They Are Supposed To Be Like That!

Why there is no need to “fix” kids with “special needs”.
Guest blog by Shelley Johnston: Dyslexic, doctor, home-schooling mother.

If I am going to have a rant, I will say that I don’t see anyone classifying children as “SEN” because they lack the extraordinary physical energy and courage of my next-door neighbour’s son. In comparison to him, many other children are frankly pathetic. I will say that I don’t see any children being “statemented” because they lack the ability to handle animals the way my childminder’s son can pick up anything from a preying mantis to a chicken and it appears to become tame. Nobody sighs and says “Never mind, dear, we can work on it,” because they can’t write backwards perfectly, as though in a mirror, like my daughter.

But do you know what? When I am old and sick, if I have a heart attack at 3.00 am, I really hope I find someone in A&E who was like my neighbour’s son as a child, because they have the energy to still be firing on all cylinders at three o’clock in the morning.

One day I WILL finally persuade my husband that a large portion of our household income needs to be spent on horses, and if one of those horses gets colic, I’m going to desperately want someone like my childminder’s son to show up and be able to soothe the thrashing hooves and snapping teeth as the poor thing tries to kick and bite its own tummy.

If I need an engineer, I hope they can flip shapes about in their head as easily as my little girl can.

The biggest trouble our children with “special needs” face is our own short-sightedness; our desperation that they go along with the pack, fit the mould and jump through all the hoops – the hoops laid out by the National Curriculum and Ofsted and other well-meaning bodies of people, who don’t seem to understand that Normal Distribution is a bell-curve; that it is NORMAL for people to be abnormal, that whole populations work by having a balance between lots of people who are good at one thing and a few who are good at others.

If we spend all our time trying to narrow the bell-curve and cut off its untidy tails we will find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. We not only do our “special needs” children a grave disservice by teaching them that what they are good at and enjoy is secondary in importance to the things that they are bad at and hate doing,  giving them the impression, albeit unintentionally, that they have to pretend to be something else before they are allowed to be themselves. We deprive the rest of the world of their brilliant talents. We bury our mathematicians, our architects, our philosophers, our Chelsea Flower Show gardeners, our Einsteins, our Chopins under a wave of “Yes, dear; that’s nice: you can do it when you have practised your spellings/when you have learned to sit still in class/when you can remember to put your hand up before speaking/ got your marks in your SATS (ooh , don’t get me started!).

Perhaps they aren’t meant to sit still. They can learn to read standing up, lying down, walking around, or sitting up a tree. Perhaps being “good” at school, sticking to all the rules and interacting with 30 children at a time is just exhausting for the child who is so sensitive that they read the signals of a frightened baby animal. And that’s OK: they are meant to be wriggly, or sensitive, or able to write in both directions. It’s our job to give them space to bloom – whether it’s in a mainstream classroom, a smaller group, a quiet place to hide, or not even at school.

But it doesn’t matter what they need: that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how we look at our children, because that is how they look at themselves. Do we feel sorry for monkeys because they can’t swim, or do we let them climb trees?

PS Of course we have to buy a life-boat as well, because we are 21st century parents with a pathological aversion to risk, and even though the monkey lives in a dry jungle we have to cover all our bases, but more on that some other time…

Live it, Learn it!

(Guest Blog by Beccie Hawes, of Rushall’s Inclusion Advisory Service)Ice world 3

Whenever I made one of those mistakes you make when you are growing up (the usual stuff: silly  coloured hair, ill-chosen boyfriends, falling off ridiculously high heels whilst drunk….) my amazing Nanny  Rene would often sigh as she wisely said ‘Well, you live and you learn!’

In thinking about how children learn best I think my Nanny Rene had a point. Many of the children that I  have the pleasure and privilege to work with often don’t have access to the life experiences that make  education accessible. The majority of the children that I meet are loved enormously but for a number of  social and economic reasons are unable to do ‘life stuff’ like visit the seaside or go on holiday to  faraway places. An example of this is when we tackle reading comprehension tasks. Often the children  can’t engage with the text to make meaning as – although they can read the words – they don’t have the life experience to back up their reading to make it personally significant. The impact is also evident in writing as many children don’t have a bank of experiences to build imaginatively upon.  Coming back to the ever astute Nanny Rene – if you haven’t lived it, it’ll be much harder to learn and use it.

Ice world 2 I often use Nanny Rene’s mantra to explain why we do what we do at Rushall. Our current theme is Ice Worlds. We are using this theme as the vehicle to teach  a creative curriculum. At the start of every term, before the children come back to school, we decorate the school to become the theme. As the children arrive  at school their faces are amazing as they discover and explore the new world in which they will live and learn for the term. We also add in as many relevant,  challenging and new experiences as possible. For Ice Worlds this has included a visit from Husky dogs and a pop up ice rink. I believe that this makes learning  truly multi-sensory as they can write from real experiences and with authority about how the fur of a husky dog feels and how their breathing after pulling a  sledge sounds. They can share facts that they have learned first-hand about hIce world 1ow ice is formed and melts. Language skills develop in a meaningful way as the  children have the experiences to ‘pin’ semantic links too. This beats any text book, DVD, teacher talk or demonstration as it is memorable and exciting. As  living it to learn it forms part of a rich tapestry of real world encounters.

