Here is Part 2 of our interview with Fiona McDonald is the Head of Learning Support for Julia Gabriel Centre and Chiltern House.
QN: How can parents, with special needs children, develop their child’s ability to interact with other people? What are the challenges they might face compared to parents with other children?
A formal diagnosis is gained through a series of standardized tests, consultation with parents and child observation – a suitably qualified person or a team of people only, can do this. Gaining a formal diagnosis for some families means that they are able then to plan effectively, gain more knowledge, and move forward in terms of intervention and support for the child. For other families, it is more important that they start intervention and support and a formal diagnosis may only come later.
At times, a formal diagnosis may be the key to opening a door of access – to getting a place in an intervention programme, but it is not always a necessity in order for intervention to start. Intervention specialists and therapists may want to so some forms of assessment in order to establish a baseline and to identify target goal areas – this may or may not lead to a formal diagnosis. Whatever the case and whatever the path taken, it again needs to be mentioned the importance of early intervention as a key to success.
QN: What can parents do at home to help their special needs child learn? Should they do things differently compared to how they would with other children’s learning?
Many children with additional needs do not need help in interacting with others if supportive opportunities are provided for them. For other children, due to the nature of their needs, this area may be more challenging.
It is important to remember that the child is a child first and therefore, opportunities to play, socialize and interact are important. Parents play a key part in this area – they are often the child’s first play partner and therefore have the opportunity to develop some of the very early skills of connection and engagement. Parents can support their child’s interaction with others through providing them with opportunities – playdates are a great start. During playdates, adult support is often a key, helping the children interact by setting up shared activities. A good playdate will have time when the children play (and not necessarily will it always be play together) and have some more structured time, for example, doing an art and craft activity or a cooking activity together with adult guidance. As children develop, they can play an important part in deciding what interests they would like to pursue during their playdates and the adults can take a step back. Parents can assist the other child in interacting with their child, for example with a hearing impaired child, showing the play partner how to gain their child’s attention by gently tapping their shoulder etc.
Interaction skills for many children take time to develop – they need modelling, guidance and support. Children need to develop a sense of belonging and group awareness. For many children with needs this can be a challenge. Using language such as “we are…” and commenting about how they are doing in the group “this is great sharing” etc. and keeping activities short with some breaks to do things on their own, is a method that often us successful. Working with children on structured interaction activities – such as a board game involving turn taking and less structured interaction activities such as building with Lego help children establish skills and generalize to other areas. Other options for parents may be to look at organized group programmes where interaction is the main focus – this may be music, drama and/or social skills programmes where the children can have the opportunity to explore different scenarios and acquire more understanding of interaction. At times, direct teaching through the use of tools such as social stories (where specific scenarios and responses are described) may be needed.
QN: What kinds of special needs children do you usually encounter/ provide support for?
General developmental milestones often serve as a good indicator of a child’s progress and along with understanding of the child’s background (including general health, family history, language, exposure etc.) recommendations can be made. During preschool, teachers will highlight to parents their child’s progress and through open discussions often areas where the child may need additional support may be identified or further investigation may be recommended. Parents and teachers during this time have more opportunities to observe the child’s development and to measure their progress alongside their peers as well as the general developmental milestones. Recommendations may include further investigation into specific areas by specialists, early intervention to build up skills and/or further monitoring and observation when specific strategies are applied. It has been generally supported by research that early intervention is a crucial factor in the effectiveness of support so it is important that families, teachers and specialists work in partnership in the best interest of the child.
4. What are the main things parents should look out for, to see if they need to seek support? ?
A cornerstone of the Julia Gabriel Education philosophy is to provide children with a positive learning experience that caters for their individuality. In our accompanied programmes parents and teachers work together to support children with additional needs. This may include making accommodations to the physical space or adapting materials so that the child can participate fully in the programme. In our enrichment programmes, teachers support the children through adapting aspects of the programme to best suit their needs. For example, they may provide further practice in speech sounds for articulation challenges or adapt a worksheet within the writing programme to target specific skills that need more reinforcement. In Chiltern House Pre-School, we have a team of Learning Support specialists and therefore we are able to provide support for children in a variety of ways. In our mainstream preschool classes, the specialist works with the class teachers to identify and support children who may need something extra in order to reach their potential through our Learning Support Placement. Our Learning Support Placement programme currently works with children who have Language Delays, Learning Challenges, specific physical needs, Sensory Needs, specific diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as children who fall into the Gifted category. We also have a specific group programme (Green Room) for children who are not yet able to access a mainstream preschool programme and an on-going social skills programme that extends beyond preschool for children who continue to need this support (Discovery Tree).
