Schools Out

For the past fortnight the Bears’ school has been in transition, with each class getting settled in their new classroom and with their new teacher. Things seem to have gone fairly smoothly but I checked in with Little Bear’s teacher yesterday, just to be sure.

I wrote a few weeks ago in Support about school (and us) having secured funding top-up funding for Little Bear. I have recently found out that the school have been able to advertise for a TA and that they have employed somebody and this person will provide Little Bear with 20 hours of support per week. Obviously this is great. They will work from 8:30 am so will be able to greet him and will finish at 12:30 meaning he gets support for some of his lunch time – a flashpoint when things often go awry. He will have 1:1 or small group support available for all his core subjects.

I’m very pleased about this.

Things are never perfect though and there are a couple of little niggles at the back of my mind. Firstly I didn’t expect the TA to be anybody that I knew. It turns out she is a parent of children in the same school. I don’t know her but I know of her as she has previously volunteered in the school, in fact in Big Bear’s class. She used to hear them read and was quite infamous amongst the parents for making slightly judgemental comments in their take home books.

I have noticed that if you smile at her she tends to look the other way.

I feel a little uncomfortable that she is a parent too and that she is going to know lots of things about Little Bear’s background and his behaviour and his learning needs. I have to assume that she is a consummate professional.

I am going to need her to start speaking to me though because I consider there to be a team around Little Bear, consisting at the moment of the teacher and myself & Grizzly, and Mrs. C will soon be an integral part of that. We will need to work closely together and will need to be consistent in our approaches. I am trying to keep an open mind and am hoping that we can achieve the partnership that I’m aiming for.

Little Bear’s teacher and I have agreed to let Mrs C settle in and get to know Little Bear and then for us to have a meeting in maybe the third week. This will help us all get up to speed and hopefully signal the start of a good working relationship.

Unfortunately Mrs C has been tied up in her old contract and has not been able to meet Little Bear during his transition weeks. The school have provided a different TA for the interim. Little Bear has bonded with her well and has been happy to work with her. His teacher and TA have been impressed with what he has been able to achieve with support. He has concentrated well and been co-operative.

There is an obvious risk that the inconsistency of returning to a different TA could throw Little Bear. There is a risk that he may not bond with her as easily and may not be as keen to work with her. I hope this is not the case and it is just my natural tendency to think of all the things that could possibly go wrong talking. I am keeping everything crossed that Mrs C’s firm approach will be ideal for him and that he will work with her quite happily.

My chat with the teacher also revealed that whilst things are going pretty swimmingly in the mornings, the afternoons are a different story. Little Bear does not have support in the afternoons. He seems to be doing ok with accessing the carpet time plenary session but when the children are meant to be doing some independent recording it sounds as though he is doing whatever he fancies. I can see why he would because he cannot do independent writing yet and it sounds as though he is struggling to occupy himself with something constructive and is tending to get into a bit of bother instead. The reduced supervision will be difficult because we know he has a tendency to lash out where verbal negotiation is needed and we also know that the other children have a tendency to purposefully push his buttons. With the best will in the world the teacher cannot see everything at once and it is quite a full on class. I can see why things are going belly-up.

It sounds as though the one thing that will occupy him is the IPad… I really don’t want him to spend every afternoon glued to a screen. Hmm.

Also, it seems as though Little Bear is not being particularly co-operative with things such as tidying up when asked. This is interesting because he generally will tidy things away if I ask him to at home. Ever the opportunist I suspect he is just doing what he can get away with. It is so important that we all handle situations like this in the same way otherwise Little Bear picks up on the inconsistency. When he detects that the boundaries aren’t particularly clear or firm I do think that his anxiety rises and his behaviour deteriorates.

My plan is to let the holidays happen and to send an e-mail ready for the start of term with some thoughts on things that might help. Perhaps it would be helpful to have a bank of activities that would occupy Little Bear when he can’t access the work – things that would provide him with a bit more variety and learning potential than the IPad alone. I’m also wondering about alternative recording options for him such as recordable switches and talking tins, until his writing has developed a bit more. I will need to be clear about how we manage it if Little Bear refuses to tidy up or turn the IPad off when asked.

It could be that afternoons without support are not ok but we’ll have to see how things go.

The conversation made me even more thankful that we got the funding that we did and made me shudder to think what things could have been like if Little Bear was trying to manage whole days without tailored support.

I need to forget about it all for now though: school’s out! I have no idea how a whole academic year has gone already. Time really does fly.

When I tucked Little Bear in tonight I told him how proud I am of him and how well he has done at school. I know it hasn’t been plain-sailing but overall I am very happy with how his first year has gone. He’s done brilliantly. Over the summer we can really focus on his speech and keep trucking with the reading and writing. I know school is out but the learning needs to continue. He’s pretty keen these days and we can easily weave lots of learning into the things he chooses to do.

