Sounds of success

18th April 2008 at 01:00

Previously unteachable boys with special needs are getting a second chance thanks to a behavioural programme that emphasises music and positive thinking. Tina McIntosh tells all

Like all our 57 boys with special needs at Witherslack Hall School in Cumbria, Ben is a boarder, so our house staff can spot changes in his volcanic moods and bring him into school once he's calmed down. Ben's bright, oversensitive and easily provoked, but greatly improved from the unapproachable, unteachable lad who arrived from a local authority last September.

Our focus is on helping him avoid what he regards as provocation, so, as he gains in confidence and self-control, he will be more receptive to education. An inadvertent glance or verbal dig can still completely rock his sunny disposition so, in seconds, he's shouting and swearing. He needs his own space.

Today bodes well. Coming into assembly, Ben makes eye contact and shakes my hand. It's Monday and I'm introducing the latest Best topic that will permeate the entire curriculum in the school and house units for the next week. Best is the holistic 24-hour Behavioural, Emotional, Social amp; Therapeutic programme the school's educational psychologist devised for our 11 to 19-year-olds.

Witherslack Hall is a residential special school for boys with challenging behaviour, ranging from autistic spectrum disorders and mental health difficulties to dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Our class sizes vary from four to eight pupils, with teaching assistants for those who need extra support.

On Tuesdays, the psychologist discusses the current Best theme with classes. On Thursday evenings the boys and residential staff talk about putting some of the ideas into practice during the week. For example, if one of the boys believes that he'll never be able to swim, he will be encouraged to take the plunge and try the activity broken down into small manageable steps.

In Friday's assembly, our head of care rounds off the programme with examples of its application and effectiveness. In a recent assembly, he demonstrated the power of music to affect our mood with examples ranging from Chris Rea's The Road to Hell to Summertime by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince - accompanied by dance moves that, at the very least, had staff and boys starting their day with a smile on their faces.

Attitude is a major block to gaining skills and knowledge. "Think good - feel good" is this week's Best theme. It aims to help boys recognise and change their "all or nothing" thoughts and feelings towards just about everything and everyone. So we'll encourage the child who panics, saying: "I can't do maths," to think: "I can do maths but I need help with it." To another, we'll explain that scoring zero for classroom conduct does not imply yet another negative but that it's a chance to start afresh.

We never assume our pupils, even the articulate ones, will grasp the point. Many have learnt to mimic language and fail to understand its implications, so they may take your words literally. Our expectation is that every lesson contains some visual, auditory and kinaesthetic elements to ensure we can reach children in different ways

Tina McIntosh is headteacher of Witherslack Hall School in Grange-over- Sands, Cumbria.

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