Learning Tracks: Planning and Assessing Learning for Children with Severe and Complex Needs


Lindy Furby & Jilly Catlow

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    About the Authors

    Lindy Furby has had a long and interesting career in education. She taught at two primary schools in Brixton, London. She then became a primary maths consultant for the Inner London Education Authority; her job was to encourage enthusiastic mathematics teaching. To facilitate her work, she took an Open University degree in Mathematics (and cried her way through summer school – she is not a natural mathematician). Next, she moved to Bradford to become a senior lecturer in maths and mathematics education and gained a Masters degree in Maths and Maths Education. After twelve years, another move to the North took her to Edinburgh, where she briefly taught at an infant school and then started work at St Crispin’s special school. She found the work enjoyable but very challenging, and took many courses including a Diploma in Autism and Forest School Leadership in her effort to improve the outcomes of her teaching. Now she has retired and spends her time skiing, mountaineering, ski touring, painting, printmaking, travelling and, recently, writing a book.

    Jilly Catlow has been teaching in special education for eight years. As a trained primary teacher, she always knew that she wanted to work in special education, originally with children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and autism. Learning disability was something that Jilly was initially introduced to in her first mainstream class with a little girl with moderate learning disabilities. This interest grew quickly and Jilly began working at St Crispin’s two years later. As a relatively inexperienced teacher, especially for severe and complex learning disabilities, Jilly was lucky enough to have Lindy in the classroom next door. They formed a fast friendship and a fantastic working relationship which they supported and challenged each other to learn and develop. To extend her understanding, Jilly undertook a Post-graduate Certificate in Child and Young People’s Mental Health and Psychological Practice, with qualifications in child development, learning disability and challenging behaviour. Over the time at St Crispin’s, Jilly has specialised in communication and positive behavioural support, and is now one of the school’s principal teachers.


    We would like to thank the children and young people, their parents and all the staff at St Crispin’s, Edinburgh, including speech and language therapists and the occupational therapist. Without their help this book would not exist.

    Additional Resources

    With your purchase of this book you have been given access to the readymade assessment booklet Learning Tracks. This is available as a PDF with editable elements and a blank template Word document so you can personalise it to suit your individual needs.

    You can access your customisable Learning Tracks booklet in a few simple steps.

    Step 1: Visit https://study.sagepub/learningtracks

    Step 2: Create or log into your SAGE account.

    Step 3: Redeem your code. This can be found at the front of your book.

    Step 4: Start using your booklet.

  • Glossary

    Absences (epilepsy)

    An absence seizure causes a short period of ‘blanking out’ or staring into space. Like other kinds of seizures, they are caused by abnormal activity in a person’s brain.

    Adaptive Behaviour Assessment System (ABAS-II)

    provides a comprehensive, norm-referenced assessment of the adaptive behaviour and skills of individuals from birth to age 89. Scores for each area allow teachers and carers to evaluate areas of functioning, determine strengths and weaknesses, and specify learning objectives.

    Adaptive skills

    are the skills an individual needs to meet the standards of personal independence and social responsibility appropriate for his/her age and cultural group.

    Angelman syndrome

    is a chromosome disorder that causes severe learning difficulties.

    Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)

    is the use of techniques and principles of positive reinforcement (rewarding appropriate behaviour) to bring about change in behaviour.

    Attachment disorder

    is a disorder of mood, behaviour and social relationships arising from a failure to form normal attachments to primary care-giving figures in early childhood. Children with attachment disorders have difficulty connecting to others and managing their own emotions.

    Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

    is a condition characterised by inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Unsupported, it can lead to major social and educational exclusion.

    Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)

    is a complex, lifelong neurodevelopmental disability. It is characterised by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and stereotypical or repetitive behaviours and interests. It can include sensory issues and cognitive delays.

    Backward chaining

    Here, the adult begins the task, with the child only doing the last step. Gradually, the adult does less as the child is able to do more of the task themselves. This way, the child always gets the reward of finishing the task – for example, the adult puts the T-shirt over the child’s head and helps him/her to get their arms through the holes. The child then pulls down the T-shirt at the front.

    Boardmaker symbols

    A design program that lets the teacher make and adapt curriculum materials for students who need symbols.

    Box work or workbox

    part of the TEACCH structured work system set up so that the learner knows exactly what s/he has to do and when it is finished.

    Central Executive

    is the part of the working memory which controls and co-ordinates the other two parts – the verbal short-term memory and the visuospatial short-term memory.

    Cerebral palsy

    is a condition that affects muscle control and movement. It is usually caused by an injury to the brain before, during or after birth. Children with cerebral palsy may have learning difficulties.

    Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)

    provides psychological, medical and psychosocial assessment and treatment for children and young people with mental health problems. Children at St Crispin’s are usually, but not exclusively, referred to CAMHS when their behaviour becomes unmanageable.


    is an object that, when played with in a repetitive stereotypical way, calms the player.

