Wellbeing 15-16 update

How has your first month gone?

Back at the end of last year I came across the #teacher5aday wellbeing movement.

Reading what had been happening over the previous 12 months amongst teachers with a commitment to wellbeing inspired me and I wrote a blog. The whole piece can be found here:
https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/wellbeing-15-16/

At the end of it I made three vows….and a timely tweet from @MartynReah has motivated me to reflect on how I am progressing a month on.

1. To myself. It is time I sorted this out once and for all. I love the Facebook ‘memories’ function where you can see where you were and what you were doing on this day in previous years. But I am concerned that I have been saying the same things about needing to slow down and look after better myself for 10 years. Now is the time. My family needs more of me and I need to accept that excuses won’t do any more. Only I can do this but but I am hoping for a bit of help from @Doctob’s book ‘Inner Story’ which fortuitously came into my possession recently….
Update:
I think that the very act of writing down these vows and sharing them publicly has had a transformational effect. The concept of wellbeing has been in my head in a way that it was not before and I have been forced to take it seriously in the knowledge that my writing has made me accountable.
Have I made changes? Yes.
I have been home at an earlier time in the evening on some days because my commitment to my family has been prioritised over a vague sense of loyalty to colleagues who probably wouldn’t notice whether I am working til late anyway.
On the occasion when my daughter asked ME to take her to dancing instead of her dad, I started to say ‘but I’ve got three million things to do for work…’. Then stopped. And took her.
I have not been running. I have been doing other exercise because if I don’t, I go a little bit mad….. But the punishing running has stopped for now because it hurts my hip when I run and I need to look after myself.
I feel calmer and I have been more focused because it matters.

I have to confess to a lost couple of days this weekend as I committed every minute to finishing an assignment for my headship course…. But without that I wouldn’t have managed the next one…..and I still managed to sit down for three meals each day with the guys so it hasn’t been THAT bad!

2. To education. I am doing the Scottish ‘Into Headship’ course this year and intend to learn all I can about how to be a Wellbeing-motivated educational leader.
Update:
It has been a real slog to do my first formal assignment but, having just submitted it, I think it is ‘good enough’. The reading I have done on leadership has been inspiring and motivating and I am more determined than ever to give Headship a go…I have been wrestling with the question of whether it is possible for a head teacher to remain true to a vision for improvement when that vision threatens to be eroded and undermined by demands and priorities that have been generated externally, whether at authority or national level. But I believe that it can and I am committed to a style of leadership that is moral and values led: ‘In reading about the School Leadership models described by Bush and Glover, I was drawn to the model of ‘Moral and authentic leadership’ which is “underpinned strongly by leaders’ values” ‘.
And as if on cue, the ever inspiring George Gilchrist provided a blogpost that helped to affirm my belief that there are head teachers out there who remain true to their moral compass and vision:
http://gg1952.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/things-ain-what-they-used-to-be-school.html

I even used George’s blog as a source in my assignment and have joined him in a call to:

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3. To Twitter. I will use this forum to engage in the debate about wellbeing and teacher ‘agency’ and to support and nurture like-minded souls. I will not beat myself up if I don’t manage to tweet or blog as often as other brilliant twitterati friends…..(as I have in the past) but I will use Twitter for all its potential….

Update:
Well, the fall-out from writing my post on wellbeing and my subsequent use of Twitter and blogs have been quite remarkable. The positive responses I got to my writing (and in particular a lovely comment from @Ezzy_Moon) have made me start blogging more frequently and passionately and confirmed a sneaking suspicion that maybe, just maybe, I have some things to say about some things.
So I now have a WordPress site and occasionally muse and ramble about life, wellbeing and education:
https://lenabellina.wordpress.com

Whether others believe I have something to say or not, I have discovered that writing is therapeutic and helps me to get some of my sometimes chaotic and anxiety-inducing thoughts into a more structured format.
I know now that I don’t have to compete in the tweet/blog world, that I will never write for a living and that when Olivia from the company which monitors my tweets asks if I want to raise my online profile, the answer is no….

