Monthly Archives: November 2014

Once Upon A Time

This story is as close as I can get to a parable.  I have written it to illustrate just one of the aspects of what happens when children with vastly different learning needs, such as SEN and EAL, are lumped together.  It isn’t about a real little boy – and it’s not about my little boy; he’s way too bossy and grumpy to star in this one!

 

There was once a little boy.  He was a lovely little boy; a bright, sunny personality, lots of friends, always polite, always ate his tea.  He went to the school down the road from his house, where all the children loved him, and all the teachers loved him too.

The little boy didn’t have the best start in life.  His family was poor (although that’s not supposed to be an impediment), but loving.  They gave him the best they could, but his health wasn’t always as good as it could be, and, unfortunately, when he went to school, he found it hard to keep up the pace.  Before long, he was a long way behind.

The little boy enjoyed his lessons.  Someone was found to help him, to make sure he understood and kept on the right track.  His helper was kind.  His teachers were kind.  Everyone was kind, but it wasn’t enough.  Despite all his wonderful qualities, his cheeky sense of humour, his calm temperament, his kindness to others, he slipped further and further down the rankings.  His cause was a concern.

So the good people tried something else.  The little boy wasn’t the only one who was finding learning hard.  Perhaps it would be better if he wasn’t so alone.  So he worked with other children so that they could concentrate on the foundations and get them right.

They found a lovely room, with books on the shelves, bright pictures on the walls and beautiful chairs and tables.  A comfortable rug on the floor.  Brand new felt tips and coloured pencils still sorted into the right boxes in the tray.  The little boy and his new friends were delighted.

He settled down to work with a will.  At last his work was making sense!  And more than that, the little boy who had struggled for so long discovered that he could help someone else who was struggling too.

He loved his teacher, and his teacher loved watching the way he confounded the expectations of his peers.  He loved seeing dismay turn to friendship, uncertainty to pleasure.  The little boy enjoyed his new found popularity, and his new friends learned an important lesson about life, as well as their letters.

But, just as all in the classroom was rosy, along came the winds of change.  One day the little boy came to his lesson and his friend did not.  In his place was someone new; uncertain and distustful.

So, the little boy started again.  He knew that new people could feel lonely, so he did his best to be friendly, and show his new partner the ropes.  He knew that he could help with his reading and his writing, how to say the words that the new one stumbled over, so he did.

Again, his teacher watched as he broke down barriers, showed someone else who didn’t know that everyone has something to give, but inside she worried for the little boy.  She hoped that he would not wonder why it was his friends who moved up and out and never him, and resolved to tell him, should he ever ask why, that it was those very qualities she first noticed; his kindness, his steadiness, his willingness to work hard, that kept him where he was needed; a welcomer, a shower of the way to children lost in a sea of language.

She kept her worries behind her eyes and she hoped that the little boy would not become discouraged by the loss of his new friends to a different class while he stayed stuck, overtaken again and again and again.

She hoped he would never notice that, even though she knew she hoped in vain.

Top of the Tree

I am regularly infected with what seem like Good Ideas at the Time.  Swimming lessons are a perfect example.  When Sam was a baby I got carried away by all the hype and took him to baby classes, where he proceeded to catch every bug going and regularly puke in the pool, much to everyone’s eternal delight, I’m sure.  Later, after I realised that it maybe wasn’t such a good idea, I transferred my enthusiasm to pre-school lessons at the local pool.  Swimming is great exercise, especially for those possessors of low muscle tone, and, living as I do in a town that is dominated by its situation at the confluence of two major English rivers, it forms an important part of life; to not sign your kids up and reserve them a place almost as soon as they are toddling is almost out of the question here.

The thing is, though, that mine never really took to them, not in the early days, anyway.  Sam was so little that his feet didn’t touch the bottom of the learner pool.  He was never warm enough, and I failed to take into consideration how distracting the pool environment is to a little boy with sensory issues.  All those Nemos on the ceiling, you know, the ones children look at when they are learning to swim on their backs, the echoes, the perennially shouty style of swimming teachers.  It wasn’t long before he wasn’t paying attention.

