My colleagues will openly talk about Engagement, its place within educating complex young people and how we need to prioritise this when moving forward. The recent recommendations in the Rochford Review placed Engagement as a key principle in assessing ‘the needs of students’ with Special Educational Needs.
I was a Research Assistant on the original DfE funded CLDD research project (Carpenter et al., 2011) and have passionately believed in engagement since those days of discovery. After the project had finished I began my teacher training and now as a teacher in a special school in Handsworth, Birmingham, engagement feels so much more important; an integral part of how I practise as a teacher. It is that feeling of knowing you have ‘got’ that young person ready to learn, ready to accept and adapt to all and any pedagogies you have available to you. To bring them kicking and screaming – sometimes (!) – on a journey of learning.
I have always felt that engaging practice should aim to enable our young people to become responsible and caring citizens who can contribute to the school and the wider global community. Having worked in both primary, secondary and further education I have seen the prospects and opportunities that can face our people with complex needs after they leave school. Disability services are not well co-ordinated in the Community, and the options/funding are reducing rapidly. What drives me in my educational career is to increase aspiration for everyone I support, and I truly believe that starts by increasing and enabling engagement in the child.
In the last academic year (2016/17) my class was a group of Year 1 and Year 2 students with Autism and learning difficulties, each with their own complex needs and a distinct lack of engagement. We knew that with the correct responsive curriculum, sensory interventions, routine and visual supports, we could begin to meet the demands and expectations of our young people and teach them. And for the majority it worked.
However, there was one little boy that really stretched our capabilities. He was definitely the ‘staff room’ child; I sat down for 5 minutes most lunchtimes and looked to my colleagues for advice as I described yet another scenario where I had felt completely deskilled as a professional. I knew this boy had it in him to make real progress – I had seen the glimpses – I had that ‘gut feeling’.
After one particular day where I had again failed to breakthrough to him, I sat down and began to ponder on the ways he engaged. This led me to transfer my random thoughts onto an Engagement Profile by way of developing a map of where he engaged and where he didn’t!
A TA that had been allocated as a 1:1 support to this young man, then sat with me and together we began to paint his Engagement Story. Throughout his time in the class we had begun to get to know him; to see his high interest activities (in his case posting items into small gaps). This was what engaged him most and in these situations, he would tolerate direction and learning. Our first step was to identify a lesson where we could integrate this high interest activity of posting, and begin to intervene, gently shaping his learning. It felt so child centred. It felt intuitive. Every intervention we tried would start from here and then be generalised into other lessons.
We began with sensory movement breaks, using a small trampette and deep pressure. We then used elements of the TEACCH approach so every expectation was visual, short and functional. Incorporating posting into all of his lessons and work tasks really increased his learning to learn skills. We were beginning to reach him, unlock him. In some ways we weren’t reinventing the wheel; we were intervening lesson by lesson and rating the impact it had on his curiosity, anticipation persistence etc; the 7 indicators of Engagement now termed the 7 Aspects of Engagement in the Rochford review. Systematically, we were recording it on the Engagement Scale.
Although by Christmas he had not made the appropriate progress on the P levels assessment he had on the Engagement Scale. As we had used the Engagement Profile and Scale we could show this and had unequivocal evidence. We had recorded his journey. We had written a further chapter in his Engagement Story.
By Easter we were seeing progress in his engagement and his assessment data. The journey we had been on with him was rolled out to all his lessons and to all other settings. But for me the most important part of his journey was sharing this with his family. Sharing P level assessments on parents evening can sometimes be hard to translate, but being able to show a visual graph of where their child had been and where he was now, and explain step by step the Story that had unfolded, was exciting for all of us.
Someone once told me that working with complex children is a privilege because you learn something new every day. I have definitely learnt that children with complex SEND need to be taught in ways that match their individual learning styles by educators who recognise their abilities and potential for learning. I feel our work as educational practitioners must be to transform children with complex needs into active learners by releasing their motivation, unlocking their curiosity and preparing them for life by increasing and using their own individual ways of engagement – to tell their Engagement Story.
In September this year, all of my students will have Engagement Stories, charting their journeys as active, creative learners, and I cannot wait to share these Stories with more families.