Meeting the Needs of Our Most Complex, Anxious Learners

Blog post by Terri Wyse

I am the Acting Headteacher of a secondary special school for pupils with Learning and Additional Needs. Since the start of my career I have worked with pupils with SEN in both mainstream and special school. I have been at my current school for the last 14 years. Prior to becoming Acting Headteacher I was the Assistant Headteacher. It was whilst I was in this role that I started Flexi-teach – a vertically streamed unit for our most complex and highly anxious learners.

I have always been passionate about breaking down barriers for young people with special educational needs, difficulties and disabilities. I am focused on leading the school in providing all young people with an educational environment that prepares them for their adult life and the world of work. I want all of the pupils that attend my school to feel happy, be successful and grow in independence.

The problem:

For the most part my school has always provided the pupils who attend with what they need to achieve the desired outcomes. However around six years ago we realised that our school was growing in the number of pupils with increasing levels of complexity of need. We found we had around 5% of our pupils who were struggling to cope with the demands of a typical timetable. These were pupils with multiple diagnoses including PDA and epilepsy in addition to their learning needs. These pupils had usually experienced trauma in their early lives and were becoming increasingly challenging in their behavioural presentation. They were struggling to engage with our curriculum and needed a significant level of adult support. Separate, and in addition to this, we were being approached by the Local Education Authority to carry out consultations for in-year admissions for pupils with moderate learning difficulties that had become school refusers, in the hope that we would be able to introduce them back into education using our SEN knowledge and expertise. What we came to realise was that both groups had in common, significant levels of anxiety which had resulted in disengagement and a daily response of either fight or flight in order to cope with the emotional fall out.

Solution:

We needed a solution and it needed to be a creative one. And so began Flexi-teach!

Our Flexi-teach provision is a vertically streamed flexible teaching group with the aim to provide pupils with a small team of consistent adults and a truly personalised curriculum offer. The work set and the strategies used to support them is specifically tailored to their needs, through highly differentiated, small-steps and flexible teaching and learning. These pupils have a held place in a regular tutor group within the main school, with the medium/long term goal to access as much of their year group’s timetable as possible, as well as eventually registering with their form on a regular basis – both will increase, as appropriate for each individual pupil as part of the personalised plan, led by key staff in liaison with parents. While teaching arrangements are flexible and bespoke within Flexi-Teach, the aim is to ensure wide curriculum coverage through either discrete lessons or through Primary style project work.

In order to set the new provision up we first approached the LA to part fund the unit, initially as a temporary class. This was partly managed through individual pupil’s additional funding linked to the young person’s provision map and supported through the annual review process. Once we had the financial support, albeit temporary, we embarked on the following steps;

1. Employment of staff. We needed four new TAs that brought with them the right approach i.e. they needed to be keen, flexible, passionate and resilient. I led the setting up of the unit and took the lead with curriculum design and teaching a percentage of lessons. We approached another teacher who was on our SLT and asked her to take on the role of Form Tutor and Lead Teacher. Since then we have continued to be lucky to always appoint unique and capable staff to this unique provision. We currently have a fantastic Flexi-teach tutor who has gone on to develop the provision and the staff over more recent years.

2. The right location. We decided that we would use a mobile classroom which was slightly separate from the school which had a room next door that could be used as breakout space for pupils when they were struggling to regulate or needed a space to work quietly away from others.

3. Identifying pupils. The first four pupils were easily identified as they were the pupils that were always in the corridor refusing to go into/stay in lessons due to their significant anxiety and complex needs. The others were identified through liaison with the LA as they were pupils with moderate learning difficulties from other settings that had become school refusers.

4. Creation of a new curriculum where functional literacy, numeracy and life skills at its core. With the group being made up of pupils of all ages 11 to 16 we had to design a curriculum that covered all the essentials in a way that appealed to learners that had very little interest in the education that they had previously been exposed to. Much of what we delivered evolved through focusing on each child’s key motivators. However, preparing for adulthood was always the learning goal and with this as a priority we were able to create a curriculum that could dovetail into the learning that was taking place in the main school so pupils were prepared, if and when they started attending main school lessons again.

