The Special Educator's Tool Kit


Sarah J. Barratt

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    To all those special children and their families whom I have met and had the privilege to work with (they are the inspiration for this book and an inspiration to me).

    To my mother Gillie who, in my view, is the world's best Special Educator and my father Robin who gave me a very special education.

    To Nambi who gave me the idea for and instilled confidence in me to write this book.

    To my brother Richard, sisters Caroline and Joanna.

    To my grandmother Grenga.

    And to my teachers Mary Morton, Caroline Pentland and Judith Osborne.

    List of Figures

    • 1.1 Teaching Children with Special Educational Needs 2
    • 1.2 Understanding the Learning Needs of Special Children 20
    • 2.1 Assessment of the Physical Development of Special Children 44
    • 2.2 Understanding the Cognitive Development of Special Children 55
    • 3.1 Planning and Designing an Appropriate Curriculum 62
    • 3.2 Classroom Management for Special Children 70
    • 4.1 The Importance of Personal and Professional Development of the Special Educator 74
    • 4.2 Differentiation of the Curriculum 83
    • 5.1 Meeting the Different Learning Needs of Special Children 92
    • 5.2 Enabling Learning for Special Children 97
    • 6.1 Teaching Handwriting to Special Children 109
    • 6.2 Assisting Technology—A Tool to Aid Learning 116
    • 6.3 Cycle for Adoption of Assistive Technology 122
    • 7.1 Tools for Classroom Activities 126
    • 7.2 A Special Educator's Tool Kit 155


    I am finding more and more occupational therapists leaving their footprints in different parts of the world, not only in their own countries, but also in countries where resources are often not readily available to meet the particular needs of the local population. One aspect of this occupational therapy outreach is in identifying the needs and then doing something about it. Sarah J. Barratt is one such individual.

    Sarah gained inspiration for this book while working in South India. She discovered the lack of practical materials which would assist special education teachers to cater to children with special needs. Using her knowledge and skills in occupational therapy, Sarah worked with special education teachers to develop learning and teaching aids that they could use themselves in the classroom. Her efforts paid off and this resource took shape.

    A coherent and practical resource for special education teachers in rural and city settings, The Special Educator's Tool Kit gives the how-to and step-by-step guidelines, the tools, not just the theory. It provides the background of problems and issues that might be encountered while working with children with special needs. It reviews approaches to learning and applies them to formulate Individual Education Plans, classroom management, curriculum design and lesson planning, with explanations and examples. It explores classroom activities and offers management tools as well as tools to support or enhance handwriting.

    It is an informative and easy-to-read book which can be used by teachers and parents to make informed decisions about the path of their children's education. The principles and practical applications in this book can be translated and applied across cultures. Specific tools are provided with each chapter to support easy application.

    This book helps raise the reader's understanding of how an occupational therapist contributes to the field of special education. It also illustrates the importance of collaboration and partnership between professionals to enhance learning and the overall school experience for children with special needs and their families.

    KitSinclair President, World Federation of Occupational Therapists


    Education is not just about helping children to succeed in school, but should be designed to equip them for life.

    The inspiration to write this book was kindled in me after I worked alongside a team of Special Educators at the Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu (SPASTN), Taramani, Chennai, that provided Special Education and Therapy for disabled children in South India.

    At that time I realized that Special Educators often work with a paucity of resources using traditional teaching methods which may not always suit the children in their classes.

    The material for this book was generated while working with the Special Educators at the institution. The book takes the form of a tool kit to equip the reader with ideas to make the classroom a place of learning, discovery and fun.

    The tools given in the book relate to ideas for planning, assessment, learning, class activities and team work. These tools, I hope, will enrich existing teaching programmes.

    The tools are sandwiched between chapters about special children and their disabilities in order to provide the Special Educator with the medical or clinical reasons which make it necessary for these children to have special education. This book is designed as a working resource manual and should be used to support established lesson plans, existing syllabuses and continual research.

    I thought it fitting here as the author to share with my readers what it is to be a child with special needs and how my personal experience has helped me in my work as an Occupational Therapist in educational institutions around the world.

    The thoughts and feelings expressed are a reflection of my own experiences and should be understood as just those. My intention in doing this is to increase the readers' insight into the problems of and consequent empathy with special children so that their understanding of living with a disability at school is deepened and augmented.

    I fully realise that one's experiences of special needs will be different and varied. But my own unique position of being a person with special needs and working as a therapist with special needs have fuelled my desire to write this book. The narrative below is a personal account of my own school life.

    I was born with a mild form of Cerebral Palsy—Spastic Diplegia—with secondary visual difficulties. The main problems for me were difficulties with mobility and severe short sight. My visual problems brought with them another set of challenges. These included inability to see in three dimensions and deficits in hand–eye co-ordination which meant that performance of all tasks during school life took more time. However, my intelligence was above average and that coupled with only a mild physical disability meant that I was not considered to need a Statement of Educational Need. At that time Individual Education Plans had not been invented. Moreover, the presence of a handicapped child in a mainstream classroom was a rare occurrence when I started schooling in the late seventies.