But writing has certainly helped my wellbeing and I intend to continue. The 29 day challenge is next…. Starting tomorrow. #29daysofwriting

To finish, one last huge thank you to Martyn and the #teacher5aday community. You guys are saving the teaching community, one tweet at a time…..

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When is a consequence not a consequence? ABCs and more…

This morning I have read a superb piece by the ever-inspiring Nancy Gedge (@nancygedge) looking at behaviour management, staff emotions and mentioning the use of ABCs: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/try-keep-your-emotions-check-when-teaching-children-send

I have great faith in ABCs but have seen some misunderstanding around the way they are used…so I decided to write something. I hope it may clarify a few things.

Zena is five years old. The rule in her school is that we keep hands, feet, objects and comments to ourselves. The consequence, if we break that rule, is that we spend five minutes on the ‘naughty chair’, facing the wall and away from our friends. One day Zena is sitting with her group threading beads. She has made a lovely blue and red pattern and needs one more red to finish. John reaches across her and takes the last red bead from the tray. She asks him for it but he refuses to give it to her so she hits him on the arm. Miss Bell sees and puts Zena on the ‘naughty chair’. She feels sad and embarrassed to be away from her friends and realises that she should not have hit John.

The next day exactly the same thing happens again right up to the point where John takes the bead. Zena puts up her hand (having learnt from the time out consequence) and tells Miss Bell. Miss Bell comes over and suggests to John that, because he had the last red bead yesterday, Zena has it today. Harmonious play ensues, Miss Bell showers praise on Zena and John and Zena never hits anyone again in her school career.

Lena is five years old. The rule in her school is that we keep hands, feet, objects and comments to ourselves. The consequence, if we break that rule, is that we spend five minutes on the ‘naughty chair’, facing the wall and away from our friends. One day Lena is sitting with her group threading beads. She has made a lovely blue and red pattern and needs one more red to finish. John reaches across her and takes the last red bead from the tray so she hits him on the arm. Miss Bell sees and puts Lena on the ‘naughty chair’. She sits calmly and watches the pattern of light flickering off a blind.

The next day exactly the same thing happens again. And the next.

Miss Bell and the other staff roll their eyes and start to get annoyed with the situation. They go to Mrs Carter, the Head Teacher, and tell her that ‘it just isn’t working’ with Lena and the consequences are having no effect at all. She is a bit busy but gives them an ABC sheet and asks them to fill it in. Each day for the next three days, they watch Lena and the group activity.

A = group activity.

B = Lena hits John.

C = Lena is put on naughty chair (BUT IT CLEARLY IS NOT WORKING!)

Mrs Carter has a look at the forms after three days because John’s mum has come in cross and asked about reports that he is getting bullied by Lena. Luckily, at this point she sees the problem.

She explains to her staff that the forms need to look more like this:

A = Group activity where Lena is sitting at a desk between John and Mary. John has a habit of sitting close to Lena and reaching across her personal space. Lena looks anxious when this happens.

B = Lena hits John.

C = Lena gets taken away to sit in a calm and quiet space where she feels less anxious.

Soon the staff acknowledge that, in group play, Lena needs a space either side of her and that she should not sit beside John.

Mrs Carter then decides to do some training with staff about ABC’s and challenging behaviour. She explains how, for most children with neurotypical development, school discipline systems such as assertive discipline with rules and consequences work really well. Like Pavlov’s dogs, children learn by having a (pleasant or unpleasant) consequence imposed. But not for all pupils. For some, we need to look much more closely at what is really going on and what the REAL consequence of a behaviour is. For some, hitting another person may provide a consequential adrenaline release for which it is worth risking any telling off. For another, time on the naughty seat is a perfect way of getting some calm time in a safe space.

Mrs Carter also does a similar session for parents and carers and a slightly different one again for the children in the school.

6 years later when in secondary school Lena can say that she gets upset by the smell of Zuper-Duper lavender washing powder. Guess which brand John’s mum used to use? By that stage, Lena has also received her diagnosis of autism.

