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Case study: An exploration of the benefits of small strategies to improve independence for an autistic child with ADHD in a Year 5 maths lesson

In the following video case study, teaching assistant, Jo Mead, shares her approach to supporting an autistic child with ADHD in a primary setting.

Before watching the video, we invite you to read about Jo Mead’s journey working as a teaching assistant.

My name is Jo Mead. I am a Teaching Assistant working with individual children with special educational needs in a mainstream primary school in Kent. I originally qualified as a nurse but found that working in a primary school suited me better once I became a parent. 

I began supporting children with low age-related attainment in maths and became fascinated in the way children learn (or don’t learn). My next role saw me working with a ‘looked-after child’ in the same school, a role I found much more challenging than I had expected. I started to find out more about what gets in the way of some children thinking and learning and how these barriers can be reduced. Following this, I started to work with a child in Reception who had recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). My job share partner and I learned so much from this inspiring child (and subsequent others) who is now flourishing in a local special school in Year 11.

I have continued to work with individual children to enable and encourage inclusion in mainstream schools because I passionately believe that individuals and society benefit when children learn in inclusive classrooms.

The video below is divided into the following sections:

0.24 – Introduction

1.14 – What are the specific needs of the student you work with?

2.14 – What challenges did the student experience in the classroom?

4.08 – What approach did you take to overcome these challenges? What evidence-base informed your approach?

7.51 – What impact did this approach have on the student’s academic outcomes?

8.54 – What impact did this approach have on the student’s wellbeing and relationships in the classroom?

9.37 – What were the strengths and limitations of this approach?

11.12 – What are your top tips for other teaching assistants working with students with SEND?

Read Jo Mead’s full Impact article here:


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Hello. My name is Jo Mead. I’m a one-to-one teaching assistant. I work with children with special needs in mainstream primary schools, have done for the last 10 years or so. I’ve worked with amazing teachers and some inspirational children. I want to tell you a bit about a project I did last year which was looking at strategies that we could use to help an autistic child with a diagnosis of ADHD to increase his independence in a maths lesson. 

I wrote the project up in Impact Magazine, so I’ll include a reference to that at the end of this video. I’m fascinated by the process of thinking and its importance in thinking and learning. And that’s really the basis of all of what I do at school. 

So the child I was supporting at the time, he is autistic and he has a diagnosis of ADHD. When he first came to the school, he found it really difficult to find his place in the classroom. He finds it difficult to understand instructions, especially verbal ones, he finds it difficult to understand social nuance, and he doesn’t find it easy at all to express his feelings. 

The other children were finding it quite difficult to understand his behaviour. He rarely asked for any help and he just found it very difficult to settle without any support. In fact, he would either stare into space or become disruptive if he didn’t have very, very full on support to help him. He rarely produced any independent work. 

So when we were looking at the barriers to his learning, it’s always important to know any diagnosis, but that can’t be the main reason for your strategies. I think it’s really important to observe the child. The diagnosis can be really helpful to inform your observations and to inform the explanations of what you can see, but most importantly, watch and get to know the child. 

We watched what happened, but we tried really hard not to rush to explain what was happening. And the main things, as I think I’ve said, are that he stared into space a lot, he didn’t follow instructions, he rarely put pen to paper unless he was prompted, he occasionally watched the other children and after a while started to do what they were doing. He didn’t ask for help, he didn’t write on his whiteboard and hold his answers up. 

But in the weekly arithmetic test that the children always do on a Friday in their maths lessons, he did get on and work. So the weekly arithmetic test, we arranged for him to have one which literally just had questions about the four operations. We taught him how to use a multiplication grid and we allowed him to use that in the test. 

This enabled him to have independence in the maths lesson, but it allowed no progression. There was no challenge for him. And it gave him really low expectations. However, knowledge of the fact that he could use this as a way of showing independence enabled us to get some ideas about the strategies we wanted to use. 

So the questions we had about the observations we made were: Is he thinking at all? If so, what’s he thinking about? Why does he stare into space? Why doesn’t he ask for help? What’s happening the maths test that doesn’t help in the lessons? What would help him to hear and process the instructions that he’s given? And if he can’t hear or process the instructions he’s been given at the moment, how can he possibly know what’s expected of him? 

So in collaboration with the teacher, we came up with three strategies that we thought we’d try. I know that receptive language in a lot of children with autism is less well developed than their expressive language. So we could be fooled into thinking he could understand something when actually he didn’t. So we needed to improve his ability to access and understand the instructions he was being given so he knew what was expected of him. 

