Monthly Archives: June 2016

Passing the Buck

I’ve been sitting here in my kitchen, trying to figure it all out, reflect on the momentous events of the last week and make some sort of sense of them all.  I’ve been round the garden and contemplated the weeds (they are taking over, yes they are).  I’ve thought about changing the beds, planning some lessons, but to no avail.  Here I am, stuck in front of the computer, watching the news unfold before my fascinated gaze.

I’m supposed to be writing about the panel debate (click the link for a recording of the debate) I chaired at the Wellington Festival of Education.  I’m supposed to be commenting that of course we all agreed that inclusion, as a concept in our schools, is a tricky one to define, that of course the debate was carried out in a respectful way, and that the panellists were interesting and well informed, bringing a wealth of experience to the fold-up chairs.  Of course they did, I asked them to contribute because I knew that was exactly what they would do.

I’ve got a book to read about bullying, and a blog post to write both in review and as a reflection on both my own behaviour, and the behaviour I see around me.  There’s any number of experiences I have had in school this week which are giving me a banquet of food for thought.  I’ve forgotten non-uniform days and packed lunches, musical instruments and reminders for blazers.  I caught up briefly with a friend after we had dropped our respective children off and before we got on with our days, and agreed that the world, since last Friday morning, has gone bananas.

Now, it might surprise you to know, dear reader, that I do not, in the everyday run of things, engage in much political discussion with my friends and neighbours.  I do to an extent in times of electioneering, I must admit, but not usually.  My friends and neighbours have rolled their eyes at me and smiled in that way that tells me they are not remotely interested and I am in danger of becoming a bore on all sorts of subjects, so I tend to leave it alone, but this week I have been talking politics, with anyone who will listen.  And this is what I found out.

Those people who voted ‘Remain’ in the EU Referendum are upset, angry and confused.  There it is.  I freely admit to being one of these.  About three weeks ago I sat in a café outside the Reijksmuseum in Amsterdam, watching my children play (yes, outside a major museum in a capital city), having travelled all the way from my house by train in a matter of a few hours and enjoyed viewing some of the most fabulous art and bringing my entire family to the point of vocal frustration (WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH, MUMMY!), and thought how happy and proud I was to be a part of it.  I have huddled together with those with whom I know I will agree, and we have bewailed our fate.  I feel as if I have lost something precious.  But, despite the overwhelming screeching on social media, the mood outside of the screen is different.  There is a quiet satisfaction, and a sort of air of, ‘how could you be surprised, Nancy?’

For a while I was pretty sure that when people voted in the referendum, they were really voting on who they thought they were.  Did they see themselves as European, or British?  I was all prepared to write a blog on identity.

And then there was democracy.  Many people who voted Leave, did so on a matter of democratic principle.  They had found out about the workings of the EU and they were not impressed.  Too much like a gravy train, too little like being of the people and for the people.  I was all ready and waiting to come up with a story about listening to each other, and who is actually in charge and not being sure it is the elected representatives.  And after I’d finished writing that one, I was going to think about what this all means for our rather unhandily unwritten constitution.

And then there was trade.  Now, I’m no economist, but even I can see that there are various, and powerful, business interests both in favour and against being part of the EU, for matters of self-interest.  As far as I can see, it depends who you trade with as to which view you will take.  TTIP is in there somewhere, too.

And immigration.  The subject that has caused the greatest ire, the greatest insult, and to me, the greatest despair that such prejudice should be put on show for all to see: legitimised. Such violence on the streets of Yorkshire.  And when it comes down to it, what does the nature of that particular debate say about the UK as an inclusive society? I was not, and I am not impressed.   Not in the slightest.

And that’s before we get to the omnishambles we see unfolding before our very eyes amongst our so-called political elite.

But when all is said and done, the thing that I keep coming back to is this: insulation.  No, not the sort that goes through electrical wires and has been the subject of much discussion in the classroom lately, and not the sort of insularity that has been a subject of debate upon the news, but that which insulates, or disconnects people from the political process, or politics generally.