5. Creation of bespoke timetables for each individual. Each of the pupils were unique and so was their ability to engage with different lessons, different environments and the length of time they could cope with their ever changing levels of anxiety. Creating flexible timetables through getting to know and understanding each child was absolutely key to the success of the provision.

6. Building positive relationships. Another key ingredient. It was essential that positive relationships were built with pupils, amongst the team of staff and the families.

7. Allowing for perceived control. We have developed an approach where the young person is very involved in decisions over when to increase and decrease their time in school or in the main school lessons. Whilst the child receives high levels of support and encouragement to increase engagement overtime, they know that ultimately they will not be forced to participate in anything that makes them highly anxious. They learn to manage new situations that make them feel slightly uncomfortable because they know that if it becomes really overwhelming they have the control to return to a more manageable situation i.e. back home or back to their form group.

8. Sharing information with the whole school. Also key to the success of the provision is ‘buy in’ for whole staff, across the whole school. We regularly share information and the tutor liaises very closely with subject co-ordinators and class teachers on curriculum and how best to approach the development of the bespoke pupil timetables, to firstly increase attendance on lessons in the main school and then to reduce the amount of TA support in lessons and at unstructured times.

9. Monitoring and reporting. Throughout we have regularly reported on the progress of pupils with our Governing board and the Local Authority. Sharing the positive outcomes for pupils eventually allowed us to secure permanent funding from the LA and now the Flexi-teach provision is a permanent fixture of the school.

10. Celebrate impact and share good practice. I talk to anyone and everyone that will listen to my proud stories about Flexi -teach in order to share good practice and gain further interest with the goal that as many young people will gain from the approach as possible.

Over the last 6 years we have had approximately 30 pupils come through Flexi. Many would have never returned to full time education had they not joined our Flexi-teach provision. Others that originated with us in the main school, were at risk of exclusion and/or would have ended up having an emergency annual review where we would have expressed to the LA that we could no longer meet their needs. Instead they have achieved a range of qualifications, gone on to a range of KS5 settings such as Special School Post 16 units, their local college or completed a supported internship. One pupil in particular stands out the most. He joined us as a last hope as he had been out of school for two years due to extreme anxiety. He joined us as he started year 9. He taught me about fear and trust and how crucial both of these are in overcoming the anxiety that leads to school refusal. I made the decision very early that when it came to a transition plan I would go at his pace no matter how slow. His attendance steadily improved over his time in the main school going from zero to 77%. But where we really saw him shine was when he joined our Post 16 unit. His attendance increased to 90+% and he now seemed so confident in his demeanor as he grew from a frightened young boy to a happy young man. Once he left our Post 16 he started a supported internship which involved him returning to our school to complete a placement as a Teaching Assistant. I was so proud to have been on this journey with him and to see that instead of withdrawing from education and being overcome by anxiety for the rest of his childhood we saw him fulfill his potential and grow into a successful young adult and a brilliant role model to other young people with similar needs.

We would not have been able to achieve this without the support and backing of the Headteacher at the time and the trust of the LA, nor the hard work and determination of all the staff that have been part of developing this provision over the years. It is a very special microcosm of our wider school, and in turn wider society, where pupils know they are loved, accepted, supported and believed in. They know that we take the good times with the bad and ride the highs and the lows at their side, no matter what the day brings. When the messages they were receiving from the education system were that they did not fit in, and the adults their families looked to for answers said they had run out of ideas, we decided that we would find a way.

We knew to start with the specific needs of each of the pupils and to build an education around them, taking their lead. These young people would have missed out on education had we not stepped in. But at the heart of making it work was our trust in them to let us know what they needed, how much they could cope with and when to

provide them with more. Once they knew they were in control, their anxiety became manageable and they could engage again. Once the adults put the unique needs of each child at the forefront of all the decision making it was amazing how much these pupils, who used to struggle so much with education, actually wanted to be educated! This is a lesson I would encourage all those involved in education to learn from.

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