Over 1.5 million pupils in England have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This is an increase of 87,000 from 2022.  Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) is a particularly important subject  for pupils with SEND as they are more vulnerable both to being sexually abused and to displaying inappropriate or problematic sexual behaviour.

Therefore, your school’s RSHE curriculum should be adapted to ensure these subjects are accessible for students with SEND. 

What are SEND Learners?

SEND stands for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and refers to individuals who require additional support due to their needs and/or disabilities. 

 Pupils with SEND typically experience more barriers to their learning than other children. The following are some of the key challenges that may affect their learning:

  • Their behaviour – some pupils with SEND struggle with self-regulation, difficulties with focus and challenges with accessing learning materials This can mean pupils with SEND are more likely to leave the classroom and/or disengage with their learning. 
  • Socialistion skills  –  many pupils with SEND struggle with socialisation meaning that making friends, group tasks and discussion based activities can be challenging 
  • Reading and writing – a challenge that is seen in dyslexic pupils but also those with some physical disabilities, those with speech and language difficulties or students with PMLD (Profound and multiple learning disability)
  • Their cognitive ability – some students with SEND are working at a much lower cognitive level than their actual age meaning they struggle to access the lesson content when it is not sufficiently adapted 
  • Their concentration levels – this is a trait often seen in pupils with ADHD but can manifest in many ways for a number of SEND students e.g. a lack of concentration because of something triggering that took place before school 

SEND Differences: Differentiating between Learning Disabilities and Learning Difficulties?

Understanding the difference between learning difficulties and learning disabilities is vital to ensure educators are providing appropriate support for each student. 

Learning Disabilities 

Learning disabilities are neurological disorders that affect the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information. 

Examples include:

  • Dyslexia: A reading disorder usually shown by difficulty with reading and spelling 
  • Dyscalculia: A math disorder where the pupil struggles to understand numbers
  • Dysgraphia: A writing disorder that involves impaired handwriting, spelling, or the ability to put thoughts on paper.

Each of these disabilities requires different strategies to ensure the pupils continue to learn such as multisensory reading programs, extended time for tests or even additional support from a teaching assistant.

Learning Difficulties

Learning difficulties, on the other hand, refer to challenges in learning that arise from external factors rather than neurological impairments. Unlike learning disabilities, learning difficulties can be supported through changes in teaching strategies of support systems.

Examples include: 

  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Can cause difficulties in keeping focused, following instructions and staying organised. 
  • Emotional Disturbance: Emotional or behavioral disorders, such as anxiety or depression, can hinder a student’s ability to focus, participate, and perform academically.
  • Language Barriers: Students who are learning English as a second language or as an additional language may struggle with academic tasks due to their limited proficiency in the language.

For students with learning difficulties, targeted interventions such as behavioral supports, counseling, language assistance programs, and modified teaching methods can significantly improve their academic performance and overall well-being.

It is important to note that within each of these disabilities and difficulties are spectrums. Some dyslexic conditions are worse than others and so on and so forth. Similarly, what works for one pupil with a learning disability or difficulty, may not work for another, which is why support and tailored learning is so vital. 

Our Research into SEND Learners

To better understand how SEND learners interact with RSHE lessons, our team at Life Lessons have carried out research into what works in special schools and mainstream schools for teaching RSHE. 

Our team visited 7 contrasting school settings and our methodology included pupil focus groups, teacher focus groups, SENCo interview, PSHE lead interview and class observations.

Our aims with this research were to understand: 

  • More about the specific challenges schools are facing in teaching RSHE to pupils with SEND 
  • What pupils with SEND want from RSHE and how they best learn in this subject 
  • What teachers and teaching assistants need to support them to teach RSHE to pupils with SEND
  • What we can do to support schools to engage and support pupils with SEND in RSHE

Key Challenges for Teaching RSHE to SEND Learners

Our research found that schools were experiencing the following challenges: 

  • Pupil engagement with the subject matter
    • Some students struggle to see the relevance of RSHE/PSHE
    • Difficulties with emotional regulation and/or maintaining focus
    • Challenges with discussion-led/group learning
  • Complexities in terms of the range of needs within the class
    • Disparity between learning age and chronological age 
    • Catering for a wide range of needs within one classroom 
    • Pupils are not always assessing risk – vulnerable to harmful behaviours 
    • Pupils parroting of others’ language/views without considering their own
    • Challenges with understanding nuances, literal thinking due to their need
    • The need for clear guidelines on what is and isn’t appropriate
  • The curriculum and resources were not appropriate for SEND pupils 

SEND Curriculum and Resources 

  • Up to date and relevant resources that meet the needs of students 
  • Pupils’ poor working memory and struggles with information retention meaning more lesson time is needed 
  • Having enough time to cover the content in a way that is accessible for students 

From these findings we have developed 5 key recommendations for teaching RSHE to SEND Learners.

Recommendation 1: Language 

To To safeguard effectively and to support pupils to develop healthy relationships, it’s important that they understand key concepts to be able to recognise and report harmful behaviour. To support pupil engagement, inclusive language and resources helps pupils see the relevance of RSHE to their own lives.