So far I am feeling keen and enthusiastic for my task ahead but I think we should take bets as to how long I will last before I’m tearing my hair out and counting the days until term starts again!

 

 

Schools Out

Reports

It is school report time here at Bear HQ and once again it has got me all reflective. This time last year in Achievement I wrote about how standardised assessments and age-related expectations are not going to be the right way to measure Little Bear’s achievements.

Back at the start of his time in Reception class I had a bit of a wobble about how much was expected of him and how unrealistic it would be to ask him to meet those expectations by the end of the academic year (you can read about that in Little Bear Starts School). The expectations that are in place do not take into account a neglectful first several years of a child’s life or the significantly lower starting point that they are beginning from. After all, it would be impossible to expect a child to go from not being able to count to knowing all their number bonds to 20 in one year; or expecting a child who cannot write their name when they start school to be writing little narratives by the end of term. You wouldn’t expect a child with significant speech processing difficulties to be able to read fluently in one year or a child who is extremely resistant to adult direction to be fully compliant every day.

We did not expect Little Bear to meet the expectations as it was an impossible ask. I am not surprised therefore that he hasn’t met them. However, it would seem that I do have a little bit of an issue with the way the information has been shared.

The Bear’s school have switched to new-fan-dangled online reports. I understand why: OFSTED must love it and it must be much more time-efficient for teachers. However, call me old-fashioned, but I would much prefer an actual piece of paper (you can’t even easily print our ones out to keep for future posterity). There are lots of tabs along the top and you have to click on each to get different information.

The very first tab is a summary of where your child is at compared to expectations. On the left there is a scale with the following descriptors: well above expected, above expected, at expected level, below expected and well below expected. The core subjects are along the bottom and your child’s level is shown through coloured traffic lights. For Little Bear that means a row of red lights across the ‘below expected level’ line. They may as well flash and sound an alarm alerting you to your child’s lack of achievement.

Grizzly and I had a chat about this and he thinks I’m being oversensitive. He thinks it makes perfect statistical sense to do it this way otherwise what are you comparing your child to? My issue is that I don’t understand the point of comparing him to targets which we have already established to be unobtainable. Surely that is setting him up to fail? What I would like to see is a comparison between where he was at when he started the year and where he is at now. I don’t care where he is at compared to average Joe Blogs, that information won’t make any of us feel good. I understand that what I’m asking for is probably a complete data nightmare but in theory it would be a much more positive report because it would show the massive progress that he HAS made not what he hasn’t.

I asked Grizzly how he would feel if Little Bear were scoring right across the “well below expected range” or how he would feel if every report we ever get for Little Bear shows him to be in this “below expected” range. He’s much more pragmatic about these things than me and said well if that is where he’s at it’s where he’s at. Which is of course completely true but I can’t help feeling that this way of displaying data makes getting a report for a child with any level of additional needs a fairly negative experience. It certainly felt different to opening Big Bears and seeing his neat row of green lights.

The rest of the tabs offend me less. There is one with the teacher’s comment, one about behaviour and ones where you can see a list of targets your child is working on and which descriptors they have already met. I do find it a bit odd that the focus is on Maths and English and little else. What if your child excels at PE? Or Art? Or Music? There isn’t anywhere in either boy’s report where that can be reflected which could potentially add to the negativity for a child like Little Bear who struggles most with the core subjects.

Anyway, having come back to look at the reports again, I can see that maybe my opinion of Little Bear’s as a whole has been tainted by the red lights. The comments from his teacher are lovely and do mention “superb progress” and that he “has worked extremely hard”. It says he is polite and respectful to grown-ups but his attitude to his peers “needs to improve”. It says that he is happy and settled but that he does test boundaries and is still learning to remain focussed.

All of the above is true but what it doesn’t really reflect is just how spectacularly wrong this year could have gone and in comparison how fabulously he has done. That version might go something like this:

Although Little Bear does not always listen and sometimes hits his friends, he has had less than 20 red cards, he has not been sent to the Headmaster and has avoided getting himself excluded, all of which were real possibilities in September. The fact that he is described as being polite and well-mannered is nothing short of an actual miracle. He could easily have bitten/ scratched/ kicked or thrown something or told his teacher how stupid she is each and every day of term time. The control and self-restraint he has developed is fantastic.

On beginning school Little Bear could not count to 4 for the love of God and we were driving ourselves mad chanting the numbers over and over. He can now count easily to 10, forwards and backwards and is just a tiny bit more practise away from making it to 20. He can recognise all the number shapes to about 13 and is managing some very basic adding and taking away.

