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Top tips for supporting students with special educational needs and disabilities before and during exams

Cambridge Learners  SEND  Teaching strategies  

In the second of our two recent blogs giving tips for students as they prepare for exams, we are going to consider the needs of those who require additional support due to having special educational needs or disabilities (SEND).

Many students with SEND have faced challenges during the pandemic which have impacted on exam readiness. While many of these challenges are shared by all students, their effects are likely to be amplified for students with SEND. Moreover, many have experienced additional difficulties such as:

  • changes in access to physical and mental health care
  • inconsistent availability of learning support provision
  • less opportunity for targeted exam technique practice
  • reduced access to assistive technology
  • a lack of routine, which is vital for many with SEND, especially those with mental health difficulties or with Autistic Spectrum Conditions.  [1]

So, what additional support could be offered to students with SEND to help them prepare as effectively as possible for their upcoming exams? Given the wide spectrum of SEND, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but here are some ideas to consider:

Awareness of individual needs

Understanding individual barriers to learning is key to supporting students with SEND with their exam preparation.

  • Make sure that all teachers who have students with SEND in their classes have information about their individual needs.
  • Make sure that the teachers know how best to support them in lessons and what access arrangements (if applicable) they have in place so that their ‘normal way of working’ in class mirrors how they will work in their exams.
  • Encourage all students to understand and be considerate of the individual needs of others.

Access arrangements

If a learner receives support in lessons to help overcome their barriers to learning, then this support should be mirrored in their exams by way of approved access arrangements, such as extra time, a reader, scribe, practical assistant, prompter, etc. To make the most of the access arrangements that we make available for students taking Cambridge International exams:

  • Apply for and confirm access arrangements in good time so that the student knows exactly what reasonable adjustments and support they will receive in each exam.
  • Make sure that learners know how best to use their access arrangements. For example, there is little point in a learner having extra time in their exam if they don’t know how to use it effectively.
  • Give students an opportunity to practise using their arrangements under exam conditions as well as in the less pressured classroom environment. This is especially important for students who receive 1-2-1 support-based access arrangements such as a reader or scribe.
  • Make sure that the students and the staff supporting them on a 1-2-1 basis in the exam are aware of the parameters and regulations of their individual arrangements.

Revision and exam techniques

Many students with SEND experience problems with ‘executive functioning’. Executive function can be defined as being a ‘self-management system of the brain’ [2]. This refers to a set of skills which include time management, planning and organisation, how to prioritise and how to remember – all of which are, of course, fundamental skills in taking exams. As such, many students with SEND require additional support to help develop revision and exam skills. Here are some techniques for teachers to consider:

  • Revision techniques
    • Assist practically with the organisation of revision materials, such as co-creating folders and making sure that all materials are gathered in one place.
    • Create study timetables or time organisers based on revision topics. Many students with SEND benefit from visuals being incorporated into timetables.
    • Ensure that command words are revised as well as course content. Do students know, for example, what is meant by ‘describe’, ‘compare’, ‘evaluate’, ‘discuss’?
    • Support them in breaking down a large amount of learning into smaller chunks by using hierarchies of knowledge, mind-mapping or sub-headings.
    • Help them to prioritise information using highlighters.
    • Encourage them to reduce what they need to revise into short note form or bullet points, using cue cards or voice notes on their smart phones.
    • Don’t just focus on written responses; use alternative methods for checking understanding such as oral summaries. This can be particularly useful for students with literacy or attention and concentration difficulties.
    • Consider using reflective methods such ‘exam wrappers’ when completing past papers/mock exams/ in class tests.
    • Introduce students to creative ways of remembering information such as:
      • cartoons
      • pictures               
      • photos of written information taken using a smart phone
      • mnemonics
      • recording themselves rapping or chanting key facts over their favourite beat.
    • Remind students that although revision is an important part of exam preparation, exercise and relaxation are also important and can help to minimise stress and help increase positivity towards the exams.
  • Exam techniques
    • Highlight the importance of reading questions properly. Encourage students – especially those who may struggle with reading skills – to re-read questions before responding.
    • Teach the students to focus on the key words that clarify the meaning of a question (for essays and short answers) and help to eliminate some of the answer choices (on multiple choice questions).
    • Teach basic proofreading skills; provide a worked example so that students can gain experience of this skill in practice.
    • Some students with SEND can struggle with the concept of moving on to the next question if they don’t know an answer. Teach them that it is perfectly okay to skip a question and return to it later.