Each child is unique. Each situation is unique. Time, space and support are needed so that we can see what is REALLY happening.

For more on ABCs and how consequences work look at : http://www.challengingbehaviour.org.uk/learning-disability-files/10_Challenging_Behaviour_Supporting_Change_2008.pdf

This links to another post I have written about inclusion and society: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/included-or-not/

 

 

Sticks and Stones

Driving home last night and listening to PM and news bulletins on BBC Radio 4, I heard the same interview clip over and over again. It was part of an interview with Paul Cook, Managing Director of G4S Children’s Services in response to the alleged abuse at Medway secure children’s unit which caters for ‘young offenders between the ages of 12 and 17’.
Paul said “no matter what the children and young people have done who come into our centres, and some of them have committed some very horrific offences, they need to be treated properly and fairly and with due care.”

 
Sounds ok, right?

 
But somehow something about it unsettled me.
During the reporting, various other professionals were interviewed and gave similar messages about care, respect, the need for positive role models and gentle and human approaches…. but it was Paul’s soundbite which was repeated and used on main news bulletins throughout the evening. And as I listened again, it struck me. Whilst Paul may mean what he says and would hope for fair and proper treatment for these young people, his reference to the ‘horrific crimes’ seems, to me, to imply something quite different. Those of us who work in inclusion will know how important language is and how the way we speak about children and young people and do or don’t label them is key. Had I been Paul, I might have said “we are committed to ensuring the best care and provision for our most vulnerable young people.” But the reference to the ‘horrific crimes’? Why? Surely we would expect that, if the young people in question are in a centre for those who have offended (note my different use of language to the BBC’s above), they have committed some fairly serious crimes? So why say it?
My bet would be that those who’d like to see all ‘young offenders’ locked up for life, punished and certainly not allowed to threaten our streets or mainstream schools will have taken subliminal re-assurance from this soundbite and that it did nothing to help challenge their beliefs. And I also have a slight fear that the ‘and some of them have….’ might also be taken by some listeners as a HINT of an excuse for what may have happened.
Let us remember, there is NEVER any excuse for our most vulnerable children and young people to be hurt or harmed by those who have been tasked with caring for them.
I have never worked in a secure unit, I hugely respect and admire those who do and I am not sure that I would be able to without a huge amount of training BUT, to my mind fundamental principles apply.
Our most challenging and challenged children and young people will push and push and try to get us who work with them to hate and reject them; this will push us to the end of our tethers. And, as the BBC report rightly said beyond the soundbite, those of us who work with them need the training and support to deal with that and see the behaviour for what it is; communication of distress, despair and often self-hatred.
If we believe in restorative practice and a truly inclusive society then it is beyond question that we condemn this alleged behaviour by staff at Medway. But we also need, in my opinion to challenge this type of reporting and language use. Otherwise, we re-inforce the idea that some of our children and young people are beyond help and hope.

 
What if it was your son or daughter?

 

This post links slightly to one I wrote last week https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/included-or-not/
and also to a fabulous post by @Adsthepoet about the ‘hard to reach’ or ‘easy to ignore’ which I highly recommend:
http://thetriangulationofthought.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/are-you-hard-to-reach.html?m=1

Wellbeing 15-16

This post was first published on Pedagoo on December 30th 2015.

I have been following the teacher slow-chat wellbeing posts this week with great interest and decided to have a go at a 15-16 wellbeing post myself.

I am a driven person. I am not sure when I became slightly addicted to pushing myself; I think that it hit somewhere around the age of 14 when I decided that I wanted to go to Cambridge. I think that I failed, as a teenager, to ever get a real sense of myself and threw myself into models of what I thought I ‘should be’. The underlying psychological issues are not for this post but safe to say that at 46, I’m still working on them….

Thereafter the joy of childhood seemed to slip away and I became very goal driven.

But of course hard work is a GOOD thing and workaholism is one of those addictions that is secretly ok because it is about ‘achieving’. As is an addiction to exercise….. You don’t get the same criticism for being addicted to work or exercise as you do for being addicted to booze or heroin….or self-harm.

