead he chose to sulk in our ‘story corner’ until the task was over. Of course, after the event, his mood improved and it was all quickly forgotten about.

Do you have any similar experiences of this type of behaviour?

What works for you?


Station 12


I taught one learner who was good-humoured and willing to contribute during a variety of projects and task based activities. However, there was a clear disparity between his written work and his ability to communicate orally.

He would try and avoid writing and delay the process of getting started by making excuses. When supported and encouraged to produce any written discourse, his handwriting was very difficult to decipher. This was also impacted by an inconsistency in spelling and word order, which became gradually worse towards the end of any written discourse he produced. Even with support and encouragement, it took him an inordinate amount of time to complete any written task, with the need for teacher support to assist and keep him on track.

The quality of his written output was clearly to a different standard to that of his peers, a fact he was conscious of. This explains why he tried to avoid showing them what he had produced but was also conscious that they were able to produce more, quicker and with greater ease. His own output did lower his self-esteem; as someone who could speak and had opinions, he felt rather hobbled by his abilities to write.

Have you had any similar experiences?

Could you give some practical advice?



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