    The obstacles I faced started when I went to a new school at the age of eight. I had to adapt to a new much bigger school environment, a new teacher and a larger class. And I had moved into a single sex school with only girls for friends where as I had been used to a greater number of boys around me.

    As regards my learning, I soon realised that different schools taught lessons in different ways and made different demands about how I should present and produce my work. It was then that I first became aware that I had difficulty in producing my work. This was particularly evident in my writing, reading, copying from the blackboard and the execution of basic mathematical functions.

    Outside the classroom, my classmates were not willing to involve me in their games or have me sit next to them in lessons and physical education soon became my least favourite subject.

    Many of these challenges manifested themselves on to me as I battled against my teacher's determination to change everything that I had previously been taught with regard to reading, writing, copying, drawing and doing arithmetic. I had suddenly to write and form my letters differently and this resulted in my becoming confused between script letters and cursive writing. I was also asked to write in books with no lines which made my writing too large, messy and often crooked.

    Before long I had changed from being a child accomplished in all these skills to a frustrated, lazy and confused individual who dreaded anything involving writing or mathematics. My teacher would not accept the ways I had been taught as acceptable methods to use in my class work. I had become a victim of changes in learning imposed upon me by the teaching methods of the day, coupled with no formal explanation or statement for my new teacher to understand my learning needs.

    Consequently, I felt different to all my peers. I could understand and see that I had difficulties with school work but had to live with the endless frustration of not knowing how or if I could ever cure or solve these. It was obvious that my teacher had never seen or taught a child like me before. I stopped seeking help, became withdrawn and angry. Class work took me longer and longer and learning became a huge chore to me rather than the pleasure it once was.

    I was reminded of my ‘Specialness’ by other environmental factors. I had to sit at the front of the class to see the blackboard and was not so affectionately labelled ‘Teacher's Pet’. When going for swimming lessons from school, I had to walk with the teacher at the front of the line which further emphasised my peers' new title for me. I was always the last to change for games and swimming, so the teacher always used to come and help me to hurry along.

    In short, I struggled on and did my best but it was never my personal best. I had lost some of the will to learn and some of the belief that I could succeed. I had moved from the fast lane where I used to feel quite comfortable to the middle of the road, and on occasions I gave up altogether.

    Two years later, I met my favourite teacher to whom I am eternally indebted for her belief in me as a person and not just as one of her pupils. She helped me recognise afresh my strengths, capabilities and gifts rather than underlining my differences, difficulties and disabilities. She instilled in me a strong belief which I live by to this day. She said ‘Everything matters, no matter how small’. I realised the importance of excellence in our endeavours and also that everyone and everything matters regardless of their needs, capabilities, differences or disabilities. From that day on, I began to excel with a new sense of self-belief. My marks improved, I was given books with lines and squares for Maths and English and granted the option of practising music in place of physical education as my teacher could see that music had more meaning to me than a game of netball.

    I graduated to secondary school and more adjustments followed. The school campus was massive, my year group had tripled in size and I had a different classroom and different teacher for every subject. The most striking thing about the first part of my secondary school life was the blatant social exclusion I had to live with daily. My peers were busy battling their own sense of self identity and so were unwilling to accommodate or accept mine. My honorary title of ‘Teacher's Pet’ never left me and undoubtedly contributed to my exclusion from working with others in groups, no matter what the subject area.

    Loneliness set in and learning again became a chore rather than a pleasure. Class tasks became more complex particularly in the realms of science, maths and geography. I had been excluded from the majority of my school curriculum by my peers.

    As a result I became remarkably self-sufficient and probably a bit arrogant but was unafraid to work alone to achieve my grades. My teachers were aware of the situation and could see it happening in front of them. They told me it was a normal part of teenage development and said they were powerless to do anything about it. In their defence, I was only the second child to enrol at the school with a physical handicap in the school's history so the extent and depth of my difficulties and the obvious social exclusion I faced must have been beyond their collective experience.

    I soon moved to another school which had a number of pupils with special needs— anything from communication difficulties to dyslexia and now Cerebral Palsy! The Head found time for me where some of my teachers felt ill equipped to answer my questions or understand my concerns.

    At the age of 15, my special needs were finally acknowledged formally. I was granted examination concessions of extra time to make that process easier. I was successful and left school with three A levels and a place to train as an Occupational Therapist at University. I also had a few people I could really call my friends by my final year. I was very pleased to walk out of the gate on my last day at school with the prospect of a university career ahead of me. However, I can put my hand on my heart and tell you that in my case being a child with special needs, meant my school days were far from the best days of my life—they were more like a mission to conquer Mount Everest.

