Ask the Kids

Gerv Leyden, Colin Newton, Derek Wilson. December 2001

Parents of children who need additional support in school generally feel vulnerable themselves. They often tell us that they are especially ‘tuned in’ to the phone on school days. Anxious that a call will come through telling of difficulties in class. Or, more seriously, that their child’s classroom aid is not able to come in today, and ‘would you be able to come and support’ otherwise your child will have to be sent home.

Yet there are alternatives, and the ones that have most interested – and inspired – us have been cases in which the pupils themselves have provided the solution.

Alex is eight years old, and attends a mainstream Junior school. He has a significant hearing loss and communicates with others through sign language. His classroom aid, Julie, supports him in his lessons. She also teaches signing to the whole class so that they can communicate with Alex in the classroom and at break-times. The first 20 minutes of the afternoon session each day are spent with the whole class, introducing new vocabulary and refreshing signing skills.

When Carole, the class-teacher, makes a presentation to the whole class, Julie stands at the front alongside her and signs. Julie’s presence is therefore vital for Alex to take part in his class lessons.

The day Julie received a call that her own child had suddenly been taken ill at school, and she would have to go and take her home presented an immediate and urgent problem for Alex and his teachers. How could they include Alex in his class lessons?

But then something remarkable happened to solve the problem. As Julie left the classroom, Katie, a nine year old girl sitting at the back of the class walked unasked to the front of the room, stood alongside Carole, gazed briefly at her, then faced the class and started to sign. And the lesson continued. As normal.

There are many lessons to be learned from that event. But for us, it is a reminder that the clue to solving many of our apparent ‘problems’ is to be found in the children themselves. If we give them the opportunity to show us.

A very different situation occurred in a secondary comprehensive school. On this occasion it involved Matthew, a 15 year old boy who had contracted leukaemia, and would be facing regular and frequent spells of chemotherapy throughout the year which would require his admission to hospital for several days at a time.

Matthew was an enthusiastic student who had set his heart on doing well in his end of year exams, and then moving on to a college course to that would enable him to apply for a university place. Although his school would continue to prepare work for him, Matthew knew that the hospital stays would interfere with his studies. And his social contacts with his friends in school who were an important part of his life and his study regime.

How could we meet his social and study needs? One possibility would be to involve hospital based teachers or the home teaching service. But neither would necessarily know the specific course and programme Matthew was to follow. Nor would they be a substitute for the ‘crack’ and humour of his teenage friends and course mates. We discussed this with Mathew, sounded out the options, and jointly came up with this strategy.

While it may seem obvious to you, we were astonished how simple and effective was the solution. During a meeting with his tutor group in school we outlined the concept of a ‘circle of support.’ And, not surprisingly, they ALL opted to be part! And worked out their own a rota to ensure that four or five (often more!) would be gathered round his bed in the ward everyday, to discuss whatever. Who was dating whom, which teachers were the focus of gossip, which CDs were hot that week …… and subject work. They transformed a hospital ward into a school common room/ recess area and study base, much to the initial shock and eventual delight of the medical staff.

Towards the end of the year, we held a follow-up meeting with the support circle, and asked them about their experience. All were highly enthusiastic – as was Matthew – but one student summed it up on behalf of all. ‘Thank you. It was a privilege to be asked.’

From our perspective, it was a privilege to meet such enthusiastic young people. And a privilege to be in the position of asking them to help.

Gerv Leyden, Professional and Academic Tutor, Educational Psychologist: email:

Colin Newton, Former Principal Educational Psychologist and co-founder ‘Inclusive Solutions: email:

Derek Wilson, Former Senior Educational Psychologist and co-founder ‘Inclusive Solutions.’: email:

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