Show Me How

Most of my students are worried about making mistakes. And I don’t mean worried in the sense that their worry may cause them to write a word they are confident in spelling rather than a more challenging word they can’t. I’m talking about fear so paralysing that even putting a pen on a piece of paper can feel like a challenge that is to great.

For many it’s this anxiety which has meant they struggled too much in mainstream. It’s easier to act out and display difficult behaviours than to admit you’re too frightened to start. So when we set a piece of work we have to think carefully. We have to make the difficult feel simple. We have to take away the fear.

One of the ways we do this is through modelling. We do the whole class modelling of collating ideas, sharing them, writing on the board etc. But we also simply sit and do the work ourselves. We become fully involved in the lesson. Sometimes we even get stuck. There is nothing more enabling than helping the teacher or member of support staff working with you fix the problem. On the days you’re finding things hard it’s exactly the kick-start in motivation you need.

So whatever it is we’re doing, there are always spare copies or resources. It’s amazing how contagious writing can be, when the person sat next to you is obviously excited about what they’re doing; when they talk to you about their ideas; when they show you there’s nothing to be afraid of.

When fear comes into play, you can’t tackle the problem head on. You can’t tell a student to do the task. You can’t tell them it’s not scary. But you can show them. For those students who come to lesson with support this is easy to do, all you have to do is give out an extra sheet of paper and encourage the member of Support Staff that you’d love to see their work too.

For those that don’t have support it isn’t insurmountable. Think carefully about your seating plan. Place your confident excited writers near those who find it harder and encourage talking in the first ten minutes of the process. Encourage students to share their ideas as they start and even more so, encourage other students to magpie those ideas.

This one is really easy to implement; differentiation that’s as easy as handing out an extra sheet of paper. So go on, what are you waiting for make sure you’re stocked up for September…

The Obsession With Time

My students like things exact. They like structure, they like routine and they like me to say what I mean.

So when I say something will happen at a particular time I have to be clear. If I say in five minutes, then at exactly five minutes and one second someone will point out that I am late.

It can be infuriating and it can drive me crazy, but maybe that says more about my inability to stick to a particular time, than it does about my students. I have to take a moment and realise that my students are not doing it to be annoying, they are not trying to look smart and they are not trying to make me look bad. They are doing it because to them it matters. I said five minutes so I should take five minutes. I should say what I mean and stick to it.

So next time a ‘we’ll do it in five minutes’ is about to roll off your tongue, take a moment and think. Do I really mean five minutes? Or do I mean when I’ve finished what I’m doing? And if it’s the latter, say that. Say what you mean, and do it; to someone in your room that accuracy may just matter. And that’s about as easy as differentiation can get…

Inclusion or Exclusion?

With the latest news that exclusions are on the rise, we must consider the very real impact that exclusion has on students with autism. The figures from ambitious about autism suggest that in the last twelve months alone 40% of students with autism have experienced a period of exclusion from school. Government statistics show that overall students with SEN are six times more likely to be excluded than those with no special needs. These are frightening figures. I genuinely believe that the staff involved with those students have tried their best. But what we need to ask ourselves is is our best good enough?

Teachers receive very little training in dealing with students with SEN, and even less in identifying those students. In fact a recent article in ‘Young Minds’ reveals that over 20% of those diagnosed with autism are not diagnosed until after their 11th birthday. Of those who are diagnosed many do not meet the threshold for an ECHP. The reality is that until a child fails they do not qualify for support. We (the teaching profession) are not allowed to be pre-emptive.

Over my teaching career, in both EBD and ASD specific settings I have been staggered by the number of students who arrive with me at 11 unable to read and write. Not because these students are unable to learn but because they have been unable to access the specialist support they need until they hit crisis point. It isn’t rocket science to realise that a student who hits puberty unable to do their work is more likely to act out than admit they can’t read. And yet, until they do act out, until they lose control again and again and a school feels they cannot cope they do not receive the help they need. The threshold for a CAMHs referral is increasingly high, waiting lists are increasingly long, social services will not offer families help (even when they ask for it) unless a child is at risk, and we are operating in an education system that values facts and figures over the needs of individuals.

So yes these teachers are doing their best, by the time they exclude I am in no doubt that they feel it is the only choice open to them. But are we as a society doing our best for the most vulnerable members of that society?

There needs to be change. There needs to be a shift. Support needs to be put in earlier before these students hit crisis point. All teachers need compulsory training in identifying and working with students with SEN. I believe in inclusion. The principles of it are everything I stand for. But in order for it to work, we cannot simply put students into mainstream schools and cross our fingers. We cannot have a system where our most vulnerable students continue to be taught primarily by LSAs. We cannot have a system where schools are forced to exclude because it is the only way of getting help for pupils.

So there you have it, my rant. Tomorrow I will return to the business at hand, tomorrow I will focus on differentiation, I will focus on the small ways I can make a difference to the lives of both my students and my daughter. But today I am angry; angry at a system not built to meet the needs of our children, angry at a society that allows it to be that way, angry at myself for not being able to make more of a difference.

The Devil Is In The Detail

Today started off with a sense of tranquillity. We had planned a day in. The new story building Lego was out and it was a chance to play. The Special Interest; currently all things ‘Harry Potter’ came into play. Given freedom, in my house all routes usually lead there. It was decided the world of Harry would be recreated…

Silence reigned. All was peaceful. Until… Meltdown. The only long Lego hair available was ‘girl hair’ and there was no way Hagrid could have girl hair. That would be unforgivable!

