For a Speech and Language Therapist, there are many challenges involved in achieving the most effective interventions possible in the Special School environment. Both direct and indirect therapy time is limited and yet pupils with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities require complex solutions.

There are many well-documented communication interventions which enable short term and pragmatic outcomes in supporting non-verbal pupils with ASD: visual activity schedules can support understanding of the sequence of activities; staged visual systems such as P.E.C.S. can enable the expression of wants and needs.

But what happens when these are inadequate in effecting progress that simultaneously drives forward progress in a pupil’s desire and confidence to communicate as well as ensuring that the communicative environment is robust enough to support an enduring change? A recent intervention at Riverside School in Bromley, Kent, exemplifies how an Engagement for Learning approach can be the most effective strategy available in the Special School Speech and Language Therapist’s toolkit.


Chloe is a delightful and playful non-verbal eleven year old girl with a diagnosis of Autism, working at around a P3ii level. She joined a new class mid-year, as a space emerged and it was felt that she and another of her peers would benefit from an early extended transition into the Secondary Phase.

Her profile includes a history of finding it difficult to sustain her engagement in both structured and less structured learning activities. She can display a high level of anxiety, which she shows in the following ways:

  • Tensing her muscles, possibly as a result of a sensory need to create pressure in her body.
  • Self-harm.
  • Constantly seeking out the edge of the room.
  • Opting out of structured activities through refusing to sit within a teaching group and moving away as soon as an adult or child approaches.

Recent interventions had only delivered short term positive effects. In discussion with the class teacher, it became clear that an ‘Inquiry Approach’ was required to help increase Chloe’s purposeful engagement and her enjoyment and confidence in learning. It was necessary to consider Chloe’s communication as inextricably linked with her learning style, motivators and emotional regulation. Piecemeal interventions which merely provided more means of communication were not enough. The following Multi-Disciplinary Engagement for Learning approach was required!

Intervention details:

The class team carried out the intervention using an E4L approach as follows:

  1. Initially the class team Teacher and 3 Teaching Assistants analysed Chloe’s levels of engagement using the Engagement ladder. This highlighted the contrast between Chloe’s engagement in highly structured activities such as snack time, assemblies and whole-class circles, in comparison to her engagement in smaller, more intimate 1:1 learning activities.
  2. Step 1 helped to identify learning activities in which Chloe displayed high levels of engagement. One of these, a 1:1 guitar session with an adult, was then selected, videoed, and used to complete the initial Engagement Profile. The video was used to prompt discussion, but observations were not solely based on this, and a significant amount of other general observations about how Chloe engages and how she displays the aspects of engagement were also included. The role of the teacher within this was to prompt discussion and analysis. This process was not particularly prescriptive or formal, all contributions were equally valued, and contradictions or differences in opinion were included to reflect the complexity of the pupil and to take into consideration different interpretations of her behaviour. As a result the Engagement Profile was not a formal and prescriptive document, but a fluid, working, team document of which everyone shared ownership.
  3. The next step was to use the Engagement Scale on the activity which Chloe found most challenging to engage with. This was done in a large whole class circle and was completed by one of Chloe’s Teaching Assistants. This again highlighted Chloe’s difficulty in engaging with formal learning. It also showed that although at times Chloe sat in the circle with other learners, her moments of deep learning happened outside of the circle in a space of her choice. Chloe was not unwilling to engage, but her anxiety in the formal setting seemed to overpower her ability to do so. When she was allowed to engage on her own terms, she showed the aspects of engagement to a much greater degree. Although we knew this about Chloe to an extent, the power of the Engagement Scale was in presenting us with this in an evidence based way, and challenging us to identify a solution. It gave the team justification to think outside the box and to try new and creative solutions. It also helped the whole team to focus on engagement rather than slipping back into pre-conceived ideas of what traditional learning looks like. And, crucially, it provided the team with the language to clearly define what Chloe’s personalised aspects of engagement looked like. For example, it enabled the team to describe and discuss Chloe’s strengths in curiosity, investigation and discovery as she will often explore new objects and resources through tapping, banging together or listening to the sound they make on new surfaces.
  4. By using this focus, the team were able to jettison the previously held notion that sitting in the class circle and using resources in a prescribed manner was the aspirational and superior learning method. Instead, they were able to identify and value the engagement that she showed in other ways during the session. A complete shift in team mind set occurred. This enabled a change in mind-set of the team.
  5. The final stage to this part of the process was to identify as a team a ‘solution’ to the observations we had made. Again, this was not pressured, finalised or formal, but was more suggestions of things we could try. Because the process highlighted that Chloe engaged in a more informal way, it was decided that she could be our ‘satellite learner’ (A phrase created by the team). She would be granted the flexibility to move away from the circle and to engage with the learning from a distance on her own terms and join in and leave when she needed to. Of course, it was important that she was encouraged to engage outside of the circle in creative ways. For example, after Chloe had watched the ‘silly hammer’ being used to do a ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ activity with some of her peers, she was confident enough to hold her own arm out when it was brought to her outside of the circle. In addition to this, the Engagement Profile led to wider structural changes and a refocusing of the learning provision through trying different learning structures such as relaxed circles, using bean bags instead of chairs etc.

Conclusion and key reflections:

The most striking reflection from this intervention was the value of the process and the eschewing of focus on outcome driven targets. There was a risk that the target of ‘finding ways of enabling Chloe to join in’ could have monopolised discussions and resulted in more visual supports being generated and trying to come up with ever more inventive P.E.C.S. motivators.  Whereas, what actually happened was that the Engagement Framework became the facilitator: the whole team committed to process without pre-conception and felt empowered to find the best ways forward for Chloe. The process had produced the effect of engaging the education team and not just the learner. Thus a sustained legacy was integral: as the Speech and Language Therapist I was reassured to know that Chloe’s communication environment had shifted in a qualitative and sustained manner. One intervention had the huge effect of changing classroom culture. The most significant changes for Chloe have been an increase in her confidence and her playfulness. She is much more willing to engage in play and interactions, and within these interactions she will take a more leading role i.e. through passing things to the adult, showing the adult what she wants to do with that object, or collecting things to share with the adult. She has more ownership over her environment and space, and will venture into the middle of the room more readily and will willingly approach different areas to engage or to request things. There have been numerous brilliant moments where Chloe has initiated activities and games completely independently, and has integrated an adult into these games with her. Overall, she has become slightly cheekier and even a little bossier: this is fantastic!

Key points to take away…

  1. Working as a team and utilising a multi-agency approach is essential to making the Engagement Profile an effective, wide reaching and long-term intervention.
  2. Ensure the use of the Engagement Profile and scale is process driven and not outcome focused. Its power lies in facilitating good quality and engagement focused discussions, and in getting the team who work with the pupil invested and involved. Don’t get bogged down with the paperwork being perfect, and see it as a way to facilitate thinking outside the box about the pupil’s learning.
  3. Maintain a focus throughout on the pupil and their Engagement for learning. This should lead to rich discussions, focused action points, and new and creative ways of supporting that pupil to learn.
  4. It is worth investing the time in using video footage. Short activity clips can inspire huge and meaningful conversations!