Help pupils with SEND thrive all summer long

3rd July 2015 at 01:00
Children with special needs can find the loss of a routine over the break challenging, so follow these tips to ease the transition

For a teacher, there is nothing sweeter than the final day of the summer term: that moment when the last of the children have said their goodbyes and wended their merry way home, leaving the exhausted but satisfied staff behind. Six weeks stretch out before you, gloriously unfilled, a reward for all the pressure.

We know it won't be long before we start to see - in the ever-unfolding stream of consciousness that is social media - the complaints of parents run ragged from spending quality time with their offspring. "When are they going back to school?" they wail, and we smile. The holidays represent a blessed release from responsibility. What parents do with that time is their problem, not ours. It's hard to feel much sympathy.

But children with significant special educational needs and disability (SEND) struggle more than most with the disappearance of their daily routine. For them, along with their parents and families, the prospect of all that free and unscheduled time is a very different one.

At first, it can be difficult for these children to understand why, after a regular routine lasting for the best part of a year, there is suddenly no school. For many children - like my son Sam, who has Down's syndrome - their vulnerability means that they are unlikely to be part of the gang of kids who live around the corner and play in the street. Loneliness comes to call instead.

As the holidays go on and the days stretch into weeks, the families of children with SEND can become increasingly isolated. Days out are a challenge if you have a child who is likely to run off at the slightest provocation, and who is unlikely to be understood by a passer-by if they get lost. Trips to the cinema, or to places of historical or cultural significance - yes, I regularly drag my reluctant offspring around cathedrals and castle ruins - can be swiftly cut short if one member of the party is unexpectedly overwhelmed or falls off a wall and needs to be taken to hospital to be patched up.

So, what can the ordinary, everyday, overburdened teacher do about it?

1 Share information

The most important thing for teachers to understand is that they are the gatekeepers of all sorts of information that pressured parents may not be aware of.

There are lots of inclusive activities available in the holidays, designed to bring disabled and typically developing children together around something that interests all parties. Information about these activities is regularly handed to schools. Make sure that it gets to the right people; if necessary, put it into the hands of the parent who is scanning the playground for their escaped toddler and say: "This is for you." They might know about it already, they might not. It might be something they want to do, it might not. But they can't make a decision if they don't know. Don't assume that they have a social worker who will help them.

2 Make introductions

If there are holiday clubs taking place at your school, or at your local special school, make sure that families know about them. Parents can be afraid of special education (after all, not many of us know what it's all about). You can do much to reassure them and calm possible fears. It may be that introductions need to be made. Think about how you can facilitate that.

3 Preparation is key

Get children ready for the holiday to come. When I was a full-time class teacher, I used to give my "don't fall off the garage roof and don't go with strangers" talk on the afternoon of the last day, when we were gathered on the carpet next to the old books and displays ready to go for recycling.

These days, now that I have eight years' experience of looking after a child with Down's syndrome through those six long weeks, I know that some children need more preparation.

Social stories, with or without symbols, are a useful defence against distress - for example, "When I am on holiday I will spend time at home with my mummy" or "I will get up at 9am" (one can but hope). The teacher or teaching assistant should spend time going over these stories with the children at least a couple of weeks before the end of term.

Calendars to take home and put on the wall as a visual timetable can help young people to understand what is going on. Equally they can encourage families to think about what their holiday routines are going to be.

Just like your pupils, parents (particularly of younger children) need preparation, too. Have you raised the issue of what to do in the holidays at any of your meetings with them? Starting this discussion is a great way of encouraging people to think and plan for themselves without making them feel patronised. Keeping in mind that parents are children's prime educators - particularly if those children have long-standing diagnoses - and showing that you respect that, strengthens the partnership between you.

4 Provide resources and activities

One of the things that most teachers, and plenty of parents, are concerned about is the prospect of children losing their hard-won knowledge over the course of the summer break. This is no different for children with SEND. The journey into reading can be, for many, extremely long and arduous, and no one wants to take a backwards step. Making books available for children to read while they are away from school is a simple way for teachers to encourage and support a continuation of formal learning.

That said, teachers need to be sensitive to the needs of the children and families they serve - holiday homework is unlikely to be touched in my house. Knowledge of family circumstances will help you when making decisions about what to send home; if there is a new baby, for instance, don't expect much to be completed.

Rather than going to the trouble of setting activities, or making a folder of handy worksheets (the horror), put your efforts into coming up with a list of activities that could have an educational outcome but don't require too much trouble, or too much pressure, on anyone's part.

You might recommend using paddling pool toys to encourage pouring; advise getting hold of a variety of balls with different shapes and textures; or suggest learning opportunities to look for when they are out and about or in the shops. Sometimes parents (and not just those of children with SEND) forget that the activities we undertake with our children - hanging out the washing, baking cakes, or paying for sweets and comics - can be a perfect way for families to learn together. It's just the context that makes this different from formal learning.

5 Show empathy

Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do as a teacher of a child with significant SEND is show parents that you know the break isn't the same for them as it is for others. They might need help or they might be the most organised people on the planet and have it down to a fine art. Either way, that moment of connection and shared understanding of their responsibilities can make a world of difference.

Nancy Gedge is a teacher at Widden Primary School in Gloucester

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