  • Use inclusive language and resources
  • Make sure images are inclusive of all pupils
  • Consider all protected characteristics with language choices e.g. ‘most girls’
  • Use straightforward, medically/scientifically correct language and explicit explanations
  • Avoid euphemisms and analogies e.g. ‘jumping into bed’
  • Glossary of key terms with simple definitions
  • Pre and post-teach key vocabulary where possible
  • Consider vocabulary based activities e.g match the word with the definition, use the word in a sentence
  • Use key terms for recall and retrieval activities as well as introducing new topics
  • Dual-coding for key terms e.g. use pictures to support pupil learning
  • Consider listing other synonyms they may know e.g. slang words they may be using or have heard
  • Use a range of resources and methods to support language learning
  • Consider images, videos, role play, practical demonstrations, audio, real life objects e.g. condoms, menstrual products Use narratives with fictional characters to explore different experiences relating to the topics you are covering Note: this may be difficult for pupils with literal thinking
  • Support staff with responding to questions and inappropriate behaviour
  • Consider CPD for all staff and not just RSHE teachers to support a whole-school approach to RSHE including SEND support
  • Provide staff guidance around using a matter of fact approach/tone and clear and consistent language
  • Support staff to find an appropriate and private space to answer questions if necessary
  • School-wide scripted responses are a good way to ensure a consistent approach to managing challenging questions and behaviours.

Recommendation 2: Participation and Engagement

Engagement within RSHE is going to look differently for all pupils. It’s important we encourage different methods of participation to engage pupils. The more engagement, the better the pupil outcomes.

  • Encourage pupils to contribute in ways they feel comfortable doing so and that work for them
  • Writing their thoughts/opinions in a journal
  • Anonymous question boxes
  • Holding up visual prompt cards e.g. true/false, yes/no
  • Use their personal lives and/or interests to engage pupils
  • Find ways to incorporate activities that are based around their interests to engage pupils
  • Use real-life examples to give context to concepts and ideas
  • Localisation helps pupils to see the relevance of lesson content so find opportunities in your existing resources to include facts/data/pictures relevant to their local area.
  • Be explicit with the ‘why’
  • Support pupils to understand why they are learning each topic and how it will support them in their individual goals e.g. becoming more independent, having positive friendships, becoming an engineer.ests to engage students 
  • Be explicit with the ‘why’

Recommendation 3: Safe Spaces

To feel confident to engage in RSHE topics, specifically more sensitive and difficult topics, pupils require a safe space where they can voice their opinions and questions without fear of judgment.

  • Consider groupings
  • Most pupils we spoke to felt more comfortable speaking with other pupils with SEND
  • Handle SEND groupings sensitively so pupils do not feel singled out because of their SEND
  • Arrange smaller groups of pupils for discussion/tasks where possible and consider having a mix of SEND and non-SEND pupils who can benefit from each others’ experiences and opinions during discussion.
  • Consider additional small group sessions
  • Check understanding of nuances of topics
  • Allow for questions/discussion and avoid risk of bullying
  • Use distancing techniques
  • Role play, social stories, video clips
  • Have clear guidelines
  • Ground rules for the classroom
  • Clear start and end to lessons with space for support for difficult topics
  • Support staff with CPD around managing disclosures, challenging questions and protective interrupting.

Recommendation 4: Teaching and Learning

Whether teaching in a specialist provision or a mainstream classroom, it’s important all pupils can access the information being taught. Most of the adaptations made for SEND pupils will support all pupils e.g. EAL, low ability, low reading age and others.

  • Give pupils extra time to process information and complete tasks
  • Support with writing prompts, worksheets, gap-fill tasks
  • Give examples to pupils
  • Model answering questions, starting a task or discussions
  • Regularly check for understanding
  • Go at a slower pace and allow time to return to topics where knowledge gaps exist
  • Plan repetition and knowledge checks into your lessons
  • A variety of assessment tools e.g. confidence scales, multiple choice, matching images to definitions, verbal explanations
  • Break information down into smaller chunks
  • Use visuals to support learning

Reinforce learning using a variety of methods e.g. games, stories, pictures, videos

  • Do not patronize or make assumptions based on their need and/or disability

Recommendation 5: Emotional Support

Emotional regulation can be a barrier for pupils when teaching difficult topics or those that might be triggering for pupils with specific experiences.

  • Consider time-out passes and/or learning breaks
  • Support pupils with safe spaces outside the classroom and trusted adults
  • Use zones of regulation or similar approaches to support pupils to articulate their feelings and take appropriate steps to regulate their emotions
  • Explicit teaching of recognising emotions in themselves and in others will support pupils, particularly with ASC
  • Give pupils and their parents/carers advance warning of all topics that will be taught
  • Work with your SENCo and/or pastoral teams to identify triggering topics to facilitate conversations in advance with these pupils/families
  • Offer alternatives to pupils for these topics e.g. alternative spaces, time-out so they can still receive information but in a way they feel safe and comfortable.

How we Support SEND Learners

We work with several schools with SEND learners, here are some of the things they enjoy about Life Lessons:

  • Subtitles on videos 
  • Worksheets with every curriculum lesson
  • Key terms for every lesson
  • Challenge tasks to support adaptive teaching
  • Clear language, no analogies 
  • Expert and peer videos 

The variety of videos make RSHE accessible for our learners – Teaching assistant, SEND school

LifeTalk has been a lifesaver for us to be responsive to safeguarding issues in a discussion format – PSHE lead, SEND school

Our teachers love Life Lessons because they can adapt the resources to meet the needs of their students but know the lessons are up to date and relevant – PSHE lead, SEND school

Get in touch with us to hear how we can help you make your RSHE curriculum appropriate for your SEND learners.