Thursday, 14 March 2013

Competence – a fundamental foundation block for child development

This afternoon at Bright Futures School H and I went to Tesco for some ingredients for flapjack.  In the store, I used declarative language, non-verbal communication and pausing to enable H to reference me.  Some of the store staff are getting used to me wandering round the place with one or other of our pupils giving non-verbal clues for treasure hunts!  H found the ingredients.
When he was helping me to check out at the till, he made a mistake and scanned one item in twice.  He immediately said, ‘Why am I so dumb?’  This particular pupil is extremely sensitive to any perceived failure.  It can set him off into a negative spiral where he can end up hitting himself around the head.  The tendency towards low resilience is one of the things I personally find very upsetting in autism.  It is very unpleasant to see any child being so down on themselves for the kind of error that we all make, day in, day out.
I responded that I didn’t think he was dumb, he had made a mistake and we all make mistakes.
In the car park, I pretended to have lost my car and spotlighted my own mistake.  H immediately had the idea of using the keys to find the car.  He pressed the keys and I saw the lights flash, so found the car.  I spotlighted how H had helped me when I’d made a mistake – what a good idea it was to use the keys to find the car.  On the journey back I spotlighted how good it was to have a helper with me and how much I enjoyed going shopping with H.  I wondered aloud (declarative language) how I would have managed if I hadn’t had my helper with me.  H joked that I would have been walking back to school and we both had a good laugh about it.
Back at school we made the flapjack together.  At one point, H said ‘I love school.  I wish I could stay at school all day.’  I thought it was probable that this positive experience-sharing was prompted by the feelings of competence he had gained when I had been spotlighting how helpful he was and how much difficulty I would have been in without him.
I said I thought it was great that he felt like that and that I had enjoyed my day at school too.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

52 Things: things 2 - 5

On we go with my 52 things to try to raise awareness of the potential of Relationship Development Intervention.  Betcha thought I'd been slacking, as I haven't posted about any of the things for a while?  Well' I've been beavering away quietly.......
2.  Discussion with Mark Lever
About 6 weeks ago, an adult with autism wrote something about wishing he had had the opportunity to start a family.  I was deeply moved by his expression of loneliness and regret.  It reminded me of a guest blogpost from my friend Richard, who identified his autistic inflexibility as the problem that got in the way of him making and maintaining romantic relationships.  It prompted me to email Mark Lever, Chief Exec of the National Autistic Society.  I know Mark personally from my time as an NAS Councillor and I knew that we were connected enough for him to want to respond in a thoughtful way to the issues I raised in my email. 
I pointed out that despite many in the neuro-diversity movement claiming that autism is a ‘natural way of being’ and that it shouldn’t be changed in any way, for some people with autism, their difficulties with flexibility and reciprocity are huge barriers to achieving what most humans want from life: love and friendship, independence and meaningful, fulfilling employment.
I said that I knew of some adults with autism who were either happy being single or happy and successful in love, friendships and employment, but many more who found isolation painful.  Some of these folk in the latter category have written about their experiences.
Both of us acknowledged how difficult relationships (of any kind) can be sometimes even for neuro-typical people. 

I said to Mark that I though the NAS has a duty to support those people with autism who do want to improve their chances of love and friendship by improving their social reciprocity. I also pointed out that the dynamic thinking competencies that lead to greater flexibility and reciprocity are seldom developed in schools, even in neuro-typical children.  Some schools for children with autism claim to ‘teach’ ‘social skills’ but I emphasised that these ‘skills’ are usually superficial in nature with children failing to generalise them to other environments, settings or social partners.   And of course I suggested that the only way to foster these key competencies is with interventions that help children to master the developmental milestones they have missed.
What will happen as a result of this conversation?  I don’t know.  But Mark did undertake to come back to me once he had had time to think over and share with others some of the issues I raised.  I’ve lost nothing by having the conversation….perhaps, at the very least, its planted a little seed.
3.  Email to Robert Buckland, Chair of APPGA
Dear Mr Buckland
In your capacity as Chair of the APPGA, I wanted to let you know about our school for children with autism in Oldham, which has been set up by two parents (myself and my husband).
Our school is a DfE registered and Ofsted inspected independent special school.  It brings a new approach to autism education - part of our curriculum involves using interpersonal relationships to work on some of the difficulties at the heart of autism, rather than working round them, as most other schools do. Our methodology is derived from the autism intervention Relationship Development Intervention (RDI).  I write a blog about how RDI has worked for my family
In an 18 month period of us using RDI in the home, my son's ADOS score went from 19 out of 22, to 12.  I am attaching a synposis of the intervention for your reference.
Research has shown that RDI can be of huge benefit to children's emotional wellbeing as well as helping to remediate other aspects of the condition.
Many children (mostly in the US, where RDI is more widely used, but some in the UK) no longer meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism after participating in this intervention.  As you know, the lifetime cost, after discounting, for someone with autism and intellectual disability is estimated at approximately £1.23 million, and for someone with autism without intellectual disability is approximately £0.80 million.
An investment of under £5K per year for 5 - 10 years (some would need less time) could potentially save £1,180,000 for one person with autism and intellectual disability and £750,000 for one person with autism without intellectual disability.
I would be interested in your views on how this approach might best be utilised by the current government, given the huge benefits it can bring to families and the massive cost savings it can bring to the public purse.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Response from Robert Buckland, MP:
Dear Mrs Thompson,
Many thanks for your email and the links.  I was very interested to read about your school and the particular approach that is being used.  I will liase (sic) with other members of the All Party Group to see how best we can help make sure that the success of your school is used as an example of best practice.
Robert Buckland
So – nothing unexpected there really……busy public official being approached by unknown woman about an autism intervention which as yet has no RCT evidence (but good emerging evidence).  Woman gets bland response and suspects MP hasn’t looked at links or attachment…….but another seed is sown and there are plans to cultivate it further.
4. Article accepted for UK autism journal
This is an article that was submitted in August 2012 which has been accepted, subject to revisions, for an autism journal.  The article will look at using the principles and practice of RDI in a school setting and is due out in May 2013.
5. SAAS conference
I will be running two workshops at the Staffordshire Adults Autistic Society conference on 13 May 2013.  My presentation will be about using the principles and practice of RDI in a school setting – why we chose to do this, how we do it and what outcomes it had led to for our pupils.
I do have some more 'things' to blog about, but these'll have to wait for another blogpost as its time to make chicken pie and flapjack.......

