We should never give up on differentiation!

nathan-anderson-99010.jpg

Recently, I have been reading “Battle Hymn for Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way” and I have thoroughly enjoyed it because it has confirmed and in some way legitimised the scarcely expressed thoughts I’ve had about education for a long time. For the most part, I completely embrace the ideas espoused; however, when it comes to topics like personalisation and differentiation, the truth is, I’m not so sure.

In the chapter Rethinking Initial Teacher Training by Jack Plastow-Chason he says, “excessive differentiation holds pupils back because it lowers expectations put upon them by the teacher, whether consciously or subconsciously” and he’s right. I have seen the way in which systems that are created for greater personalisation, limit the progress and development of pupils. I have witnessed first hand, situations where a child’s anxiety is seen as the deciding factor of what they can achieve rather than their effort and the work that they can produce when their anxiety is reduced. Therefore, providing less academic challenge for a learner is justified so long as it doesn’t make them stressed.

Now, not for a minute am I suggesting that we want students in our classrooms to be stressed or anxious. Instead, I am suggesting that we should provide some differentiation and personalisation to reduce the stress and anxiety of learners so that they can flourish academically. Therefore, whilst I agree with teachers who have decided not to “personalise the lessons themselves”, I think it crucial that we continue to understand the ‘range of factors [that] can inhibit pupil’s ability to learn’ and make adjustments where necessary.

The National Autistic Society tells us that one in every 100 students have autism and the latest census reports that 26.9% of those with a statement or EHCP are those with ASC. Therefore, for every year group, it is likely you will have at least 1 student with Autism and if your school is line with the national picture, then at least 1/4 of your students with autism will have a statement as a result. If indeed this student is in a mainstream environment, it is likely that this learner has high functioning autism and regardless of their eloquence and work ethic, it is likely that they are also riddled with anxiety.

Of course, anxiety is tricky because at school some of these learners will be model students but may go home to self harm or express extreme violence towards their parents or carers. Therefore, as educators, it is important to be aware of these anxieties and provide these learners with resources that can reduce their hidden anxiety. And no, this does not change your role from educator to a social worker or a learning mentor. It just allows you help your student to have good mental health whilst developing academically.

Be of no doubt, I am convinced that many of the strategies and systems suggested by “The Michaela Way” will be of tremendous benefit to ASC Learners. In fact, for many ASC Learners, a knowledge curriculum, the learning of facts and poetry by heart, emphasising a silent classroom and strict routines,  are such stuff as dreams are made on. I truly believe that these systems would be beneficial in helping them to flourish within the learning environment. Nevertheless, understanding these needs and disabilities are crucial and making adjustments for them, should remain at the centre of our practice. Otherwise, we could risk losing them to anxieties and negativity that sometimes lurks so quietly inside.

 

 

 

 

 

Closing the Gap for SEND Learners

pexels-photo-398532.jpeg

Today, I was excited! The report entitled ‘Closing the Gap? Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage’ (Andrews, Robinson & Hutchinson 2017) was published. I had hoped that the expanding of academies and the creation of free schools might have helped us to close the gap in education like never before. Instead, the picture proved dismal with the “most disadvantaged…over 2 full years of learning behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the end of secondary” and those Higher Attaining students with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities), neglected.

The word neglect is of course, a very strong word. It suggests that our education system has failed to properly care for and look after the needs of those with SEND. There is an extent to which I agree. It is known that some teacher training programmes did not give enough focus to SEND and there were schools who were focused on C/D borderline students to the exclusion of other groups. However, in some ways, this is changing. The introduction of progress 8, means that the progress of all students matter. Teacher training programmes have also been revised so that teachers have a better understanding of the SEND of their learners. So, I do believe there is a shift in the way that we work with SEND learners. However, I also wanted to highlight some key approaches that could ensure that we are not neglecting those who are struggling to keep up with their peers.

Overlearning

Many students with SEND show that they find it difficult to retain the material they have studied. As a result, it is not a surprise that they “struggle to keep pace with their peers”. One of the key ways in which we can level the playing field for these learners, is to build curriculums which make overlearning possible. Performing a task or using information to the point where it becomes automatic, is said to improve retention. Within our schools and classrooms, we can aid the overlearning of key concepts or tasks by revisiting them throughout the term until students can use these concepts or tasks automatically.

