Special education - Watching ideas hatch

When it comes to teaching about responsibilities, there's nothing like caring for chicks, says Louisa Leaman

Louisa Leaman

Introducing the idea of rights and responsibilities to special needs children, particularly those with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties, can sometimes seem like a leap in the dark. Giving these concepts relevance and meaning when many of the fundamentals of learning, such as reading, writing, speaking and listening are difficult to grasp, presents an interesting challenge. Nevertheless, this is a topic area that can produce exciting citizenship lessons with a bit of creative thinking.

One effective way of raising pupils' awareness of rights and responsibilities is through exploring issues of animal welfare. Animals, in my experience, are always popular and familiar, so the "hook" is already there and can establish a way into a concept that is somewhat less tangible. Most pupils will have had previous experience of the animal world, whether domestic pets or wildlife, so prior knowledge can be built upon.

For pupils with visual or auditory impairments, animals provide diverse opportunities for sensory activities. This could be as simple as exploring the tactile qualities of different skins - feathers, leather, fake fur, mock-croc - or recognising recordings of animal sounds.

For more able pupils, it could involve matching activities - pairing images of animals to the materials of their habitats (straw, nests, dog baskets and bird boxes) or food (seeds, dog food and leaves).

Another benefit of an animal-themed citizenship project is that resources are plentiful. There are many groups and organisations that provide appropriate resources, such as the RSPCA and RSPB. Information packs can create a starting point for debate and exploration. There is also good scope for cross-curricular activity, with obvious links to work in life sciences, geography and literacy.

One of the most powerful ways I've found to enable pupils to learn about the basic needs of animals and our responsibility of care for them is through having a real experience. This could be visiting a local farm or wildlife park or, better still, temporarily looking after a class pet.

Recently our school got involved with the Living Eggs scheme, which provides a lifecycle education programme that enables children to see chicks hatching from eggs. We were provided with an incubator, the eggs and the necessary equipment and guidance, and the rest was down to us. Three days later, we had our chicks.

Pupils gained first-hand experience of caring for the chicks. They were able to feed, handle them and observe their development. In so doing, we were able to impress upon them the importance of being gentle and protective of others. For many of our pupils, it was an empowering experience. They found themselves playing the role of carers, when so often in their lives their experience had been one of being cared for.

Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School, a school for special needs children with profound disabilities in Enfield, north London For more information on Living Eggs and how to sign up for a hatching project, visit www.livingeggs.co.uk. For citizenship ideas and resources from the RSPCA, visit www.rspca.org.ukeducation and for the RSPB, visit www.rspb.org.ukournetworkteaching.

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Louisa Leaman

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