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The term Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD), or Severe Learning Disorder, is applied to a child who finds it difficult to understand, learn and remember new skills and has trouble adapting their skills to daily life.

Difficulties may be further compounded by emotional and behavioural issues, difficulties with communication, or within a diagnosed condition like autism. The term is loosely applied to children with a significantly low score in a formal IQ test, which can be measured by an educational psychologist.

Finding a school for SLD

Children with SLD may find it difficult to follow the curriculum without substantial help and support. They should therefore qualify for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) which can specify an appropriate school. Though most children with SLD will attend a special school (including possibly a residential placement), some are supported in attending mainstream schools or have integrated placements (spending some time in both settings). In some instances, the presence of other impairments (such as autism or challenging behaviour) may be the determining factor in deciding on the most appropriate school.

For parents, it can feel that the acquisition of self-care and daily living skills are more of a priority than academic skills. You should always investigate the provision a school has for this. Some have facilities where older children can learn to make beds, do the laundry or cook a meal, supported by an occupational therapist.

The curriculum

Children with SLD need to follow a curriculum which is carefully broken down into small steps with plenty of repetition, reinforcement and encouragement.

The curriculum should be adapted to encourage learning, 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 communication skills, or visual and hearing difficulties and other sensory needs.

Therapy needs

Therapy is likely to be included in the EHCP and built into the child's learning programme. This may include music therapy, art 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. Counselling and psychologists’ support help with mental health issues.

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

Ask about therapy provision when you visit a school. In some instances this is supplied by external visitors employed by the NHS, or sometimes therapists are permanent employees of the school. Therapists may provide individual support, or in small groups and may work alongside teachers in the classroom, and with care staff in a residential setting. A good therapist will liaise with parents, teachers and medical professionals to provide integrated care, e.g. all working towards the same targets for the child.

Teaching aids

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

Assistive technology can make a real difference to the child's learning experiences and progress. Reading and speech programmes, Apps and bespoke IT packages are widely available. Adapted hardware eg special tablets and keyboards are available in a variety of forms including: an enlarged keyboard, a simplified keyboard, or picture grids (replacing standard keys). Children who are visually impaired may use special high-visibility or tactile overlays. Speech output and symbols may be used to help children with reading and writing. A child with learning difficulties should be assessed by a clinical specialist or teacher for the best fit.

How we can help

The Good Schools Guide website features reviews of recommended schools for SLD or consult our SEN team for one-to-one help.

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