Cognitive Theorists And Supporting Pupils With Special Needs

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This paper will first look at the definition of a pupil with Special Educational Needs. Child (1995) explains that the label Special educational needs (SEN) extends to a broad range of children with varying forms of difficulty in learning, opposed to the majority of their peers of a similar age. Children classed with disabilities preventing them from using the provision of normal educational facilities in mainstream schools. The terminology reverts the emphasis from the stigma of the student's disability and concentrates on the particular educational provision needed. However, teachers do need to indentify the specific disabilities and these are categorised in terms of general areas of development as follows; physical, cognitive, motor, social, language, behavioural and emotional development.

Special needs also apply to gifted children who in many cases are not categorised as (SEN) however; they need adapted teaching to challenge their abilities and to foster their potential development. Therefore, this paper will also look at gifted children throughout the concepts and theories.

Piaget's theory of cognitive development in essence deals with the view that all species inherit two basic tendencies; the first is organisation - organising behaviours and thoughts into logical systems. The second is adaptation - adjusting to your environment (Woolfolk, Hughes & Walkup, 2008).

During Woolfolk et al (2008) explanation of the tendency of organisation the example of an infant looking or grasping at an object is portrayed, however, the child cannot perform both tasks simultaneously. As the child develops they manage to combine the two separate structures into a coordinated higher level structure. Child (1995) refers to this process important term coined by Piaget to explain the child's interaction with their environment through actions to form a distinct pattern of behaviour, is referred to as a schema. Snowman and Biehler (2006) acknowledge that these schemes are formulated through the interaction of the child's environment specifically parents, teachers, and peers of a similar age. This is an important area for teachers to facilitate in an SEN'S cognitive and also behavioural development. When a SEN encounters a new experience in a classroom that does not consist with their existing scheme, adaptation is necessary (Snowman & Biehler, 2006).

Snowman and Biehler (2006) explain that adaptation is the process of creating a "good fit" between the student's conception of reality and the new experience the student encounters in a classroom. The teacher plays a major role in this adaptation, when they introduce a new experience to the SEN the teacher can facilitate the assimilation of this new experience so that it fits into the SEN's existing scheme or the teacher may have to change the cognitive thinking of the SEN by changing an existing scheme to incorporate the new experience, this process is referred to as accommodation (Pressley & McCormack, 2007).

The tendencies of organisation and adaptation are progressed through the SEN's interaction with their environment and Piaget believed that people have a desire to organize their schemes to achieve the best possible adaptation to their environment; this process is referred to as equilibrium. During a person's search to achieve equilibrium they must find themselves in a state of disequilibrium, a perceived discrepancy between a person's existing scheme and a new experience (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). This concept outlines the need for the teacher to create cognitive conflict with the SEN student through education in the pursuit towards equilibrium. Pressley and McCormack (2007) outline the process for the teacher to provide educational support in overcoming SEN student's misconceptions.

The teacher must first make the SEN aware of their misconception. This may be aided by the explaining of an event that cannot be possible with the SEN's belief. This process induces cognitive conflict.

The teacher must then provide an alternative plausible conception that makes the event possible. Students often prefer their prior conceptions so any new knowledge given must prove more useful for the SEN.

Teacher must monitor the SEN's thinking about the new concept and be aware of any defensive moves by the student to resist accommodation.

Present the new knowledge in a variety of forms for the SEN such as: verbal, mathematical, practical, and imagery. This acts in clarifying the new conception.

Provide a form of assessment to the SEN to reveal the extent of the conceptual change. Pose questions on the concept or set a relevant task for the SEN to perform.

Jean Piaget has had a highly influential impact on developmental psychology with his four stage theory of development being his landmark contribution (Pressley & McCormick, 2007). This paper will now look at the stages of Piaget's theory and analyse its importance in supporting education for the SEN student. Child (1995) explains that Piaget's stage theory is genetic, maturational and hierarchical. The development between the stages is always orderly; however, it can occur at different rates between the individuals. There are points of rapid cognitive development which are characterized by the development of new schemes and the movement to these points is abrupt rather than gradual (Pressley & McCormack, 2007). This is very important point for teaching of SEN students as their chronological age more than likely will not correspond to their maturation age. The teacher must observe the characteristics of the child's cognitive development and behaviour and match the observed characteristics with the fundamental characteristics of each stage in the theory. This allows for the teacher to set specific tasks to meet the ability levels of the SEN.

