4.1 Identifying strengths and support needs

Identifying and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of all learners in the class is integral to the daily practice of all teachers. Through routine observation, questioning and assessment, subject teachers monitor progress and adapt their practice to ensure that learners achieve their goals.

However, for some learners a more detailed assessment of their needs is required. This may involve other staff within the school such as Support for Learning (SfL), Support for Pupils (SfP) or the school management team. For a small number of learners, further specialist assessment may be required from partner services and agencies outside the school.

By the time they reach secondary school, learners’ strengths and support needs may already have been identified. In such cases, staff have a responsibility to know about and understand these existing strengths and support needs, and how to implement the strategies required by the learners. Subject teachers also have a responsibility to identify and monitor strengths and support needs over time.

The processes of understanding and identifying learners’ strengths and support needs are likely to include observing how learners carry out tasks in context, formative and summative assessments, and a review of additional information about learners and their individual circumstances. Interpretation of this information assists in forming conclusions about the nature of learners’ strengths and support needs, and helps subject teachers plan how to manage these.

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Figure 17. Positive learner engagement

Reflective Task: Supporting learners

What do you currently do to identify the strengths and support needs of learners in your class? Note your thoughts in your Reflective Log and then look at our suggestions.


Listed below are some suggestions on how to identify the strengths and support needs of your learners (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • review information you already have about the learner to inform your understanding of any existing strengths and support needs.

  • consult the learner; ask them to identify their strengths, and/or areas in which they need support and what they think might help.

  • reflect on lessons that went well. Which strategies worked? What does this tell you?

  • collect samples of work (e.g. class work or homework) and identify what the learner can do with and without support.

  • carry out assessments within the subject areas and gather evidence from formal tests or exams.

  • consult with colleagues who also work with the learner or with senior subject colleagues to discuss progress and potentially useful strategies.

  • consider discussion with, or request assistance from, the pastoral care team or Support for Learning. For example, you might discuss whether further assessment is required.

Identifying further concerns

If consideration of the learner leads to concern, the principles of the Getting it right for every child approach will guide your practice. The Getting it right for every child implementation guide states that practitioners need to ask five key questions:

  1. What is getting in the way of this child or young person's well-being?
  2. Do I have all the information I need to help this child or young person?
  3. What can I do now to help this child or young person?
  4. What can my agency do to help this child or young person?
  5. What additional help, if any, may be needed from others?

Immediate risk/child protection concern

Indicators refer to any new, marked, sudden and/or unexplained change in the presentation, behaviour, appearance or circumstances of the learner that might indicate immediate risk to a child or young person. Some examples of risk indicators are listed below – please note that this is not an exhaustive list.

  • mental health issues, including self-harming, or talk around self-harming
  • inappropriate sexual behaviour
  • evidence of substance abuse, including alcohol
  • acute physical, social and/or emotional disturbance or distress
  • unexpected behaviour such as outbursts or appearing withdrawn
  • extremes of behaviour which are detrimental to the individual or those around them
  • inappropriate interactions or exchanges with staff or peers
  • major social or environment change, or significant family concern
  • sudden truancy, erratic attendance, or long periods of absence
  • youth offending.

Concerns should be formally recorded in line with local authority child protection guidance. It is always better to complete this just in case, rather than discovering later on that it should have been done. Remember, one piece of information on its own may not appear significant, but may be important as part of a bigger picture.

These kinds of concerns must be discussed immediately with the appropriate school staff in line with individual school policies, such as risk assessment, child protection or health and safety.

4.2 The CIRCLE Participation Scale