In September Little Bear was pretty much unintelligible to people outside of the family. He could just about recognise his name written down but couldn’t recognise any other words. He knew maybe 5 letter shapes. He couldn’t tell you if words rhymed or what sound they began with. He most definitely couldn’t blend sounds together. Now, he recognises all the letter shapes, which he learned surprisingly quickly. After a lot of hard work and perseverance he has mastered blending which is no mean feat and can read at a basic level. He has even gone up one reading level on to Red books which he is extremely proud of. Considering the fact that Little Bear was attending a Special Needs nursery before he moved here and the likelihood of literacy in his future was slim to none, his progress has been phenomenal.

At the start of term Little Bear could hold his pen well and could scribble but his pictures didn’t look like people and he couldn’t write at all. He can now write his name and draw a picture of himself with most of the right body parts. He can form letters really well and can copy from a grown-ups model. He can make some attempts at independent writing.

Little Bear is happy and settled at school. He has learned all the routines. He loves show and tell and is now confident enough in his communication to stand up and talk in detail in front of the class. He has taken part in assemblies and school trips and has behaved appropriately.

The year could have been a complete disaster. Little Bear could have been like a fish out of water. His behaviour could have been out of control. He could have struggled with all the learning and not made any progress.

Instead, I feel he has achieved above and beyond any expectations we could have had for him. If there were a chart for progress, he would have a row of bright green lights in the “well above expectations” row. Instead the row of red lights he does have seems to figuratively piss all over his bonfire. I am not finding some of the other parents’ bragging about how advanced their children are particularly helpful either.

Anyway, I shall brush myself off, endeavour to develop a slightly thicker skin and focus on what I know really matters: Little Bear has had an extremely successful first year at school. We have secured the funding we need to build on his progress next year and I have no doubt he will continue to exceed the limited expectations his early life tried to saddle him with.

Reports

Jigsaws

I know this seems a slightly strange blog topic but Little Bear has taken a real interest in jigsaws recently and in doing so I have learned a lot about how he learns and how he needs to be taught.

Up until very recently Little Bear has not shown an interest in activities that require sitting still and concentrating, such as jigsaws. He has had lots of other needs in terms of developing his play skills so I haven’t been too concerned. Having a bigger brother who does sometimes (not a lot as he too doesn’t like sitting still) do these types of activity has helped Little Bear a lot though. If Big Bear is doing something, Little Bear generally wants to do it too. As I have got really strict with screen time and have been encouraging Big Bear to find other things to occupy himself one evening he did sit down and start doing a jigsaw. Of course Little Bear was in hot pursuit and got one out for himself too.

I had to intervene as I knew that the one he had chosen was too difficult. We swapped it for a very simple one with 4 large pieces. At that stage, it was too much to ask of him that he try to complete it on his own. Little Bear put the first two pieces he found together, couldn’t make them fit immediately, growled and chucked them across the room. It would have been easy to abandon ship at this point. However, I was feeling particularly resilient that day and decided to persevere. “Come on, you can do it” I cajoled, shifting the pieces about so that two that went together were close to one another. Little Bear managed to put them together with a surreptitious jiggle of the bits from me. I made a big thing of how clever he was. Could he stick another piece on I wondered aloud.

I began to get concerned because he didn’t seem at all able to see that we were making a picture and with only two pieces left there weren’t many options. He would try to put a straight edge into a hole or a corner piece into the middle. Each time he perceived himself to be failing at the task (which happened every few seconds), he would lose his temper and throw the pieces and sometimes break the ones we had already done if I wasn’t quite fast enough. Rather than losing my temper (which would be easy to do if feeling frazzled) it made me even more determined that he should feel success and complete the task. I think at one point he got up to wander off and give up. It was hard to know how far to push him but I knew that he wouldn’t think he could do jigsaws unless he actually did one so I pretty much made him come back and finish it off. I gave a lot of help and short of actually putting the pieces in place for him, heavily scaffolded the task. All the while a part of me wondered if I was placing too much pressure on him as perhaps he actually wasn’t capable of doing it?

However, jigsaw finally completed, we were able to high five, applaud and do lots of bows. Big Bear is always fabulous in these situations and spontaneously joined in with the praise. Now that the marathon of completing one 4 piece jigsaw was over I thought we could tidy up and go to bed. However, to my surprise Little Bear had other ideas. He wanted to do another jigsaw. So off we went again. It wasn’t much easier the second time and Little Bear certainly wasn’t a natural at ‘seeing’ the picture and matching bits together. I thought back to the discussions we’d had with the Educational Psychologist in which he said that Little Bear’s language scores were in advance of his visual skills, a statement that at the time I had felt must be wrong. However, was this the type of thing he meant? I had to agree that what I was seeing was concerning and that without a significant amount of adult support, Little Bear would not be able to complete even a very simple jigsaw at the age of 5.

