The thought-bubble on the screen owes its origins to a comic-strip cartoon, but it marks a serious breakthrough for a young boy and his teachers at Sevenoaks Primary in Kent. Angry and refusing to speak after a physical outburst in the classroom, the eight-year-old was awaiting the arrival of his mother when staff introduced him to a software package he could use to create storyboards about school life. The boy set to work assembling his characters. He attached a huge thought-bubble to the tiniest of stick figures. And he began to type, pouring out the thoughts that had been troubling him that day. "It was amazing," says Aileen Blunn, the school's inclusion manager. "All of a sudden we were able to see what was going on in his head, and how he perceived other people. The lad spent the rest of the day working on his storyboard, and his mood became lighter and lighter.
He loved being able to express himself."
The pupil was using Kar2ouche Social Communication, from Immersive Education, a software package designed to help children with special needs improve their social skills and build confidence. Immersive's Kar2ouche Composer software enables students to create comics, storyboards and animations, and is widely used as a focus for role-play. Social Communication is the latest in a series of add-on packs that provide characters, settings and readymade activities tailored to a particular theme.
The idea for the new title came from Liz Connors, who until recently ran an outreach service helping mainstream schools in Kent to include pupils diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). She trained teachers in techniques such as social stories and comic strip conversations, which help children to read social situations and express their thoughts. Liz says:
"They employ pen and paper, and they are fantastic visual strategies. But the teachers were worried about their own expertise, and sometimes the pupils weren't engaging in the activity."
When she saw Kar2ouche in action in a history lesson, Liz realised how it could help her pupils to stage rehearsal sessions, practising how to deal with everyday situations on screen. She approached Immersive, and together they created a trial package featuring school settings and stick people - versatile figures that pupils would be happy to cast in a variety of roles.
The software was piloted in seven Kent schools, and so positive was the reaction that the authority agreed to fund the development of a full product, which was launched in June.
Aimed at key stages 1-3, the package includes 10 starter activities supported by storyboards. They address common areas of difficulty, including socialising at lunchtime and break-time, making journeys, coping with disruption and getting organised. One scene is set in a busy dining hall, and students are asked to discuss what they believe the characters are thinking and feeling. The pupils then complete their own version, illustrating one of the strategies a character could use for coping with the noise or the long queue. Liz Connors says: "Teachers can create their own activities, incorporating photos of their classroom or playground to feature as backgrounds. Many children with ASD are very specific: they won't relate to a school scene if it doesn't look like their school."
At Sevenoaks Primary, Aileen Blunn says: "We are using the software with pupils who have all kinds of social communication and behavioural issues.
We use it to demonstrate what they can do to change certain situations, but we also say: show us how we could help change things. One Year 6 lad vents his anger by recording different voices for each of his characters. I also use the software in PSHE, with a class that spans a huge range of needs. We are currently creating a storyboard about vulnerable communities."
At Pembury Primary School, Senco Rebecca Dixon used the pilot package with a group of four boys from Year 6, two of whom had been diagnosed with ASD.
They used the interactive whiteboard, working together to review difficult situations each had experienced. Rebecca, who is now an assistant educational psychologist with Kent, says: "It helped them to collaborate, negotiating and trying to see different points of view. They were really engaged - instead of losing concentration after five minutes, they were able to stay focused for an entire lesson. The package has huge potential."
In Kent, around 100 schools are now trained in the use of the software, and Liz Connors is evaluating progress. Sarah Lloyd Cocks, special needs ICT strategic manager for Kent, says: "The package supports good inclusive practice - although the pilot focused on work with individual students, we also see the software as a powerful whole-class tool that can support a whole range of activities.
"There is now a home edition that children can use with their parents. It includes additional activities, taking in things like homework, shopping and mealtimes. We will be offering training sessions for parents in the spring."
* Immersive Education's Kar2ouche Social Communication costs pound;35 for a single-user licence; it requires Kar2ouche Composer, from pound;49. Home edition (includes Kar2ouche Composer): pound;25. For PCs or Apple Mac computers. The series of Kar2ouche titles covers almost 50 curriculum topics ranging from Primary Shakespeare to local democracy.
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