How STEM/STEAM Projects Revolutionise Learning For SEND

There are over 1.5 million pupils in England with special education needs (SEN) according to Government figures for 2022/2023. Children with SEN and those with disabilities (SEND), often have barriers to learning that can mean that some subjects are more difficult for them than others. They may have dyslexia for example, making it challenging for them with literacy. Or they may have dyscalculia where they find identifying patterns and number work more challenging. Others may have problems concentrating for sustained periods or have sensory issues that mean certain situations and environments become uncomfortable.  

Some of these barriers mean that children with SEND can sometimes struggle with the subjects associated with STEM, being Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. However, they can often gain a lot by being involved in STEM projects where the learning can be more diverse and is often project-based or more collaborative than simply learning Maths, for example. 

The Government want to actively encourage STEM work in educational settings and the inclusion of “Arts” can turn the acronym to STEAM, enabling an even more diverse approach. A research article by Hwang and Taylor in 2016 recommended that Arts be included in all STEM projects for students with disabilities to improve their access to learning.  

STEM and STEAM projects usually involve real world challenges and problems for children to solve. At one end of the scale, you can have university teams creating fighting robots for “Robot Wars”, and at the other, you can have early years practitioners using Lego and stickle bricks to build a bridge to carry a toy car.  

STEM is not a new subject, but it is a way of working across subjects to make them more accessible to all.  

The wonderful thing about STEM and STEAM projects is that they can incorporate something for everyone, so these are great learning opportunities for children who like some of the following: 

  • Building dens 
  • Using computers or other forms of technology 
  • Playing video games 
  • Messy play and using their hands a lot 
  • Experimenting with materials 
  • Robots 
  • Lego and construction sets 
  • Fixing things 
  • Making new objects from other resources 

Children with SEND often find project work more accessible than a traditional class environment with one subject per session because it can help with their engagement and concentration. There are also other benefits that have been identified for project-based working like STEM such as: 

  • Improve concept retention 
  • Introduce problem-solving skills 
  • Embed a deeper understanding and knowledge 
  • Offer multi-sensory opportunities 
  • Teach cooperation and collaboration for all students 
  • Allow for different means of assessment 
  • Improve language and vocabulary 
  • Help with team building 
  • Allows a positive opportunity for trial and error 
  • Help build on prior knowledge 
  • Improve engagement 

Many children with special needs may struggle with some subjects but they may also excel in others and STEM projects can be an opportunity to allow these students to shine and find their own ‘superpower’.  

Another benefit for SEND children is that working with other children offers them opportunities to make friends and learn social skills as these can often be areas of need for SEND children.   

STEM, SEND And Early Years 

Some people may think that STEM and STEAM activities are things that are available to older children, when they understand the separate elements of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths. However, we would argue that the very fact that young children are NOT so aware of these divisions, make them perfect to teach to young children, before they begin to say things like “I don’t like Maths” or “I don’t understand Science”.  

Many students who are later identified as having special needs, welcome the ‘hands-on’ and practical element of STEM and STEAM too.   

How To Incorporate STEM/STEAM For SEND Students 

The first point to make here is that you should include your special needs students in all your activities, whether they fall under the STEM/STEAM banner or not. This is what inclusive practice is all about – removing the barriers that students face to allow them to access the learning.  

We’ve listed a few ideas below to help you do this.  

  • Encourage group working to allow students to work together to solve problems 
  • Scaffold the work so that there can be small achievements to celebrate along the way – if you are building a tower for example, set different goals, e.g. a 10cm tower, a 20cm tower and a 50cm tower  
  • Treat failures as part of the process and allow for experimentation – if the tower falls, think about what happened and why. Explain that you have learned how NOT to do it with that attempt 
  • Be aware of any sensory issues that SEND children may have and make adjustments as necessary – for example, if some children don’t like using playdough because of the feel of it, see if they will participate wearing some gloves, or find an alternative they are able to use

Don’t overthink the issue of STEM/STEAM. There are many everyday activities which can include some elements of STEM/STEAM and children will often come up with ideas themselves that you can help foster and facilitate.  

There are also many resources on the internet to help you with ideas for projects such as: 

Early years is the perfect time to encourage a life-long love of learning and STEM/STEAM activities can help this, as well as offering lots of opportunities to develop truly inclusive practices for all your SEND children.   

Technology Specifically To Help SEND Children 

Another area of STEM which is relevant to SEND children although not covered in depth in this article, is “assistive technology” which can be used to help SEND students learn basic skills such as reading and writing. In May 2023, the Government published a focus report, “Assistive Technology in Education and Employment” which looks at how assistive technologies can help people with SEND. In 2022, the WHO published its “Global Report on Assistive Technology” too. These are developing areas for the future and are areas to watch when helping children with SEND.  

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