Up until last week, thanks to my privilege and my economic status, I have only really been directly affected by politics once before, and even then, I escaped pretty much by the skin of my teeth and an accident of birth.  I was depressed by the result of the last general election, but I can afford to console myself that it is only for five years, at the most, and hunker down and ride it out.

But there are many people, some of whom I have talked to this week, who do not share my complacency.  Their lives, unlike mine, are directly influenced by the decisions made by faraway politicians, and last Thursday, they had their say.

And the thing that I think is this (and I am sure that there will be many to tell me that I am wrong, and I am more than happy to listen if that is the case): that we have all been victims of a sleight of hand.  Not only have we partaken in a nationwide leadership campaign of a UK political party (and one that has rather ignominiously bitten the dust only this lunchtime), disguised as a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we forgot that it was our domestic politicians who would have made these laws anyway, to keep us from falling off ladders, or poisoning ourselves with carbon monoxide, keeping our homes insulated or any number of regulations that do not affect my ability to work directly, and will not change now that the political landscape has undergone some sort of geographical convulsion.

You see, I have had considerable experience, over the years, not in drafting legislation, but in sorting out What Really Happened, when everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else, attempting to shift responsibility from their own narrow shoulders.  For years, I have been helping young people to see what went wrong and to make amends.  And I think that all the unpopular decisions, about food labelling, buildings, health and safety at work, cuts in spending to the NHS and education, closures of libraries and any number of other acts of ideological austerity enacted by people at home, have been blamed on the faraway scapegoat that is the European Parliament.

‘It wasn’t me, guv.’

Yes. It was.

Beyond the Behaviour

When I was a little girl, my mother used to regularly tell me that she was complimented often on mine and my older sister’s behaviour when we were out and about.  In fact, it became such a part of our family’s myths that I do find myself wondering whether it could be entirely true.  Not to say that my sister and I weren’t complete angels, but still.  I was never sick in the street after my first taste of curry, and she never lost the Red Trousers on the way back from the shops, no.  If you look at pictures of us, two little girls in matching cheesecloth dresses and little white socks (one pulled up neatly, the other somewhat falling down and twisted round) (I’ll leave it to you to decide who was who), you’d have had no trouble believing her.  Butter wouldn’t melt.

I, on the other hand, have never had the pleasure.  These days, now that they are Big Children, no one comments at all (except when they think it’s acceptable to inform me that Sam is an Actual Angel).  When they were little, and I was busy with the pushchair and the toddlers, and they were busy trying to be the first, or getting their fingers stuck in the check-out conveyor belt, most often, people would say to me, with the raised eyebrow that means you’re not quite sure if they are joking or not, ‘you’ve got your hands full.’

And I, struggling with the shopping and the escapee baby, the toddler who delighted in running off and the pre-schooler who seemed to give in to the regular temptation to sit down in the street, whatever the weather, agreed.  I did, indeed, have my little hands properly full.

No one tells you what it’s like, the bringing up of multiple young children.  You think to yourself, after Baby Number One went not to badly and you managed to get them to the grand old age of about two and a bit without too much trauma and difficulty, ‘how hard can it be?’  How much trouble could one, small baby actually cause?

No one tells you about the loss of privacy, the way you can’t even go to the toilet on your own any more, either for fear that the toddler will bash the baby on the head with the duplo, or the toddler and the pre-schooler will follow you into the smallest room, just for a chat.  No one tells you about the way they take it in turns to be ‘challenging’, how, as one turns into the Infant From Hell, the other one will smugly polish its halo.  No one tells you that four o’clock will no longer be the quiet moment when you look around the room, all tidy and everything put away.  And no one tells you about the fighting.

Fighting over who gets to sit in the front seat.  Who gets to ride on the back of the pushchair, who gets to walk.  Who gets to open the front door, and, even, who gets to do anything.  There came a point, when the boys were little and the girl was still, almost, firmly strapped in, that, such was the ferocity of the fighting, I began to wonder at my capacity to take them out of the house on my own at all.

The problem for me, as the woman charged with keeping them alive, was the way that they became so focussed on it.  The fighting.  They couldn’t seem to see beyond their internal competition, so carried away by the sense of their own importance were they that they ceased to care about the world beyond their own conflict.  They would have happily run in front of oncoming traffic, turned themselves into a tragic headline, if only one of them could have been first.  One slip, one mistake, and that would have been that.  It was terrifying.