The first stage of the theory is the sensori-motor stage. Piaget believes that the stage occurs from infancy to two years of age (0-2 years). The stage deals with the infant's limited actions of reflex grasping, sucking and general bodily movements. These actions then develop to very simple tasks which contribute to the schemata which consist of sucking or grasping anything which comes in contact with the mouth or hand from the environment (Child, 1995). Piaget refers to these as motor schemes which deal with the interaction between the child and the environment, intelligence at this stage does not occur in the child's mind (Pressley & McCormack, 2007). Cycles of these actions such as sucking a thumb are not purposeful movements from the child however; these primary circular reactions are the first sign of the existence of a primitive memory (Child, 1995).

Two major characteristics in sensori-motor stage are the child's development of object permanence and deferred imitation. Object permanence relates to the child's ability to understand that objects in their environment exist whether they can perceive them or not. This signs the child's ability to construct a mental representation (Woolfolk et al, 2008).

The child is then representing the world in images and symbols during the later part of this stage. Deferred imitation is of grave importance as it deals with the child's ability to copy someone else in their absence. This process occurs by the child forming images which are then recalled (Child, 1995) and (Snowman & Biehler, 2007).

Piaget then suggests an ideal transition into the pre-operational stage at the age of 2 to 7 years. This stage concentrates on preschool and primary school children. Their thinking is centred upon a mastery of symbols which Piaget believes is derived from mental imitation. We can see how each stage build on schemes from the previous stage to aid cognitive development (Snowman & Biehler, 2007). Piaget viewed the children's thinking and behaviour in this stage to be illogical, with three main impediments being destructive to a form of logical thinking. The impediments are clearly at work during a child's performance of a conservation task. The child's inadequate mastery of decentration is a major factor in their failure of conservation tasks, it relate to a person's ability to look at more than one principle at a time. The second impediment to logical thinking is irreversibility. And the third and most interesting is the concept of egocentrism - the child's failure to look at someone else's point of view. Piaget carried out empirical experiments and tasks to portray this egocentrism and the three mountains task was his preferred measure.

The child's ability in the pre-operational stage to work with symbols and represent them through language, imagery or even play is known as the semiotic function (Woolfolk et al, 2008). This stage is most easily observed and assessed by a teacher through these actions of play and pretending and displays a development of schemes that are becoming more general and less related to specific actions.

Next a child will move to the concrete operational stage (7-11 years). The nature of this stage relates to the child's mastery of different types of conservation tasks. Snowman and Biehler (2007) explain that these tasks are limited to objects that are present and that children have experienced directly. They go on to explain that through the child's formal instruction, informal experiences, maturation and interaction with their social environment the children have become less influenced by the impediments from the pre-operational stage and are now capable of logical thinking. However, Piaget believes that children in this stage are not capable of thinking in hypothetical-deductive terms, and therefore, are not suitable for scientific inquiry. This is an important view for teachers in support of SEN students.

The last stage of Piaget's theory is the formal operational stage which he believes starts from 11 years old and persists to adulthood. Children at this stage begin to think abstractly and gain the ability to deal with potential or hypocritical situations (Slavin, 2006). Woolfolk et al (2008) believes that this hypothetico-deductive reasoning is the hallmark characteristic of the formal operational stage. This ability to deal with possibilities is crucial in the studies of mathematics and science and Piaget used a physics problem of the pendulum to measure the introduction into this stage. Another characteristic mentioned by Woolfolk et al (2008) of this stage is adolescent egocentrism. Unlike the egocentric pre-operational children the formal operational students are aware of other people's perceptions and beliefs. However, they have now become focused on their own views and ideas, and analyse these critically. It may manifest itself in self-esteem issues and fear of social blunders and imperfections.

This paper will now critically evaluate Piaget's theory and offer alternative views with ideas which can greatly improve the support of SEN's in mainstream education.

The existence of Piaget's four separate stages all with their associated development characteristics displays a lack of consistency in children's thinking. Woolfolk et al (2008) points out that a child's ability to conserve numbers is approximately two years before conservation of weight. Also critics have stated that the stages may be more continuous than Piaget's thinking. For example object permanence may develop gradually through a stage and not appear all at once (Woolfolk et al, 2008).

