Discover how finding your way in to pupil’s interests can help you unlock their potential, with guidance from Communication and Interaction Leader and Makaton Tutor, Rachel Holt.

As a Communication and Interaction Leader with over 20 years’ experience, I have worked with many pupils aged from 2-19-years-old, all with very different needs, various communication difficulties and many with challenging
behaviours. I’ve worked with special schools, mainstream pre-schools, and nursery settings.

A few years ago, I reflected on what the most important things are that a child needs to be able to learn and thrive, and I concluded that the best way forward is by ‘finding your way in.’ I have experienced how nurturing children’s creativity and self-expression can help them to learn and grow, with even the most withdrawn children being able to spread their wings and flourish.

Creative expression

I recall a wonderful session where I put various sensory objects in the school hall, e.g., coloured torches, water sprays, coloured cloths. I let the pupils collaboratively decide what they wanted the session to be about. They set up the PE benches as planks and the mats as islands and ships. We used the cloths to create sails and we used the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, as well as sound effects of the sea, to add audio to our pirate-themed experience. We had a session that we built upon each week – adding new characters and islands, and even a fun pirate dance followed. Fun and excitement filled the school!

This kind of creative expression promotes a healthy mind and wellbeing, so how can this be wrong? By supporting children and young adults (possibly who exhibit challenging behaviours) in their interests, letting them lead us into their world, we can see what excites their imaginations and gives them the freedom to shine.

The reactive, proactive and interactive model

As humans, we need to learn how to be reactive, proactive and interactive. These three levels can support pupils with a wide variety of needs (e.g., pupils with complex needs, pre-verbal pupils, pupils on the Autistic Spectrum) but could also be implemented into more advanced sensory experiences for older and more able pupils.

If we step back and are reactive to a pupil’s favourite activity and support their reactions towards it, we can then be proactive by joining them in their chosen activity and giving them opportunities to access it again in future. If
we are interactive with them through their chosen activity, asking them about it and providing appropriate praise, we will boost their self-esteem and confidence.

When we welcome and respect their world, we ‘find our way in’!

We can use many methods that incorporate this helpful guide. These could include outside activities, art, music, role-play and productions, and sensory experiences – anything they like as long as you support them by following their lead and showing enjoyment in their chosen activity of interest.

Using the reactive, proactive, interactive approach supports pupils’ social communication skills and builds on their vocabulary. It is especially significant, following multiple periods of lockdowns.

Top tips

  • Listen to the child
  • Respond to the child to let them know you are listening
  • Let them take the lead
  • Express reactions to their chosen activity
  • Ask them questions about what they like and don’t like
  • Provide appropriate praise.

How can any activity encourage social interaction skills?

Pupils will:

  • Learn how to use language appropriately in a social situation
  • Learn how to develop communication to build positive relationships
  • Have opportunities to learn attention skills and improve sustained attention
  • Develop listening skills
  • Improve turn-taking skills
  • Understand social scenarios
  • Improve thinking skills and communication of answers
  • Be aware of body language in social situations
  • Learn routines
  • Improve understanding of language and vocabulary
  • Learn expressive language and use this to express themselves.

Communicating in a clear purposeful way will help pupils’ self-esteem in both the school setting and the world around them. We just have to ‘find the way in’ and listen.


  • Rachel Holt

    Rachel is a communication and interaction leader and a Makaton tutor working at Penny Field School, Leeds (part of the Wellspring Academy Trust). She writes multi-sensory stories and productions, and music and movement sessions for pupils with special educational needs.
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