And tonight, as I consider the news, the news to which I have been glued for the last five days (is it really five days?), I remember my children, locked into their infant battles.  I thought they were grown ups.  I thought they had got beyond that sort of behaviour.

Moonbeams, or, What Inclusion Means to Me.

I took my children swimming the other day.  They have been desperate to go for a while, because, during half term, our new swimming pool finally opened.  Not our personal swimming pool, you understand, we aren’t the sort of family to devote a large part of our garden to a large child drowning device, but the one that belongs to our town.  It’s all shiny and sparkling and brand new, and it  was the first opportunity they have had to go for a dip.  We have been driving past it for weeks, wondering what it was like inside, so, when I had finally consumed my lunch (I’d been out, my lunch was late) and I suggested an outing, they jumped at the chance.

I particularly enjoy taking them swimming these days because, joy of joys, I don’t have to go in the water myself.  There is far too much holding in of the mid-section and dodging of other people’s slowly sinking plasters for my liking at the swimming baths.  They, thank heavens, have reached the age where they are allowed to take themselves into the pool and I am confident enough in them to let them.  And it was very nice.  Up until recently, taking them swimming had either involved a dip in the people soup myself, or a stay in a sort of cross between a sauna and an assault on the ears in the observation area.

At the new pool, there is none of that.  There is a pleasant seating area behind large glass doors, so it is nice and cool and nice and quiet.  Perhaps fortunately, there is no reception for my phone and no data signal, so I was able to read my current Very Interesting Book in relative peace.  As there was no way to the pool side from my very comfortable arm chair, I was forced (forced, yes, forced) to watch my children making their own way, without any help from me at all, other than the odd encouraging smile and thumbs up.

The only fly in the ointment was the locker key.  Usually, when I take them swimming, I sit and nod and smile, and they give me the locker keys, on their plastic wristy-ankley things, to look after, which usually involve me putting them in a pile and hoping they remember which is which.  Which is fine if there is only a couple of metal bars between you and your offspring, and not so much if you are on one side of a double-glazed, floor to ceiling locked glass door and your child, the one who can’t quite manage the buckle is on the other.

Only here’s the thing.  When the pool opened, all the staff at the old, falling down, holes in the roof one transferred to the brand spanking new leisure centre up the road.  All of my children have been swimming there, pretty much every week, during term time, with school, since they were four years old.  Sam, because his school has their own mini-maxi-buses (they are bigger than minibuses and not as big as coaches, they must have a special name) has already been to the new pool twice, without us.  When he couldn’t manage his key-buckle-thing, and he couldn’t get to me for help, the lifeguard stepped up.

Now, I know that lifeguards are supposed to do this sort of thing, but experience has shown me that not everyone, despite their position, are comfortable with Down’s syndrome, or disability or difference of any sort of kind.  Only last week, when we were eating out, everyone got a menu – except Sam.  We handed them round and when L rather pointedly asked, ‘where’s mine?’, the waiter hurried off to fetch another, embarrassed and unsure.

Sometimes I think that I deliberately ignore the stares and uncomfortable glances.  That I have become so used to a defensive mode of being that it has become a way of life.  Until there really are funny looks, and then I know that I wasn’t pretending after all.  Most times, especially at home, it’s fine.  It’s really fine.  Sam knows people, and people know Sam.  When Sam is in trouble, when he can’t manage his key, or he needs help with his locker, or coming to terms with the fact that public swimming has finished for the day, there are other people, other people who aren’t me or his dad, who can help.  He is included.

Inclusion is a funny thing.  It’s like a shadow.  You know it’s there, following you along, but, when you want to, you can’t seem to grasp it.  You can reach out, touch the things it touches, feel its effect, but it isn’t the sort of thing you can pick up in your hands and examine.  It doesn’t work like that.  Unlike shadows or rainbows, there isn’t a set recipe, or defined set of instructions and BOOM, there it is, sitting in your hand; instead it, like the shadow and the rainbow, slips further away with each attempt to capture it. You only really know it when you see it, when you feel it.

