It is traditional within courses of Initial Teacher Education (and indeed many Continuing Professional Development courses) for teachers to be taught some fundamental psychology, and there exist many comprehensive psychology textbooks which describe in great detail the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner etc. There are however fewer textbooks which successfully manage to apply psychological theories to everyday educational issues in the classroom.
Stephen James Minton’s new book Using Psychology in the Classroom manages to do just that in a refreshing and accessible way, creating a useful text for undergraduates but also for serving teachers who are seeking new, evidence-based insights into everyday issues. Minton (a Lecturer in Psychology of Education at Trinity College, Dublin) notes in the introduction that this is not a book about popular self-help psychology (phew!), nor about educational psychology (the testing work of educational psychologists), but is instead concerned with how everyday teaching can be supported by the theories and research of psychologists.
After a useful overview of child and adolescent psychological development, the book comprises seven core chapters, each of which takes a topic of contemporary concern to teachers: the self, self-esteem and self-esteem enhancement; intelligence, learning styles and educational practice; positive discipline, conflict resolution and cooperative learning; special educational needs; preventing and tackling bullying in schools; dealing with prejudice; and stress and stress management for teachers and educators.
Of particular interest to readers here will be chapter six ‘Thinking about Special Educational Needs’. In this thought-provoking chapter Minton does not attempt to provide exhaustive coverage of the enormous topic of SEN. Instead he encourages the reader to think critically about three main issues: how one thinks about SEN (through a discussion of general and specific learning difficulties); the question of neurodiversity (through considering the case of autism where some individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome argue that they do not want to be ‘cured’ and are happy to be different); and the nature of research into SEN (through looking at ADHD where some of the research supporting the existence of ADHD is commissioned by the very drug companies which supply the medication often prescribed).
In this way, Minton’s book does not attempt to offer merely a set of ‘teaching tips’ for dealing with children with SEN in the classroom, but encourages the reader to ask more fundamental questions about their own perceptions and assumptions about what special needs actually are or might be.
As such, this chapter is typical of the others in the book, in that it provides a stimulating read for those who wish to think more critically about a wide range of issues about which psychology has something to say.
For those who want an unreflective tick list for the classroom, this is not the book of choice. For those who want a novel, questioning look at familiar issues, this comes highly recommended.
Written by Nick Dubin, who has Asperger Syndrome (AS) himself, this book gives both a personal and professional insight into the experiences of people with AS as they go through school and enter adulthood. The author recounts how, as a child in the US, he was humiliated by teachers, taunted by his neighbours, tormented by his tennis coach and ostracised by many of his school peers. As a result he contemplated suicide on several occasions.
This book is however more than a personal account of a troubled childhood. The author also provides a useful summary in chapter two of the nature of AS, which is concise and accessible to the non-expert. In addition to the standard descriptions of AS, Dubin adds personal accounts of his own experiences as a result of his increased gullibility, lack of dating experience (as a teenager), unusual use of language, and ‘cultural illiteracy’ where people with AS often spend more time on their particular special interests (he cites his own interest in interstate highways) than on pop culture, thus further distancing themselves from their peers. The example is given of a girl with AS who was singled out in her class for not watching American Idol and not knowing what being “voted off” meant.
The remainder of the book offers very practical advice on how the bullying of children with AS can be prevented. The focus here is on empowerment: of the victims, bystanders, teachers, parents and schools. In terms of the children themselves, Dubin speaks of the fundamental challenge faced by children with AS: as a result of their AS, it can be very difficult to make friends and relate to others in ways which might be considered socially appropriate. Moreover bully-prevention strategies often focus on the building of friendships with peers as the main pre-emptive strategy, the very thing which children with AS often find hardest. Dubin writes however that parents should be encouraged to find other opportunities for social interaction based on their areas of special interest, where their passion for a particular subject can be appreciated and nurtured, irrespective of the age of the other people involved. Dubin himself spent hours playing tennis at a club and was never bullied in that context, where he felt comfortable. The chapter on empowering bystanders complements the research of Salmivalli, Olweus and others in recent years who have identified the importance of encouraging peers to move from a position of passive support or indifference to one of prevention, intervention and defending.