    Communication books

    can be quite different, but in this case it is a book full of photos of common objects and activities in school and at home that a learner can point at to communicate what they want.


    is the simultaneous existence of two or more conditions within the same person – for example, autism and Down’s syndrome.

    Co-ordinated Support Plan (CSP)

    is a statutory plan prepared by the education authority when a child or young person requires significant additional support from the education authority and from at least one other agency from outwith education in order to benefit from school education (see p. 45 for the full reference of the: Scottish Government, 2010).

    Cornflour gloop

    is a mixture of cornflour and water which has a very satisfying gloopy consistency for sensory play.

    Cri du chat

    syndrome is caused by a missing section of the short arm of the fifth chromosome in the body cells. Children with cri du chat may have delayed milestones, muscle weakness and heart problems.

    Crisis, Aggression, Limitation and Management (CALM)

    is a system for the management of the use of physical restraint used in schools, hospitals adult centres, etc. Teachers and carers are trained to use it to limit the use of restraint, but if the use of restraint becomes absolutely necessary to use proscribed movements safely.

    Declarative memory

    contains the semantic memory, which stores general knowledge about the world, language and categorical knowledge about concepts, and the episodic memory, which stores personally experienced events.

    Declarative pointing

    is pointing to share interest in something, as opposed to imperative pointing, which is pointing because the thing is desired.

    Development chart

    is a chart of typical milestones for a developing child. The development chart in Learning Tracks is based on Early Years Outcomes (see p. 79 for the full reference: DfE, 2013).

    Developmental delay

    As an infant develops, s/he tends to meet developmental milestones as charted on a development chart. When a child fails to meet a set of the milestones within the proscribed period, they are considered to have developmental delay.

    Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-IV)

    is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States (see p. 59 for the full reference: American Psychiatric Association, 2000).

    Disability bikes

    are special needs tricycles and bicycles available to accommodate a vast array of special needs – for example, hand-pedalled recumbent tricycles make it possible for those without the use of their legs to be mobile.

    Down’s syndrome

    is a genetic condition caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21 in the body cells. People with Down’s syndrome have some degree of learning disability.

    Drop, dropping

    is a behaviour where the child or young person just drops to the floor, generally in response to fearing or refusing an activity. It can often be very difficult to persuade the dropper to get up and this can be dangerous when a large young person drops in the middle of a busy road junction.


    is a developmental co-ordination disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor co-ordination in children and adults. It may also affect speech.

    Ear defenders

    Special earphones worn by children sensitive to noise to cut out noise.


    The repetition of words and sounds a person has heard either recently or quite a while ago. Verbal children with autism are often echolalic, which means they do use words (and sometimes even use those words appropriately), but their word choice is based on a memorised pattern.

    Education, Health and Care Plan, England (EHC)

    EHC plans are based on a co-ordinated assessment and planning process. The plan is designed for children and young people with special educational needs. It details a young person’s health, social care and educational needs, and how they are going to be met, including the setting of short-term targets by the education provider.

    Executive function

    is the internal regulator of a person’s behaviour through control of emotions, working memory, arousal levels and motivation.

    Fight or flight or freeze

    describes the behaviour when a person either runs away, hits out or shuts down in response to some event that they perceive as being dangerous.

    Forest School

    is a type of outdoor education in which children visit woodlands, engaging in planned activities. It is a process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment.

    Fragile X syndrome (FXS)

    is a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental problems, including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment.

    Heuristic playboxes

    contain interesting real-life objects for exploring – for example, sieve, egg whisk, pots and pans. Heuristic play describes the activity of babies and children as they play with and explore the properties of ‘objects’. These ‘objects’ are things from the real world.

    Individualised Educational Programme (IEP)

    is a written education plan designed to meet a child’s learning needs.

    Information carrying word (ICW)

    is any word in a sentence that must be understood in order to follow an instruction. An example is saying to a child ‘take the teddy’ with the person holding only a teddy out. The child does not have to understand a single word in this sentence because the person has shown them what they want. There are no information carrying words. However, if there was a teddy and a book and the person says ‘take the teddy’ the child needs to differentiate between the teddy and the book, and therefore the sentence has one information carrying word.

    Intelligence Quotient (IQ)

    is a score derived from one of several standardised tests designed to assess human intelligence.

    Intensive interaction

    is an approach to teaching the pre-speech fundamentals of communication to children and adults who have severe learning difficulties and/or autism, and who are still at an early stage of communication development.

    Joint attention

    is the co-ordinated attention between a child, another person and an object or event.

    Object permanence

    is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed (seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed in any way).

    Objects of reference

    used to be called object signifiers. An object of reference is an object which has a particular meaning associated with it – for example, a fork may be the object of reference for dinner. The object is closely associated with and comes to represent another object, an activity, a person or an event. These objects give the child information about what is going to happen if they are used consistently. We use them in school to represent curriculum activities or personal-care routines. The objects should have relevance for that pupil – for example, an orange armband to represent swimming is not suitable if s/he uses a completely different flotation aid.

    Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

    is a form of augmentative and alternative communication using symbols for communication.

    Procedural memory

    is a memory which stores skilled behaviour and actions which are usually acquired through extensive practice – for example, riding a bike.

    Prosthetic environment

    replaces ‘missing parts’ with artificial structures – for example, speech by symbols.

    Proximal communication

    involves adults using a range of generally non-verbal strategies to encourage children to initiate communication. Examples of the major strategies are: appropriate rough-and-tumble play; imitation of the child and the use of bursts of activity contrasted with frequent pauses giving the child the opportunity to communicate, to ask for more.

    Psycho-educational profile (PEP-R)

    developed by Eric Schopler offering a developmental approach to the assessment of children with autism or related developmental disorders.

    Responsive teaching

    is the process of stepping in and out of a learning activity to support the student’s individual needs and growing independence. This process has also been referred to as scaffolding.

    Rett syndrome

    is a developmental disorder that affects girls almost exclusively. It is characterised by normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability.


    is a method of teaching developed from Vygotsky’s ideas that involves providing resources and support to learners as they learn new concepts. These can be withdrawn once the learners no longer need them.


    for example, work schedule – a timetable of a particular activity – for example, a music lesson or workbox session.

    Sensory integration difficulties or Sensory processing difficulties/disorder

    is characterised by significant problems in organising sensation coming from the body, which causes difficulties in many areas of life.

    Severe and complex learning disabilities (SCLD)/severe learning disability (SLD)

    A learning disability is defined as a significant, lifelong condition present from childhood that affects an individual’s development. This results in difficulties understanding information, learning new skills and coping independently. A severe learning disability is defined as having an IQ of between 20 and 34. A severe and complex learning disability is when the learning disability is comorbid with another diagnosis, such as autism.

    Social stories

    are story books written to accurately describe situations and activities in a way that is meaningful to the child they are written for. For example, a social story on toileting may show his/her own toilet and will use symbols and photos that the child is accustomed to using. The story guides the child through all the stages of what happens when s/he goes to the toilet in a completely personalised way.


    is a home-based program for children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities, which was developed by the Kaufmans for their autistic son, who is claimed to have fully recovered from his condition. The program is a parent-directed, relationship-based play therapy.

    Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND)

    is where children require additional educational supports and a specialist environment to meet their needs.

    Task analysis

    is when tasks are analysed and broken down into small sequential steps and planned for teaching in a correct sequence, enabling the learner to learn the first step and then move on to the next step, and eventually be able to perform the complete task.

    Theory of Mind

    is the ability to attribute mental states – for example, beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge and so on to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions and perspectives that are different from one’s own.


    seizures have two stages: the body initially becomes stiff and then the arms and legs begin twitching. The patient loses consciousness and some people will wet themselves. The seizure normally lasts a few minutes, but can last longer. This type of seizure is what most people think of as an epileptic fit.

    Total Communication Environment

    is a term invented in 1967 by Roy Holcomb in California to describe a practice in deaf education that uses a variety of approaches to communication – signing, speech, gestures, etc. – concurrently. It is considered that the main benefit to the deaf child is that it keeps open all modes of communication, enabling choice. The concept of a Total Communication Environment has been used by teachers of children with an ASD for several decades.

    Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH)

    was developed in the USA and is an intervention approach to help people with an ASD, and is based on understanding the learning characteristics of individuals with autism and the use of visual supports to promote meaning and independence.

    Tuberous sclerosis

    is a rare genetic condition that causes mainly benign (non-cancerous) tumours to develop in different parts of the body. Tumours can develop on the skin, in the brain, heart, eyes and lungs. These tumours can cause a range of other associated health conditions and complications, which include epilepsy, learning disabilities and behavioural problems such as hyperactivity or autism.

    Voice Output Communication Aids (tablet, iPad) (VOCA)

    These speech-generating devices (SGDs) are electronic augmentative and alternative communication systems used to supplement or replace speech for individuals with severe speech impairments, enabling them to verbally communicate their needs. SGDs are important for people who have limited means of interacting verbally as they allow individuals to become active participants in communication interactions.

    Weighted waistcoat

    Used for weighted therapy, which is the use of weighted products to apply weight and deep touch pressure (surface pressure) to the body thereby stimulating the proprioceptive sense enabling those who are ‘sensory seeking’ to relax, focus and have a greater awareness of their body.

    Williams syndrome

    is a developmental disorder that affects many parts of the body. It is characterised by mild to moderate learning disabilities, unique personality characteristics, distinctive facial features, and heart and cardiovascular problems.

    Workbox or box work

    part of the TEACCH structured work system set up so that the learner knows exactly what s/he has to do and when it is finished.

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