And A.  He wasn’t much better.  I have to admit, I signed him up with the sort of smug self-satisfaction that exudes from the parent of a child who has found everything easy so far.  He crawled at six months, was toddling at eleven. Physically forward, especially compared to his older brother, I had no doubt in my mind that swimming would be the same.  How wrong could I be?  It took me a little while to realise that the strange mooing noise of distress was coming from my child.

Swimming lessons are funny things.  Unlike school ones, that happen behind the mysterious doors of the classroom, far from the prying eyes of parents, swimming ones happen in full view of everyone.  Every week for a year I took them, and sat, slowly melting, waiting for their half hour in the water to end before wrestling sticky-wet boys back into their clothes for the journey home.  Every week for a year I chatted to friends and kept half an eye on what was going on in the pool.  Sometimes I kept both eyes glued; fascinated, disquieted.

It’s always interesting watching someone else teach your child.  For a start, there is the ‘I wouldn’t do it like that’ factor.  It’s so easy, when you are on the outside looking in, and when you have a good bank of years teaching primary aged children behind you, to see the little one daydreaming in the corner or the way that the initial explanation was glossed over.  It’s easy for you, who has not got the responsibility for a large group of children in your hands, to see how certain behaviours can be misinterpreted.

For me, it was a plain as the nose on my face that A’s bouncing around, his chatter and the constant looking the other way came from nervous anxiety, not a lack of discipline. The shock of that first lesson, which I blithely supposed my three year old would take in his stride, took a long time to subside.  After a year, when his progress towards swimming had gone in the backwards direction, we called it a day.  And Sam.  Why was I paying for someone else to call him naughty, to do him down?

You see, I think we automatically assume that our children won’t be the ones caught looking out of the window when they ought to be looking at the teacher.  It’s never our children sent quaking in their shoes to the head teacher’s office to answer for their childish crimes.  If we thought it was, if we knew that it was our baby’s name on the black cloud, missing precious minutes off their golden time each week, or enduring an undiluted diet of phonics and maths via intervention after intervention we might feel differently about the system.

Or progress.  The national curriculum levels are no more and we are currently mid-consultation about their replacement.  In an educational age of measures, how do we prove that children are getting better at doing the things we are teaching them?  Against which scale are we to measure them now?  Our Great Leaders seem to favour some sort of system whereby we compare the children to a national standard.  Which is fine if yours is the one achieving ‘mastery level’.

But what if they aren’t?  What if your child is told, year after year, that they aren’t an Acceptable National Standard Child?  What if, year after year, you open a report that, rather than celebrating what they can do, instead, tells you, yet again, that they are Below Expectations?  How does it feel then?  When, instead of being top of the tree it turns out that they are the bottom of the heap?

Because in a system of mastery and national standard children, where we rather unimaginatively give our children, as well as our schools, a mark out of four, only one of which is acceptable, the vast majority of them will be there, at the bottom, marked as failures, or defective, from their earliest years.

And you don’t have to have a child with Down syndrome for that to happen.

The swimming?

Well, for a short time I decided to teach them myself.  I bought a book and everything.  For a short time they valiantly, and successfully resisted my efforts.  In a very short time I gave up my attempts to teach and played with them; I stopped trying to force them before they were developmentally ready.

They are all good swimmers now.

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Cuts

Yesterday evening I read this article about a care facility in Greece for children with learning, and other disabilities.

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30038753

 

If you haven’t read it, please do.

 

This is one home in Greece for up to 60 children, where one nurse and one assistant are responsible for the care of up to 20 residents.  In order to help them to manage, the children are placed in caged beds – in order to give them more freedom, because before the beds were caged, the children were tied to them, and medicated.  There are more.

According to the report, the director of the centre has not been paid for almost a year.

A local doctor, who volunteers at the centre, feels that it is a great place for these children, because they have ‘lasted much longer than their average life expectancy.’

In the same district, there is a state of the art centre designed for people with learning disabilities to live with dignity and independence, but it remains empty, unoccupied because there is no money in the Greek state to pay for staff.

 

I know that there is a long, long history of thought in Greece that holds physical and mental perfection as the goal to which we all aspire.  I know that these ideals, these modes of thought still influence us today.  I also know that there is something different, culturally speaking, when I read that more than two thirds of the children existing in these cages have been abandoned by their families.