For further ideas, take a look at the recordings of our recent Cambridge Schools Conferences which focussed on Metacognition and self-regulation.  Metacognitive strategies can be very useful when preparing for exams as they encourage students to think about how they think and support students to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning.

Minimising anxieties

For students with SEND, the exam period frequently contributes to higher levels of stress and anxiety in comparison to students who do not have additional needs. [3] Anxieties linked to the pandemic may also have had a disproportionate impact on the mental health of students with SEND, even more so for those with pre-existing social, emotional and mental health difficulties. Here are some ideas to help you support students:

  • Raise awareness that it is normal for exams to create feelings of anxiety and stress.
    • Explain that these feelings can manifest themselves in many different ways.
    • Let them know their feelings are valid and normal, but also offer support and solutions where possible.
  • Exam anxieties can exacerbate the challenges that some students with SEND already have when trying to express their worries or make themselves heard.
    • How can you create an environment where these students feel comfortable expressing worries about exams and feel like someone is taking an active interest in listening to them?
    • Is there a ‘safe space’ for students to talk to a teacher or student counsellor?
    • How can they use this service discretely and without prejudice?
  • The exam hall can be an especially intimidating place for many students with SEND. The size and unfamiliarity of the exam room, in addition to different noise and lighting levels and an invigilator waking around the room, can be overwhelming especially for those with mental health conditions, sensory or social difficulties.
    • They may benefit from an alternative environment (such as a classroom) in which to sit their exams.
    • Invite them to visit in advance the place where they will take their exams so they can familiarise themselves with the environment, know where their seat is, and visualise how they may feel on the day of an important exam.
    • ‘Social stories’ can help some students with SEND, especially those with Autistic Spectrum Conditions, to visualise what to expect on their exam day and what they need to do when they are in the exam hall.
  • Many students experience a fear of failure, and this can be especially prominent amongst students with SEND.
    • Focus conversations on learning and progress.
    • Help them to develop organised systems and working methods to help prevent them from becoming overwhelmed and/or giving up.
    • Remind them that, although they are important, final exams are just a part of their learning journey.

For further advice, take a look at the blog we published last year by Professor David Putwain, a leading expert in test anxiety, and the webinar he presented for us as part of our Cambridge Schools Conference in June 2021.

On the exam day

However much you have already supported students with SEND, their preparations can be undone by stress and panic on exam day. Create a handy checklist for you and for them, including:

  • Equipment checks – do they have the stationery they need for their exams?

  • Supplementary aids – have they remembered to bring any personal support items which they usually use when studying such as a wrist rest, coloured overlay, magnifying glass, ear defenders/noise cancelling headphones or a tactile ruler?

  • Eating and drinking – have they consumed the right type of calories to fuel them for the duration of the exam? Do they have a water bottle with them?

  • Location – are they clear where the exam room is and where they are going to sit? Is it possible for them (if appropriate and useful) to have the same seat for every exam?

  • Personal support – would it be helpful for someone (a teacher or a friend) to accompany them to the exam room and meet them again afterwards? Would it reduce anxiety if they were first or last to enter the exam room?

Final thought – unlocking potential for all

It’s important to remember that barriers to learning are not only experienced by students with SEND; this is something that we all experience to some degree, and support and adaptations represent a natural and integral part of the learning journey. The support you give students with SEND may also help to unlock the potential of all students. In this way, your approach to exam preparation becomes more universally inclusive. If you would like to know more about the theories and practices of inclusive education, please see our Education Brief on the topic.

This article was co-authored with Paul Ellis.


[1] K. Patel, “Patel K. Mental health implications of COVID-19 on children with disabilities,” Asian journal of psychiatry, 2020.
[2] Center on the Developing Child, Harvard, “www.developingchild.hardvard.edu,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/what-is-executive-function-and-how-does-it-relate-to-child-development/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=april_2019. [Accessed 22 03 2022].
[3] E. Howard, “A review of the literature concerning anxiety for educational assessments,” Ofqual, London, 2020.


In our Understanding Assessment course, there is a module about overcoming barriers and challenges in assessment. We would also recommend reading the chapters in the final section of The What, Why and How of Assessment, written by Simon Child and Paul Ellis, where the authors discuss how we can create the conditions for learner success in ass

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