Secondly, cognitive load theory demonstrates that there’s a limit to how much working memory is accessible to him to enable him to work and to think and to learn. So we thought we’d try and reduce his cognitive load to save some headspace for him to be able to think and learn. 

And then the third thing we thought was high expectations are really crucial for him to be able to demonstrate how much he can actually learn and to demonstrate his full potential. So we needed to find a way of challenging him without increasing his anxiety levels. 

We came up with three ideas. The first was a very basic laminated tick sheet. It had a list of three things we expected him to do at the beginning of the lesson. The first was to get out his whiteboard and pen, the second was to write the date in his book, and the third was to write the class learning objective, the same thing that all the other children were expected to do. 

We wrote these on a tick sheet, a laminated tick sheet, and when he did one of them, the teacher or myself or him would tick it. It was really easy for us to just point to it if he wasn’t doing anything just to remind him what he should be doing. 

The second strategy we came up with was that we wrote each task, each question that we expected him to attempt on a separate piece of paper, and we gave him explicit instructions that he should attempt three or four or five of these questions in the lesson depending on what we considered his ability on the day. 

And the third thing was that we produced a bespoke maths test every Friday, which included questions about the learning that they’d done in the class the previous week. We felt it was unfair that the other children got to practise or revise the work that they’d been learning about but he never did. So they were the three strategies that we tried. 

The main challenge we had was really judging what could reasonably be achieved by him in any one lesson. It was so dependent on his mood, on what had happened prior to him getting to school, and what had happened at the playtime. So it was quite tricky to produce realistic but achievable goals. We started off with simple ones and we gradually increased them as he became more confident. 

So fast forward one term. He was almost always completing what was on the tick list. Sometimes we needed to point out the tick list to remind him, but he basically almost always achieved those tasks. He was often asking for help when he needed it. He was almost always attempting the tasks we’d asked him to do. Sometimes he needed to stay after the class to finish them, but he accepted that. 

Also, he asked to complete the same maths test that everybody else was completing and was getting very similar scores to a lot of the children in the class. And by the end of the second term of using the strategies, he had completed or attempted all of the end-of-year tests that the rest of the children were attempting in the classroom alongside his peers without any adult support at all. 

He seemed more content. His classmates seemed more engaged with him. It seemed to us that he felt much more part of the class. The other overwhelming observation that I saw was that he continually looked for to his teacher for reassurance, recognition, sometimes for guidance. And she… he was met by reciprocal attention. She would give him a smile, a tick, thumbs up, or she’d come over to help. 

So it felt like the strategies had made a huge difference. There were a lot of other things going on. There’s no way we can know that it was the strategies that changed his attitude and enabled so much more independence for him. There may have been lots of other explanations. 

There may have been other explanations within the project. So it may have been a simple behaviourist technique producing a tick sheet and expecting the tick, the reward, to encourage him to continue to follow the guidelines. It may be that cognitive load theory has a part to play in the explanation. We reduced his cognitive load by increasing routines and by reducing his reliance on verbal instruction and increasing visual cues. 

But it also really demonstrated a clear improvement in the relationship between him and the teacher. His continual search for her recognition was met with reciprocal attention. It was actually a joy to see, is how much their relationship improved, maybe simply from having that tick sheet on his desk that she was able to continually point to and he started to realise she cared about what he was doing. 

So these are my top tips. Continually re-evaluate what your support is doing. Is it helping to achieve independence? Is it making a difference? Take time to specifically observe your children so that you can inform your practice. Always question any assumptions you have. Look for barriers to their learning and find ways of reducing or getting rid of those barriers. 

Consider what one thing you want the child to learn that lesson or that term. Don’t try everything at once. Talk to your colleagues about what might help. And give your ideas a chance to work. And always consider, there may be many, many explanations for a behaviour. Don’t rush to explain or judge without really thinking through what could be happening. 

    1. Bandura A (1986) Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
    2. Hudry K, Leadbitter K, Temple K et al. (2010) Pre-schoolers with autism show greater impairment in receptive compared with expressive language abilities. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 45(6): 681–690.
    3. Mead, J. (2022) An exploration of the benefits of small strategies to improve independence for an autistic child with ADHD in a Year 5 maths lesson. Impact - Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching 16: 40-42
    4. Sweller J (1998) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12: 257–285
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