I used to think that for Sam to be included he needed to go to his local mainstream school.  I broke my heart for years, worrying about where he would go to secondary school. I worried about it until the moment I stepped through the doors of the special school and I realised that here was a place where Sam could belong, where he could be included.

You see, I didn’t understand about the process of ‘othering’.  I didn’t know that the practices that no one thought to question, not really, not enough to change, because they can’t be changed really, can they?  he can’t keep up, he isn’t the same, would make Sam feel as different as others felt about him.  I thought that putting Sam in the mainstream would be enough.  I didn’t realise that, in the million subtle ways that a person or a child can be excluded from the group they find themselves in, there are an equal number of bringing someone in.

I went to a very interesting talk the other day about bullying.  And one of the things we talked about was how, as educators, in the same way as many other issues that affect us and the children we teach, from mental health to poverty, the things we wish we could change, things that would make our students’ lives better, are beyond our reach.

As educators we can, if we know how, make our schools inclusive spaces, safe ones, oases of calm, or all the other sorts of definors we use when we explain our ethos; but we cannot do the same for the rest of the world.  Our sphere of influence, authority, control, whatever you want to call it, while strong, only reaches so far.

But here’s the thing.  I don’t exist, in an inclusive fashion, if you like, only in the world of the school.  As Sam’s mother, I see inclusion reaching far beyond the school gate.  I, and he, straddle two, three worlds, and as we move between them, my son and I, I see how they impact upon each other.  Inclusive education is important.  It’s a game changer for many, many children and for many, many adults. It does not sit purely in the world of the mainstream school.  It isn’t something that is fixed, in one place, or in one way, the same way for each child.  It’s a moonbeam.  It is no more fixed than the wave upon the sand.

 

When is Behaviour not Special Educational Needs?

One of the things I used to discuss regularly with an old friend of mind, back when our boys were babies (she also has a son with Down’s syndrome) was where the Down’s ended and the boy began.  It’s a bit of an inelegant way of putting it, and today, I can see that the person that Sam is is entirely interwoven with his genetics, but back then, when she and I knew nothing about babies, other than what we had read in the handbook, we spent long afternoons wondering about the little things they did (or did not do).

And, I got to thinking the other day, when I found myself embroiled in a Twitter-teacher debate over behaviour and SEND, that a little post on the subject would be useful (you can read more about it in my book, available now and you can buy it if you click this link).*

So.  I thought it would be handy to think about the different reasons why children misbehave in class, and attempt to untangle them for you.  With and without SEND.

  1. Boredom.  Some of the most difficult customers I have come across in the classroom are those children who are not only fiercely academic, but also bored.  Failing to challenge these children can have dire consequences for you as a teacher – they get bored, they mess about, and, if they don’t think that you know what you are talking about, they lose respect for you too.   Equally, for others, the work you are setting might be too hard.  Children, just like adults, will shy away from things that take them too far beyond their comfort zone.  Before you know where you are they have quietly sharpened all of their pencils down to stubs and neatly avoided doing any work.

Boredom can also be broken down into:

  •  Now I hate to say it, but we’ve all been in classrooms/lectures where the teacher opens their mouth and you instantly have to fight the desire to close your eyes or gaze out of the window.  Sorry, but there it is.  You don’t have to be all singing and dancing, but we all recognise someone who is enthusiastic for their subject/class – being calm doesn’t mean droning on in a monotone and just expecting children to fall in.

And:

  •  Subject matter.  Children do not all find the same subjects equally interesting (neither do adults – who would have thought).  If this happens to you, then you are just going to have to work a little at it to capture their interest.  I often find telling children that something is interesting is enough to persuade them that it actually is, you might have discovered a different little trick.  They believe me, because they trust me.

2.  And then, we must remember adult behaviour towards children.  Some adults, including family members, can fee so sorry for particular children that they send them mixed messages.  They don’t expect the same standards of behaviour from them.  Sometimes, the way a child is treated in school, it can appear that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to that particular child.  We are quite capable of creating our own behaviour problems with the way that we behave.

Of course, the trouble with these reasons is that it is that you can’t claim that they fall under the umbrella of Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH), although you can apply the same sort of removing barriers to learning thinking to them.