I am not sure whether genetics added to my driven-ness. My maternal grandmother, widowed while pregnant, was a Lithuanian-German who lived a guilt-driven existence as a slave to the Protestant work ethic. I never really knew her.

My paternal grandmother, the polar opposite to ‘Oma’ in many ways, was also unable to sit still for long and lived on her nerves; a sociable, generous soul who would do anything to keep others happy. I miss her to this day.

My parents both committed their working lives to teaching in the state sector and worked accordingly. Dad was better at work-life balance than Mum. He was lucky enough to be part of the generation to retire in his early fifties. Mum similarly retired early but on ill health grounds, probably related to being a brilliant Mum and teacher but not so good on the self-preservation. Both parents engaged in marathon running and extreme gardening as ‘hobbies’ and so there was never much time for down-time in our house.

I had vowed never to be a teacher myself, having felt that the long holidays didn’t really make up for the other stresses and pressures of the job. I vividly remember my Dad avoiding shopping in our local town for fear of a pupil sarcastically shouting ‘Alright Sir!’ across the square.

But somehow the plans went awry. I didn’t become a GP. Or a lawyer. Or an actor. Or a drama therapist. Because ultimately I decided that I was born to teach. That may sound corny but it is the truth.

Doing a PGCE while I was waiting to be snapped up by the West End confirmed that. It also confirmed that drama teaching was the ultimate thing for me to do in order to assuage a thirst to change the world, one child at a time, through the power of theatre.

I am a good teacher. Years of affirmation from pupils, parents/carers and colleagues back this up. But I have to say that I never feel good enough. That is partly down to my psychology, I know….but it is also because it is a job where culture, society and the processes for measuring my profession constantly put me and my job down.

Several voices in the slow-chat (including @robfmac) have called for the development and promotion of teacher ‘agency’ and I would agree that this is a crucial part of helping improve the wellbeing of the profession. We need to have educational leaders at national and local levels who understand teaching, understand education staff and protect and nurture them, rather than subjecting them to unrealistic performance measures.

@LCLL-Director asked, on day 1 of the slow-chat whether perfectionists become teachers or teachers become perfectionists? I stated that I felt that there is an interesting piece of research to be done here.

But whichever way round it is, teaching and perfectionism can never be a good combination within the current climate. It is a climate where, in Scotland, we are told that we can do our job in 35 hours a week when we simply CAN’T. The non-contact time we get is so frequently taken to allow other absent staff to be covered that it is almost not worth having. Hence a system where we are set up to struggle and fail before we even start. It is a climate where electronic management systems that were meant to reduce teacher workload are so unwieldy and user unfriendly that they cause excessive stress and add to workload. And it is a culture where a politician visited England to learn about ‘closing the gap’, was told there were no clear conclusions to be drawn from the approach adopted South of the border but then decided to impose it on Scotland anyway. (For more on that, ask @realdcameron)

If I cleaned toilets, I would have a specific number of toilets to clean and set working hours in which to do it. I might go home and worry about the standard of my cleaning but it is unlikely that I would be able to go back into my place of work out of hours…. Or be made to feel guilty for not doing so. Equally, I do not believe that there is a technical solution whereby toilet cleaners can clean toilets from home. Whereas, thanks to IT, teachers now have little excuse not to ‘catch’ up on admin, marking, report writing outside of the contracted 35 hours.

So, this new year I make 3 vows.

1. To myself. It is time I sorted this out once and for all. I love the Facebook ‘memories’ function where you can see where you were and what you were doing on this day in previous years. But I am concerned that I have been saying the same things about needing to slow down and look after myself better for 10 years. Now is the time. My family needs more of me and I need to accept that excuses won’t do any more. Only I can do this but but I am hoping for a bit of help from @Doctob’s book ‘Inner Story’ which fortuitously came into my possession recently….

2. To education. I am doing the Scottish ‘Into Headship’ course this year and intend to learn all I can about how to be a Wellbeing-motivated educational leader.