Many schools worry that their budget won’t allow for a brand new learning environment every term with a menu of experiences and encounters to make the unlived burst into life ready to be learnt. I would ask you if you can’t afford not to. We owe our children the chance to sample everything and, by living it have the opportunity to learn it in the most realistic and memorable way

The DIRM Factor

ProtractorgateBy Beccie Hawes,

(Head of Service, Rushall’s Inclusion Advisory Team)

DIRM stands for ‘does it really matter?’ and it is fast becoming my mantra of choice for many of the issues that I am encountering in our schools! I have the pleasure and privilege of getting to know the many children and young people referred to our service. Often, the conversation starts something like this: “I have this child who no one knows what to do about.” This then leads to: “We’ve exhausted everything we’ve got to offer and were hoping you and your magic wand could come and have a look.” At this point I always agree to go in because I love a challenge and am yet to find the unteachable child. This is because I believe that children and young people who are experiencing learning difficulties actually have teaching difficulties. The difficulty belongs to us – the teachers – it is our responsibility to adapt our teaching until the child learns.

My latest DIRM outing for a supposed unteachable child led me to work with an amazing thirteen year old male. Upon arrival to his maths lesson for an observation Jay (name has been changed) was sat in the back corner of the classroom wearing his baseball cap and hoodie (hood up) whilst complaining loudly about a protractor and another detention. It turned out that he had received yet another consequence for not having a protractor in his pencil case. The teaching assistant in a hushed, red-faced tone told me that a protractor wasn’t needed – it was a multiplication lesson but rules were rules and the rule clearly states what equipment should be present for every lesson. This had led to the cap on, hood up complaining situation which was apparently the tip of a humungous iceberg. According to the teaching assistant Jay forgets everything and is always angry because he has a terminal case of detention attendance.

At this point there was only one course of action for me. So, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that irritants cause pearls and asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question: “Does it really matter?” Once I had made it clear to all parties that I do value and see the importance of whole school polices, rules and routines, we agreed that sometimes you have to let things go so that you can concentrate on the important and bigger issues.

I strongly suspect that the young man at the centre of the ‘protractorgate’ situation is dyslexic. We will work this out as I get to know him. Often, as a result of being dyslexic, organisation and memory difficulties are experienced. By getting caught up in the here and now of consequences the basic need had been overlooked because we’d forgotten to ask: ‘Does it really matter?’ I wonder if his possible dyslexia has always been missed because it has been masked by a whole host of small things that became the wrong focus.

So, next time we are faced with a situation we should all ask ourselves if what we are dealing with is the thing that really matters or is masking what we should be focusing on.

Crossbow are working with Beccie and her team to bring an “inclusion zone” of teaching tips to the crossbow website: keep an eye on www.crossboweducation.com for the new Inclusion Zone pages. To visit Rushall’s inclusion service website, go to http://www.rushall.walsall.sch.uk/inclusion-team.

Beccie Hawes is presenting a workshop at SpLD Central on 20th June.

Have you Been Phoniced? (Guest Blog from Beccie Hawes)

We are delighted to be developing a partnership with one of our local Inclusion Advisory teams, based at Rushall Primary School, near Walsall. In this article, head of service Beccie Hawes asks the question…Beccie Hawes

Have you been phoniced? (Pronounced: “phonicked”)

I think I may have invented a new verb! In terms of tenses and in conversation it goes something like this:

“Today I have been phonicing some children in Year One” meaning that today I have taught synthetic phonics to some five and six year olds.

“Yesterday I phoniced some children in Year Two” meaning that yesterday I taught synthetic phonics to some six and seven year olds.

My problem lies in that sometimes we ‘phonic’ children and it doesn’t work and quite often these children have been phoniced for two or three years before someone scratches their head and says “I thinks we need to do something different!” It is at this point that my phone rings and I am asked the million dollar question “What do we do about our phoniced failures?” I have a simple answer…..send them to phonic rehab! What follows is not necessarily what all children will need but part of what should form a rich buffet of approaches for all learners to taste!

So what happens in phonic rehab? Firstly, we recognise that not all children learn following a synthetic approach. Some children have limited working memory capacity which means that they can’t ‘hold’ all of the sounds that they need to synthesise. Others may struggle to sequence all of the sounds, fail to isolate individual phonemes or get locked into sounding out everything that they try to read. The next step is to explore a range of methods to find the way in which the child learns best such as looking at whole words, using analogy (if you can spell bat you could get to hat, mat, sat….), exploring onset and rime, mnemonics, word shapes, simultaneous oral spelling and anything else in your teaching armoury. All phonic rehab approaches much be multi-sensory so that children can truly experience the teaching focus in all modalities. It’s time to get back out the sandpaper letters, wikki sticks, magnetic letters, sand trays, slime and anything else that you can think of. This needs to be done whilst looking, saying, smelling and – where you can – tasting. Phonic rehab must also offer opportunities to over learn everything and chances to use what we have learnt in a real world scenario are essential! Opportunities to be in control of the learning such as selecting the words to learn foster engagement. The most crucial element is that phonic rehab starts early and acts like a dripping tap: little and often – a constant drip. We must stop phonicing our children and change direction as soon as we suspect it isn’t working and do something else.

Phonic rehab is a bit scary for some teachers because we remove the structured scheme of work that we believe we must religiously follow and bin the tick list of sounds that must be reader to prove that a child can read. I believe that instead of finding it scary we should embrace the opportunity to respond to what the child needs from where the child shows us their starting point is rather than a neat intervention group.

I regularly work with an amazing lady who has a brilliant saying: “Don’t tickle a pig!” Apparently, pigs are not ticklish so you can tickle them as much as you like but no one will get anything from it. I question if it is time to recognise that for some children synthetic phonics is a pig that is immune to laughter!

(Beccie Hawes is one of the workshop presenters at our conference SpLD Central, coming up on June 20th.)