We persevered and geed on by his previous success Little Bear was pretty determined to complete the next one. That is not to say that he didn’t lose his temper or become easily frustrated but with encouragement and a calm approach and I have to admit, an element of me refusing to allow him to fail at it, we completed another and another and about 5 more. In the end I had to call time on it and put him to bed.

I was astonished when in the morning he wanted to do more still. He got out every jigsaw we own one by one and we painstakingly completed each of them until the playroom floor was covered. I tried to teach him strategies to make it easier e.g. that one has a straight bit. It is an edge. It goes at the side. Or that was has two straight bits. It is a corner. I pointed at similarities between pieces. Look, that one has purple on it too or the cat’s tail is missing, I wonder where it is.

I repeated myself a lot. No matter how much I said it, the task didn’t seem to be getting any easier for Little Bear, not least I suspect because ‘edge’ and ‘corner’ were new words for his vocabulary. But I had to admire his persistence. I don’t think there are many children who would want to keep going and going at something they are finding so hard. I kept the praise level high and despite Little Bear repeatedly saying “I’m rubbish at jigsaws” I tried hard to re-frame that thought and help to show him otherwise. Once the floor was almost entirely covered, he began to admit that he might be The Jigsaw Master.

This was just a couple of weeks ago. Little Bear still likes to get the jigsaws out but now he can complete a 30 piece jigsaw on his own.

Nothing about this situation is as I would have predicted it and it has taught me several things:

Firstly, when Little Bear doesn’t appear to be able to do things, is it because he really can’t or because he doesn’t believe he can? I rather suspect that he often gives up at the first hint of failure as his default position is to assume that he can’t. This leads me to think that sometimes putting a bit more pressure on him to complete a task the first time he encounters it is the right thing to do to show him that he can (with a high level of support of course).

However, it is hard to know which tasks to target and whether it is realistic to expect him to achieve them. Taking a hard approach to tasks that he might not be able to complete would be really damaging.

Secondly, I do feel there was an element of Little Bear having difficulties learning the task. I don’t think he was ever going to spontaneously figure jigsaws out by himself. However, it has shown that with specific teaching he can learn and he can generalise his skills pretty quickly. He needs specific teaching of strategies e.g. he couldn’t notice the similarities between pieces so I had to verbalise things that seemed obvious. Once he has been taught these strategies and there has been a lot of repetition of them, he can apply them well. I suspect this is due to differences in his neural pathways, caused by years of neglect. However, just because he can’t learn something the usual way, doesn’t mean we can’t find a way around it and create a new neural pathway for him.

Thirdly, because of the first and second point, Little Bear can’t really be expected to try new tasks by himself. He needs a grown up by his side to keep him regulated, focused and to give him heaps of positive feedback. I really hope we get the EHCP funding we have applied for as this is the very reason why he needs it.

I have found at home that if I get the support wrong the first time we try a task that can be the end of his engagement with it forever, so good support for new tasks is essential.

I am genuinely shocked at his progress with jigsaws and at what he can do now. The fact that he was so motivated to succeed, despite all the barriers, is nothing short of inspirational. He allowed countless repetitions of the task over the course of a few days which will undoubtedly have cemented his skills much more quickly. He even sat and helped with a huge jigsaw of the world that the 4 of us were working on the other day. It was hard for grown-ups but he now believes he can do jigsaws so wasn’t unduly phased. He did brilliantly and Big Bear got bored before he did.

I am now thinking about what other tasks we could tackle in this way. We have managed it with Maxi Hama beads – we had the same “I can’t do it”, “you do it for me” situation the first time we tried those but by the end of the morning he was pushing my hand away saying “I do it myself”.

I have also noticed that once Little Bear has mastered a task his attention span suddenly increases beyond recognition. His teacher called me in the other day as she was shocked that he had sat on the rug in a corner of the classroom for a whole hour by himself doing jigsaws. They had all been muddled up and he had painstakingly sorted and completed them. She had never seen him concentrate for more than 10 minutes on anything and didn’t know that he could.

This weekend, Little Bear spent several hours making Hama bead creations until he had used every single bead and I had to make a hasty Amazon purchase.

Evidently confidence is playing a huge role in Little Bear’s ability to learn. Little Bear, you really need to believe in yourself as much as I do because what you have achieved so far is nothing short of astounding.

And thank you to the humble jigsaw, who knew I could learn so much from you?!

 

 

 

 

 

Jigsaws