Moving swiftly on, let’s have a look at some of the other reasons why children might act out in class that relate more directly to SEND.

  1. There is a learning need.  This could be something like dyslexia.  A child might have a really good understanding of what you are asking them to do, but simply find the effort of recording their thoughts too difficult.  They might feel ashamed of their struggles to read texts their friends left behind years ago.  Children use their behaviour all the time to cover up what they don’t know, to hide their problems (somehow, they think that we won’t notice).  It might not be dyslexia, it might be dyspraxia, something to do with language, a problem with maths, PE…the list goes on.
  2. There is some sort of sensory impairment. Have you ever had a child in your class who really can’t seem to sit still?  Do they call out or make odd noises?  Eat rubbers, paper clips and chew everything in sight?  They might have low sensory perceptions.  You might have taught a child who makes a massive fuss about their uniform, people touching them, personal space, looking at particular things, struggles when there are loud crowds (like assembly) or lots of noise (sport’s day, anyone?).  They might have high sensory perceptions.
  3. There are communication difficulties. It is so frustrating when you just can’t get the words out.  When you know what you want to say, but you just can’t seem to – or you can only marshall your thoughts when the moment has passed.  The effort of processing all that language is exhausting, and it leaves little energy for controlling reactions to when classroom life gets tough.
  4. Difficulties in flexible thinking. All children are creatures of routine (I had a lovely conversation the other day, during a science lesson on the digestive system, with a little girl who told me that both she and her mummy have a glass of milk before bed to help them to sleep), but some struggle with change more than others.  Schools are fast moving places, and we expect a lot from some of our young people when we spring changes on them, or we don’t give them quite enough warning that a lesson they are really enjoying (like PE or Art) is going to stop.
  5. Physical impairments. Some physical impairments also come with learning difficulties -which can include behaviour.  With some children, the brakes are firmly off, and you can expect reactions to be very quick indeed.  Some diagnoses, like ADHD, relate directly to behaviour, and the ability a child has to regulate it.  If a child is taking medication, this can also have an effect.
  6. Trauma.  Many children live in less than happy circumstances at home, and this can have huge impacts on their behaviour in school.  They might have learned that the only way to get attention is to push themselves forwards, and any attention will do.  They might be angry about home situations and, because they are children, they don’t know what to do about that.  They might not have stable adults in their lives who can model for them how to negotiate their social world successfully.

I could go on, but I will stop there – I’m sure you get the picture.  There are a million and one reasons why a child might misbehave in class, many of which are related to SEND, some of which aren’t, and, to a massive degree, they are all intertwined.  What you need to do, as the class teacher, is attempt to figure out what it is that is getting in the way of them behaving well for you, behaving so that they can learn, which is, after all, what you are there for.  Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that SEMH is somehow a separate category of special need that never crosses over with anything else.  It’s WAY more complicated than that.

 

* Oh yes!  My book!  You can find more information on SEMH in it 😉  You can buy it here.  Apologies for the shameless plugging.

 

#SEND Definitions for beginners

I was trying to remember, the other day, when I hadn’t been thinking, one way or another, about Special Educational Needs, and you know what?  Since I left the education system as a student myself, I can’t actually remember.  Once I became a teacher, once I became a mother, it never left my consciousness.  Now, personally, I’ve never really worried too much about definitions, after all, a label, is just that, but it occurred to me yesterday, after I perused my Twitter feed after having consumed my lunch, that the term SEND might need a little bit of a definition.  So, if you’ll pardon the shameless plugging, I am going to mention my book (which you can buy here, should you so wish).

So.  Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is a bit of a mouthful, but what it basically means is in relation to a school context.  Unhandily, for those who really do prefer for things to be cut and dried and can’t be doing with any of this shades of grey nonsense, it doesn’t mean a tickbox, checklist, bloodtest kind of thing.  Although, there are conditions, like Down’s syndrome, that you can detect with one of those very things, and is, indeed, what happened to Sam when he was about twelve hours old.  In a school context the term relates to those children for whom additional provision needs to be made if they are going to be able to learn.  It relates directly to a learning difficulty or disability.

