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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. Their 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, difficulties with communication, and additional special needs.

Finding a school for SLD

Children with severe learning difficulties should qualify for an Education, Care and Health 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 dual 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 mock-up flats where older children can learn to make beds, do the laundry, or make a snack. Ask about occupational therapy, which can help children with skills like cutting up food, washing and toileting.

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 phonological awareness, or visual 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, 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. 

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, so it can mean the therapy your child receives will be patchy and scant. The best option is where therapists are full-time employees of the school, so that they can work alongside teachers in the classroom, and with care staff in a residential setting, and therapy approaches are thus infused through the school. However these are usually more expensive placements, which mean it can be a greater battle to gain local authority funding.

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. Special 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.

The use of symbols, PECs, or signing such as Makaton, may aid communication.

Measuring success

Children with SLD can progress in tiny steps, and these should be carefully recorded, and targets set and updated against progress. Many schools will refer to SMART targets, which means that the targets should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. 

Help to find a school for SLD

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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