There is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow

5th December 2008 at 00:00
The Rainbow Room allows children with social, emotional and behavioural needs to get in touch with their inner selves

There comes a time when words won't do the job and you have to get up and show what you mean.

Darren (P7) at St Clare's Primary in Glasgow reaches this point while explaining the dance he and his classmates in the Rainbow Room have been learning. "You go 1-2-3-4 like this," he says, getting up from the green sofa in the cosy area and demonstrating. "Then you turn."

Andrew (P6) feels he hasn't quite got it. "You go forward first," he says, joining Darren, holding his arm high and stepping out in the unmistakeable start of the Gay Gordons.

Between them they get the sequence sorted and return to their seats. Headteacher Gerard McLaughlin takes up the story of the Rainbow Room, its purpose, occupants and activities. "It's for children with social, emotional or behavioural problems. I don't know anything like it."

Funding from education and social work enabled a teacher and a classroom assistant to be devoted to the Rainbow Room for an initial year and now, a second, he says. "When I first took the idea to Margaret Doran, director of both departments, she said it fitted well with her vision of a corporate family for Glasgow's children. So we got some funding from social work, as well as input on the children they thought would benefit. It's a multi-agency support system built on the nurture group model, but with differences."

Nurture groups are constructed on the evidence-based principle that children learn best when they feel attachment and trust. Run by a teacher and a classroom assistant, they help vulnerable early-years children to build self-esteem in a caring setting for a year or more, before returning them to mainstream. Glasgow City has 58 nurture groups (with 1,000 in the UK), for which recent research has reported considerable benefits in terms of behaviour, social abilities and even attainment. (TESS January 12, 2007).

"We already had a learning support base and a nurture group for our Primary 1-3s," says Mr McLaughlin. "So the new Rainbow Room was aimed at the Primary 4-7s. That age group, and the different problems they present, meant we had to do things a bit differently."

The separate setting of the nurture group, as well as the low pupil- teacher ratio, the caring approach and the emphasis on social skills and self-esteem, all remain. But Rainbow Room pupils attend mornings or afternoons, compared with the full-time nurture group model.

"The biggest difference is the curriculum," explains Mr McLaughlin. "We have introduced lots of activities to help get the older children engaged. The starting-point of our thinking was the flash-points we were getting in unstructured subjects like PE, art, music, drama, ICT. No matter what we did, we were getting problems in these subjects just about every day."

So PE for Rainbow Room occupants is replaced by options such as forest schools, gardening, circus skills, archery, street-dance, art therapy, tae kwon do. "Martial arts might seem wrong for these children, but it's all about self-discipline."

Music and art specialists come into the Rainbow Room, where the children feel comfortable and safe. ICT and enterprise projects are combined and carried out as a group. "The drama teacher has them acting out scenarios which help them figure out how to respond in different situations. We're linking things up, helping them focus, looking at the specific needs of the children."

Activities range from making toast in the morning - mentioned by several children as their favourite activity - to turning waste ground beside the school into a pleasant garden, shaped like a big butterfly. "We have a committed parent who comes in to supervise the kids in the garden," says Mr McLaughlin.

"It's about working with people, following instructions, talking and listening, being responsible. They have done a tremendous job with it."

Forest school, way up in the bluebell wood that fills the view through the Rainbow Room window, has had very positive effects, he says. "It's about team-building and working with adults. They've been building dens, toasting marshmallows, telling stories, caring for the environment. They love it and it really helped them to gel as a group." This did not happen overnight, though. "It wasn't like sprinkling magic dust."

Class teacher Karen Morrison, who was responsible for making the Rainbow Room work in its first year, admits that she and learning support assistant Laura Dunn were struggling by the third week of term. "We'd be coming in every morning really positive and full of ideas. But by playtime, we had been brought down by the children's reactions. We kept telling ourselves we had to expect it with these kids - we had to keep positive and we'd get there. But it was hard."

Things were turned around with the help of senior management, by returning one boy to mainstream and providing extra support for him there. It was a lesson in small group dynamics, says Mr McLaughlin. "We realised then that the Rainbow Room wasn't right for everybody, no matter how hard we tried."

It does seem right for the majority, though, including the present occupants, who are taking turns to sit in the centre of the cosy area and talk about themselves by answering specific questions, starting with who they admire most and why.

Some of the youngsters are well fed and boisterous. Others are thin and fractious, with the furrowed foreheads and anxious eyes that tell of tough lives, and the kind of worries that unformed minds and little bodies are ill-equipped for.

Declan (P7) likes that the work is easier and the room is quiet. Kieron (P45) enjoys the help he gets, the games they play and the Nutella on toast in the morning. Darren (P7) likes the outings to the Gallery of Modern Art, Mugdock Park, the Bluebell Woods. Courtney (P56) looks forward to table tennis. Andrew (P6) likes the dancing and the celebration of important events, such as his own recent birthday.

Round, pink paper faces on the wall by the door invite children to identify their dominant feelings as they enter the Rainbow Room, by attaching a name tag to a face. Most are positive today - calm or happy - although one girl is tired. Two boys admit they would once have gone often for angry.

"I've calmed down a lot, but I used to be really angry most of the time," says Declan Clarke (P7), who attended all last year and was transformed into a different boy by the experience, says teacher Karen Morrison. "I liked being out in the fresh air, doing the gardening and forest schools," he says. "They put us together with the wee ones in the nurture group sometimes, and you got to help them. The teacher was different in the Rainbow Room somehow . it's hard to explain. After a while, I started looking forward to coming to school."

As a supply pool teacher, Karen Morrison was not certain to be located in St Clare's again this year, until after the Rainbow Room post had to be assigned. This was disappointing, she says. "I love the mainstream class I have now, but there was just something about the Rainbow Room. I would jump at the chance to do it again."

Formal evaluation of the resource, carried out for Gerard McLaughlin's Master's degree, has demonstrated many benefits to children and their education, including a large increase in attention, participation, understanding of experiences, involvement and cognitive engagement with peers.

"Through the warm, supportive practices that took place in the classroom the teacher and learning support assistant were able to re-engage the pupils in their education," his thesis reports.

But the most striking evidence, he says, comes from the parents' comments he gathered on the difference the Rainbow Room had made to their children - "some of which would break your heart".

Parents speak of children who now enjoy coming to school and talk enthusiastically about what they do there. They tell of kids with ideas about future careers, such as: "I'd quite like to work for the forestry." They speak especially of youngsters who have grown greatly in optimism and confidence.

One young mum talks of her son who was shy and badly lacking in confidence. "I remember speaking to a wee girl and saying: "My boy goes to your school", and she said "Oh the wee boy that cries." I was standing in my work bubbling cause I thought, "Oh my wean."

"But you see your kids getting their confidence back and it's just brilliant. He's in Primary 7 and it's just a shame he's not going to have the benefit of the Rainbow Room next year, now that he's going to high school.

"But I think he'll be fine."


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