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SEND and the art of detection: An evidence based approach to supporting learners

4 min read

“Good teachers use good techniques and routines, but techniques and routines alone do not produce good teaching. The real art of teaching lies in teachers’ professional judgement because in teaching there is seldom one right answer.” (Tripp, 1993)

In teaching, as in every profession, evidence is key to exercising good judgement. It takes time to develop confidence in your own judgement but the more evidence you collect, the better informed you are, and this is particularly important when  supporting pupils with complex learning needs.

These children learn differently. Some have diagnosed SEND or visible needs, but in so many instances their needs are not immediately apparent. According to the Nasen ‘Flying under the radar’ report (Nasen, 2016), many learners with SEND are adept at disguising their learning difficulties. This can be daunting for new teachers, but the great news is that you can do something about it. From your very first day in the classroom, you begin to get to know your learners better, and the key to becoming an exceptional teacher of children with SEND lies in gaining a real understanding of your students’ likes and dislikes, their family experience, their levels of confidence and their strengths.

At Swiss Cottage, we work with trainee teachers and NQTs to help them learn more about SEND. Working with the UCL Institute of Education, we carried out a two-year research study to build an evidence base for what we had observed – that a key barrier to supporting learners with SEND was the teacher’s mindset (Mintz et al., 2015). Demystifying SEND and recognising that there are more than 57 varieties is a start, and the confidence to say, ‘I can teach everyone’ is a critical factor in success.

To help new teachers to stop worrying about what they might not know and to work with what they have in front of them – their pupils – we use the analogy of being a detective in the classroom.

Imagine a detective television show, but instead of an unsolved crime, the mystery is how young people learn. The show’s heroine is a classroom teacher, and each episode revolves around a child with hidden learning difficulties. Everyone expects the learner to learn like the majority of pupils in the class, but the child is experiencing difficulties.

Do and Don't Table

As the story unfolds, the teacher collects evidence and analyses clues to unravel the mystery. She asks experts to help her understand more about the central character, her learner. She talks to the family. Through detective work, she realises that she is developing the expertise to solve the mystery of how this child learns.

I like this analogy because we know it works. Where the teacher strives to understand the learning profiles of pupils with SEND, progress follows.

Using the graduated approach

All pupils learn differently. Knowing the recognised diagnosis is an important step in understanding the challenges for learners with SEND. Yet it is only one clue amongst many, and a useful tool to gather further evidence is the graduated approach.

Let’s look at an example. Imogen is a new teacher. George in her class has poor working memory, and she is curious about how to help him learn. The SENCO has described his poor executive function, which affects his planning and organisation. His parents have said that he can’t follow instructions very well and lacks confidence.

This evidence informs Imogen’s planning. She keeps her narrative short at the start of the lesson, punctuates it with visuals and puts key words on a ‘word wall’. She also gives out an information sheet with prompts (that everyone can use), so George can then work with his partner on sorting, sifting and analysing the information, rather than trying to recall and ‘hold on’ to it.

Imogen has tightended the cycle of assess, plan, do and review around George to help him access the curriculum. She has not overloaded him, or created additional ‘dumbed down’ resources; instead, she has provided him with everything he needs to participate fully in the lesson alongside his peers, rather than just ‘try to keep up’.

‘Noticing’ is a top tool for a detective and informs good teaching


We encourage new teachers to take time to ‘watch’ the learners, not the teachers. Just 15 minutes watching a learner in class or during break or lunch can increase your understanding of them, such as what or who they choose to spend time with, what they avoid, how they excel when left to their own devices and so on.


Sometimes, it can be hard to know what to look for when watching. That’s when it is useful to draw on tools or scaffolds that support inquiry around the learner, such as the engagement profile.

Any tool that supports you to look harder will inform your planning and improve your teaching. Being ‘informed’ can be more helpful than being a SEND expert.

Learning barriers, like the cases of TV detectives, are often complex. Use your expertise about each child; trust your professional judgement and moral purpose. Behaving like a detective – looking for clues and recognising that there are few quick fixes, is what makes you a SEND expert for your learners.

Watch blogger Nancy Gedge explain the graduated approach: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOFvWkbnOf0.


Mintz J, Mulholland M and Peacey N (2015) Towards a New Reality for Teacher Education for SEND – DfE SEND in ITT Project Report and Roadmap for SEND. London: UCL Institute of Education.
Nasen (2016) Girls and Autism: Flying Under the Radar: A Quick Guide to Supporting Girls with Autism Spectrum Conditions. Staffordshire: Nasen.
Tripp D (1993) Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgement. Abingdon: Routledge.
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