But.

I believe it is the mark of a civilised society, not that you can show off how great you are, how intelligent, how handsome, how strong, or how well you can compete against your rivals, but in how you care for your weak, your poor, your defenceless and your disabled.

This story might not have mattered so much to me if I didn’t have a son with profound learning disabilities.  This story might not have cut me so deep if, when he was born and diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, someone hadn’t suggested that I might give him away.

But this story does matter, and it echoes through our own culture, our own way of caring for these most vulnerable of people.

In an age of austerity, of cuts to services to the vulnerable, of little training and less pay or status for those who care, what will we do?

Save the Bears

This week my morning drive into work has been a bit of a trial.  The traffic has been heavier than normal, for some unknown reason, but more than that, I have had to switch radio stations because I can’t bear the media charity fundraising hullaballoo that’s going on on my ordinary accompaniment of choice.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the switch from music to spoken radio.  Instead of listening to an auction for rich people to buy items that money rather obviously can buy, or listen to other rich people congratulating each other on their incredible generosity, I have been treated to a history of the ‘Save the Bees’ campaign and some rather interesting background to the life and times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel  (his mother’s maiden name is responsible for the Kingdom part, it seems).  It has been a relief.

Not that I have been completely fundraising free. Today I have had to cough up for two non-uniform events, three cake sales and bake a dozen cup cakes (chocolate).  L and I made our way through the flood of competitive-bakery bearing children on their way to school this morning.  Thankfully, this year, I haven’t had to provide some sort of costume (even I can rustle up an apron so that the daughter can claim she is a chef), because that might have been the final straw.

It’s not that I have anything against Children in Need per se.  It’s a worthy charity that supports many worthy causes.  Sam has been the recipient of activities funded, in part, by them, himself and we have been very grateful.  It’s the whole…advertising heartstring-twanging puff that surrounds it that gets to me, and it has been great to take a break from it.

It’s a hard thing to put into words, this feeling of disquiet I have, so I will turn this little post of grumpiness over to Andy Stanton, and continue the story I started here.

The townsfolk looked on in astonishment.  But did any of them go and comfort that poor beast in his hour of soggy need? No, they did not.  Oh, they all said they liked bears.  They all donated money to charities like ‘Bear Aid’, ‘Save The Bears’ and ‘Let’s Buy Some Bears a New Toothbrush’.  But when it came to actually helping one out in real life, it was another story entirely.  It was a story of townsfolk looking on in astonishment – until a heroic young girl called Polly passed by, that is.  Polly was nine years old, with lovely sandy hair and nice trainers, and she simply couldn’t stand to see another person in trouble, especially if that person was a bear.    

‘My goodness, that’s not right,’ she exclaimed, and without a thought for her own safety she approached the beast as he sat there, bawling away like a greengrocer.

‘Good morning, furry visitor,’ said Polly.  ‘I’m sorry you’re so sad.’

‘Mmmmmph?’ said the bear, for the truth was that no human being had ever spoken so kindly to him before.  Taking his tear-stained paws from his eyes, he peered at the little girl who stood unafraid before him in the bright autumn sunshine.

‘Eat her!  Eat her!  Eat her!’ chanted the townsfolk.  Not really, but it would have been funny if they had.

‘My name’s Polly,’ said Polly, gazing into the creature’s doleful hazel eyes.  Through his tears the bear gazed back at Polly, and in that moment something remarkable happened.  In that moment the two of them became the best of friends, like Laurel & Hardy, or Batman & Robin or Albert Einstein & Tarzan.

Andy Stanton, Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.

Image taken from Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear by Andy Stanton, illustrated by David Tazzyman.
Image taken from Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear by Andy Stanton, illustrated by David Tazzyman.

I don’t know.  Is it enough to make a donation and bake a few cakes?  Is there a child in need, or a family in need who lives near you and who needs a friend like Polly?  Could that friend be you?

Asking for Trouble

When Sam was little, and starting out in a mainstream primary school I worried a lot continuity; about consistency.  At first, there seemed to be a bit of difficulty in appointing someone to work with him, and various combinations were cobbled together until a team of two were settled upon…at which point one of them left to have a baby and we started all over again.  At the time I was at home having babies myself, so I drew heavily on my pre-baby teaching-in-a-classroom experience to inform my hopes and dreams for his school life.