3. To Twitter. I will use this forum to engage in the debate about wellbeing and teacher ‘agency’ and to support and nurture like-minded souls. I will not beat myself up if I don’t manage to tweet or blog as often as other brilliant twitterati friends…..(as I have in the past) but I will use Twitter for all its potential….

So, Happy New Year. Let’s make it so.

Relationship matters….relationships matter

This post was first published on Pedagoo.org on September 9th 2015.

I think that, strictly speaking, Pedagoo is  meant to be about sharing classroom practice and I therefore have to start with a confession; I am currently not classroom based. Those who know me well will know that I have mixed feelings about this. While I am loving my secondment to the local authority central team, I am missing the contact with pupils. But that for another post…

Last week I had the tremendous good fortune to attend three fantastic events within two days. On the surface, the events appeared to relate to three quite different themes. The first was our launch of our Authority Self-Harm and Suicide guidance. The second was a learning session for support assistants on behaviour, delivered by two representatives from Education Scotland. And the third was a day of Leadership training for Argyll and Bute Headteachers. Having had time to digest and reflect on the sessions, it has struck me that there were two key messages common to all three.

The first is about the absolute crucial importance of relationships in education. Ged Flynn from Papyrus, the suicide prevention charity talked about the need for us to make ourselves available to anyone who is struggling to cope. By really listening to the person’s story and helping him/her to find strategies to manage the difficult parts of life, we can literally save a life. Giving the person the time and space to connect with another can make all the difference. Sam March from Education Scotland talked about the vital concept of nurture in helping a young person who is struggling to achieve. He spoke of the ‘turnaround adult’ who can provide a consistent, reliable and predictable relationship in a child’s life. Nurture is about more than being kind to a child; it is about having high aspirations and a willingness and skill to challenge the negative self-image or internal working model that has developed in that child. And Andrew Cubie, on leadership, stressed the crucial importance of getting to know and understand those you are working with and leading. He explained that we need to invest time in getting to understand others, in understanding their DNA and ‘clicking’ with them. He said that the chemistry of a relationship is crucial and that if you are faced with someone whom you initially find difficult, you have to work at understanding them better if you are to succeed together. He advised taking time to “talk out the issues, strategic and other” and to make the difficult relationships better.

This idea of the need to work at our relationships resonated with me. If I have had success as an educationalist, it seems to me that it is often because I have taken time to work at the ‘difficult’ relationships, whether that be with pupils, parents or colleagues. Often another person may present as ‘difficult’ because they represent a different viewpoint and experience to our own; we need to dig deep and look at what that experience is. Thus the ‘difficult’ child who cannot behave may be communicating distress or needing a different type of attention to the others in the class. The ‘difficult’ parent who rages down a phone about the faults of the school may be struggling to cope with a child at home and need the chance to express and work on this. And the ‘difficult’ colleague who resists implementing change for the better because ‘the old ways are the best’ may be feeling hugely insecure about her own capacity to change and need the support of a colleague to take things forward.

I have to confess that Andrew’s talk made me realise that I have probably been more tolerant of ‘difficult’ pupil and parent characters in the past and quicker to criticise colleagues where I have felt them to be putting up barriers. My note to self is to invest more time in developing these relationships and listening more intently to these colleagues in future.

And so to the second key thread touched on by all the speakers I heard last week. This related to the idea that, in order to function successfully as leaders of others, or indeed of our own lives, we need tools and structures that assist us with self-regulation. This might seem obvious; if you do not feel in control of yourself and you aren’t the leader in your own life, then you risk that things won’t go the way you would have wanted. But it struck me that all three speakers mentioned the conscious need to put structures in place around this and not to take them for granted.

Ged Flynn spoke of the need to create plans with young people in distress so that they have strategies that they can draw on to keep them safe. Sam March talked about the need for restorative, solution focused work that clearly identifies interventions that will enable children to move forward. And, perhaps most interestingly for me, Andrew Cubie spoke about his belief in personal development planning. He said that he writes a personal development plan in relation to each project upon which he embarks and it is against this that he judges his personal success within the project. I was surprised to hear that someone with Andrew’s vast experience would feel a need to do this but it also re-iterated to me the importance of attending to our personal self-management. This is not the stuff of therapy or a reactive approach to crisis but the pro-active stuff of life and education.