Emotional Regulation

As individuals, we all experience some anxiety. However, for many learners with SEND, these anxieties can lead to challenging behaviour, tantrums and meltdowns. As we know these behaviours become a barrier to learning and progress of that child and the class that they are in. As a consequence, these students are often given detentions or asked to work away from the class. Of course, I am not saying that these consequences should not be applied as I understand that we must not allow the learning of the majority to be interrupted. However, I believe that we must also support these learners to constructively express and regulate their emotions. If students are able to manage their emotions, it is possible that they become better able to focus and contribute to their lessons. If they are focusing and have a good working memory, then their struggle to keep up with their peers could be reduced. Therefore, if we want to ensure that our SEND learners aren’t being neglected or endlessly struggling, we should seek to use aids such as 5 point scales, social stories and ABC (antecedent-behaviour-consequence) charts, amongst other tools to help them to manage their feelings.

Emotional regulation and overlearning are just two approaches that we can use to level the playing field with our SEND learners. If we can support them to be less anxious whilst finding it more automatic to engage with concepts and tasks, it is possible that they will struggle less to keep up with their peers. This will in turn help these learners to develop their confidence as successful learners. Additionally, by helping these students to regulate their emotions, they are able to recognise and use a range of strategies that help them to respond constructively in a range of situations whether in or outside of school. Of course, these approaches might mean shifts in our curriculum or investments in staff training on how to help students to regulate their emotions. However, if the end result is to have students who can manage their emotions and make good progress, it must be surely worth the cost. Right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to get the best from your autistic students!

There is a universe out there, where teachers stand poised at the front of classrooms waving wands and students respond with glee to every demand. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your world view) our classrooms are vastly different spaces made up with unique personalities and quirks demanding our understanding and wit. When working with ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition) learners, some might say, the landscape becomes even more challenging as these learners might be reluctant to engage with topics that aren’t a part of their primary interests. There are of course a range of different strategies that can be used to engage our ASC learners and I’ve placed by top 5 strategies and explanations of how they have worked below.

 

Using Visuals

Ok, I admit it! When I started working in a ASC school, the term visuals filled me with dread. Would I have to find a picture to represent the minutiae of everything I was trying to say? Of course not. It was soon explained that this could simply mean a written checklist that helps students to know what they would be doing and when, within each lesson. As you might be aware, ASC learners appreciate routines and so by providing them with a structure and a clear view of what they needed to do and where the lesson was going, their anxieties reduced and it was possible to get them to plug in to the learning at hand. Therefore, providing a road map for the journey ahead helped to increase students’ desire to engage with their learning.

Group Work

Yes, I know, we are well familiar with the fact that many ASC learners find social interaction difficult. Sometimes, this is because they want to be by themselves as they can find communication with others to be quite stressful and unpredictable. However, I have come to recognise that at heart, all the autistic learners that I have worked with have a deep desire to interact, communicate and make friends. Therefore, by allowing them to work with peers they like and respect or have common interests with, it becomes possible to make them excited about working on a task with a fellow student. Of course, it requires a lot of forethought in regards to groupings but if the grouping is right and the instructions are clear, it is possible to see incredible outcomes.

Tapping into Their Interests

It is true that learners with ASC have highly focused interests, which often translates into a huge body of facts and information that they are ready to share at any opportunity. Cliched as it might sound, many of the learners I have worked with enjoy researching, talking about and creating things that are related to buses and trains. Therefore, in those lessons where I have used the picture of a bus or asked them to create stories linked to these transport, their excitement becomes palpable; tangible even as some begin to stim across the classroom. As a result, tying their interests to their learning can create a positive classroom environment where students feel compelled to be at their best.

Encouraging Mistakes

It is clear that the students I have worked with have a deep desire to do well. However, if a mistake is made, the anxiety and negativity that arises from this often stops students from moving forward in their learning and their work. Therefore, a key aspect of motivation in the ASC classroom is getting students to so motivated to complete a task that they will willingly move past their failures and to try again without tantrums or meltdown. Personally, I addressed this in multiple ways. I announced my mistakes and made it clear how I could correct them. I put posters up in the classrooms. I wrote dodgy paragraphs that they had to help me fix. For some students, I gave them individual behaviour charts that said they would be given rewards like extra time on the computer if they were able to try again after a mistake. Consequently, motivation in the ASC classroom isn’t about just the desire to do well but the desire to keep going after you’ve failed.

Praise

For some reason, praise isn’t very natural for me. It’s something so simple that I often have to remind myself of but praise goes such a long way. So many of our ASC learners often struggle with low self esteem. They reach so easily for the negative because so often and everywhere, they might feel that they don’t fit or belong. Therefore, just by praising what they have done can produce enormous benefits not just in the lesson at hand but in future classes. And of course, praise doesn’t only come from the adults. Give them a chance to plan and deliver presentations and poetry readings. Watch as their performance brings joy and rounds of rapturous applause, you’ll see them light up and know that they are wonderful. And yes, send postcards home, notes in their planners and phone calls homes. You’ll see the pride they feel as they share with their friends or whisper a quiet thank you. So yes, praise is so important to increase a child’s desire to do things. It’s a simple and beautiful strategy that we can never afford to lose.

