Tag Archives: Special needs

Grown Ups

Today has been a day of new experiences.  Usually (well, for the last four years, anyway), I spend Monday afternoons with Year 5, rattling between classrooms and disturbing lessons and attempting to persuade reluctant children that what they actually, really truly want to do is come out of their nice, warm classroom where they are learning something interesting, and come and sit with me, in a draughty old corridor that smells quite a lot of wee and do the thing (reading, usually) that they really hate because they find it hard.  Today, though, was different.  Today, via the Wonder of the Internet, I watched speeches at the Conservative Party Conference.  The Minister for Education, to be precise.

Now usually, you wouldn’t catch me sitting through speeches at a political conference (I’m not very good at listening to speeches anyway, even if I agree with them; I keep feeling the need to either contribute or wriggle), but, seeing as this was about education (and I am watching the car crash that is the grammar school question unfold before my fascinated gaze) and I am no longer employed to be the spoiler of children’s Monday afternoons, AND seeing as keeping up-to-date with edupolitics is part of my new job, I indulged.

One of the most interesting things, to me, anyway, when I watch Justine Greening, is what she skims over.  She couldn’t get away with making no reference to grammar schools, even though she dressed it up in terms of ‘good school places’ (I mean, who wouldn’t want one of those for their children?), but there was no dwelling.  To my ears, it’s a case of, ‘yes, yes, moving swiftly on, people, nothing to see here’.

And the other interesting thing, to me, anyway, is what she dwells on.  I noticed it the first time I watched her, answering questions before the Commons Select Committee on Education.  She does that thing that people do when they are enthusiastic about something, when there is something that they are really interested in, something that they care about.  She sits up, and she lights up like a candle and she goes all fizzy.

When she talks about FE and apprenticeships, and giving children opportunities to find out about the world of work, and doors upon which opportunity may knock, she loses the pained expression of a woman stuck defending something she can’t quite convince me she believes in; when she speaks about opportunities and learning about careers or jobs that children might not have known existed, she gets that enthusiastic little glint in her eye.  I reckon that’s the reason that straight after her speech she sat down and interviewed a lady from the CBI.

I reckon that’s why, when she talked about a country where anyone can succeed, she asked about the basic skills that young people need in order to participate in the workplace, like the ability to communicate, work with other people, to understand that when a job needs doing, that someone needs to do it and do it without being babysat through the process.  It seemed to me that what they were talking about, two women in positions of power, were the ways in which we help our children to be adults.

And that’s when I start feeling sad, and frustrated.  Because this week, with my facebook and twitter feeds flooded with discussion about Down’s syndrome, I can’t seem to separate the two.  Helping children to be adults is a mighty thing indeed – and they are right, involving employers is a good start (although I would caution against a purely utilitarian view of education – it’s that kind of thinking that makes people start asking how viable a life with an extra chromosome is because of the cost) – but why does it seem to be only some sort of jobs that are worth having?  That only some sorts of careers, like those in STEM, are worth educating for?

Work brings dignity.  It confers adulthood.  But where is the job for my son?  And who will help him get it?

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Apples and Pears and the Education Select Committee

img_4696There is a disused railway track that runs near the back of my house.  As luck would have it, it runs pretty much from here, near the centre of town, to the schools my older children attend (back in the 70s, some forward-thinking town planner put three schools on the same area of land; one primary, one secondary comprehensive and one special school).  It’s almost as if there was a joined-up transport plan, back in the day.  In fact, I’ve never seen such large bicycle sheds in a school, such is the popularity of the bike, and the safe route to school around here.

If you didn’t know it was The Lines, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were, in fact cycling down a country lane.  The hedgerows grow high, masking the urban landscape behind them, shielding the houses and gardens from the interested gaze of the passer by.  Ordinarily, you wouldn’t notice the kinds of trees and bushes that grow in such mixed up profusion by the side of the path.  Most of the time it is simply a bank of green, with the odd nettle thrown in, just to keep you away from the edge.

But every year, around the middle of September, the character changes.  Instead of green, the foliage betrays flashes of colour.  Instead of the flat, two-dimensional nature of the leaves, there is the round fatness of fruit.

People gather, tempted by the purple succulence of blackberries, hoping for jam or crumble; rosehips glow, scarlet and out of reach, high up in the tangle of brambles.  But the one tree that fascinates me as I pass by, on my way to deliver or fetch Sam from his special school, is the one that stands behind, hidden so that to see it you really have to look, and whose harvest of pears lies, crushed and slowly rotting, untouched on the path below.