It also appears that Piaget's theory may have underestimated the children's ability. Snowman and Biehler (2006) proposed that the tasks Piaget used were often too complex and set from the adult perspective; they were not related to the children's real life experiences. Donaldson (1978) stated that the tasks did not make social sense; she critiqued Piaget's tasks and introduced more appropriate situations for the participants. The three mountain task to measure a child's egocentrism was far removed from children situated outside the Swiss Alps, Donaldson created the policeman and robber task, with the results showing that younger children do display the signs of theory of mind (the understanding of other's points of view).

According to Piaget's theory development is universal, cultural differences should have no effect on the sequence of stages (Pressley & McCormack, 2007). This is seen as a major criticism of Piaget's theory and led Lev Vygotsky to the development of his sociocultural theory. It places the roles of culture, social interaction and formal instruction at the centre of thinking and learning (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). Vygotsky believes that culture shapes cognitive development by determining the content that the child will learn about the world and the process of learning this content. An example of this is given by Woolfolk et al (2008) of Brazil street children who do not go to school and alternatively sell candy. They acquire sophisticated mathematical skills in the dealing with wholesalers, buyers, sellers and battering to make a profit. Vygotsky believed that children gain significant knowledge from conceptual tools transferred to them by those who are more intellectually advanced. This may come in the form of parents, same-age peers or teachers (Snowman & Biehler, 2006).

A major concept of learning from Vygotsky's sociocultural theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Snowman & Biehler (2006) likes the learning instruction to a magnet, it is aimed slightly ahead of the SEN student's ability level at the present time and it will pull them along to master things they cannot learn individually. Slavin (2006) explains that with the assistance of more intellectual peers or teachers, through conversation and collaborative work the individual can achieve higher mental functioning and master a task that is not yet learned. However, the teacher must assess the teachable moment, which is the point of readiness for the SEN student to learn a new concept.

Another important concept for the support of an SEN comes from the notion of Vygotsky's social learning. Bruner (1983) believes that scaffolding- providing a great deal of support to the SEN during the early part of the task and gradually transferring more responsibility to the SEN, can help acquire more cognitive development in the individual. Slavin (2006) agrees that this scaffolding in the form of hints or leading questions can help the SEN transverse their ZDP. Examples of scaffolding techniques for teachers include questioning, labels, feedback, prompts and modelling. Tappin (1998) introduced a model to aid teachers to carry out optimum scaffolding to support an SEN student to move through their ZDP.

Model desired academic behaviours. The children will imitate the desired behaviour from peers, and this will stimulate the SEN to act this way independently.

Create a dialogue with the SEN. In the process of the SEN students learning a commitment must be made between teacher and student to facilitate a relationship with equal honest effort from each party.

Practice. Practice for the SEN speeds up comprehension of skills learned and observed from others.

Confirmation. Confirming to the student is bringing out their best with help and assistance; therefore, they will be successful in the task.

Through studying the theories of cognitive theorists this paper has outlined extremely useful techniques to support the education of an SEN student in mainstream school. From the development and facilitated adaptation of schemes, to the assessment of which stage of cognitive development the SEN fulfils and the characteristics of these stages, to the sociocultural theory and the concepts of ZDP and scaffolding. It is clear to see that these cognitive theorists have had a major contribution in the provision of education for SEN's.

This paper will now outline the factors teachers must take into account when developing lesson plans for inclusive education. Barton (1998) states that "inclusive education is about the participation of all children and young people and the removal of all forms of exclusionary practice". The paper will concentrate on the factors relating to SEN students with Autism, Dyslexia and ADHD. Clough and Corbett (2000) feel that "one of the greatest barriers to inclusion is our underestimation of the potential abilities of those we label as having SEN". Therefore, as teachers we must focus on the abilities of the SEN students and differentiate our lesson plans to promote success.

