We can wait

Children and young people who have experienced repeated failure in their learning and in their interactions with other people suffer with low self-esteem. They have a poor self-image and tend to be very fragile. The slightest thing can upset them and cause an extreme emotional reaction. So dealing with them can be very tricky. It’s easy to “get it wrong”.

Rushing in, over-communicating and making demands usually lead to challenging behaviours becoming even more extreme. The young person shuts down their communication and may become defiant and aggressive. You know the kind of things I’m talking about – swearing, shouting, making threats, refusing to cooperate, “re-arranging” furniture…

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about appropriate responses to this kind of behaviour. I’ve found that, as long as there’s no immediate threat to others or risk to the young person, a “slow” response is usually the best option for me. Talking calmly and in a low voice, minimising what I say and making it clear that I can wait for the young person to make a good choice. The message is: “Whenever you’re ready…”

Open up the space, take off the pressure, show that you will stay with the young person and things will usually get better.

What works well for you in these situations?

Raise your expectations

Children with special educational needs (SEN), by definition, find it harder to learn that their peers, so clearly our expectations of what they can achieve will be different, but that doesn’t mean they have to be less challenging.

Recently, I sat in the audience with parents and friends of pupils with SEN from my school and across the county who take part in inclusive drama groups run by Fuse Theatre. Each of the seven groups performed a piece based on a story by Roald Dahl in a large theatre space to around 200 people. It was a great evening and the culmination of months of work. The young people were so excited to perform and the parents in the audience were clearly very proud of them. What a fantastic opportunity for all the young people!

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of underestimating what learners with SEN can achieve. With the best of intentions, we make allowances, lower our expectations and limit their opportunities. What I saw this evening reminded me to raise my expectations and do everything I can to enable the pupils I teach to reach their potential.

How do you let your pupils know that you want them to reach for the sky?

What is the role of an SLE?

It’s a few weeks since my SLE accreditation training and this post aims to capture some of my reflections on the day.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of SLEs. Until a couple of months ago I hadn’t either! SLE stands for specialist leader of education and the role is all about supporting leaders in other schools. My specialism is special educational needs and disability (SEND) and the post was established by our local alliance of schools, which serves as a teaching school. There are nine other SLEs in the alliance, with a variety of specialisms, including assessment, initial teacher training and teaching and learning.

The training day, at a local teaching school, involved about twenty newly appointed SLEs from other parts of the region and two trainers, both experienced SLEs. We had a range of experience – primary and secondary, mainstream and special – but, as we found out in the first session, we had a common purpose. We had all applied for and taken on the role because we wanted to make a difference. We wanted to support colleagues in other schools and help them develop their capacity to improve outcomes for their pupils.

SLEs work in different ways: individually and in teams; sometimes with one or two teachers, sometimes with whole school teams; some SLEs provide training, others have helped schools to form networks and working groups. The common theme, for me, is that SLEs stand alongside colleagues as they develop provision that meets the needs of their pupils and their setting.

I found the day inspirational. The trainers congratulated us on our appointment, talked of the expertise and potential in the room, and set the scene for some interesting and exciting work. As a group, we shared our ideas and expectations, listened to each other and talked about how to be most effective in our new role. Emotional intelligence was seen as key, as was the ability to observe, listen and analyse evidence in different forms. We discussed how best to support colleagues and facilitate change. It felt good that many of the topics resonated with me, re-confirming my thoughts about effective leadership and school improvement.

The afternoon was spent working on a mock project. We were taken on a learning walk around the school in teams of three or four – access all areas. Then we were given time to consider what we had seen and plan some feedback for members of the school’s senior leadership team. This exercise gave us the chance to talk about our conclusions, ask questions and have a go at helping the leaders to reflect on what was going well and what might be areas for development. It was a real privilege to have the time to step back, look around the school and have time to reflect in this way. I came away looking forward to my first project as an SLE.

I intend to blog about my work to help me reflect and learn from the experience, so if you’re an SLE with any tips or advice it would be great to hear from you.

The empty chair

Most of the children I teach have some form of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). They find it hard to express their ideas and they have limited understanding of spoken language. Some of my pupils are working at a three or four word level and find putting a sentence together a big challenge. Structured speaking and listening activities are a vital part of all my lessons and it’s important to give everyone the opportunity to take part in successful interactions.

An activity that works again and again is The Empty Chair. I first saw this being used by a colleague and it was so simple and effective that I’ve used it regularly ever since. It’s effective when just starting with a group and it can serve as a quick warm-up with a group that already know each other.

The basic format goes like this: arrange chairs in a circle, making sure there is one more than the number of pupils in the group; pupils sit in the circle; the pupil with the empty chair on their right must ask another pupil to come and sit next to them; repeat until everyone has asked and everyone has moved in response to another pupil’s request.

Sounds simple. That’s right, but for pupils with severe SLCN the activity provides lots of opportunities for strengthening their communication skills. I ask the pupil’s to start by thinking who they want to ask. The next step is for them to look at the person they want to ask, aiming to make eye contact to set up the exchange. They are then asked to use the person’s name and ask them to come and sit in the empty chair. I emphasise the importance of the use of “please” – if the pupils don’t ask politely, the person they asked is allowed to refuse and remind them to remember their manners. In most of the groups I teach, the speaking is supported by Makaton signing and this, combined with the simple format, makes it achievable for all pupils. As you would expect, good eye contact and good speaking and/or signing are reinforced with lots of praise.

The Empty Chair is a really useful activity because it needs no preparation and it can be scaffolded or extended as appropriate to the needs of the pupils.

What simple activities do you use again and again?

My school is a special place

I work in a school for children with special educational needs – it’s a special school for many reasons. Here are five of them:

  1. We meet the children where they are and we move forward together. Our children face huge challenges. They lack confidence, social skills, self-control and find learning new things really difficult. We accept them as they are and we build from there at a pace that suits them.
  2. We care. Every member of staff is there for the children. We want to make a difference. Teachers, TAs, personal care assistants, lunchtime supervisors, cleaners and the caretaker – they all play their part. We also care about each other. Relationships are strong and we look out for our colleagues.
  3. We work as a team and we support each other. Whether it’s joint planning and team teaching, standing alongside a colleague who is dealing with challenging behaviour or pulling out all the stops to put on a whole school performance. We share the load.
  4. We don’t give up. Our pupils find learning hard and some of them find behaving appropriately even harder. They may have had very difficult early lives and struggle to control their emotions. We aim to de-escalate situations and focus on learning. That takes careful planning, consistency and determination. We do whatever is necessary to support our pupils.
  5. We want our pupils to be happy. We want them to enjoy learning and achieving. We help them to develop friendships and give them the skills they need to become more independent and take their place in society. We believe in them.

I’m proud to work in such a special school. You might think there’s nothing special about it. There’s no mystery to what we do and I’m sure many teachers would say the same sort of things about their school.

Let’s celebrate what’s great and remind ourselves where to direct our energies.

What makes your school special?