Whether or not the people of my town have no liking for pears I really couldn’t say.  Perhaps this is a centre for blackberry and apple crumble as opposed to tarte tatin.  Whatever it is, the pears lie, unwanted, upon the ground, fallen from their parent tree, their birthed perfection blemished by their tumble, turning from sweetness through the unmistakable aroma of heady wine, to the acid disappointment of vinegar.

I thought about those abandoned pears when I listened to Justine Greening, the new education secretary, giving evidence at the Education Select Committee this week.  I thought about how everyone rushes to the blackberries, and leaves the pears behind, all their luscious promise coming to nothing, rotting on the ground.  I thought about those pears, and I thought about children with SEND and I thought about this idea we bat around that all children deserve a decent education.

I thought about the narrative of social and economic disadvantage and I thought about the close connection between poverty and disability, and I wondered why, like the pears, SEND wasn’t on the table.

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 feel 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 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 strongly to behaviour, and the ability a child has to regulate it.  If a child is taking medication of any kind, 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.

 

Happy Camping

Taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme is not something that I ever did when I was at school.  I must have missed the meeting or something; either that, or I took no notice of it, after an unhappy week spent at the Dartmoor Adventure Centre when I was twelve, and I was the only one who turned up without a sleeping bag.  Sleeping bag inners were provided, the letter said, so my mum took it at its word and, while other girls unpacked their own pillows and pillow cases, I was left to make do with a sleeping bag inner and a ripped and dirty sleeping bag with half the stuffing falling out.  Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that week, and my enthusiasm for the outdoors and adventures was dimmed.

I didn’t really enjoy the activities either, it must be said.  My group got lost when we ‘orienteered’ around a short course.  I fell in the water, after going round and round in circles for a while, when it was me at the end of the canoe raft and I had to swap places with the one at the other end.  I was too thin for the climbing harness and had to have a rope tied around my waist (I chickened out of the abseiling, which was probably a good thing).  It wasn’t long before I was longing to go home.

The husband, on the other hand, loved it.  He went and achieved his gold award, and, after we married, introduce me to the delights of hiking with bikes, and walking up mountains.  Up until our Scottish Holiday, my only experience in tents had been in my parents’ garden and was Not Good.  I still get a bit funny about sleeping bags.  Sam, with the support of his dad, has decided to give the Bronze award a go.  Volunteering at a charity café, check.  Sport (football), check.  Skill (guitar), check.  All we have left to do is the adventurous activity.  He’ll go camping at forest school and we’re off up Pen Y Fan in a couple of weeks.

Sam though, bless him, is not the happiest of campers.  It always seems like so much fun until you actually have to go to bed, and then it all becomes a bit of a trial.  He can’t get comfy in the sleeping bag.  The ground is all slopy.  There are funny noises.  There’s weather.  Last year, in the middle of a week away, he disappeared in the dark, only to be found, arms crossed and a most pugnacious of expressions applied, sitting in the car, determined to be taken to Grandma’s.  Despite my early antipathy to life under canvas, tenting has become part of what we do, and so we persevere.

For some people, though, it’s an amazing thought that someone with special needs should have been camping with his family.  Only the other week, I was given a leaflet about it by someone who was surprised when I handed it back and suggested that they gave it to someone for whom it would be a new and exciting experience.  It felt weird, and terribly middle class to tell her the tale of the camping trip to the sailing club, and the fact that Sam has his own boat (a kayak).  It was a shock, because, once we moved away from the mainstream, and we grew away from the nursery years and we chased off the home visits from the social worker and all of those other things that happen when there is special needs in the family, I got used to not being patronised.

You see, some people, and I include members of my own profession in this, forget that learning disability, or special educational needs, or whatever you want to call it, is no respecter of class or income.  It’s as if special educational needs only happen to the disadvantaged, the poor or the working class.  You know, the people you can blame for the whole Bad Parenting thing.  That the answer to special needs is somehow to educate parents (send them on a parenting course, especially the mother), or get the children away from the parents (like the school for two-year-olds thing), to get the parents, those ignorant mistake makers to do as they are told because we, the professionals, are the ones who know what we are doing.

It used to be said that illness and disability, or the Bad Things That Happen were the wages of sin.  You did Bad Things, and you got what you deserved.  The way of thinking that thought that Bad Things didn’t happen to Good People.  Sad to say, when you get thinking about it, when you get to mulling over attitudes to special educational needs, how they must be the fault of the parents, for not doing as they are told, it doesn’t feel like we have moved on very far.

Happy Birthday?