One factor which the teacher must take into consideration is the ability level of the class. If the class is a mixed ability class with a large range of cognitive and emotional development, the teacher's organisation of the class and teaching style will be modified. The teacher can set up cooperative learning for their lessons with gifted students performing the role of the group leader they can provide models for others of slightly more advanced thinking (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). This facilitates the SEN students to move through their ZDP. The teacher also has the alternative to perform within-class grouping of the students according to their ability levels; this provides the opportunity for differentiation of the task and setting tasks specific to the group's level of cognitive development. This is also a flexible grouping which can be changed for different subjects such as maths and English (Snowman & Biehler, 2006).

Emotional and behavioural disorders are another factor to accommodate when planning for inclusion. Woolfolk et al (2008) states some emotional and behavioural disorders to be aware of for lesson planning; anxiety disorders, mood disorders, disruptive behaviour disorders and tic disorders. There are a wide range of disorders and students with other intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities and ADHD for example may also have some form of behavioural and emotional disorder. Woolfolk et al (2008) explains that children with behavioural disorders deviate to such an extent that not only their classmates' development is disrupted; it also interferes with the child's individual development. Some methods of prevention are applied behavioural analysis, behavioural support plan and teaching of social skills (Snowman & Biehler, 2006).

Reinforcement is also an effective method in behaviour modification. Child (1995) explains that a positive reinforcement is to encourage the desired positive behaviour, while negative reinforcement is used to eliminate disruptive behaviour. SEN children with ADHD who are attention seeking can put up with mild negative reinforcement as they thrive on the attention given when carrying out the schedule. Therefore, the teacher must plan an appropriate consequence that can be handled quickly and efficiently. Child (1995) highlights the work of Skinner and his techniques for operant conditioning schedules of reinforcement. Child (1995) states that the system has been used to modify the behaviour of children who are autistic, misbehaving and attention seeking using such methods as; modelling, shaping and token economies.

Communication difficulties of the learners are another factor to be considered when planning for inclusion. An SEN with autism has "significant difficulty in verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction that adversely affects educational performance (Snowman & Biehler, 2006). Dyslexic students will have difficulty with learning through reading. A teacher may also have to accommodate for learners with hearing impairments or visual impairments. Taking this into account the teacher must plan for various modalities of teaching the content such as visual and audio learning, imagery, demonstration and kinaesthetic learning. Dyslexic students will learn best with the use of visual images at prompts and through kinaesthetic learning. This active learning is encouraged by Piaget and the SEN's interaction with their environment will promote cognitive development.

When a teacher is planning for inclusive teaching they must take into account an SEN's individual education plan (IEP). Slavin (2006) states that the plan assesses the individual SEN's needs and sets out a course of action to fulfil these needs. Everyone concerned with the welfare of the SEN is encouraged to participate in establishment of the plan, from the teacher, the principal, special education teachers, the student and the parents of the SEN. The teacher will draw up the IEP and it should include information on the following as stated by Woolfolk et al (2008);

Short term targets for the SEN.

Teaching strategies to be used.

Provisions put in place.

Success criteria.


Review date.

The teacher must review the IEP at least once a year. This plan is highly positive towards inclusion in the classroom.

We have covered many factors to take into account when developing lesson plans for inclusive teaching, the paper has also set out techniques and planning to overcome these factors and provide a positive environment towards inclusion in the classroom.

Reference list

Barton, L. (ed.) (1998) The politics of special educational needs, Lewes: Falmer Press.

Bruner, J.S. (1983) Child's Talk: Learning to use Language, Oxford University Press.

Child, D. (1995) Psychology and The Teacher, Cassell Press, London.

Clough, P. and Corbett, J. (2000) Theories of Inclusive Education: A Student's Guide, Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd, London.

Donaldson, M. (1978) Children's minds, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd, Glasgow.

Pressley, M. and McCormack, C.B. (2007) Child and Adolescent Development for Educators, Guilford Press, London.

Slavin, R.E. (2006) Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice, Pearson Education, Inc.

Snowman, J. And Biehler, R. (2006) Psychology Applied to Teaching, Houghton Mifflin Company, U.S.A.

Tappin, M.B. (1998) Sociocultural Psychology and Caring Pedagogy: Exploring Vygotsky's "hidden curriculum." Educational Psychologist, 33(1), 23-30.

Woolfolk, A. Hughes, M. and Walkup, V. (2008) Psychology in Education, Pearson Education Ltd, England.