    My personal experiences in education and the impact my own special needs had on my engagement in it left me with a fervent desire to help children in similar situations get the most out of their school experience. I wanted to ensure that no child suffered the same frustrations I did as my needs were not fully recognised. I also wanted to reach out to their teachers and parents as they were in my view ambassadors who could speak and act for the children in their care.

    I consider being involved in teaching and learning from children with special needs an immense privilege and a vocation. As a therapist, I have the advantage of my personal experiences combined with the clinical and analytical skills gained from my Occupational Therapy profession. These enable me to understand how disability affects learning at a deeper level. It is all these factors which have influenced the way I practise and indeed the way I interact with the very special children with whom I have had the privilege to work. The foundations of successful and meaningful education are many. Let me start by sharing mine with you.

    Relate to the Core of Your Child's Being

    Very often, teachers I have worked with and spoken to tell me they sometimes feel overwhelmed and ill equipped to address and understand the complex needs of the children they are asked to teach. They focus on the practical and physical challenges the impairments produce to imparting learning as apposed to the needs and desires of the children themselves.

    I always try to unveil the curtain the condition imposes to reveal to me the window of opportunities and the hopes the child possesses behind it. Metaphorically speaking, building a rapport with a disabled child is like peeling and slicing a piece of fruit. It is always important to peel away the outer skin and dissect the segments to discover the character, interests, likes and dislikes of the individual. The deeper you go, the sooner you reach the core of what makes the child who he or she is. The special needs and the disability are only the skin of the fruit. We rarely keep the peel of any fruit but we have to feel it, touch it and understand its presence before we can reach the fruit itself. It is only when the child himself reveals the core of his identity to me that I know how best to approach learning with them.

    This is often a subconscious process as the children I work with almost always remark about my own disabilities while sharing theirs with me. They slowly come to realise that I too must know something of their sufferings because though their therapist, I am also one of them.

    I have found working as a therapist in an educational environment challenging at many levels. The children I have helped appear to accept me and have little difficulty in expressing their needs and concerns to me. Sometimes teachers and other colleagues have resented my insights as it made them feel threatened and undermined. Mostly parents have benefited and taken great comfort that it is possible to succeed at school against difficult odds. Many often carry a ray of hope that their children have a future too after meeting and working with me.

    Work with an Ethos of Empowerment

    Any child with special needs, whatever their complexity or presentation, has to live in a world of restrictions, barriers and exclusions. As a therapist I always strive to break these barriers in the classroom. I see these not as physical but attitudinal problems since it was always the negative or degrading attitudes of others that most affected my ability to learn.

    The pain I felt still stays with me but I turn it around through daily illustration in my role as an Occupational Therapist and I speak and act for all my children to educate their teachers and parents about how to help them put their learning to practice. I also set out to help teachers and parents to understand the medical and functional reasons behind their children's difficulties. This is done out of the hope that they can then find ways to highlight the achievements and successes in their classes and stop underlining the age-old pressures of extra time, extra support and complexity of needs.

    The most rewarding part of my work as a school-based Occupational Therapist has been the joy I find in forging partnerships with parents, teachers and children to achieve common goals. I willingly bask in the rewards it brings when the intervention we plan and carry out produces fruitful outcomes.

    The very core of my work as an Occupational Therapist in this field enables me to use everyday activities to enhance and facilitate learning. I have found it necessary to unlock the ‘child’ in me to aid this process as it is only then that I have achieved the best outcomes with the children I have met.

    Embrace Change

    During the course of my practice as a school-based Occupational Therapist, I have become increasingly aware that the field of Special Education is an evolving one. During my school days, inclusion was a rarity, but as a therapist in the 21st century it is now a working reality. Legislation demands more from teachers now. Parents and therapists like me need to be creative, collaborative and constructive in finding ways to bring learning to life for these very special children.

    It has always been my aim to equip those children I meet with the courage, conviction and a means of communication to express their needs coherently and clearly so that they can make their own choices in the classroom and indeed for their lives as a whole. I firmly believe that the path to achieving this begins at school. It is my dream that by reading The Special Educator's Tool Kit, as teachers and parents of very special children you will feel empowered and equipped to do the same.

  • Glossary

    • Ataxia An inability to co-ordinate muscle activity causing jerkiness, inco-ordination and inefficiency of voluntary movement, most often due to disorders in the cerebellum or the posterior columns of the spinal cord. May involve limbs, head or trunk.
    • Athetosis Slow writhing involuntary movements of fingers and hands and sometimes the toes and feet. Usually caused by an extra pyramidal lesion.
    • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) A neurologically-based developmental disability estimated to affect 3.5 per cent of the school-age population. No one knows the cause but evidence suggests that it is transmitted genetically (American Psychiatric Association 1994).
    • Behaviour Any response emitted by or elicited from an organism. Parts of a total response pattern.
    • Cerebral Palsy A Neuromuscular disability in which voluntary muscles are poorly controlled or paralysed as a result of brain damage (Marieb 2007).
    • Cursive Script A style of handwriting in which all the letters in a word are connected, making a word one single (complicated) stroke (
    • Deficit The result of consuming or losing something faster than it is being replenished or replaced.
    • Differentiation A way of thinking and learning that values the individual that can be translated into the classroom in many ways (Tomlinson 2000).
    • Diplegia Paralysis of both sides of the body.
    • Disability Any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in a manner or within the range considered normal for a human being. An impairment or defect of one or more organs or members.
    • Downs Syndrome Chromosomal dysgenesis syndrome consisting of a variable constellation of abnormalities caused by translocation of Chromosome 21.
    • Dysarthria A disturbance of speech and language due to emotional stress, to brain injury or paralysis or inco-ordination of the muscles involved in speaking.
    • Environment The aggregate of all the external conditions and influences affecting the life and development of an organism.
    • Genetics The branch of science concerned with the means and consequences of transmission and generation of the components of biological inheritance.
    • Graphomotor The movements a human being has to perform to write or draw.
    • Guide Assist Active help to perform given by placing the hand over the affected hand of the individual and the desired movement initiated and executed by the therapist or helper to demonstrate the required movement.
    • Hand–eye Co-ordination The harmonious working together of the hand and the eye in the execution of complicated movements or tasks.
    • Handicap A physical, mental or emotional condition that interferes with a person's normal functioning. Reduction in a person's capacity to fulfil a social role as a consequence of an impairment, inadequate training for that role, or other circumstance.
    • Intellect Relates to intelligence—an individual's aggregate capacity to act purposefully, think rationally and deal effectively with the environment, especially in solving problems and meeting challenges.
    • Learning Difficulties A disorder in one or more of the basic cognitive and psychological processes involved in understanding or using written or spoken language.
    • Manuscipt A style of writing where the writer forms each letter separately.
    • Motor Learning The process of improving the smoothness and accuracy of movements.
    • Motor Planning The ability to plan and execute movements accurately and smoothly.
    • Muscle Tone The tension present in resting muscles.
    • Normal Child Development The process of natural progression of a normal child in physical and psychological maturation from a previous, lower or embryonic stage to a later more complex adult.
    • Orientation The recognition of one's temporal, spatial and personal relationships and environment.
    • Phonetic Relating to speech or to the voice—sound speech or voice sounds.
    • Physical Relating to the body, as distinguished from the mind.
    • Quadriplegia Paralysis of all four limbs of the body.
    • Sensation A feeling—the translation into the consciousness of the effects of a stimulus exciting any of the sense organs.
    • Sensorimotor Both sensory and motor—denoting a mixed nerve with afferent and efferent fibres.
    • Sensory Relates to sensation.
    • Socialisation The process of learning attitudes and interpersonal and interaction skills which conform to the values of society.
    • Spasticity A state of increased muscular tone with exaggeration of the tendon reflexes.
    • Special Educational Needs Classroom or private instruction involving techniques, exercises, and subject matter designed for students whose learning needs cannot be met by a standard school curriculum (American Heritage Dictionary).
    • Unilateral Neglect Inattention to visual stimuli occurring in the space on the affected side of the body.
    • Visual Motor Integration The ability to synchronise visual information with physical movement to reproduce a shape or form.


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    About the Author

    Sarah J. Barratt is a qualified Occupational Therapist with over 10 years of clinical experience in physical medicine, paediatrics and community practice. Her practice extends across England, Romania, India and New Zealand.

    Her interest in Special Education is both professional and personal. She worked as a school-based Occupational Therapist in a residential school in England with children of primary school age with physical disabilities. She has also provided training for staff in Romania and has lectured on courses to train Special Educators in India. On a personal level she has special needs of her own which include mild Cerebral Palsy and some visual impairment. She is currently a Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at Canterbury Christchurch University in Kent.

    The Special Educator's Tool Kit has been written to provide teachers, parents and families with a portfolio of resources and ideas to help them make the time that children spend at school enjoyable, memorable and fun.

    About the Illustrator

    Michael Pratley started life as an Architectural Technician. He now uses his drawing experience in his role as a Crown Court Clerk in Lewes Crown Court, England. Pratley draws courtroom cartoons of people and events that unfold before him in between swearing in juries, arranging the court and taking verdicts.

    Each of his cartoons of ‘scribbles’ (as he affectionately calls them) tells a story, bringing the meaning behind and characters in them to life. A picture speaks a thousand words and the cartoons in this book do just that in a very real, heart-felt and humorous way.

    Pratley is undertaking the student officer course to become a Police Constable with Sussex police.

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