 

Clearly, these are only a handful of strategies. There are so many other great aids that we can use as teachers to motivate our learners. The beauty is always to realise that each learner is different and they come with different wants and desires. However, by being skilful and intent on learning about each of the students, we can tap into the things that motivate them and in so doing, help them to secure better outcomes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chalk & Cheese: Girls on the Spectrum

girls-women-happy-sexy-53364.jpeg

The NAS (National Autistic Society) defines autism as a lifelong disability that affects how people perceive the world and interacts with other. They highlight that it is a spectrum condition, which means that no two people with autism are the same. Their autism affects them in different ways, making each day with them a new experience, like it would be with any other human being. Statistics tell us that in the UK more that 1 in every 100 people is autistic. Studies are now suggesting that the numbers might just be higher than previously thought especially because it is felt that girls have been undiagnosed or diagnosed later in life due to a gender biased screening process for autism.

Working within a specialist autistic setting, it is no clearer than on the playground that the girls are truly a minority. Testosterone often runs rampant as young boys strive to assert their control. But today, is not about the boys. It’s about the girls and the way that they are all autistic and in some cases as different to each other as chalk and cheese.

Cheese 

She is probably the reason why I decided to work in a special school. Her smile and her warmth was welcoming. She dished out compliments and reinforced my value as a teacher. In many ways, she doesn’t seem to fit the autistic stereotype. Although she had special interests, it didn’t seem particularly repetitive or overly intense. Not only was she a good communicator with adults but she engaged well with her peers and had a number of close and casual friends. In many ways, typical of her peers. It was clear that she was observant; she would readily pick up on the feelings and emotions of others and responded appropriately to them. Her behaviour never seemed to stem from rules or a literal understanding of instructions. Instead, like so many other students I’ve taught in mainstream settings, her behaviour seemed dependent on relationship, praise and her own internal motivations. In some ways, I had to question: is she even autistic?

Of course, some may argue that she is camouflaging or masking her true feelings. In this case I think this sunny side up is just who she is. Nevertheless, there are other indicators which stand out loud and clear. She loves to be in control. If she feels even for a second that this is being lost, she can descend into stomping, crying and tears. If she is unsure about a task, she locks her head and her pen to her book in the hope that you wouldn’t see her. She hates to admit when she doesn’t know something or feels unsure about it. When asked to present to a group or asked to share her answer in class, she easily reclines back into herself, afraid to speak, afraid to be wrong. There are other difficulties of course with her memory and her handwriting. She struggles tremendously in these areas; however, through over learning and praise, progress though sometimes slow is steady.

None of the areas above worries me because I know that with time and practise and maturity she will continue to improve. But, there is the sense that she is vulnerable to manipulation not necessarily with other girls but with boys. Often she is too trusting, doesn’t fully observe social rules of personal space which in other contexts could create difficulties. Therefore, teaching self-advocacy and e-safety becomes of great importance to ensure that she stays safe.

Chalk

Chalk forever remains my inspiration and is a constant reminder that all autistic individuals learn and develop. They of course do so at different rates but we can never afford to underestimate and undervalue autistic learners. In many ways, she is atypical of what we would expect of an autistic girl. She shares many of the special interests of her peers. Yet in a rare moment she communicated in a whisper that she loves to watch Shimmer and Shine, a cartoon often associated with younger children. This in many ways highlights her effort to mask her true self in an attempt to fit in and be accepted. Furthermore, she has an intense need to be perfect at all times and in all things. This allows her to be the perfect student, forever attentive, engaged and working hard. This drive as well as her high information processing ability consistently reinforces her high intellectual ability. Of course, after reading more recent research I have come to wonder at the extent to which the drive for perfection masks a feeling that she is not quite good enough. She worries me.

Her anxiety is ever present although it has subsided considerably in the last year. Presently, she is less afraid to fail and ready to try again after she has made a mistake. She is not shy and reclining. Instead, she is always ready to share her ideas and express her feelings. She is often sociable but as with many autistic girls, she engages well with adults or those who are younger but struggles when she has to communicate socially with a peer. Her intelligence though is clear and this means that if provided with a clear script for her interaction, it can go off without a hitch. But when the script runs out, the uncertainty and anxiety returns and so she’s cast adrift. Nevertheless, her desire for a friend is forever poignant. She seeks to connect with a peer, wants to interact and be with them. Yet, at the same time, the act of interacting and observing social cues can become mentally exhausting and so if she’s having a bad day, she will recline, happily away from them. It leads me to wonder: did she really want a friend or did she just want to fit the social stereotype for a young girl, if only for a little while?