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Using the 7 'C's' of resilience to facilitate success

I was recently reminded of Kenneth Ginsburg’s book ‘Building Resilience in Children and Teens’. In it, he outlines the 7 C’s of resilience.  To me, these are the building blocks that need to be in place before any pupil can start to engage meaningfully with learning, be that formal or informal.
At Bright Futures School, I have seen with my own eyes the difference these building blocks make – they are the difference between being able to engage in a learning environment and being consistently excluded from school.  They are the difference between sliding into mental health problems and good emotional wellbeing.
Recently there have been a lot of changes at our school: new staff, new pupils, new timetable, reconfiguring of space.  One of our pupils also had difficulty with another pupil, which we had to manage very carefully.  As a result of this combination of factors, this pupil’s resilience and motivation to engage started to decrease. 
I was reflecting earlier today that it looks like this pupil’s resilience is on the up again, but it wasn’t until I read again about the 7 C’s of resilience that I was able to pinpoint why.
The 7 C’s of Resilience

1) COMPETENCE: Young people need to be recognized when they’re doing something right and to be given opportunities to develop specific skills.
2) CONFIDENCE: Confidence comes from building real skills that parents and educators can teach and nurture. Confidence can be easily undermined, but also bolstered by tasks that push learners without making the goal feel unachievable.
3) CONNECTION: Being part of a community helps kids know they aren’t alone if they struggle and that they can develop creative solutions to problems.
4) CHARACTER. Kids need an understanding of right and what wrong and the capacity to follow a moral compass. That will allow them see that they cannot be put down.
5) CONTRIBUTION: The experience of offering their own service makes it easier for young people to ask for help when they need it. Once kids understand how good it can feel to give to others, it becomes easier to ask for that same support when it’s needed. And being willing to ask for help is a big part of being resilient.
6) COPING: Kids need to learn mechanisms to manage their stress by learning methods to both engage and disengage at times. Some strategies for doing this include breaking down seemingly insurmountable problems into smaller, achievable pieces, avoiding things that trigger extreme anxiety, and just letting some things go. After all, resilience is about conserving energy to fit the long game and kids need to know realistically what they can affect and what should be let go.
7) CONTROL: In order to truly be resilient a child need to believe that she has control over her world. Feeling secure helps engender control, which is why kids test limits.
What we had been able to do with our pupil was:
 - Change his learning opportunities to include offsite activities in the community where he has a specific role that enables him to have experiences of competence.  The specific role he has is one that is meaningful and authentic and clearly makes him feel useful, because he is helping others.
I reflected that with this, we are hitting the C’s of ‘competence’, ‘connection’ and ‘contribution’.
 - Work with his parents to ensure that he has opportunities to participate in appropriate peer interactions.  Parents have achieved this by carefully using his younger NT brother’s social network.
I reflected that with this, we are again hitting the C of ‘connection’.
 - Revisit our strategies for helping this pupil to regulate his emotions.
This includes enabling him to take regulation breaks, validating his feelings when he is dysregulated and encouraging him to use 'stop and think'.  I reflected that here, we are hitting the C of ‘coping’.
 - Scale back the expectation of this pupil being able to engage in more traditional academic work of any kind, for the moment.
The activities that he is involved in are realistic and achievable with small challenges that can be easily scaffolded if he starts to encounter any difficulty.
I reflected that here, we are developing the C of ‘confidence’.  I think confidence is always a by-product of competence and out of all the C’s, I would argue that competence is the cornerstone (which, spookily, begins with C)
It is reassuring to know that even though we weren’t following the strict framework of the 7 C’s, we were (due, I think to the influence of RDI on our curriculum and school culture) addressing most of these areas in an attempt to change things to support our pupil.
I wanted to share this in case it gives other parents and/or educators a framework for evaluating what might help their kids/pupils if they start to appear demotivated and/or disengaged.