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Effective communication for learners with special education needs

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Juanita Corbett from Arohanui Special School discusses communication as a vital tool that we use with our students every day. She challenges us to take a step back and think about how we communicate with our students and how we support our students with special education needs to communicate with us.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

How inclusive is your school?

Inclusion means valuing all students and all staff in all aspects of school life. It involves removing barriers to presence, participation, and achievement. It is one of the eight principles set out in The New Zealand Curriculum and should underpin all school leadership and decision making.

"The curriculum is non-sexist, non-racist, and non-discriminatory; it ensures that [all] students’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed and that their learning needs are addressed."


NZC Update 18 – The inclusion principle

  • What systems, initiatives, and programmes in your school are most effective in supporting the participation of students with special needs?
  • Investigate the examples Juanita gives for enhancing communication. Which of these is going to suit your school context best? Why?
  • What systems do you have in place for teachers who are looking for support or advice when communicating with special needs learners? How could you improve what is currently in place?

Have you seen?

Making the curriculum accessible to all
This guide from the Inclusive Education website, suggests tools and strategies to help teachers create more flexible environments that support all learners, where barriers to learning are minimised. There are also specific sections on supporting reading and writing, and differentiated instruction.


Tēnā katou my name is Juanita Corbett and I am currently an itinerating teacher with Arohanui special school and we provide an outreach service. Part of my service is to support mainstream schools with ORS funded students. Communication is such a vital tool that we use in our teaching practice every day and it’s no different when working with our ORS funded students. Sometimes we need to take a step back and have a look at how we might be communicating with our students and looking at ways that we can support our ORS funded students in communicating with us. So we look at total communication which looks at using all means possible available to you to communicate this message. That can include non verbal communication such as gestures, you might use signs, pictures, or symbols coupled with writing, and speaking. So anything you can access to communicate your message.

So if we look at supporting some of our students with expressive communication we might first look at our own practice. There are very simple things that we can do to support our students. One of those can be to have high expectations of our students. It can be very daunting to have a student and not know their capabilities. If you set the bar high, they will work to that bar.  And so we can also provide the students with tools to aid their communication. In our practice we look at tools such as PECs which is Picture Exchange Communication for our non verbal students. They will use a picture to communicate things they want, things they need, and perhaps maybe how they’re feeling as well. There’s also visual aid as a big part of our programme. Using strategies such as timetables helps to remove some of the anxiety that some of our students feel around what’s going to happen in the day. It also gives them some guidelines and prompts to work towards when they’re unsure where to be. Receptive communication is looking at the students’ ability to understand and take in the message that you were trying to give them. Simple things that teachers can do is very simply speaking clearly and keeping the instructions very short. As some of our ORS funded students have a lot of difficulty with processing large amounts of information. 

We sometimes fall into the trap of communicating many messages without realising that's what we’re doing. An example might be, ‘OK, Jane I would like you to pack up your work now. I know you haven’t quite finished what you’re doing, but we can return to that later. So if you can put your book into your desk, leave your pencil on the desk, come down to the mat and I’d like you to sit with Jane.’ When we simply can say, ‘Please come, sit on the mat.’ Which is something some of our students can cope with processing a lot faster. I think one of the key aspects when working with an ORS funded student is building that relationship. I think that is vital in working alongside that student, getting to know them and it gives the message that you care about them. It also opens your mind up to be able to see the barriers to working alongside the children and perhaps looking - opening your mind to looking for advice. Such advice you may simply get from inside the school. Many of our students are working at the level of a new entrants classroom but are sitting in a year five-six classroom. So you may need to talk to your peers that may be able to support you in adapting your programme for the specific student. Also the Ministry has links on their site - assessment for special needs learners on the TKI site - that can also be accessed as well.

Published on: 24 Aug 2012