Girls on the Spectrum

It is always life affirming to recognise that although we all have similarities, we are also unique. Young girls with autism are no different. Although they reflect some atypical characteristics, when you get to know them they are all different and contribute value in myriad ways. Therefore, it is clear that autism is quite rightly a spectrum condition – even with the same gendered peers, the result is simply: chalk and cheese!

SENDT Reflections

b558ec7ba439a6ffd0ceb3c4660897f2_special-education-clip-art-special-education-clip-art_500-375This year will make 10 years since I trained as a teacher. It is no wonder then, that I have started to reflect on the journey and what I would have done differently. In one way or another, my students are still with me. Whether they appear on trains or in the drive thru, in a plane or just my memory, I have come to accept that their story will always cling to me. Their lives are continually shaping me.

So, now I wonder, what would I have done differently and below, I’ve taken the time to chart a few reflections:

For the little boy with the veiled anger and buried hurts who was nowhere near the old level 3, I wish I had the time to hear you read. I should have given you more spelling tests and tried to get you out on trips. I should have created word walls and vocabulary lists, set you targets to use new words and make opportunities for you to use them. For you see, recently, it has come home to me that in schools, we are often expecting students to create extended answers. However, if the students do not have the language to do so then getting these answers are near impossible. So before we begin to ask for paragraphs and extended responses, we must ensure that our students have the language to make this a reality.

For the other little boy, the one who should have a diagnosis of autism, I should have chased it for you. I should have gone beyond the rhetoric that your parents were not interested and called them myself. I also saw your loneliness, I saw the anxiety now that must have been chipping away at the dawn of teenage-hood that made you withdraw from your peers. I should have requested that the learning mentors buddied you up with someone. I should have made more time for you, perhaps prepped you with questions at the start of the lesson so that you were more confident answering them as we would go through the lesson. This could have made you more confident, it could have helped your peers to see the possibilities that I will always see in you. I know I placed you near the door, so if ever your fight/flight/freeze impulse flared you would have an easy way to escape. But I regret that now, I should have put you front and centre, directly in my line of sight so that I could forever get to you. I did growl for you though. The minute they hinted at marginalising you, I would snip them back in line but those who seconds in an eternity where I am absent. Your memory tears me up!

And to the students who were always off task, wiggling in your seat and ready to drift off at any moment to near oblivion who I strategically seated next to the quiet intelligent ones to maintain my sanity, you needed a checklist. I simply could have kept you a little more focused by giving you the feeling that you were achieving, that you were making steps. Perhaps, you also needed a sensory aid just to settle you, or a cushion to make you move in your place but I never knew they were out there then. I do now of course and although I would definitely use them, I would still want you to say random things and make me smile.

I remember the young, black boys too who thought they were some kind of ‘bad man’. At every turn, they are ready to swagger and light up the room with some new slang. When they started to lose the plot, have a few too many fights, they could have used a few comic strip conversations to view their thinking and the people they’re arguing with in an objective way. It would have helped them to really think about the world outside of themselves. And I should have found ways to get you mentors from the community, people who could help to show you that the see more in you than you do in yourself.

And for all of you who hated English and reading and writing, we should have spent more time just talking. We should have had more artists in, performed poetry and do presentations. We should have danced, done the olden days equivalent of the dab whilst making rhymes about the things we’ve learnt. I still remember when Freddie  Macha came in for some workshops. Where ever you are, my lovely class, I think you will too.  I know we had fun in the end and that you all tried so hard. You might not all have gotten Cs, but you went far beyond expectations. I’m still saluting you.

And for the little girl with the long black hair, who had started to perform beyond expectations and then suddenly stopped coming in, I should have gotten your parents in and tell them that you’re smart and could go on to do amazing things. It might not have made a difference but I feel now, that I should have tried.

Through it all though, meeting you all has been a blessing. I just wish now that my teacher training had helped me to recognise that meeting the needs of my SEN learners, went far beyond coloured paper, clear tasks and dyslexic friendly fonts. It’s so much more than where you seat them or by differentiating, giving them a simple text. It’s myriad strategies and ways in, realising that each child is unique and forever bringing their own things. And as teachers who are SENDT (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Teacher), we must identify what they bring and if it is a barrier, we must lead them past it, however gently.