All three speakers also talked of the need for us to take care of ourselves if we are to provide support and positive role modelling to the children and young people with whom we work. Creating regular opportunities to think about our priorities and values is part of this. So what has stayed with me above all after attending these events? That relationships matter and should be at the heart of education, not seen as secondary to learning but as fundamental to learning. Building positive relationships with others but also building a positive relationship with our own self are crucial to our professional and personal success.

It is not that I didn’t ‘know’ or believe this before;  as a former Dramatherapist I have read the books on Emotional Intelligence, Why Love Matters and the rest. But hearing these three inspiring speakers has reminded and re-enforced the message, giving me the confidence to put it back at the heart of what I do and what I invite others to do.

Ged Flynn is Chief Executive of Papyrus, the suicide prevention charity. Sir Andrew Cubie is an independent Consultant. He was variously Chairman and Senior Partner of a number of law firms, including Fyfe Ireland LLP, having specialised in Corporate law. He holds a number of non-executive Directorships. He has been engaged in education issues throughout his professional career.Sam March is a Development Officer at Education Scotland.

Thank you #rEDScot

This post was first published on Pedagoo on September 1st 2015.

It’s a bit like standing above a pool of cold, deep water and daring to jump in, isn’t it? My first Pedagoo post…..Can I do it? Think how good I’ll feel if I do…..No, I’m too scared……I’ll let him just go first…..Oh no wait, now he’s beaten me too it….I’m useless……Oh maybe not….deep breath….Splash!!

Back in the spring of last year I got caught up in a Twitter debate about the need for teachers to engage in research. Whilst I could absolutely see the point of what was being said, I asked how on earth teachers were supposed to fit in research along with the hundreds of other tasks that fill their days (and nights). Wasn’t creating an expectation that they should do research just another way of making them feel inadequate when they couldn’t find the time?

And then came my discovery of the debunking of Brain Gym and Learning Styles. “What?” I cried, feeling entirely defensive and embarrassed at having launched a ‘Learn to Learn’ programme in several schools which has both within its content…..”But I DID research around those! I read shiny, published books by Alistair Smith and others and they’d done LOADS of research in writing those books….” I felt let down (as well as stupid) and thought indignantly that if, as teachers, we don’t have time personally to do the research, we should surely be able to trust the ‘big names and the shiny books’.

And in such a frame of mind, my eye fell upon a tweet from Mark Healy about researchED Scotland. Late to the Twitter party and not at all knowledgeable about researchED, I decided to go along and see whether it would be able to help me with my malaise about the relationship between educational research and practice.

What was I expecting? Maybe something above my head and overly intellectual. I suspected, having driven for 2 hours to get there, that I might duck out at lunchtime and get back to my family. It was Saturday, after all.

What did I find? Passion, connection, challenge and stimulation and some answers to my questions, plus a few more questions to ponder…Do I have any part to play in the research debate as someone who fell for Brain Gym? Yes, as Tom Bennett said, everyone within the education eco-system has a right to talk to everyone else in that system.

Is the research always 100% to be trusted? No. As George Gilchrist said, sometimes we stop, take stock and have to ask “what have we been doing for the last five years?” before moving on and trying something different. What worked 2, 5 or 10 years ago may not work any more.

If the research provides compelling evidence that we should teach in a particular way, should we ignore it? No, said Anne Glennie. Not in terms of teaching reading and when we are risking the future wellbeing and life-chances of our children.

Is IQ testing outmoded as a useful benchmark? No; Andrew Sabisky has a LOT of data and evidence that proves otherwise. Can it assess all types of intelligence? No… but then the definition of intelligence is the stuff of another huge debate…

Can we half-do Mindset interventions? Mark Healy and Marc Smith would argue not. Everyone in the institution needs to understand the theory and walk and talk the values. But this can be problematic when the system we are working in is based on different values. Character education must be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Gary Walsh explained that the jury is out and that we need to continue to seek hard evidence of its benefits.