The book concludes with an interview with the author’s parents who look back at their experiences of parenting a child with AS, even before there was a clear diagnosis. Interestingly, they note the importance of the diagnosis itself, and the reassurance it gave. Mom: “What I wish I could go back and change is all the pressure I put on you to socialise more while you were growing up. It made you feel that I didn’t love you for who you were and created terrible conflicts between us. The diagnosis gave me an understanding, which I previously lacked, and has finally enabled the love that we feel for each other to be uncluttered by my placing unreasonable expectations on you” (p.150)
There is much that teachers could learn from reading this powerful book.
See more details here.
The Education and Training Inspectorate of Northern Ireland (ETI) has recently published two short reports based on an innovative new pilot project to promote greater collaboration between mainstream and special schools in the province.
Given the rise in the number of children with SEN in mainstream schools, it is both important and timely that expertise is shared between the two sectors. In addition, such inter-sector collaboration was identified as an area for development in the NI Chief Inspector’s Report (2008-2010).
The first report Special and Mainstream Schools Working Together (ETI, April 2012) is essentially a series of case studies based on a pilot project facilitated by the ETI. In total twenty-four special schools were invited to participate in a project of their own choosing with a neighbouring mainstream school, and were asked to submit a joint self-evaluation report at its conclusion.
Projects were many and varied. Two examples are outlined below:
- Erne Special School worked in partnership with Portora Royal School, Enniskillen on a music and drama project. Pupils and teachers from Erne Special School benefited from the subject expertise of the Portora teachers (the school has had specialist status in Performing Arts), while the mainstream pupils developed greater awareness of disability and SEN. The mainstream teachers identified their own capacity building in the area of teaching pupils with SEN, and were encouraged to disseminate their differentiation skills to colleagues.
- Kilronan Special School worked together with Magherafelt Primary School on an early years play project. Here pupils interacted and played with the toys in their respective schools and were able to interact very successfully. Staff were impressed by the increased independence of some of the children from the special school, and also by the way in which some pupils from the mainstream school took an interest in a non-verbal pupil from the special school, came and sat beside her, held her hand and said hello. The report notes that this was “a lovely moment”.
The report includes many more inspiring reports of projects which have produced very positive outcomes in a very short period of time. Plans are already being made to extend the projects in the coming year.
Accompanying this set of case studies is A Guide to Collaborative Practice (ETI, April 2012). Here the evaluative reports submitted at the conclusion of the pilot projects have been distilled into a series of guidelines to support schools in the future as they would seek to develop effective partnerships and overcome the practical challenges of turning the vision into reality. The guide highlights four key strands of effective collaboration, each of which is explained in detail:
- Identifying a clear rationale and strategic approach to collaborative working
- Deploying resources and agreeing shared responsibilities to enable the collaborative work to progress smoothly and to address any difficulties which may arise
- Building a collaborative ethos and school commitment to inclusive planning
- Monitoring and evaluating the impact and establishing the sustainability of further collaborative action and outcomes.
To read the reports in full, click on the links below:
Special and Mainstream Schools Working Together
A Guide to Collaborative Practice
This year’s annual conference organised by the NI branch of NASEN (National Association for Special Educational Needs) will be held on Saturday 20th October 2012 at Stranmillis University College, Belfast.
The theme this year is ’Spotlight on the SEN Resource File’, published recently by the NI Department of Education, and written by teams of teachers, ELB advisors, ITE lecturers and other educationalists from across the province.
The conference opens at 9am and concludes at 1.30pm. The busy morning will begin with a keynote address by Gillian Boyd (DE), responsible for the publication of the resource file.
Nasen UK Chief Executive Lorraine Peterson OBE will be leading the seminar relating to “The challenging role of the SENCO” and will also be sharing additional valuable new SENCO materials that will soon be available as online resources.
