Set the cogs in motion to help 'actor' children

Hidden problems can be tackled through a system that encourages a creative approach to providing the appropriate level of support, writes Simon Creasey

Some children are simply good actors. While inwardly they may be struggling with emotional and societal issues, outwardly they manage to maintain a performance that makes it hard for other people to see that there is anything wrong.

Pinpointing, and then supporting, these children is a difficult business. One UK school recently enjoyed some success in this area, however, by adapting for its own use an off-the-shelf model for helping children with hidden problems. And its success has grabbed others' attention.

The innovative school in question is R.J. Mitchell Primary School in Essex, England, for children aged 4-11. Struggling with less than favourable reports from schools inspectorate Ofsted, it decided that, as part of a wider strategy of improvements, the "actor" children needed to be better supported.

It looked at the methods on offer and found that EdisonLearning's Student and Family Support Systems (SAFSS) appeared to have everything it needed.

This system sets out ways of gathering data on students - such as attendance, lateness and teachers' notes on behaviour - and how to evaluate that data in meetings between staff and external professionals, such as psychologists or social workers. It then classifies students as needing one of five levels of support.

R.J. Mitchell deputy principal Kevin Lee says that SAFSS is a useful guide to implementing a structured strategy for children with hidden problems but adds that it is a very "complicated, multidimensional system". To get the staff support required to make the programme work, he felt it needed to be simplified. He also wanted creativity to be central, rather than just part of best practice.

On the first point, Lee developed a visual "cog" system to help staff understand and use the scheme. He took the strategy's five levels of support and allocated a coloured cog to each level, which staff could recognise as requiring a certain action.

A green cog is the base level of support that every child should receive in school. A blue cog indicates that low-level intervention is required, such as subtly giving a mother a "spare" coat for a child who consistently comes to school without one. A yellow cog dictates more substantial input, such as providing a regular mentor for the child or meeting frequently with parents. A pink cog necessitates the informal input of outside agencies. Finally, a red cog shows that formalised involvement of outside agencies is required.

"If you present information through complex PowerPoints or flow diagrams, it can stop the whole process in its tracks. With the cogs on the paperwork, everyone understands instantly what certain data or paperwork mean and what action they require," Lee says.

Lee's second amendment was to ensure that creativity would be central to finding support solutions for students. Although creativity is included in the EdisonLearning system, Lee felt it needed to underpin everything the school did.

"The whole point of the way we wanted SAFSS to work was that the team were enabled to suggest ideas and be creative," he says.

For example, in the case of a student with attendance issues, the decision was made to meet the parents on neutral territory at a coffee shop for a chat in order to avoid a confrontational atmosphere - and it worked very well.

In another instance, a child who was consistently late started to arrive on time because the school phoned the parents each morning with a wake-up call. The school has even applied for charity funding to send a family on holiday, as they had never been away together.

The combination of the two adaptations has proved a success both internally and externally. R.J. Mitchell has shown significant improvement, with school inspectors now rating it "good", while Lee was invited to share his cog model with 16 schools in Northampton in 2010 and a school from Bristol visited last year to see how the system works.

Lee's adapted model, then, looks set to be implemented elsewhere. But while he welcomes the attention, he feels that with these types of models "you always have to make them your own".

"If you are clear about the guiding principles and if you build the team in the right way, a lot of the way it develops becomes organic and naturally becomes tailored to your own circumstances," he says. "And that makes a difference for the children.


- EdisonLearning's Student and Family Support Systems is a way of sharing knowledge about children and trying to remove barriers to success.

- R.J. Mitchell Primary School in Essex has simplified the communication of the model through a "cog" system, in which different colours indicate levels of required intervention.

- The system has brought a philosophy of creativity to the fore in everything the school does.

- The adapted model has improved educational standards and sparked interest from other schools.

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