I make no apology.  I am a creature of routine, and I think one teacher-one class in primary is much the best way to organise things, for primary aged children and their teachers.  I like my planning and I like adhering to my timetables.  I like knowing when things are going to happen and where.  I like having my own space and I assume that the children do too.  As far as I was concerned, Sam needed continuity.  Of expectations.  Of people.  Of all sorts of things.

Take routines.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no member of the Contented Brigade.  I never set my watch and timed the feeds, or ruled the family with the rod of baby sleeps.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have them.  Once I got the hang of it, we pretty much did the same things in the same order every day.  Bed times were easy because it went tea, bath, story, bed for years, without fail.  The school run, my most challenging of the parenting hurdles, is made easier by its predictability (once we have got used to the new one each September).

At school, when I ran my own class, I set up certain ways of doing things straight away.  Spelling practice first thing.  Reading after lunch.  Art on a Wednesday afternoon and hand your books in at the page that needs marking.  Keep the desk tidies tidy and please can we have a yoghurt pot from home so that you don’t have to be out of your seat sharpening pencils every ten minutes?  It didn’t take long to do certain things because once the routine was up and running we settled into it quite happily.  We were comfortable in its familiarity.

This is not to say that I lost the plot whenever the unexpected occurred.  Now, this may be down to my inability to listen carefully in staff meetings where other people filled in their diaries and I (probably) gazed with longing at the biscuits, but over the years I got quite good at improvising when necessary.  Animal visitors always seemed to catch me out.  The day the police horses came and cantered up and down the field outside my classroom window was memorable, but not as much as the Day of the Lively Python.

I was assured by the capable looking lady, as she proceeded to unravel the most enormous snake I have ever seen, that, thanks to the cold temperature of a winter morning, it would remain calm and docile.  I was glad that there were thirty children between me and it as she sat beside the storage heater, and it woke up properly over the course of an impromptu question and answer session.  Coping with change is an important skill.

But when I think about my son, and I think about the children I have taught over the years, and the difficulty they have when there is a change, to the timetable, to the staff, to the group of children they are expected to work with, I wonder if we couldn’t make it a bit easier for them.

Oh, I don’t mean having them work with the same people for the majority of their primary years, especially not in the way my son learned to be so helpless, or to rely too much on the presence of one particular person, for that way lies danger.  And I don’t mean that they must be in the same space all of the time.  After all, they too need to learn to get on with different people throughout the day, to learn to be flexible when it matters.

No, I mean a continuity, a consistency in approaches to children.  I remember the best transition he ever made to the next class.  From being an unhappy boy, who dragged his feet to school and refused to get dressed in the morning, he turned into to the boy at the front of assembly, receiving congratulations and a silver cup for ‘progress’.  This teacher waved no magic wand.  Sam made no sudden leaps in understanding.  What this teacher did was have a straight talking, no nonsense attitude that left no room for misunderstanding.

IMG_0428No longer was he allowed his own way one minute and expected to conform, no questions asked, the next.  His visits to the head teacher were no longer a confusing mix between shiny stickers and tellings off so gentle they left no impression.  He changed.  He grew under a regime of continual consistency.

It seems so easy, when we see it written on a page in a teaching or parenting manual.  It seems such a simple thing to do.  But when we are confronted with real, live children, the sort who have disabilities or home lives that make us feel sorry for them, all of a sudden it’s not such a little deal.  But if we really mean it, if what we really want to do is make a difference in the lives of children, to play a proper part in helping them to grow into the decent adults of tomorrow, with half a chance of having a decent life of their own, then we need to.

It doesn’t work if I am the only one doing it, and daddy isn’t, or any number of other relatives aren’t.  It will work a bit, but not as well as it should if it only happens in one class, but not in the corridors or out in the playground.  All it will do is leave the children in a swamp of misunderstanding, the most dangerous of which being the idea that they, and not us, are the ones in charge.

We need to say what we mean and mean what we say and stick to it.  All of us.  That’s consistency.  Anything less is asking for trouble.