QN: What are the learning support options in mainstream schools? Should parents consider enrolling the child to a special needs school?
All of us have a learning style and children with needs are no exception. Therefore, when parents are looking at
how to support their child they need to understand their child’s personality, their strengths and needs and their
Many children are very visual and kinesthetic learners and they may find more auditory methods of learning challenging. This means that for some children writing down the instructions or putting them in picture form is more effectively than telling them what to do. For some children they will benefit from being shown what they need to do. Some children will need a quiet and calm environment, others need more stimulation. Parents, teachers and therapists need to work together to establish what the ideal learning environment is for the child and then build in some aspects of flexibility over time so that the child can adapt to different settings, modes of learning and styles of activities.
It is advisable for parents to consider how long their child can effectively spend on a learning task and to start with this may be short but can be built up over time. It is more important to have 10 minutes of effective learning on a task than asking the child to sit down for 30 minutes where most of the time is spent trying to get the child back onto the task. Simply spending more time in long blocks is not always effective and breaking tasks up often can help the child with additional needs gain the most from the activity. For example, if a young child is working on a series of stacking rings, you may remove every second one until they have success and then gradually increase the number of rings they are working with. If the task is to answer 5 comprehension questions after reading a passage, for some children breaking up the questions into two parts means that they will be able to focus on the task at hand and also provides them with the opportunity to re-read the passage and deepen their understanding.
Accommodations and adaptations may be necessary for some children to effectively learn. Choose activities that the child can do with an appropriate level of challenge. For example, if the child is able to do a puzzle with 6 pieces, offer a puzzle with 8 pieces or provide challenge their thinking by holding back a piece to see how they would solve that challenge. For new challenges such as threading beads, begin with one or two beads on the string, then model and share some threading before encouraging the child to do some on their own. Plan activities such as sorting by size using materials that are at first very obviously different sizes and work towards the differences in size being less obvious or introduce the concept of “medium sized”
With more formal tasks, some children will need simple accommodations made – for example, they may need the worksheet increased in size so they can work within the space, they may need adjustment to the colour of the paper used, they may need the key words in the instructions highlighted etc. Some children work most effectively when standing up so putting work on an easel or a slope board can help them stay connected to the task, whilst others work well on the floor. Children may need some tools adapted for them – for example using adapted scissors to cut, straight back chairs, thicker pencils or the use of pencil grips etc.
Repetition and review are often key ingredients in success for children when they are learning. Some children will need a concept repeated a few times before they grasp it and many need it broken down into manageable steps so that they can link their learning to what they already know. Other children will need concepts reviewed and others will need a certain level of “novelty” built in so that they continue to think in a flexible and adaptable way.
Many children find it challenging to generalize across settings with specific skills. For example, being able to use different materials for the same concept, adapting to instructions being worded differently etc. This is an important factor in some children needing repetition and review with a generalization target in mind – parents and teachers can assist with generalisation by providing some variety and flexibility to situations, learning materials and language used.
It is important that parents and teachers work together to support the child. Setting up an Individualised Educational Plan (IEP) means that everyone can target specific goals and new goals can be set once a level of achievement is met. How these goals are targeted is an important area of discussion – it does not generally mean that everyone has to do something in exactly the same way but there may be some common factors involved to assist the child to make connections – for example, when first working with basic addition it may be that the same key terms are used by everyone – “plus” “altogether” but different materials are used – one person uses counters, another uses dots on paper etc. Once the concept is developed, the next challenge would be to use a wider range of key terms for the concept.