9.35am The ‘A S P I R E’ Document – Resource: Dr Brenda Montgomery
9.55am – 10.55am Session 1 – Choose one seminar
Seminar A Understanding Memory Difficulties – Dr Sharon McMurray Seminar B The Challenging Role of the SENCO Lorraine Petersen OBE Seminar C Gifted and Talented Children- Challenges and Opportunities Dr Noel Purdy
10.55am – 11.25am Refreshments Break and Publishers
11.30am – 12.25pm Session 2
Seminar D Moving from Individual Education Plans to Personalised Learning Plans- Dr John Hunter & David Ryan
12.30pm – 1.30pm Session 3 – Choose one seminar
Seminar E Supporting pupils who have specific difficulties with Maths in the Primary School Deborah Henry Seminar F Autism Spectrum Disorders – Attention Autism Jill Drysdale & Lorraine Scott Seminar G Understanding and Managing Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD) Dr Brenda Montgomery
1.35pm nasen NI Branch – Annual General meeting – all delegates are welcome to attend.
The cost of the conference is £20 for NASEN members, £30 non-members, £20 classroom assistants/parents/carers, £10 full-time students.
Booking is open now. Forms can be downloaded from the NASEN NI website.
Ciaran teaches in a primary school in Ireland. He qualified three years ago. He tells the story of one of his pupils whose behaviour is particularly challenging:
“Last year I had a class of nine and ten year olds. One of the boys, Niall, had cerebral palsy. That was tricky enough to deal with, as I had never really come across anyone with that before, and we had learnt nothing about it during my teacher training. There just wasn’t time as I did a one year postgrad course. Anyway, I quickly learnt that Niall was very bright but was also very cheeky and manipulative.
He was very quick to make nasty comments to his peers and even tripped up one of the other boys in his class as he went past. I found this really hard to deal with. I think I expected Niall to be the victim of bullying in the class, but in this case he was actually the perpetrator. I felt that I was tiptoeing aroung Niall a lot at the start because I didn’t want to be accused of picking on him. That would have been taken very badly. So for the first few weeks of the year, I did very little to tackle his behaviour, to be honest with you. After half-term, though, there was an incident when Niall said some pretty nasty things to one of the boys who would be very weak academically. You know, calling him “stupid” and “thick” and so on. I knew I needed to act, and so I did…”
Questions for reflection:
- What makes Ciaran’s experience particularly challenging?
- What insight does this give into the nature of bullying in schools, especially in relation to special educational needs/disabilities?
- What would you have done in Ciaran’s situation? Why?
This is a collection of 21 first-person accounts written by fathers about their experiences of parenting children with disabilities. First published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2007, this remarkable volume has a foreword by the then UK Opposition leader (and now Prime Minister) David Cameron who writes openly about his experiences as a parent of a child (Ivan) with severe disabilities.
In the stories which follow, these 21 ’different dads’ each tell of their experiences of coming to terms with the fact that their child has a disability. For some it came as a complete shock with no indication prior to the birth that anything was ‘different’ at all, while for others the nature of their child’s condition came to light much later, for instance, as developmental milestones were missed and diagnoses made. Some dads speak of struggling with local authorities and medical experts to gain access to appropriate services and support for their children; others speak of the responses of people they encounter in the streets (is the staring a sign of concern, curiosity, criticism?); some dads also talk of how their personal faith has helped them to come to terms with their child’s condition. Each case is unique and each perspective adds something different to the picture which is gradually built up of parents’ daily joys and challenges. It is a complex but important picture.
What is ‘different’ about this book however is that it is the fathers (and not the mothers) who are writing. Too often, they claim, dads are left out of consultation processes, sometimes quite inadvertently, sometime perhaps from an assumption that they are not interested. These dads quite rightly object to this, and argue strongly that they should be included as much as their partners. As one dad explains, a failure to make an appointment due to work commitments does not mean that they do not care. It just means that some things cannot be dropped to make room for all the appointments which parents of children with disabilities have to go along to.
This is a refreshingly honest book, at times very moving, at times very humourous, but always engaging. Each story is only a few pages long (and includes a short explanatory note on the nature of the disability) so it is perfect book for busy dads to read in short bursts. It would also make recommended reading however for (student) teachers, classroom assistants and healthcare professionals to gain a valuable and rarely glimpsed insight into the world of fathers in their daily interaction with the children they love.