This cake rather made a rod for my back.
This cake rather made a rod for my back

Soon it will be Sam’s birthday. He has been in a state of high excitement for some time about it; we have been waiting for it for at least two weeks.  His teachers have seen a marked down turn in his behaviour, something that we have seen many times before at this time of year (one year he spent most of the day in the corridor), so it’s nothing new.  He has made lists of guests to invite to his party, and replied to the question of what he wants for his birthday with a charming lack of avarice (just a toy lorry will do nicely, thanks).  Soon, Sam will be a teenager.

Over the years, Sam has hosted, and attended, a large number of parties.  He has birthday-boy-ed the whole class party, the party at home, the video party, the football party (make sure you warn any girl attendees that it’s not really suitable for party dresses), and, most recently, the activity party.  He has been to soft plays, magic shows, a hair and nail party (this was not a great success), discos (not very keen, bit like his father), almost, in fact, any kind of party you care to imagine.  The invites slowed in recent years, for which my bank balance was eternally grateful.

His favourite sort, though, it has to be said, is the kind of old fashioned gathering of friends where there is musical statues (he likes operating the sound system and declaring winners), or any other sort of traditional parlour game where mummy is in charge (actually, I don’t think he is alone in this – the one time I attempted a Party-Without-Particular-Activities I was informed in no uncertain terms by one of my favourite guests that it wasn’t a proper party without any games).

We haven’t always made a big deal over Sam’s birthday, however.  When he was very small his birthday was a funny old day, and not one we particularly felt like celebrating.  It’s partly the time of year, it has to be said.  A January birthday meant a January annual check-up at the local hospital.  It took me a couple of years to make the link between that and the annual January visit of winter vomiting that hurtled first through Sam, then me and finally Daddy.  His first birthday left me feeling especially wrecked.

Not that I was particularly in the mood to celebrate, even if I had been able to, to be perfectly honest.  There is that quality to anniversaries that has the effect of making me pause to reflect, to remember, that left me feeling melancholy, disturbed.  Being surrounded by long faces instead of balloons and congratulations upon the birth of your baby doesn’t really make you feel much like celebrating.

Not that Sam’s first birthday went ignored, mind you.  On it I was interviewed by the legendary John Peel for his Radio 4 programme ‘Home Truths’.  Now that was a surreal experience.  I sat it a very brown-ly decorated studio at our local radio station (must have been set up in the Eighties) with an enormous pair of headphones on, ignored the churning of my stomach and the lightheadedness-from-lack-of-sleep (I’d been up with my head in the toilet for most of the night) and chatted away as if I was talking to an old friend.  It’s a shame that I have misplaced the recording we made of the broadcast because I can’t remember much of what I said over the space of that hour; I mostly recall the sense that I was answering questions that offered no judgement, just the sort that allowed me to tell my stories.

I can’t really remember Sam’s second birthday at all.  We probably went to a party for one of his friends, seeing as they were all born at the same time it seems likely, but we certainly didn’t have one at our house.  Judging by my younger children, had Sam been the baby of the family I doubt we would have been able to get away with it for as long as we did.  L spends months discussing what kind of party she would like to have (it tends to be highly dependent on the last one she attended), and after the omission of a Birthday Badge, followed by One She Didn’t Like, she has become quite assertive about her wishes.  And if you have a birthday on the day you visit our house, please don’t expect not to receive a fiery creation, regardless of the ruination of your waistline.

By the time Sam was three I was starting to feel a bit guilty about the lack of cake and candles.  It wasn’t as if Sam was aware that it was his birthday, but we knew. We couldn’t ignore it any longer.  It was time to beat those bad memories into submission; time to make his birthday into something about him, not us.  We’ve never regretted his appearance in our lives, after all.

Maybe that’s why Sam’s parties have always been rather splendid affairs.  Maybe I was trying to make up for that early un-celebration.  And once you get started on these things, and you have three children, they kind of take on a life of their own.  I also, it has to be said, wanted to do something to reciprocate the invitations Sam had had over the years, to say thank you for other people’s generosity.  Not for Sam the label of Never Being Invited To Parties.

And that’s why, even now, even when he is turning thirteen and we really ought to be saying, ‘you know what, son, you’re getting a bit big for parties, how about we go out for a nice meal with the family instead?’ and lowering some of his expectations, we are still getting ready with the cake and candles, party bags and balloons.  Because now that Sam is in Special Education, now that he is just one of the lads and not the Odd One Out, I am aware (not that I’ve ever asked, sometimes it is better not to ask) that quite a few of these kids, even if they turn them down, don’t get those precious party envelopes.  And, if I don’t invite them, who else will?

cake debris

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