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Developing positive social interaction and self-confidence in pupils with special needs

SEN-boy-with-girlsFor the ninth year, SSAT has celebrated and shared outstanding practice from schools across the country in the Achievement Show – this year, back at the site of the original show, the Emirates Stadium, North London.

Leaders and teachers from over 50 schools gave presentations of no longer than 45 minutes, highlighting their challenges and successes. Most importantly, the speakers gave the detail, and advice on what worked and what didn’t, and why.

The presentations covered a wide range of subjects and approaches: there was something there for everyone. Over the next week, we are publishing on our blog reports from a small selection, covering mobile technology in and outside the classroom, motivating disparate categories of students, retaining learning, school radio stations, special needs education, and oracy in young people from severely deprived backgrounds.

We began with Greg Hughes’ session on the impact of learning technologies at de Ferrers Academy. A second report gave you four advantages of investing in mobile technology. Our third piece recalled how a north London school has tackled severe language deprivation. A fourth report contained advice from a special school for mainstream schools on supporting students with autism. The fifth summary covered the age-old challenge of unengaged boys. The penultimate report gave you three ways of enhancing knowledge retention. This final entry promotes the importance of focusing on the emotional wellbeing of young people with special educational needs…


The Tydeman Centre for pupils with a wide range of complex needs including autism gives great attention to their emotional wellbeing. The centre, which attracts pupils from all over the county, is a very inclusive unit, explained Steve Duthie, headteacher. Its specialist resources are fully integrated into the curriculum, and it uses a graduated approach to integrate students into the mainstream.

“Many of the students come to us having been in language units in year 6, where they get 1-1 support,” explained Karen Arnold, deputy head. “We attend their annual reviews and pass on feedback to all our staff, with information about each student’s specific difficulties. The students from that unit then come to our centre on two morning visits, followed by a third with all the other kids coming from across Kent.”

When the students start at Tydeman, many of them have significant anxiety problems, as well as their other needs. So in years 7 and 8, the centre has classes of 10, each with a teacher and a TA; “this enables us to reduce anxiety.” By years 10 and 11, however, most lessons are in mainstream at the Malling School, with support from Tydenham Centre staff.

Clubs build social interaction

A number of regular events and clubs help the students to build their social interactions, including a brunch club; an animation club, with individual and group instruction; a school garden; a Dr Who club; and a train club. “The ASD kids are so particular about their clubs,” Steve Duthie commented. If you can relate to their interest you tend to get a good response, he reckons. “One boy is really into trains: if he’s misbehaving I mimic blowing a traditional train whistle (arm pumping up and down above the head) and he smiles and calms down.”

One boy is really into trains: if he’s misbehaving I mimic blowing a traditional train whistle (arm pumping up and down above the head) and he smiles and calms down.”

School visits are the stimulus for challenges to build confidence. For example, on a trip to the proposed Thames Estuary Airport site, the students produced a journalistic-style report, and sent out questionnaires they had compiled to primary children, many of whom filled them in and sent them back. “That experience was very fulfilling to our kids,” the head recalls.

Addressing specific needs

For students with sensory and motor difficulties, the first, interactive, lessons are held in a fitness room, where they can experience exercise and massage. Those with poor fine motor skills learn touch typing.

All pupils undertake the national curriculum, with support from tutorials and multi-sensory programmes. The tutors write small programmes for the tutorials based on children’s individual needs – eg, speech and language therapy. Most of this work is 1-1. But if the children have social difficulties they often learn to work better in pairs.

Seven 35-minute tutorials take place each fortnight, reducing to five per fortnight by year 11. In years 7-9, the students have one lesson a week on social skills, including active listening, awareness, cooperation and teamwork.

Only in year 9 are their diagnoses discussed in detail, along with impacts on their learning and discussion on how these are being managed. Self-esteem groups help to counter anxiety, which is still a major issue for many.

The tutor is the main person who liaises with parents, and outside agencies where necessary.

Social awareness and anxiety

Social awareness is developed in a number of ways, for example pupils telling their own social stories. A simple example is each pupil in a class completing a statement which starts with variations of: “My name is… I sometimes do… I am trying out… When I have done this, my teacher will be proud of me…”

Anxiety tends to be ramped up when exams or other major events are imminent. In one case a pupils’ risk of self-harming increased because of the air flight involved in an imminent trip to Iceland. So, explained Steve Duthie, “We showed video clips and played audio clips, helping the student to come to terms with how it would make them feel and how to deal with the anxiety.”

By the end of the five-month programme, the student’s self-monitoring had improved dramatically. From a list of 21 negative thoughts, more than half of which they had previously agreed with, they now ticked only one, “thoughts about harming myself.”

Karen Arnold then explained how the centre uses a ‘dog mentor’, brought in by a teacher twice a week. The dog significantly reduces students’ anxiety over the year, and is particularly good for calming after incidents. Sometimes an affected student may take the dog for a walk, and this possibility is used as an incentive. Reluctant readers enjoy reading to the dog.

[See also Oak Lodge special school’s use of the SCERTS programme to reduce anxiety in students with ASD.]

Radio station

In ‘Unit Radio’, Tydeman’s initiative for students with communication, speech and language difficulties, students from years 7 to 11 record and edit their own reports, then mime them on stage while the reports are being played. The response has been “wonderful”, Steve Duthie reports. He showed a film clip in which two Y11 students interviewed former Queen guitarist and now conservationist Brian May, “which they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in Y7.” Students have also interviewed Dame Kelly Holmes for a broadcast.

More conventionally, perhaps, Tydeman uses ASDAN and its Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE), with students completing unit 1 in year 9 and unit 2 in year 10. This helps boost their self-esteem and the whole class’ community behaviour.

This year, Tydeman has introduced vocational courses in keys stages 4 and 5, including elements of the International Baccalaureate and BTECs. Students who have not passed level 2 maths, for example, also study that. Land-based studies take place on the school farm, and “we get the parents involved as much as possible.” They hold a coffee morning every term, and language workshops. And the centre’s website signposts support organisations for parents.

Inclusive steering group

Tydeman’s steering group includes parents and pupils as well as staff and LA representatives. It focuses on, for example, ensuring high-quality CPD for staff. Assessment leads to identifying individual areas of deficit, leading to revision plans and bespoke tutorials. In addition to the familiar red/amber/green classification of student performance, there is an added ‘blue’ for performance over and above expectations.

The centre’s outcomes have been remarkable, with a RAISEonline value added score of 1026. The Achievement Show presentation ended with film of pupil testimonies, including: “I was very shy when I came here, but now I can speak in front of the whole school.”


Check out photos from the SSAT Achievement Show 2016 on our Facebook page.

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SSAT class of 1993

15 July 2016

SSAT class of 1994

16 July 2016

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