See link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Different-Dads-Parenting-Disabled-Children/dp/1843104547
The Northern Ireland branch of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN) is holding a Study Day on Saturday 2nd April (9.00-1.30) at Stranmillis University College, Belfast. The theme this year is Effective Communication? Positive Behaviour! and the guest speaker is Joe Duffy (Senior Educational Psychologist with the SELB Behaviour Support Team). At the Study Day Joe will be looking at communication both from the staff’s point of view and also from the perspective of the pupils in the classroom.
The fees for the Study Day are as follows: Members £20, Non-members £30, Classroom Assistants/Parents/Carers £20, Students £10. Application forms can be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .
Makaton is a language programme which involves speech and gesture, eye contact, body language and facial expression. It is based on a series of basic everyday words and uses speech as well as gesture and/or signs. Children who may be experiencing difficulty with their speech often find it much easier to understand and communicate using gesture and/or symbols, thus helping prevent frustration and opening up new ways for children to communicate with others.
Makaton was developed in the 1970s to help children with learning disabilities to communicate. Its use has spread however to many other children too who may, for a wide range of reasons, be experiencing difficulty communicating for short or longer periods of time.
Makaton is introduced in stages, beginning with basic words and progressing to more complex words and concepts. In every case it is recommended that the choice of core or supplementary vocabulary be personalised according to the experiences of the individual child.
Further information can be obtained from the Makaton Charity website. Here there are links to training resources and also information about the (truly excellent!) award-winning BBC television series Something Special whose presenter Justin Fletcher (now a patron of the Makaton Charity) was awarded the MBE for his services to children’s broadcasting in 2008.
Global Developmental Delay (GDD) is a subset of developmental disabilities with early onset and relates to children who experience significant delay in two or more developmental domains (e.g. gross/fine motor, speech/language, cognition, social/emotional) compared to their chronological peers.
The term GDD is often reserved for younger children (under 5 years of age). The prevalence of GDD is uncertain and disputed but is estimated to be between 1 and 5% of children. The causes of GDD are varied but often relate to chromosome and genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome or fragile x syndrome, or may be due to abnormalities in spinal cord or brain development such as spina bifida or cerebral palsy. In some cases the exact cause of GDD remains unclear.
Children with GDD may miss developmental milestones in two or more of the following areas:
- motor skills: children may be late in developing gross motor skills (such as sitting up) or fine motor skills (such as picking up smaller objects)
- speech and language skills: children may be delayed in understanding language and in producing language or gesture (such as babbling, imitation)
- cognitive skills: children may be slower to develop their skills in reasoning, memory, learning new things
- social and emotional skills: children may be delayed in their ability to interact with others
It is recognised that early identification is centrally important to enhancing the future development of children with GDD. Increasingly children with GDD are identified at, soon after or even before birth, so that intervention support in the form of physiotherapy, occupational therapy or speech and language therapy can be put in place from an early age.
In 1978 the Warnock Report introduced the term ‘moderate learning difficulties’ (MLD) to replace the formal term ‘educationally sub-normal to a moderate degree’ or ESN (M) introduced in 1945. Ironically, although one of the main aims of the Warnock Report was to move away from a medical model in which children were labelled according to their deficits and to move towards a social model focusing on individual provision according to the individual needs of every child, this single label of MLD has become associated with a very wide range of children and even with a particular kind of special school setting. The term MLD itself has traditionally been loosely defined and receives much less attention than other special educational needs such as children with specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) or autism, despite the high numbers of children identified as having MLD (see figures below).
The NI Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs (DENI 2006) makes only general reference to learning difficulty, noting that:
The term “special educational needs” is defined in the legislation as “a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made”. “Learning difficulty” means that the child has significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his or her age, and/or has a disability which hinders his or her use of everyday educational facilities. (p.1)
Some confusion is undoubtedly caused by the fact that in the Code of Practice the term ”learning difficulty” clearly embraces both physical and learning disability. Furthermore, the Code of Practice does not proffer any definition of moderate or severe learning difficulties, noting only that for children with learning difficulties, “Their general level of academic attainment will be significantly below that of their peers. In most cases, they will have difficulty acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills and many will have significant speech and language difficulties. Some may also have poor social skills and may show signs of emotional and behavioural difficulties.” (p.69) The Code acknowledges that for children with severe or profound learning difficulties, there may already be considerable information available to schools from health and social services who may have been involved with the children from birth. This concurs with the suggestion by Fletcher-Campbell (2005) that most children’s moderate learning difficulties are identified only once they begin formal education (rather than before).