And where exactly is the love? Well, my love has found a new recipient. His name is David Cameron and my tweet, after attending his session was “Your talk today was the most inspirational 40 minutes of my educational life. You are my new hero and I actually love you.”

The key messages of his talk? Don’t be blinded by research that isn’t. Don’t allow politics to rule education. Use relevant, pertinent data to inform developments. And “it is better to try in the face of incorrectness than to give up on children’s lives.”


I stayed until the bitter end and was sorry not to be able to join the others in the pub after the final panel session. I left with my faith in research, passion and debate restored. I know to be a little more cautious of the big names and shiny books in future….but also that passion and meaningful research can combine to create the best possible outcomes for our learners. Thank you so much to all those who made it happen and brought researchED to Scotland.

Included or not?

Yesterday, @JulesDaulby got riled on Twitter and wrote the following:

“When QT wrote a blog claiming devil’s advocate I thought actually, the blog was not provocative just prejudiced and in extremely poor taste. So I wrote a rather ranty blog. I also questioned how ‘normal’ you have to be for mainstream a while ago.

What happened next though was better: the Titans of SEN began to respond – I’ve used this image before – over the brow of the hill came the voices and it made me feel proud.”

 

Whilst far from being a Titan, I have a few thoughts on all of this that I’d like to share.

I have worked with pupils with additional support needs for over 20 years. The work I have done has been as a teacher and a dramatherapist and the pupils have had mild to profound needs.

I was also brought up by parents who have helped to run a weekly social club for adults with complex needs since the early eighties. From the age of about 13, I attended the local ‘Gateway Club’ fairly regularly to ‘help out’. This involved playing games, singing, dancing and socialising with some of the most friendly, loyal, loving and sometimes challenging people you could meet.

In that sense, I have been immersed in the world of special people for most of my life. I don’t have that sense of not knowing how to respond or act which some people express. But I also think that some people express that sense as an excuse to exclude.

(This is not the place for a lesson on how to engage but my answer to anyone is always to start by watching, listening and letting the other person take the lead. Being present is sometimes all that is needed to provide human connection and company.)

I have worked in special schools, special units within mainstream settings (my preference) and mainstream schools whose approach was one of locational inclusion (put the child with a disability in the class with an assistant and let the class teacher differentiate; my least favourite.)

I have worked in city schools, rural schools and small island schools.

My overwhelming belief is that we need to talk and educate, in schools and society, about what difference really means and what inclusion really is. I believe that we need to be explicit and not skirt around the issues. It seems acceptable that people know if a peer is hearing or visually impaired but we are less willing to explain when a peer has delayed cognitive ability. Such information can be crucial in allowing genuine interaction, however. It is not about making people condescend or talk down; it is simply about allowing people to understand others better.

Recently I have been researching Challenging Behaviour in an attempt to support school staff better. In my authority we have relatively few specialist settings and a presumption of mainstreaming. This means that we need to ensure that Challenging Behaviour is understood for what it is; not as a choice or an attempt to disrupt but as communication when self-control is no longer an option. The only way that schools can accommodate pupils with such behaviour is where every member of staff…. and every pupil in the school…. understands it for what it is and understands how to react when it happens.

Challenging Behaviour is not a guilty secret and we need to do more to raise awareness around it. ‘Love Actually’ provides a brief insight through the character Sarah (played by Laura Linney) whose mentally ill brother Michael (played by Michael Fitzgerald) needs her constant support.

And real insight came through Louis Theroux’s 2012 BBC 2 Extreme Love series where he showed the challenging behaviours associated with both autism and dementia. Find extracts on YouTube if you missed them.

We need insight, education, honesty and understanding rather than segregation and denial, in my opinion. Let’s not have Inclusion as a woolly aspiration in schools but as a discrete subject. If the schoolchildren of today can be taught to understand each other and each other’s differences, imagine the society of tomorrow that we could create.