Both at home and at school, it is those tiny details, the things I haven’t thought of that derail things. The things that I haven’t given a thought to, because in my head they aren’t important are often the very things that to my students and my daughter are critically important to the success of whatever it is that we are doing. It’s why the lessons that I expect to be challenging often aren’t (because I’ve covered, double covered and triple covered all of my bases) whereas those I think will go swimmingly often end in disaster.

Unless I become psychic (and therefore can pre-empt these disasters before they happen), there has to be another plan (because these events are and will continue to be a part of my daily existence). Today we were saved by a book delivery through the post. Just as quickly as the disaster began, it ended. And this is so often the case.

Had I tackled the problem head on, and said of course Hagrid could have had girl hair, I would have exacerbated things further. Because whilst in my head that is the obvious solution, it is a battle I can’t win, I can’t win it because I simply don’t understand why it is so important in the eyes of my daughter. Distraction therefore, as is so often the case is my best course of action. It is my excuse for why I am so good at talking ‘random rubbish.’

In fact, I would go so far as to argue, that the art of distraction, the ability to intersect a conversation and take it in a random direction until the moment of potential crisis has passed, is one of the most crucial differentiation skills needed when working with students with high anxiety levels.

Once the moment has passed, the anxiety has dissipated; the original activity can more often than not be returned to and enjoyed. In the dining room here, mission build Harry’s world has once again resumed (I haven’t enquired as to the solution of Hagrid’s hair though I may risk a sneaky look later), just as I know that after a brief distraction my students will return to their work.

So next time a student has a moment that seems irrational to you, let it go, talk about something else for a few minutes. You might just be surprised at the results…

Why Am I In Trouble? (Lego Style)

Now you know me; if in doubt use Lego! So this handy trick is one I love.

My students hate consequences, but much more than that, they hate consequences that they don’t think are fair. One easy way to prove fairness (total transparency is important); is by building Lego towers. This visual representation of what has happened will show students that their feelings are validated and also help them to understand why they have been given a consequence.

First, sit together with your student(s) and decide on a scale of zero to ten how many bricks breaking a rule deserves. Being grumpy for instance may get two bricks, swearing five bricks, insulting someone’s mum nine bricks, hitting someone ten bricks etc. The key is to involve the students in deciding; they need to know it’s fair.

After an incident, as a student is talking you can award the various perpetrators (including yourself or other staff members) bricks. As the towers grow, students will not only see that you are listening to them and taking their concerns seriously, but will also begin to see why they have a consequence (because they’ve been grumpy, sworn at someone, then gone on to hit them) whereas even though their friend started it (by being grumpy) they don’t have one.

This is really easy differentiation; differentiation which makes a big difference to students. It reduces anxiety and confrontation, and helps students to understand that they can rely on you to be fair. So next time a student is upset because they think you have treated them unfairly, why not get out your Lego and show them your thought process…

Notice The Small Things

Some days it’s not about making the huge things happen. They will happen one day. I believe that. All of my students are wonderful people, who will go on to live wonderful lives. They are capable of doing anything and being anything that they want to be. I know that, and I tell them often.

But some days, are difficult days. Some days it’s hard for them to just put one foot over the threshold and enter the building. Some days they are tired because they’ve lain awake all night the night before not being able to sleep. Some days they are upset because traffic on the way to school alters their routine. And some days they are worried that the work will just be too hard.

There are a million and one things that can cause disruption. Some of those things my students cope with, some are just too hard. And that’s why we have to recognise not only their academic achievements, or their ability to get through a day without a meltdown, or even their ability to be kind. Instead we have to focus on the tiny things, the here and now, this very minute.

So each day I am thankful for the small things. I am grateful when my students walk through the door each morning. I am happy when they get angry but manage to turn it back around. I am happy when someone looks at me when they ask for something. I’m happy when someone puts up their hand to answer a question. I’m happy when someone runs over to show me something they are proud of. Each day there are so many things my students do that make me proud. Each day I leave the building with the good far outweighing the negative things that have happened.

When differentiating for students who struggle to regulate their emotions, we need not only to change our actions but also to change the way we think. We need to have high expectations, but we also need recognise the small things are sometimes worth as much as the large ones. We need to be proud of our students every day, on the days when things go well, but even more so on the days when they go less well.

So next time a student’s behaviour challenges you. Try to notice each day the positive things they do. Noticing the small things won’t change the world, but it will change how you see it. And if we can change how we see things, it helps us to believe that we can change things for our students. And that belief is important. Give it a try, I promise it works…

M Is For Autism

Having loved the ‘Girls with Autism’ programme on ITV, I couldn’t resist buying the book ‘M Is For Autism’. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a fantastic read. In fact, out of all the books on autism I’ve read over the last sixteen years, it’s probably the best.

The book is honest, it’s sincere, it’s beautifully written and illustrated, and more than anything it’s heartbreakingly real. M’s anxiety shines through the pages. The reader feels her pain and joy, and that of her mother.

If you’ve ever wondered how it feels to be autistic, or to have a child with autism, you should read this book. It will take you less than an hour, it’s a very short read. But the knowledge and understanding it will give you is priceless.

It’s a book that has the power to change the lives of students with autism. I will be teaching it in class this year; I’ll also be sharing it with my daughter. The biggest gift you can give to students with autism is to understand them. This book will help you do that.

So order yourself a new book, make a coffee and take an hour out. Enjoy the read. Then share your book. This is a book everyone needs to read. This book has the power to change things…