The Engagement for Learning Framework:connecting with learning and evidencing progress for children with autism spectrum conditions


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Think Piece: How do we teach children with Complex Needs?

The new generation of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), those with complex learning difficulties and disabilities (CLDD), have transformed the special needs registers of our schools in this first part of the 21st century (Carpenter et al., 2015). Many of these children are ‘wired differently’; children born prematurely, particularly those of pre-28 week gestation, are a particular example of this phenomenon (Carpenter and Egerton, 2013). Their profile of learning is not that which we have previously known with children with SEND. This brings unique challenges to teachers, for the neural pathways in the brain of the child with CLDD are connected and routed differently, and they, thus, learn differently. Therefore, in what ways do we teach differently?

This is a debate that is beyond differentiation, and takes us into the realms of new generation pedagogy, where personalisation becomes an essential component of the differentiated process of meeting individual needs.

Key to this pedagogy – ‘how’ we teach – is engagement (Carpenter et al., 2015). For any child of any ability without authentic engagement in learning there will be no meaningful outcomes, no effective progress, no real attainment. Engagement is the liberation of intrinsic motivation and the pathway to achievement. The engagement principle, delivered through the Engagement Profile and Scale (, enables a teacher to co – produce with the child, a truly responsive learning programme. This will style itself in ways appropriate to the presentation of the child’s complex needs. Autism, for example, is not merely the ‘classic’ presentation we knew in the late twentieth century, but now has multiple causal bases, all of which generate specific learning styles. Again, engagement can be key to ensuring high quality, responsive teaching (Carpenter et al., 2016).

From the extensive Department for Education-funded research conducted in the UK by Carpenter and colleagues, a range of resources were produced and are located on Similarly the 16 modules written to support teacher training in the area of complex needs – ‘Training Materials for Educators of Learners with Severe, Profound and Complex Learning Difficulties’ ( – are now the focus of a European Commission-funded Erasmus+ programme to make these materials more widely available in Europe via a number of European languages to support inclusion practice through accredited vocational learning.

Our challenge in this 21st Century is to create inclusive pedagogy, regardless of setting. There are children entering our schools ‘the likes of which we have never seen before’. Engagement, as a well-researched principle for learning in all children, will be key to that inclusive pedagogy. We need to design a curriculum which wraps around the child with CLDD (Carpenter et al., 2011), and takes that child on a journey of effective teaching to enable us to touch that child at their point of learning need.

Professor Barry Carpenter, January 2016


Carpenter, B., Carpenter, J., Egerton, J. and Cockbill, B. (2016) ‘The Engagement for Learning Framework: Connecting with learning and evidencing progress for children with autism spectrum conditions’, Advances in Autism, 2 (1).

Carpenter, B. and Egerton, J. (2013) ‘The impact of prematurity on special educational needs’, Optimus Education (SEN hub). [Online at:; accessed: 7.10.13]

Carpenter, B., Egerton, J., Brooks, T., Cockbill, B., Fotheringham, J. and Rawson, H. (2011) The Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project: Developing meaningful pathways to personalised learning (project report). London: Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (now The Schools Network). [Online at:; accessed: 21.3.12]

Carpenter, B., Egerton, J., Cockbill, B., Brooks, T., Fotheringham, J. and Rawson, H. (2015) Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities: A resource book for teachers and teaching assistants. Abingdon: Routledge.

Flyer for Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities

This practical and engaging book provides literature, tools and case study examples outlining who children and young people with CLDD are, why their engagement for learning is important, and how the Engagement for Learning Framework can be used effectively by teachers and other professionals to ensure the best possible outcomes for these children.

Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities