Behaviour – a dirty word?

Around this time last year, I wrote this post – High School Visits – about our experiences of looking around high schools for BB, and how, although it wasn’t about him, I began to think about LB’s future needs and how they would be supported by the schools on offer. I drew the difficult conclusion that the boys may well end up at different secondary schools.

BB – my first born, my baby – is approaching teenage-hood fast. He’s officially in the final year of primary school and now we really do have to choose a high school for him despite this all having happened far too quickly (and me not being ready and wanting to weep into my cup of tea). We are re-visiting schools A and B from last year’s post as well as adding school C into the mix, to help us choose before the October deadline.

It’s looking like a choice between B and C for BB but in reality, he could go to any of them and I’m sure he’d be fine. Although we are going to have some worries about catchment areas and places filling up, the reality is that the world is BB’s oyster. All options are open to him and its largely going to come down to preference.

However, the more schools I view, the more concerned I become that LB will not have such a choice. The picture I’m getting is that schools are inclusive to a point, but not beyond. None of the schools we have visited are ‘selective’ though one is independent. They are all therefore, theoretically, inclusive. However, when you scratch even lightly at the surface, you soon realise that they are not. What they are is inclusive with exceptions, which is pretty weird when you start to consider it more deeply.

What I feel they’re really saying is that some special educational needs are more acceptable to them than others. That if your child has Dyslexia or Dyscalculia or Autism (certain presentations only), or a physical disability, perhaps a mild vision or hearing loss, they’re ok. They can come in. However, as soon as there’s a whiff of the unspeakable ‘b’ word, no thank you very much.

I touched on this in last year’s post – that some schools see behaviour issues as selfish, disruptive to others, and stemming from a flaw within the child displaying them. I can tell they do, from the way they lean forward conspiratorially when they mention it, lower their voice slightly, just automatically assume that you will agree with their view point that we don’t want Them in This School. It is always delivered in such a matter of fact way that you know the deliverer can’t possibly envisage a scenario where the child with ‘the behaviour’ is anything other than a huge problem, to be avoided at all costs.

Today, we presented smartly, we talked about BB with his good academics, his good social skills, his extracurricular activities, his all-round sunny disposition. We must have seemed a safe bet for the ‘not in our school’ behaviour chat. We evidently didn’t present as the sort of people who would have another child with behaviour challenges. But we do. That’s because there are many reasons for a child to struggle with their behaviour and generally it is not that they come ‘from a bad family’ or whatever it is people assume.

I get that schools want to cultivate a certain image and maintain certain standards. I get that if it is a fee-paying school, other parents will expect certain learning conditions for their children that perhaps don’t involve disruption from a classmate.

However, as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges – which, incidentally, he gained from having a really shitty start in life (very much not his fault) – it all feels pretty exclusionary. The reality is that neither school B, nor school C will be welcoming towards LB and his specific set of needs. Grizzly assures me it’s fine, because we will consider each boy individually and attempt to get them into the best school for them.

While this is all well and good, another part of me wonders why it is ok for BB to have three good options available to him but LB, so far, has one. It makes me feel that his background continues to limit him because as hard as we work to improve things for him, and as prepared as I am to fight for his needs to be met, he isn’t going to have the same choices. For me, a school that talks about behaviour like it’s a dirty word is never going to be appropriately understanding of it. Those schools may be inclusive on paper but they aren’t in reality. And if they’re not truly inclusive, they’re not truly an option.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if you went to view a school and when they talked about behaviour they said something along the lines of being committed to understanding the underlying roots of it? Something about how they see the potential in every single child, no matter how they present? How they are committed to tailored approaches and working in partnership and thinking about the things children can excel in, rather than excluding them for the things they can’t help? What if they said every child is a success waiting to happen?

What if it wasn’t just the occasional school, but every school which had that opinion?

What if, and imagine this, children with any additional need could be supported to have an equal chance at life?

What if we ditched this weird concept of a hierarchy of acceptability of need? Stopped thinking that struggling with literacy was in some way more okay than struggling with emotional regulation. As a society we don’t appear to blame children who can’t read – it’s pretty obvious to most that it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support. Why, then, do we think it acceptable to pin the blame for a children struggling to regulate their behaviour on the child themselves? Why don’t we think it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support for them?

I suspect it’s just more convenient this way. Children who can’t read impact other people a lot less than children who struggle to regulate their behaviour. That’s an unpalatable but true fact. Children with behaviour challenges can disrupt classrooms, they can be hard work, they can hurt people, they can turn people grey, but do we really think that they are less deserving or worthy of the right support than a child with literacy difficulties? And if we do, what exactly is the justification for that stance?

Our recent visits to schools would suggest that the prevailing viewpoint is just this: that children with behaviour challenges are less deserving of a good education. As a society, we seem to think it’s acceptable to keep them away from others, to isolate them, to exclude them, to send them to schools where restraint is regularly used and when all that fails, lock them up in an Assessment and Treatment Centre (ATU).

I’d say we’re failing them.

We’re thinking of the majority and excluding those who don’t conform enough. Shouldn’t we be thinking of each child as an individual? The herd mentality is not really any good for anybody – just one approach is never going to work for all. But if we had many approaches that could be moulded and tweaked for individuals as needed – might that not be inclusive?

It’s really about a shift of attitude. These children with behaviour difficulties aren’t at fault – they have neurological or emotional or sensory or psychological reasons behind their behaviour. We are not affording them empathy. We are not getting things right for them. Schools are not getting things right for them. Inclusion is not including them.

These children are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They are already at risk of poor life outcomes so why do we think its ok to alienate them further?

I don’t know the solution but I know I’m pretty fucking mad about it.

Behaviour – a dirty word?

Mislaying The Positives

I think everyone knows that the last few weeks have been a little trying. Between school residentials and transition, there has been plenty to get my knickers in a twist about (if you somehow missed it, see Hysterical , The Big Trip and Is Dysregulation Rocket Science? ). This isn’t unusual, I’m frequently banging on about some issue or other, more often than not relating to LB’s education. I’m aware though, that in getting caught up dealing with the myriad issues, it can be all too easy to skip over the positives. It means that things, that when you stop to think about them are actually amazing, can pass you by with barely an acknowledgement. I don’t want to skip over these things – these achievements of LB’s – because they are massive within the context of his history and should be given the credence they deserve. I’m going to share one thing, in particular, today. First, I need to tell you some facts.

I don’t like bragging. That’s a fact. I can’t bear it when people go to parents evening then write #giftedandtalented on Twitter or Facebook. Or when someone asks you if you’re concerned about your child and you say yes, and then they say how they aren’t at all worried about theirs because they are exceeding expectations in every area. I don’t like it when people brag about how expensive their house is or how much they earn or how clever they are or any of the others ways that people try to seem better than other people. Just, no.

Here’s another fact. When LB started pre-school, his development was measured to be two years behind the typical expectations for his age – so he was functioning round about the level of a two year old, when he was four. That’s a very tricky educational starting point. There were many barriers between LB and formal learning – behavioural, emotional, linguistic.

When LB started reception class, he couldn’t count. I’m not exaggerating – he literally couldn’t count to three in the correct order. This was not through a lack of trying on anyone’s part – it was mainly due to his Developmental Language Disorder (DLD See Developmental Language Disorder or DLD & Education ), as well as his tricky start. It did mean that numeracy was going to be extremely difficult. It is impossible to do sums if you don’t understand the currency you’re dealing with. It literally must have been like adding apples and pears for him.

By the end of year 1, though LB had made incredible progress in all areas, he had never quite managed to hit an expected level in any subject. It didn’t matter. We were extremely proud of him because of all the things he had achieved and really, from a starting point of 2 years behind, how could he?

Year 2 felt like a big jump. Year 2 had SATS. SATS were going to be hard for someone working below the expectations of the curriculum; someone who had only been able to count for 18 months or so. Fact. We didn’t even know if we’d let him sit the SATS – if they were going to feel too big an obstacle.

Somehow, despite all those facts, at the end of Year 2, LB managed not only to sit his SATS but to pass his Maths SATS. Not only that, but he smashed it, gaining close to a ‘greater depth’ score. He has also been deemed to be working at the overall expectations of the curriculum in numeracy, so in his report, he got his first green light. In fact, he got one for science too.

Why are you telling us this, if you don’t like bragging? I hear you whisper.

I’ll tell you why.

The ACE’s index (Adverse Childhood Experiences index) came about as a way of measuring the impact in later life of various different adversities that could befall a child. This is important because it is only fairly recently that society has begun to acknowledge that things that happen during childhood can continue to impact a person throughout their life. It is important we understand that childhood abuse, neglect or the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, imprisonment or moving into the Care system doesn’t stop impacting a person once the event is over. It is really important these things are widely understood. The old adage that ‘the child is safe now so the past can be forgotten’ really does need eradicating and something like the ACE’s movement helps with this.

The ACE index also tells us that the more ACEs a person has experienced, the greater their risk of mental and physical health difficulties, substance abuse and unemployment. In short, the worse your start in life, the higher the likelihood of your life outcomes also being poor. A double-whammy body-blow.

ACES another one

 

It is beginning to be recognised that though this information is well-intentioned and to some extent needed, by encouraging people to count numbers of ACEs, you are really misunderstanding the way trauma works. It’s feasible that a person could score just 1 on the index, for an event that may only have occurred once, on one specific day. The index would suggest that this event would only have a minor impact on the person. However, from what we know of trauma, this is isn’t accurate. Depending on the person and their own reactions, that single event could have anything from a minimal to a profound lifelong impact upon the person. Similarly, because you have a large number of ACE’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up homeless, addicted to alcohol and drugs and suffering several health complaints, and I think there is a danger in suggesting you would.

ACES

 

For a young person, growing up with the knowledge they have a high ACE score could well make them feel hopeless about their future, and is that really what we want for our most vulnerable children? Surely the message should be that, yes, rubbish things that happen in childhood can impact upon a person and as a society we acknowledge it. We should also be offering all the extras a child could need – therapy, education, social/behavioural/emotional support – to help them in overcoming the impacts of those ACES. We should be acknowledging that children with any ACE score need more from us – more care, more love, more support. We should be flagging them up as at risk of the future harm the ACE index suggests whilst providing them with what they need to negate that risk.

I think there’s a danger in suggesting that something that happens early on will categorically lead to x or y later. These things are not set in stone. With the correct support, children who’ve had adverse starts in life can and do overcome the barriers their early lives attempted to block them with. I’m not saying it’s easy – it will undoubtedly be harder for them than for children without ACEs – but shouldn’t we try? Shouldn’t we aspire for the best we can for all children?

So, when a child comes from two years behind expectations, having experienced neglect and the severing of links with their biological family, and several moves, and despite all that catches up with expectations for children who have dealt with none of that, shouldn’t we be shouting from the roof tops? I think so.

Often, it is the most privileged who brag the most. It is hard to be impressed by the gains of those who already had a head start, but when the one who was lagging behind, who joined the race a long while after the others and kept on running despite being so far back, manages to catch up, that’s truly brag-worthy.

This is not all about catching-up though. Even if LB hadn’t have caught up, but had kept running, that would be a significant achievement too. He’s still running when it comes to literacy and he may always be, as may many of his other adoptee peers who have educational mountains to overcome, and I think it’s important we acknowledge that every next reading level, every percentile, every point on every scale, is harder won for our children with ACEs. But they’re doing it. They’re out there, surpassing expectations all the time. And I don’t want that to be lost in schools that don’t understand their behaviour or in parents having to fight or getting dragged down by the multitudinous battles they’re facing. We mustn’t mislay the positives. These positives are huge and indicative of something bigger even than ACEs. They’re about human fortitude and our ability to overcome. And a beacon of hope for what can be achieved, when we properly support our most vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

 

Mislaying The Positives

DLD & Education

Today there has been a web chat run by @DLDandMe all about the impact having a language disorder has on a child’s education. It is part of their wider work to raise awareness of Developmental Language Disorder  (DLD) and to spread the word to a broader audience, about what DLD is, how to recognise it etc. I joined in a little, although late, but I thought it might be useful to share more detail about this topic, from our own personal experience.

As most readers already know, I am both a speech and language therapist and Mum to our seven year old son – LB – who has DLD. There is a complication to our story, which is that LB experienced early neglect and didn’t come into our lives until he was three and half. It is pretty impossible to pick apart the different impacts of neglect and DLD, with both having made their mark. However, it was clear from fairly early on that the communication difficulties LB experienced were more significant than delay alone and where progress was quite quick in some areas, speech and language has always proved more challenging for him. As much as possible in this post, I’m going to focus on the specific ways DLD has affected LB’s educational progress, notwithstanding the separate effects trauma has had.

LB’s DLD impacted on all areas of his communication development when we first met him – including his ability to understand language (comprehension), his auditory memory, his ability to use words and make sentences (expressive language), his ability to listen and pay attention, his ability to speak clearly and his social communication. When I talk about his presentation back then, in workshops and the like, I can see that it shocks people. And it was shocking, because LB’s language system just couldn’t do what he needed it to – not one part of the complicated whole functioned as it should have. He was very much trapped inside of himself and he wasn’t left with many options other than to express himself through his behaviour.

In the early stages of his pre-school education, this impacted him in a myriad different ways. He was certainly delayed in learning concept words such as his colours, size words, same/different etc. which meant he just couldn’t follow much of the teaching or express answers to what nursery staff would likely consider easy or every day questions. That said, with specific teaching of one concept at a time and plenty of reinforcement in everyday activities and play, LB was able to close the gap pretty quickly. It isn’t that LB can’t learn, because he has developed phenomenally quickly, it’s just that he couldn’t pick these concepts up from the ether, as children with typical language skills would. He required specific teaching, repetition and showing, to get them to stick.

Obviously, struggling with comprehension made it even harder for LB to learn new things. There must have been much of what went on in Nursery that he couldn’t follow. This no doubt exacerbated his difficulties with listening and attention, because it is extremely hard work for anybody to focus on language they don’t comprehend. Imagine having to listen to French or Urdu or Finnish or any other language you aren’t familiar with, for large swathes of each day. It would be exhausting and it wouldn’t take long until you stopped listening. Therefore, in some ways, LB’s DLD exacerbated his DLD. He certainly coped better on a 1:1 and thankfully we were able to provide him with this because I was on adoption leave and he just went to pre-school for a few sessions (and now he has TA support). Keeping distraction levels down and matching our language to the level LB could cope with, was imperative. It meant we could keep language accessible for him most of the time and choose which concepts or structures we wanted to stretch him with. I guess this is where my professional background came in – I suspect creating these ideal learning conditions would be much more difficult for a child whose parents are new to the idea of DLD and whose pre-school setting don’t get it.

Certainly as LB’s comprehension developed, so too did his ability to learn. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but he did appear to be growing cleverer. I maintain that had he have had a cognitive assessment at the beginning, and one a couple of years later, he would have climbed the percentiles. This is because learning and education is generally acquired through the currency of language. As he acquired more words, he knew what more things were. He was able to express how things work. He was able to enquire and find more information out. The more language you have, the better you become at gaining it. Initially, we just couldn’t have talked about complex ideas such as electricity or natural disasters or endangered animals or health conditions. LB didn’t have the vocabulary to access a discussion or explanation about such things so he essentially wasn’t able to learn about them. It was only when he had gained sufficient depth and breadth of vocabulary and could listen to and follow longer structures, that he was able to develop his knowledge of the world around him. And when this did happen, it was amazing to witness the world opening up to him.

Vocabulary acquisition was a huge ongoing challenge for LB (and me) for a long time. Initially, even though we used lots and lots of modelling strategies, he didn’t seem to be growing a larger vocabulary. Again, like with other aspects of his language system, the more he heard a word used and the more times he managed to store a new one, the better his language processing system got. He has certainly got quicker at acquiring new words, even if this continues to be hard for him. Evidently LB’s language processing system (the bit of our brains that hears words, de-codes them, decides what sounds are in them, and their meaning, and stores them in an organised way, ready to be spoken) was not well-developed. It was laborious for him to use it, meaning that getting his vocabulary as big as he needed it to be must have been an exhausting task for him.

Where LB would once have needed to hear a word used around him for several months, with a high level of repetition, before being able to store and use it, he can now store a new word almost immediately. This has had a huge impact on his ability to be able to keep up with the curriculum. Each new topic brings a cornucopia of new words, which children are expected to immediately absorb in order to follow teaching. If you can’t understand the new words, it’s extremely difficult to follow the new lessons.

Although speedier, LB’s processing system remains inaccurate – he struggles to de-code words so that, without help, he might store ‘Corvette’ as “courgette” or ‘submarine’ as “subramine”. He is aware of this so often requests help – just having someone break a word down into bite-size syllables is a huge help to him and allows him to store a new word correctly. At school he has word webs for new words and is building up a personalised dictionary with his TA.

Despite all the hurdles, LB’s comprehension skills have caught up. He seems able to access the vast majority of teaching in his year 2 classroom without too much difficulty. He does cope better with multi-sensory teaching and visual supports (such as narrative grids, Mind Maps etc.), not least because they help to hold his attention. When LB is tired, his skills in this area do diminish a little and he might need a bit more repetition but overall I think his progress underlines what the right speech and language therapy input can achieve for children with DLD.

LB’s difficulties with auditory memory have impacted in several ways – most notably on his ability to blend sounds together and to learn listed information. Literacy acquisition was always going to be a challenge for LB, as his speech continued to be unintelligible well into year 1, with vowel distortions, and his sound awareness skills (identifying the first sound in words, rhyme, syllables etc) were poor. Even the pre-reading task of describing what’s happening in a picture was ridiculously difficult, because LB didn’t have the sentence structures or vocabulary he needed in his expressive language – something else we taught specifically.

We worked hard on sound awareness in a stepwise manner – identifying the first sound of short words then longer words, then the last sound of short words etc., alongside attending speech and language therapy. Again, I feel that good phonological awareness skills are something LB wouldn’t have been able to acquire organically, but he was very much capable of achieving on a 1:1 basis with a personalised approach.

We stumbled at the point of blending sounds together – a critical final step before literacy could be gained. The difficulty it turned out, after a bit of ‘diagnostic therapy’ (again, thank goodness for my career) was the blasted auditory memory which was struggling to hold three sounds, let alone stick them together. Once more, practise paid off and eventually LB could blend. Which, having already learned his letter shapes – pretty easily, it was a visual task – meant he could read. Progress has been steady since that point, with him progressing through the reading levels as you’d expect. In my opinion, a good phonics approach is essential for a child with DLD. It was a challenge to establish that strong foundation but once it was in place, it served LB well. He is not yet meeting the expectations of the curriculum but his reading is good; he understands text and he can apply his phonic skills to decipher most words. Crucially, he loves books and listening to stories. Keeping things as fun and engaging as possible is another essential tool in encouraging a child with DLD.

However, LB is not yet ready to apply his phonic skills to writing, finding this laborious. The addition of SPAG requirements such as including a noun phrase, or adverbial, pretty much renders writing the very worst aspect of school life for LB and, in my humble opinion, totally takes the fun and imagination out of it for all children.

It is hard to get LB’s teachers to understand just how many demands writing places on the language system of child with DLD. My hunch is that when his reading skills are better still and he’s had more specific phonics teaching, his ability to spell will improve. I suspect that expressing himself on paper, with appropriate grammar, will always have its challenges.

The other area auditory memory difficulties have impacted is LB’s ability to learn listed or sequential information such as the days of the weeks, months and, perhaps most crucially, how to count. Learning the numbers to ten proved extraordinarily challenging for LB so that when he started school, aged 4 and half, he couldn’t count to three in the correct order. The knock on effect of this was that Maths was pretty much impossible. How can you do sums when you haven’t the basic language for it? When “4” or “732” are just as meaningless and unquantifiable? This certainly held LB back and for the first year, perhaps two, of his education, his literacy skills appeared better than his numeracy ones, which lagged significantly behind. However, all the repetition and visual representation eventually paid off and LB learned to count to 10. And then 20. Very soon after that, probably because he could use his logic and ability to see patterns, he could get to 100. Once he had the language, Maths wasn’t so hard at all. In fact, it looks as though LB will meet the expected levels of the National Curriculum for the first time this year, which is no mean feat, given his starting point. Now that he has the language, even the reasoning SATS paper is accessible to him, despite the problems being presented in word form.

Having DLD has made every aspect of LB’s education more challenging for him. However, with the right support, LB has proved over and over again, what children with DLD can achieve and how crucial getting that support in place is. Language underlies all learning and we ignore that at the peril of children with DLD.

 

 

DLD & Education

The Bears’ Summer Writing Challenge

Every summer, libraries do their Summer Reading Challenge to encourage children to read more books. I think it’s a really good idea but this year I had decided we wouldn’t participate*. We do alright on reading here, I really can’t complain. Big Bear will be getting some new books for his birthday and I know he will read them during the holidays, now that he has discovered the pleasure of reading for fun. Little Bear has a well-stocked book shelf, having inherited Big Bear’s picture books as well as acquiring a good collection of his own. He loves reading and we religiously read three books each night, as well as Little Bear reading to me (I have invested in a pack of Oxford Reading Tree books of the right level from The Book People to keep practise up over the hols).

I’m not complacent about reading and I definitely place a high value on it, it’s just that I have already given it a whole heap of my attention and I think we can afford to shift our focus elsewhere now, leaving reading ticking along nicely in the background.

I suppose I have always felt fairly confident in how to support and develop reading at home. Being a speech and language therapist, knowing about phonological awareness (the awareness of the sound structure of words) and how to teach it, is crucial. Phonological awareness underpins speech processing and development but it also underpins literacy. Therefore my career has armed me really, with the tools to help my children learn to read.

Irrespective of teaching the mechanics of reading, I have always believed that it is crucial for a child to feel successful at something and to truly believe they can do it in order for them to develop a confidence in their skills. When it comes to reading, that lightbulb moment often happens when children go out and about and realise they can read signs and labels and text they just happen upon in their environment. It is important to practise reading in a school book but I think children need more than that to truly develop a love and desire for reading. Where possible, at each stage, I have tried to pick books from Little Bear’s shelf that I knew he could read. He often didn’t believe he could because they weren’t colour-banded school books, but once I’d persuaded him to try, the fact that he really could was powerful for him. As was being able to read made up stories we hand wrote on a piece of paper or bits of a cereal packet or words on the TV.

Obviously Little Bear is not yet reading War and Peace but he has the foundation skills in place and is making good progress. As yet, the same cannot be said for writing.

I have to admit that I have been somewhat neglectful of Little Bear’s writing development. There are a few reasons why. Firstly, I do think reading is more important to start with and writing is a skill that can follow. That’s just my opinion: I’m not a teacher, so I may well be going against some sort of law of teaching or other. Secondly, I don’t have the same confidence to support Little Bear’s writing development. What on earth do I know about teaching writing?

As we have now got to the point where Little Bear is pretty happy and confident to read but frequently says he hates writing and that he’s rubbish at it and might sabotage his written work and is what school would term “a reluctant writer” I can no longer hide behind my excuses. The Eureka moment we have all been hoping for has not materialised.

I think what I mean to say is that the Eureka moment has not happened through school input alone. Now, I absolutely do not believe that my ability to teach Little Bear is better than schools. We have already established that I have zero knowledge of teaching writing and I love the Bears’ school and think they do an amazing job. The problem, and I think there is one, is with the curriculum and the pressure on our children to meet all sorts of crazy standards. I haven’t the energy for politics but all I know is that if I were a ‘reluctant writer’ and I found within me the effort to put pencil to paper and immediately as I did, were told my starting letter should have been a capital and that my ‘S’ was incorrectly formed, I probably couldn’t be arsed to try again either.

In considering a way to give Little Bear his Eureka moment, I had a little one of my own. I am no teacher but I am a writer. I don’t profess to ‘know my craft’ as I’m pretty new to it really and am certainly still developing my skills, but I do love it. I had a little think about what I love about it and the answer I came up with definitely wasn’t punctuation or grammar. Whilst I do understand punctuation and I think use it appropriately it really doesn’t excite me and despite studying Linguistic modules at degree level, the more I consider how to craft a piece of writing, the more I fear I know nothing about grammar. Grammar is starting to scare me, but that’s another story. I concluded that my love of writing comes from the fundamental concept that it allows me to take ideas from my brain and put them on a piece of paper. It allows me to express myself. I can say whatever I like. Anything, in the whole world.

That freedom is what I want to gift to Little Bear. I want him to write. I don’t care what he writes, how he forms his letters, if it’s massive or tiny, if it’s in pencil or biro, if he adheres to the rules of grammar or not. I don’t think it is possible, for a child lacking in self-esteem, who struggles so much with rules, to learn to love writing when there are just so many constraints placed upon how he can do it. I know that he will need to go on to learn the rules, of course he will, but it feels like there should be a stage before that in which he can experiment and figure out the whole raison d’etre of writing.

On Friday, the day school ended for summer, I got a couple of little things for the boys to keep them entertained in the holidays. I got them each a notepad and pens and I set them a writing challenge. When I did this I wasn’t too sure whether it might be one of those things Mum comes up with which she thinks is a fabulous idea but actually the children can’t believe what I’m doing to them. I did make my purchases as appealing as possible because every writer needs good stationery and I needed as much help as possible with marketing my idea. Little Bear has a notebook with sequins on it that can be brushed backwards or forwards which he LOVES and Big Bear has a green furry one that smells of apples and who could need anything else? I also provided new pens, in a delectable range of colours.

I set the challenge: to write every day for the whole holiday. Effort and commitment will be rewarded at the end of the holiday. If you don’t write, your chances of reward dwindle. The rules? There are no rules. You can write anything; a story, a list, a diary entry, a song.

I didn’t say this part out loud but I made a deal with myself that anything that got written would not get corrected and would not have to be copied out again. At school they do this ‘purple polishing’ thing which is about checking your work and drafting and re-drafting to achieve the best version of the work you can. I get it, obviously in my writing life I draft and edit and tweak and tinker until the cows come home, but I’m a grown up and I’m trying to get published and if I were a child I would be BORED. Like Little Bear, I would also be disgruntled that I had already tried my best and I simply didn’t have the energy left to do it all again.

On Saturday, after tea, the boys dutifully sat down to write in their books. Big Bear wrote a diary entry in lumo-green. Little Bear began making up a story, every few lines changing colour so it looked like a rainbow. Little Bear wrote a whole paragraph without any sort of encouragement which was more than I’d ever observed him write. We made a big fuss of how well he had done and he was made up when the other three of us each trooped over to read his words aloud.

I feared that my hands-off approach would hamper progress and development but I was heartened to hear Little Bear sounding his words out as he went and applying some of his phonic knowledge. When he got to bigger words he asked for help and I either helped or encouraged as necessary.

On Sunday, when I got up, Little Bear, ever the early bird, was already up and seated at the kitchen table. Apparently he fancied carrying on his story and had covered another page and a half in rainbow writing. It doesn’t make total sense. Some words are missing and I can’t decipher some of it but I am absolutely over the moon at his enthusiasm.

Later on, Big Bear chose to play a computer game and Little Bear chose to write some more.

After tea, Big Bear sat down to do his writing and I told Little Bear he didn’t have to as he had already written plenty, yet down he sat and more story appeared.

On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and today, Little Bear picked up his sequined notebook at random points in the day and he wrote. I have not reminded him to do so on any occasion.

I don’t know whether this is his Eureka moment but he has never hitherto shown this level of interest, so I’m feeling optimistic. The curriculum feels quite restrictive to me at times. Why do we need to push our children into complex grammatical structures at such a young age? As if to prove my point, we have homework about extended noun phrases. The power of creativity feels massively undervalued in today’s schooling. Little Bear has a wild imagination. He could be a fabulous writer, but only if we can inspire him.

Having Developmental Language Disorder makes all aspects of literacy harder for Little Bear. He is already pushing a boulder up a hill before he picks up his pencil. I know he can achieve a good level of literacy despite this, but does he?

The whole point of the writing challenge is to ignite his self-belief because, unfortunately, his formal education doesn’t seem able to.

 

 

*When we popped to the library the boys decided they did want to do the Reading Challenge after all so we have challenges come out of our ears!

The Bears’ Summer Writing Challenge