So, that means that although, for instance, you may be making additional or different provision for children who don’t speak English as their first language (EAL in edu-speak), speaking a different language is not a difficulty/disability, you can’t claim it as an SEN.  The two things are not the same at all.

Disability, as defined in the Equalities Act means that there is an impairment that has a long term impact – of a year or more (so you can’t include children who have broken a toe) and it has a significant impact on their lives.  This includes long term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer.  These conditions do not relate directly to learning, but children with them may require different/additional provision in school and this is covered by SEN legislation.

So, within the English system, we have four categories of SEN (we like our categories, oh yes we do), which describe (roughly) the main areas of need a child is likely to be experiencing in school. (Please do comment below if you would like to add information on the system where you live – I am very interested in the international situation currently.)  They are:

  1. Communication and Interaction (C&I)

This means speech and language, communication and social interaction.

  1. Cognition and Learning

This means learning, thinking and understanding the world.  This could be developmental delay or something like dyslexia – something that makes it difficult to learn.

  1. Sensory and/or physical

This means things like visual/auditory impairment and physical disabilities.

  1. Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH)

This is the one that causes all the fuss. Fuss, fuss, fuss.  Because this is the one that relates to behaviour – BUT, not that the behaviour in itself that stops a child from learning, but that the drivers for that behaviour, the reasons behind it, as it were, and how it relates to mental health are the issues that need addressing.

The thing that can catch people out is the idea that children fit into one category or another, which is unfortunate for those who like everything nice and tidy.   It is entirely possible (and probably likely, but I am no statistician) for a child to have needs that span ALL FOUR of the categories. This is called co-morbidity (lovely term, I know).  In fact, it is so common that I would strongly suggest you don’t assume that a child ever has a learning need that sits in only one category.

Let me elaborate.  You might have a child in your class who has dyslexia (for instance – it’s something I have just this minute pulled out of my head – to spare his privacy I am not going to use Sam and his particular learning needs as an example here, so I am making someone up).  They struggle with reading and spelling.  They wear glasses and have a bit of glue ear in the winter.  They don’t like the fact that they aren’t getting on well with their school work, so they mess about in class, and do anything, in fact, to cover up their problems.  They find, because they mess about, perhaps, that relations with their classmates are not as easy as they might be and as a consequence they are always getting into trouble in the playground ad this regularly spills over into lesson time.

OR you might have a child in your class who has experienced some kind of trauma.  Maybe one of their parents died, or there was a messy family breakup, domestic violence, something like that.  This child finds it difficult to settle in class, and struggles with feelings of abandonment and anxiety.  This means that their reptilian brain (the fight or flight bit) (the oldest bit of the brain, the amygdala) is in charge, and rational thought is impaired.  They are so busy worrying about what is going on in the class (that isn’t book learning), they fly off the handle at a moment’s notice, constantly falling out with friends, and they are rapidly falling behind.

OR you might want to think about a non-verbal child, someone more visibly disabled.  They might have some sort of sensory sensitivity and find a busy classroom a very difficult space to be.  They might bite another child, or throw themselves to the ground, because they can’t express or communicate what is wrong and they have no other way to tell you.

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities are woven together, tangled, if you like – and a child’s behaviour is often going to tell you something about the nature of their difficulties.  This is what we mean when we say that behaviour is communication.  Even when a child like Sam rocks up in class, one for whom there is a medical diagnosis, that label isn’t going to tell us a huge amount, even if we don’t allow our prejudices and fears to spring to the fore.  Pieces of paper and categories are just that.  Pieces of paper and categories.

What you need to do is to get to know that child as a person, so that you can both understand what they are saying to you, and that they can understand what you are saying to them.  And in order to do THAT, you need to have a relationship with them.  Don’t worry, I don’t mean some sort of lovey dovey/parent substitute thing, I mean a teaching relationship, something that is qualitatively different and distinct.

Yes, challenging behaviour in class is debilitating and draining for all concerned.  There are no magic wands or magic pills to make it better or make it go away.  Labelling them as ‘naughty’ doesn’t work either.  Concerted and unified effort does.

Did I mention my book?  It’s out now and you can buy it here. 😉