Person-Centred Approaches: Knowing the Whole Learner

The following article comes from Kenny Wheeler, freelance SEND, Inclusion and Leadership consultant, UK.

6.23 slow progress and low attainment do not necessarily mean that a child has SEN and should not automatically lead to a pupil being recorded as having SEN. However, they may be an indicator of a range of learning difficulties or disabilities. Equally, it should not be assumed that attainment in line with chronological age means that there is no learning difficulty or disability. Some learning difficulties and disabilities occur across the range of cognitive ability and, left unaddressed may lead to frustration, which may manifest itself as disaffection, emotional or behavioural difficulties.

The above quote from the SEND Code of Practice 2015 highlights the need for person centred approaches. In part it is a question of not only what we see but exploring and better understanding what the underlying issues or reasons may be that result in a particular behaviour (not necessarily a negative behaviour).

By person-centred approaches, I mean developing an understanding of an individual. Finding out what is important to them, what they aspire to achieve and understanding wider dynamics that influence how they may engage within the learning environment. Part of this links into the EEF Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools report 2020 that looks at the three different types of needs that exist:

Some of the common needs could be linked to Maslow in that we have physiological, social and esteem needs that if met help us to progress towards self-actualisation. Equally, we all have the common need to access good teaching.

Specific needs could be linked to a medical condition or a specific disorder that require specific strategies to be put in place.

Individual needs are something we all have and when staff and learners are aware of these and what can be done to support them then we might improve access to the curriculum and subsequent progress not only in school but beyond it.

It is the individual needs that we can explore and discover when we adopt person centred approaches. Understanding the holistic individual can help us in knowing what works for them so that we can make reasonable adjustments to our practices to help them access the curriculum and the wider school environment. We can also help them to discover what they can do in order to access learning so that they can become more independent over time. Shining a light on meta-cognitive approaches they can adopt which will help them in the classroom and when completing homework.

Finding out individual needs can then help support schools in understanding what they can do within their settings in order to support access to the curriculum. If we can better understand needs then we can make better, more specific adjustments to support learners.

Equally we all have the common need to access good teaching.


Adopting a variety of high-quality teaching strategies can help engage learners and increase the likelihood that they access learning and make better progress. An awareness of the individual needs in a class should also inform longer term planning so that there are a range of opportunities for learners to engage in activities that support their needs. We move from not only being data rich but information rich as we better understand the needs of our learners and can therefore plan accordingly to support and include them within the learning environment.


If we better understand an individual’s needs then we can put in place specific support that will ensure learners are in a place when they are better able to access the curriculum. For instance, if we know an individual is not having breakfast or food during the day then we can do something about that so that hunger doesn’t impact on them concentrating in lessons. If we know there is no space at home to complete homework then we can offer support after school so there is a place where it can be completed.

We know there are going to be gaps in learning following lockdown and the pandemic. Understanding individual needs will help us in knowing what we can do to better support learners to access the curriculum. Having a clearer understanding of needs should help us refine our approaches so we know what works, when it works and when it doesn’t and what we can do when it doesn’t work. If we focus on the holistic individual rather than the data then we can target our pedagogy and pastoral support so that progress improves and gaps are addressed. This all starts with the individual so our actions need to include working with learners to gain a clearer insight into their views when it comes to learning.

I guess the starting point is what do we really actually know about each of our learners?

Author: Kenny Wheeler

Freelance SEND, Inclusion and Leadership consultant, UK

Kenny Wheeler (@KennyInclusion) is a freelance SEND, Inclusion and Leadership consultant more than 20 years experience in the education sector. He was a Secondary SENCo and senior leader before moving into educational consultancy. Kenny has delivered leadership training via the NPQML and NPQSL and was also a tutor on the NASENCo award at Kingston University. He is currently supporting SENCos in Surrey and working as a coach and school improvement partner. Kenny has had several articles published in SEN Leader, School Business Manager, Education Executive and TES.

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