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Building adaptive expertise to improve outcomes for learners with SEND

Written by: Sophie Dickin and Amelie Thompson
8 min read


The proportion of pupils identified as having a special educational need or disability (SEND) has risen from 14.9 per cent in 2019 to 16.6 per cent in 2022 (DfE, 2019, 2022). There is an increased demand for special school places without a corresponding increase in capacity (Knight, 2022), resulting in an increased number of pupils with complex learning profiles in mainstream schools. How we respond to this as schools is complex yet essential; our response impacts children’s educational outcomes, as well as, importantly, their broader experiences of school in relation to their peers, their authentic social inclusion and their preparation for adulthood. The Inclusion Illusion highlights the risks for pupils who find learning the most challenging: ‘In the supposedly inclusive setting of mainstream schools, children with statements [now education, health and care plans] have rather separate educational experiences and less satisfactory pedagogical diets than their peers… [they] may be withdrawn… [or] even when they are within the mainstream class their experiences may be heavily mediated by teaching assistants who manage their work and their interactions both with teachers and peers.’ (Webster, 2022, p. 11)


This sets the scene for the challenge that our action research wanted to explore: how provision for pupils who require individualised curriculum pathways in mainstream settings could be enhanced, while building independence and improving experiences of meaningful inclusion in the classroom. 

This meant parting from the concept of differentiation in favour of firmly embedding adaptive teaching, as defined below:

  • Differentiation: ‘teachers juggling multiple “micro-lessons” during a class, or delegating teaching tasks to others’ (Mulholland, 2022b), often through the creation of a multitude of differentiated resources
  • Adaptive teaching: where ‘creating a multitude of differentiated resources is not [recommended]’ but rather time is spent ‘identifying reasons for learning struggles, not just the struggles themselves’, and seeing ‘teachers as vital orchestrators of “assess, plan, do, review” – the graduated response process detailed within the SEND Code of Practice’ to inform curriculum decisions, ‘adapting planning prior to the lesson and adjusting practice during the lesson’ (Mould, 2021).


This required zooming in on the pupils who were finding learning the most challenging – ‘a shift in pedagogical thinking from an approach that works for most learners existing alongside something “additional” or “different” for those (some) who experience difficulties, towards one that involves providing rich learning opportunities that are sufficiently made available for everyone, so that all learners are able to participate in classroom life’ (Florian and Black-Hawkins, 2011, p. 814).

The question was how we build teachers’ ‘adaptive expertise’ (Mulholland, 2019). This could not be decoupled from school policy and systems, so it was also essential for us as leaders to reflect on how we provide support, build capacity and enable teachers ‘to use adaptive problem-solving to bring greater skill to solve new, often ill-structured problems’ (Mulholland, 2022b).

We recognised the potential of cross-sector ‘collaborative professionalism’ (Hargreaves and O’Connor, 2018) and, with the support of the Laurel Trust, turned to our colleagues at Merton Special Training Association. This gave us the opportunity to explore with specialist leaders of education (SLEs) from specialist settings how principles of ‘collaborative professionalism’, underpinned by practitioner inquiry, could be used to build the knowledge, skills and confidence of teachers to embed adaptive teaching.

Action research

Two schools (part of a federation of six) located in South London participated in the research. The proportions of pupils with SEND, eligible for pupil premium and who experience disadvantage are significantly above national average. Four teachers from two key stages collaborated with SLEs to focus on a child in their class working significantly below age-related expectations and who was experiencing significant barriers to their education and inclusion. 

Prior to undertaking focused classroom child observations, teachers accessed training that grounded them in the principles of the graduated approach as ‘central to all our teaching practices’, as an approach that is ‘applied in schools as a long cycle of formative assessment, [and to…] support inclusion as a micro-teaching tool to inform and adapt teaching in response to individual learners’ (Thompson et al., 2022, p. 36). Finally, teachers received training on curriculum development for pupils with complex learning difficulties, creating opportunities to reflect on how these principles could be adapted for the mainstream classroom.

Key to this was unlocking teachers’ mindsets and giving them opportunities to think like a detective – the opportunity to ‘notice’ and be curious (Mulholland, 2018). As leaders, we needed to enable the ‘teachers [to become] students of the pupils they teach’ (Mulholland, 2022a).

With two pieces of filming equipment – one focused directly on the pupil and the other focused on how the pupil was interacting within the wider classroom – teachers had the opportunity to zoom in on the pupil’s experience of the curriculum and the environment, and therefore the impact on their learning. This informed teachers’ reflections, collaborative professional dialogue and problem-solving with the SLE, leading to detailed identification of specific barriers for the pupil, informing adaptive curriculum planning. This started with the target pupil to ensure that they could make progress against their individualised targets, then building the lesson to ensure learning opportunities for all. Teachers filmed the planned lesson. The impact of the adaptive approaches was evaluated through the lens of the assess-plan-do-review cycle, alongside the SLE as the expert coach, through which further themes emerged that informed adjustments during the collaborative curriculum planning discussion. 

