Creating a dynamic learning environment for children and adolescents with severe and profound intellectual disabilities

by Rachel Dolan, St Laserian’s School, Carlow.


I am an experienced special educational needs teacher; currently working in a class catering for five female adolescents assessed with a severe or profound general learning disability (SPGLD) and other disabilities including Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy and named syndromes. The way in which students with SPGLD access their learning is unique—each student has differing strengths, needs, characteristics and idiosyncrasies that need to be taken as pre-requisites to learning, along with the offered reassurance of a supportive, encouraging environment in which they feel safe and comfortable. The learning needs of SPGLD students are varying and diverse and it is the ongoing quest of their teachers to discover and create an environment in which learning can be facilitated.

My own observations and experience convince me that SPGLD students learn best in an environment in which all aspects of learning are dynamically integrated through the daily interventions of staff and planned activities. The creation of a dynamic learning environment (as opposed to a dynamic environment) requires thoughtful, structured, integrated and individualised planning of every aspect of the time that students spend in school, including their individual curriculum and discrete lessons, group activities and leisure time, their personal care and the physical environment in which they are accommodated. Every activity provided is a learning opportunity and integrated learning aims to maximise this potential.

The spatial arrangement of the classroom is the most obvious factor to be considered when planning a dynamic learning environment for students with SPGLD. My classroom has clearly defined areas which the students become aware of, and use accordingly. There are individual workstations tailored to the specific needs of each student, for example, TEACCH, obvious pictorial schedules and LAMH sign reminders. There is an area set aside for ‘daily news’, ‘circle time’ and other group activities such as literacy/arts and crafts/play, a specific area for eating, and a smaller room off the main classroom that is designed as a multisensory or ‘snoozelen’ room. This room is furnished with a large, low, soft water-like bed, vibro-cushions and bean bags covered in mixed textile. It is decorated with mirrors and suspended objects and draped fabrics; it is softly lit and a range of low key/colourful lighting fixtures enables the room to be transformed at the flick of a switch. A sound system provides another range of sensory experiences. The flexibility of the snoozelen room means that it can be used in individual ways—such as low lighting/colourful/rotating lighting, soft music/no music, lying down/sitting on a bean bag, use of vibro-cushions and tubes/looking in a mirror; providing unique learning opportunities for each student within this dynamic environment. In the snoozelen room, students do not simply listen to descriptions of ‘hairy, spiky, fluffy’ etc, nor is association with tactile sensation confined only to the hands. Instead, the sensory room facilitates ‘embodied’ tactile sensation in which all the senses combine in the learning experience.

SPGLD research, particularly ASD, suggests that walls should be low-key and non-stimulating, but my experience of displaying students’ own work in clear, clutter-free arrangements demonstrates that a ‘non-stimulating’ should not be confused with ‘bare’ and that all students benefit from the validating dynamic of seeing their work given prominence. These displays stem from the overarching theme or subject that informs all group activities, individual learning plans and sensory activities—for example, the season or weather. Thus validation and learning are mutually supportive.

The word dynamic suggests ‘wow’—a loud expression. However, my morning sessions working with students are the complete opposite. From the outset, we establish a quiet, calm (almost therapeutic) ambience in which students have time to make the transition from the disruptions of their journey to school and personal care, and begin anticipating the day ahead and responding to classroom routines and the staff. Indeed this special time of tranquillity gives staff time to interpret the students’ responses, as they are offered opportunities to direct their own environment, given adequate time for repetition, and offered frequent breaks to facilitate sitting for periods in their specialist chairs. The dynamics of learning are also enhanced by the use of external facilities—the school Jacuzzi, the local swimming pool and hydrotherapy pool, bowling and play centre, shops, parks and library. Apart from the obvious therapeutic and social value of these activities, they provide further opportunities for staff to reinforce individual learning programmes through reiteration in different environments.

The individual programmes that are the most obvious points of learning are only part of the whole picture. As well as lunchtime, there are at least two opportunities for group dynamics to come into play. This is crucial as my students are adolescents who require peer group social interaction in the same way as mainstream adolescents. It can never be sufficiently stressed that students with a severe or profound learning disability have a similar pattern of learning to their peers—it is the rate of learning that differs. Group activities provide invaluable opportunities for dynamic learning—the dynamic between students, the staff/student dynamic and, crucially, the dynamics of sensory learning. For instance, group singing is never reduced to a time-filling adjunct. Interactive songs are carefully selected to echo current themes or subjects, and are accompanied by students’ use of actions, musical instruments, communication aides, such as a ‘big mack’, props such as puppets and dressing-up clothes. These are used as starting points for full performances that reinforce learning programmes by linking vocabulary and rhythm to the full range of senses.

This careful planning is fully supported by staff development programmes. Staff who work closely with this group of students are encouraged to speak in a low, carefully-measured voice, to wait and listen for responses, always to position themselves at the same height as the student (whilst allowing personal space), and to allow the student to lead as much as is possible. More importantly, time is given over to sharing planning at individual and group levels, so that all staff are working as one for each student. In order for dynamic learning to work, all staff must see themselves as part of an integrated team and to recognise that every aspect of the day is integrated into individual students’ learning.

Through experience with students with SPGLD, an interactive, multisensory approach in learning situations has proven to give the most valuable responses. A wealth of progress in communication, cognition and social and personal curriculum areas have been observed from students when they have participated in such sessions. My personal philosophy is that every interaction offered to students with SPGLD reinforces and opens routes of development towards individual learning targets. This is facilitated when all the senses are brought into play by using various methods and equipment.

Creating a dynamic environment for adolescents with a severe or profound general learning disability marries a multiplicity of strategies and approaches. There is no single answer. The structured environment—from the furniture arrangement, atmosphere and staff approach to careful, measured planning, from taking time to get to know each student to then finding what methodologies work and building on them, by taking into account multisensory factors to finding relevant interests and activities. The above factors all come under the SPGLD learning environment ‘umbrella’, and all take a considerable amount of time to harness together. That said, I have found that enjoying the experiences shared with students and observing their progress, however small, makes teaching pleasurable and worthwhile.