In England the Department for Education and Skills provided a useful definition of moderate learning difficulties in 2003, and here there is a move towards a focus on purely intellectual difficulties:
Pupils with moderate learning difficulties will have attainments significantly below expected levels in most areas of the curriculum, despite appropriate interventions. Their needs will not be able to be met by normal differentiation and the flexibilities of the National Curriculum.
They should only be recorded as MLD if additional educational provision is being made to help them to access the curriculum.
Pupils with moderate learning difficulties have much greater difficulty than their peers in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills and in understanding concepts. They may also have associated speech and language delay, low self-esteem, low levels of concentration and under-developed social skills.
Recent Department of Education figures in Northern Ireland (2007/08) reveal that there are 1576 children with MLD (as their type 1 need) in special schools, 3681 in mainstream primary schools and 3689 in mainstream post-primary schools. Of the 8946 children with MLD in Northern Ireland’s schools, 5601 (or 62.6%) are boys. Children with MLD often have one or more other special educational needs as well. In one study (see Norwich and Kelly, 2005) it was found that those pupils with MLD in special schools were more likely to have other additional areas of difficulties: for instance 75% of the pupils with MLD only were in mainstream schools, while the remaining 25% were in special schools. For pupils with MLD and two other areas of difficulty, there were only 29% in mainstream schools with 71% in special schools. In this sample only 16% of pupils with MLD had no other associated difficulties. The range of other possible additional needs is extensive but in this study the most common difficulties were language and communication difficulties, motor impairment and emotional and behavioural difficulties.
Any attempt to make international comparisons is also thwarted by considerable variance in definitions across national boundaries. In New Zealand, for instance, the term MLD refers to children with IQs between 35-50, while in Hungary the IQ range is 51-70 for what is termed as ‘educable mental retardation’.
The discussion above makes it clear that it is unwise to assume any form of homogeneity within the “category” of moderate learning difficulty. There is a concomitant need for teachers to address the individual needs of individual children in their classrooms, whether in mainstream or in special school contexts.
Notwithstanding the individuality of the child with MLD, the uniqueness of the setting, the nebulous nature of definitions and the international variance in recording, a number of basic classroom pedagogies should be considered. As ever, the key is critical reflection by the teacher and continual adaption to meet the individual needs of the learner. Some strategies might include:
- A differentiated approach in the classroom, especially in a mixed ability mainstream setting (e.g. more support through worksheets). In Northern Ireland the new curriculum offers greater opportunity for flexibility of approach through its statements of minimum entitlement replacing the more prescriptive Programmes of Study.
- Attention to grouping of pupils to ensure that pupils with MLD are encouraged and supported by their peers.
- The use of lots of visual aids as pupils with MLD often experience significant difficulty with literacy and numeracy (see definitions above).
- Effective use of classroom assistants (where present).
- Effective use of Individual Education Plans to identify, achieve and review targets in specific subject areas.
- Encouragement and praise where possible. Pupils with MLD often experience low self-esteem which can become a significant barrier to learning.
- Close liaison between the school and parents/family of the child with MLD.
- Other useful strategies are common to the teaching of children with or without any special educational need (for instance: thorough planning, structure, creativity, use of motivational tools, ability to grasp and retain the attention of pupils, variety and pace of methods, respect, rapport, subject knowledge etc).
Final questions to consider (Any responses welcome):
- To what extent is the term moderate learning difficulty a useful one?
- To what extent is there a need for a clearer definition, or is there an agreed working definition in practice anyway?
- Given the push towards inclusion, to what extent do we still need separate schools for children with MLD, and if so, is the MLD badge the most appropriate one?
Suggested further reading:
Fletcher-Campbell, F. (2005) ‘Moderate Learning Difficulties’, in A. Lewis and B. Norwich (Eds.) Special Teaching for Special Children, Maidenhead, Open University Press.
Norwich, B. and Kelly, N. (2005) Moderate Learning Difficulties and the Future of Inclusion, London, Routledge-Falmer.