The action research followed the Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (BERA, 2018) and data was processed in line with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). 


Results from this small-scale project demonstrated a positive impact on teacher confidence in removing barriers and meeting individual need, leading to an increase in access and engagement for pupils. Individual case studies yield interesting results and reflections. 

Case study A (Year 5 class with an experienced teacher)

Child A had made little progress over several years and had a perceived ‘overreliance’ on additional adult support and ‘need’ for more specialist input. Child A’s barriers were not just academic, but also due to a lack of confidence and belief in his abilities. 

Through the observations, it became apparent that any perceived ‘success’ in a lesson was due to the support of a TA or because the curriculum had been simplified to the point of becoming meaningless. For example, he had been ‘successful’ multiplying unit fractions by whole numbers because he ‘knew’ his one times table and the procedure. He wasn’t, however, the next day able to apply this learning to multiplying non-unit fractions. In ‘simplifying’ the task to make it ‘accessible’, it had become totally disconnected from the curriculum itself and therefore from the learning that needed to take place. Focus should have been on the foundational knowledge required and on creating meaningful learning opportunities in line with his stage of development. 

This reflection needed to translate into every lesson. This required accurate assessment and functional and appropriate targets to inform my curriculum planning. Individualised targets would inform learning opportunities within whole-class teaching, rather than creating a wide range of differentiated resources that would ‘allow’ access to the same work as his peers. So, for example, rather than using subordinate clauses, he would use single-clause sentences with a focus on key vocabulary acquisition and sentence structure. 

I had previously believed that without adult support, child A could not be a successful learner in the mainstream classroom. While embedding this new approach, some additional support was required. However, once embedded, not only did child A achieve significant progress, but increased enthusiasm and engagement in school were also observed. I was able to deploy support more equitably to benefit all. 

Case study B (Year 2 class with a teacher early in their career)

Child B had previously found the experience of the classroom overwhelming, presenting with behaviours serving the function of escaping the classroom environment or requiring high levels of adult attention to co-regulate. This placed significant pressure on staff and on the other pupils, and child B was making little progress. 

General techniques had been implemented in response to the ‘label’ of ADHD. The child-focused observations and working alongside the SLE created the space for me to zoom in on the specific barriers that he was facing.

From the observations, it was apparent that the learning was not meaningful to him and that this was a source of anxiety. As an example of change, in geography, rather than starting a lesson on physical/human features using the Amazon, the springboard for the whole class became the local area, which benefited not just him.

Furthermore, the structure of the lesson itself was a barrier. When beginning independent work, child B would become disengaged, disrupting his and others’ learning. Through collaborative planning, we explored how to support him in this precise moment, while also supporting the rest of the class to begin their work. Taking a holistic view, we put in place an activity that met an area of need (fine motor) that he could complete in that moment, independently, with success. This freed me up, ensured that the class were engaged in independent practice and allowed me to quickly return to him to provide targeted curriculum-specific support and engage him in independent practice alongside his peers. 

Through these small changes, Child B can now work independently and in small groups and is no longer displaying the same disruptive behaviours.


The case studies highlight the impact on pupil outcomes of child-focused observations, using noticing and ‘teacher detective’ skills to embed inclusive practice and to inform adaptive teaching and approaches to curriculum planning. Using the graduated approach, underpinned by robust formative assessment, allowed teachers to enhance practice and provision and ensure progress for the children in their classes who found learning the most challenging. We must also not underestimate the impact of cross-sector ‘collaborative professionalism’ in liberating teachers to approach challenges within their classrooms more creatively, with fewer of the constraints placed by the system in which they are working. 

It is clear from both case studies that it was not in doing more that they achieved success for their learners but was in nurturing inclusive habits and responding to individual difference through adaptive teaching. 

To achieve this, teachers have to ‘see themselves as learners, to be deliberate about their practice, to understand their own metacognitive behaviours and to use adaptive problem-solving’ (Mulholland, 2022b). It is therefore incumbent on leaders to create protected opportunities to collaborate and reflect critically with mentors, colleagues, peers and experts. This has implications for how we work with external agencies who provide specialist support in schools, for the strategic role of the SENDCo and, most importantly, for the systems in place in school. We must ask whether our systems incentivise teachers to engage in habits that promote inclusivity, and whether these systems enable an inclusive mindset, the development and application of adaptive expertise, and an approach to professional development that equips teachers to be responsive. As we move into the next stage of dissemination across a number of schools and classes, this will be a question for leaders to keep coming back to.

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