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Article published 10th June 2008

Children with Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD) are likely to find it difficult to understand, learn and remember new skills.

As a result they will have problems with both the acquisition  of skills and their application to new situations. Additional problems with a number of social tasks, such as communication, self-care and awareness of health and safety, may mean they require supported living.

Problems faced by a child with severe learning difficulties

Children with severe learning difficulties have acute global development delay, such that intellectual or cognitive impairment, coupled with possible sensory, physical, emotional and social difficulties, will make it difficult for the child to follow the curriculum without substantial help and support.

Difficulties may be further compounded by poor co-ordination, and communication and additional special needs. The use of symbols, PECs, or signing such as Makaton, may aid communication.

Cognitive development

A child with SLD will require substantial help in gaining independence or self-help and social skills. It is likely that most areas of academic achievement will be affected, not just basic skills. Attainments are likely to remain below level 1 of the National Curriculum (in the upper P scale range, P4–P8) for much of their school careers.

School options

Children with severe learning difficulties will have a statement of special educational need (or equivalent) and are likely to have a 'named school' on that statement. Though most children with SLD will attend a special school, (including possibly a residential placement) some are supported in attending mainstream schools or have dual placements; spending time in both settings. Accurate statistics are not available for the number of children with SLD educated in mainstream or special schools, in part because the presence of other impairments (autism, communication difficulties etc) often supersedes a diagnosis of SLD.

The curriculum

Children work on the national curriculum p-levels and follow a curriculum which is carefully broken down into small-steps with plenty of repetition, reinforcement and encouragement.

One of the challenges is to establish a curriculum and learning experience that enables the child to operate at the intellectual level compatible with their difficulties but with age appropriate material.

The curriculum should be adapted to encourage learning, functionality, independence, life skills and communication. Children will benefit from a multi-sensory approach to their learning, adapted to take account of issues such as poor phonological awareness, or visual difficulties and other sensory needs.

Therapy needs

Therapy is likely to be included in the statement and built into the child's learning programme. This may include music therapy, play therapy, sensory stimulation as well as speech and language therapy. Where a child has associated motor skill or other physical difficulties these may be combined with physio and occupational therapy. 

Therapy needs will be established on a case by case basis and deployed in a variety of different ways; 

for example a speech therapist may work one-to-one with a child, in small group settings or cascade through the child's teachers and learning support assistants.  In some cases behaviour may need to be managed through specialist approaches.

Teaching aids

Technology and learning aids can be used to enhance learning, encourage interaction and communication and help provide a multi-sensory learning environment .

Switch operated equipment and specialised toys and communication aids can make a real difference to the child's learning experiences and progress. Overlay keyboards (think computers with a special grid overlay) take a variety of forms including: an enlarged keyboard, a simplified keyboard, or pictures girds (replacing standard keys). Children who are visually impaired may use special high-visibility or tactile overlays. The keyboards are usually combined with specially designed or adapted hardware and software. Speech output and symbols may be used to assist both receptive and recorded communication. Switches can be used to access software and where a child has poor motor-skills, rollerballs or mousers may replace the standard computer mouse.

Measuring success

It is the norm for detailed assessment of a child's progress to be carefully recorded.

Wherever possible the child she be involved in the process; many children are encouraged to use target boards to measure and record their successes - we have seen some wonderful examples of these on our school visits. 

In line with independent education plans, targets should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound or SMART for short. 


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